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Elizabeth Shepherd marries a pop sensibility to a jazz aesthetic

The Elizabeth Shepherd Trio plays the NAC Fourth Stage on Friday, February 8, 2013.

Elizabeth Shepherd came to jazz via Salvation Army brass bands, hip-hop, and French chanson. Her first four albums consisted almost completely of her own songs, and it's only with her latest that she has finally released an album of jazz standards.

Elizabeth Shepherd (photo by Nikki Ormerod)It's not the standard career path for a jazz pianist and vocalist – especially since most of Shepherd's music is written within the standard pop song format, while still keeping the rhythms and complexity of jazz. On bandcamp, her music is tagged as “jazz”, but also as “chanson française”, “experimental pop”, and “soul-jazz”.

But it has allowed her to reach a broader audience – one that has regularly filled the Mercury Lounge on previous appearances in Ottawa, and which has had her touring as far away as Tokyo.

Nor has it harmed her jazz creds: she was picked by vibraphonist Peter Appleyard to be one of the “Sophisticated Ladies” whose vocals he collaborated with on his 2012 album, and she has recently toured with guitarist Michael Occhipinti for his Shine On project. She has also been nominated twice for a Juno for Best Vocal Jazz Album (2007 and 2009).

The Montreal-based musician will be appearing at the NAC Fourth Stage this Friday as part of the NAC Presents series. She will be with her long-time bassist and drummer – Ross MacIntyre and Colin Kingsmore – primarily playing music from her fifth album, Rewind.

Rewind, which was released in September 2012, and recorded about a year before that, is an album of uncommon jazz standards: two French songs, some less-well-known jazz songs by famous composers, and songs better known in their instrumental versions, like “Poinciana”. Shepherd's only writing contribution to the album was a set of lyrics to Bobby Hutcherson's instrumental, “When you are near”. The other eleven songs on the album are jazz classics – but more for Cannonball Adderley fans than for Diana Krall fans. The album opens with an unromantic version of Cole Porter's “Love for Sale”, and ends with a heartfelt duet with Denzal Sinclaire on “Prelude to a Kiss” by Duke Ellington.

CBC included Rewind in in its list of its top five jazz albums for 2012, along with discs by Vijay Iyer and Brad Mehldau.

The reason for an album of standards: Shepherd's daughter, Sanna, who is now 16 months old. Shepherd was four months pregnant when she started the album, and, as she explains in the interview below, she wanted a project which could be completed before the baby arrived.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor interviewed Shepherd last week. They talked about how Shepherd was introduced to jazz, how her growing up in a musical bubble allows her to take a different approach to standards, her composing process, the new album, how hip-hop influenced her love of rhythm in her music, and how she finds some jazz too formulaic. This is an edited version of the phone interview:

OttawaJazzScene.ca: If I could ask about your musical background … your parents were in the Salvation Army?

Elizabeth Shepherd: Yes. They were both ministers in the Salvation Army. I learned piano first. I studied at the Conservatory from the time I was 6, on to when I finished my grade 10 Conservatory when I was 16. Then, throughout that time, I was also studying music at the Salvation Army. They had a brass band. I learned to play the horn; I played for the choir. I played the tambourine and a whole number of instruments and we also studied theory at the Army so, outside of anything at school, I was probably studying music a good, oh, three, four evenings a week.

And then practicing everyday so it was a huge part of growing up, and also growing up as an Army brat. We were moving every few years, so music really provided the sense of continuity from place to place. It was always the one thing – well, that and school – that were guaranteed.

OJS: So was that moving within Canada?

Shepherd: Canada and France.

OJS: So did that mean you became bilingual as well?

Shepherd: Yes, absolutely. I went to a French school. I was kind of thrown in there. It was actually an international school where they had what's called Français Spéciale program where you learn the language in a year. As a kid, you can do that: as an adult, it would be a lot harder.

OJS: So what was your first introduction to jazz?

Shepherd: It was my older brother, who was very curious musically. He also played piano and played in the band but he really, being five years older than me, he was discovering music earlier than me, so I would paw through his CD collection. He had some stuff by Ella Fitzgerald and The Cole Porter Songbook. Then he had some Miles Davis, you know, Kind of Blue. It really just your basic stuff that everyone should own when they're Jazz 101.

My parents weren't big into jazz at all. In fact, the music that I grew up with mostly was classical music, and then Salvation Army brass band music, which is a whole other culture. So I came to it pretty late: I'd say I was in my late teens. My brother, who was away at university, came home for a year and I noticed that his record collection had expanded significantly to include jazz. And so that was my first real introduction.

Then I guess a little after that, I was really getting into hip-hop music and was very curious about the production side of things: the sample. I don't know if you're so familiar with hip-hop, but you have the MC who's doing the rapping, and then the producer who does all the background music, equally important. And they take a lot of samples from jazz tunes, and so I started getting into more '70's jazz stuff, because that's where a lot of samples come from.

