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4th Stage gets "Extreme Makeover" on Thursday - Jazz versions of pop hits

Jozée Devoua and Steve Berndt are expressive local jazz vocalists, who share an enjoyment of jazz and pop tunes, and a dislike for some traditional attitudes to jazz. On Thursday, October 8, they will combine musical forces with four other Ottawa jazz musicians to perform “Extreme Makeover, Music Edition”. The show features well known popular hits from the 70's and 80's rebuilt, reharmonized, and sung in a variety of jazz styles. The jazz police won't be invited.

Jozée invited Steve to work with her on the NAC Fourth Stage show after Steve heard and liked some of the less common songs that she was singing at Café Paradiso earlier this year. They came up with a program based on “what tunes worked and what we liked,” said Steve. “We had a huge list of songs.”

While Steve noted that during the period “Hall and Oates had huge hits, Duran Duran videos were like mini-movies, and Michael Jackson songs were gigantic,” he remained zipper-lipped about the specific pop songs they would give the jazz treatment to.

“I'm not going to tell you what they are now. Part of the fun is for people to come to the show and be suprised by the tunes we are going to play.”

So the jazz police will have to do their own investigation at the crime scene on Thursday night.

Steve Berndt
photo ©2009 Brett Delmage

The vocals will be augmented with some instrumental surprises. Working with them will be Jeff Asselin (drums), Mark Ferguson (piano), Tom McMahon (bass), and Mike Tremblay (sax). As an example of the depth of jazz musicianship in this show, Mark Ferguson has had the opportunity to work with Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Natalie Cole and Holly Cole. All of the show's performers are respected jazz musicians with broader musical interests; none is afraid to have fun with pop tunes.

Steve will also play the trombone. His choice of instrument is an 1980s pop-connection itself.

“When I was in school I was going to play the saxophone but there were already too many students wanting to play sax. The teacher asked who I liked and I said 'Chicago'. He then mentioned the lead songwriter James Pankow was a trombonist - and I was onto the trombone. The trombone is a great instrument. It's challenging.”

In his last 25 years in Ottawa, Steve has “launched and managed an original recording act, produced a bunch of albums, toured around a few places, formed a number of bands both practical and fanciful and been a part of many different recordings and live performances.” More specifically: the Jivewires (since 1989), The Steve Berndt Jazz Quartet, and The Custums; he is also involved in the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra, The Shine Foundation, Rudeboy, The Funk Brothers, and more.

Jozée sang with the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra as feature vocalist (Benny Goodman @ Carnegie Hall, 2008), at the Ottawa Jazz Festival twice, and has performed in many local restaurants and events. She released her debut CD, Low Key, in 2007.

Both Jozée and Steve have strong views on some attitudes about jazz definition and delivery, an issue which can arise when jazz goes from bop to pop.

“It seems like people are all-in or all-out,” Jozée said. “ [They say] 'I don't know about jazz' or they're such purists – there's no middle.

“Diana Krall is an example. If you say you like Diana Krall, you're not the real thing then. But she has opened people's minds to jazz. She's opened the door to people who were not open to jazz before. 'Let me listen to this and then maybe I'll listen to something else.'

“If people before weren't even open to the word 'jazz' - you mention the word jazz and some people say 'No, no I hate it. Trumpets! trumpets! blah' and then when you say Diana Krall, they say 'oh, ya I like her' – and now that's jazz , and when they're open to her you can introduce something else to them because you can say 'now listen to this, this is similar' and they go a bit further and further. And they start training their ear and being open to at least listen to something else.

“Now if Diana Krall does that, she's done something positive for the jazz community. Why are people so opposed to her? And when you look at what does as a piano player... she's an amazing jazz pianist. Because she sings at the same time, and because what she does is not off-the-wall totally then she's not a real jazz artist? Or because she has success commercially?

Jazz started off with pop music songs that they were doing in Broadway shows and they became standards.“

Steve Berndt is a physical performer, one who reaches out beyond the stage to make that connection He jumps, he swings, he gestures to the audience. He's not afraid to play: at IJO's improv show last January, he was the one who put on the fuzzy black wig to help get the audience in the right mood.

“I think that cerebral jazz players who stand around and move minimally or not at all, while they play an incredible endless flurry of notes, have alienated the public at large from jazz – to the point where people just have this image of some guy standing there going bleblabeblabeble, and when he's done has a sour look on his face and sits down and doesn't say anything.

“This is,” he thoughtfully pauses, “killing jazz.”

Steve pauses frequently as he speaks, clearly choosing words carefully.

“The difference between Louis Armstrong and the kind of performer I'm discussing is night and day in terms of reaching out and entertaining an audience. A lot of jazz players, not all, seem to have forgotten that they are supposed to be entertaining, or at least engaging, the audience. But I guess what they are thinking is 'my ability to play a kabillion notes a bar is so endlessly impressive that I don't need to do anything else'. And maybe that's true of some people, but for the most part, I think it falls flat if you don't do any kind of entertainment.

“This is where we've come down to: we have a recital type setting where the musicians walk in on stage, say nothing, sit down and just play the music, and take a bow, and walk off stage. Now jazz is down to that level of mechanization and lack of sponteneity.

“The only thing left spontaneous in that format is the solo. But if the solos are endlessly just a huge amount of notes, well... I lose interest and I love jazz and I know what I'm listening to.

“For my thing, I like to try to be at least to some extent entertaining. It's important. The thrill is to interact with a live audience. If all I wanted to do was create music, I'd do something else for a living and make music in my spare time in my own home studio and put it out there. There have been people who have done that, but it's not for me.”

Jozée and Steve both love music, love jazz, and love to bring their love of music to an audience. And, at Thursday's show, it will be the audience, and not the jazz police, who will judge their case.

— Brett Delmage

Extreme Makeover, Music Edition show listing