Finding 70s jazz through hip-hop

OJS: Of course, the very groovy, funky ones.

Shepherd: Absolutely. So I got into Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters and Miles Davis and his '70's, out-there phase, and Freddie Hubbard – all that kind of stuff. That really resonated with me, and from there I worked backwards. And eventually, well, I wouldn't say I covered everything, but I covered a lot of stuff.

OJS: You were studying both classical and jazz at McGill University?

Shepherd: I was actually studying classical, and realized pretty soon into the program that to be a classical performer, there are so few avenues. But I also did want to perform somehow, and I felt like I wanted to find something that was challenging to me in a different way. I felt like I needed something else to sink my teeth into and they were teaching jazz at McGill, and simultaneously I was sort of coming to it on my own. And so I switched over to the jazz program.

I'm really pretty cerebral about how I understand music. I mean, it's primarily an emotional thing that will speak to me, but, from there, I want to understand what it is that's making me feel a certain way.

OJS: So you first encounter it emotionally and then you would analyze why you feel like that?

Shepherd: Yes. You can totally dissect why you feel a certain way but more, "What is it? What is that chord that's making this impression that I want to understand? Oh, it's a flat nine chord, or it's an open chord with no third in there. And it's just haunting, and a flat seven." So I get pretty technical about . . . I really thrive on understanding the more technical aspects to music. And jazz is great for that, because it is so complex in terms of harmonic structure and the modes that are used. It was all new to me so I really, really just jumped right in and loved it, and finished up with a degree in jazz piano.

The coolness of the Wurlitzer

OJS: So what about the other keyboard instruments you play, like Rhodes or Wurlitzer? When did those come in?

Shepherd: They came in almost out of necessity because I was using a lot of keyboards while touring, because it's so rare that you have a really nice piano. You can have a piano at a venue but oftentimes you don't want to use it, especially when you're starting out and you're not playing great venues.

So I had a keyboard and I wasn't so happy with the piano sound on the keyboard. It's really hard to find a great piano sound on a keyboard because, ultimately, it's not an acoustic instrument. So I ended up using a lot of the '70's patches – the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer – and became really fond of them in the process, and decided I actually would want to opt for those over piano in a lot of the subsequent recordings.

The studio I worked at for the last three albums, actually, in Toronto has a Rhodes and a Wurli. They're great because you can replicate them on the road with the keyboard that I use, and it just provides a really different feel. It's hard to feel really funky with a piano. The guitar lends itself to certain rhythms – and the piano, not so much. It's hard to really convey a certain feel with the piano.

OJS: When I was listening to "Love for Sale", I was thinking that that's a really cool sound and that's not a piano. When I realized it was a Wurlitzer, that made more sense.

Shepherd: And if it were a piano, I'm not sure that it would really have the same coolness.

OJS: So, obviously, when you're studying jazz at McGill you're learning a lot of standards. That's just part of your education?

Shepherd: I had to learn - what was it - like 120 or something.

OJS: So how did you become a vocalist? Was that just a natural outgrowth of also playing piano?

Shepherd: I was accompanying a lot of vocalists and I ended up doing a lot more of that, as opposed to playing in small instrumental combos, because I guess I really just preferred it. So that was sort of where I was coming from. When I moved to Toronto from Montreal I was waitressing at a piano bar . . .

"Well, can you sing?", and I thought, "Well, if it means I get to play instead of waitress for two weeks, yeah, yeah, I sing."

OJS: So this was after you graduated?

Shepherd: After I graduated. I thought, "Oh, if I waitress here, at least I can hear music and it's like I'm learning as I'm working." Then they saw on my resume that I had a degree in piano, jazz piano from McGill, and said, "Oh, our house pianist is going away for two weeks. Do you think that you could fill in?" I was like, "Sure. I'd love to." But she also sang and they said, "Well, can you sing?" and I thought, "Well, if it means I get to play instead of waitress for two weeks, yeah, yeah, I sing." And so they said, "Can you play something now?"

So I played the one song that I knew how to sing along to, and then went home that night and learned . . . I knew a bunch of standards, but I did not know how to sing and play at the same time, so I worked really hard at that overnight and got together about 40 tunes, and then ended up playing there for two years, four nights a week. It was three hours at a time, so that was the ultimate learning experience. And that's where I really, I think, learned a lot of the jazz tunes.

So it was out of necessity that I started singing, and at the same time I was writing my own stuff. And it just felt like it would be weird to have someone else sing my own tunes, at least in laying down some kind of first version of it. I really felt these are tunes that stem from my experience, and they're very personal, and for the only version out there to be sung by someone else felt like it would just be wrong.

OJS: How did you get into songwriting?

Shepherd: It took me awhile. I don't think I actually wrote my first song until I was in my 20's. For some reason I had this sense of, this notion before, that I had to write something epic like a symphony or that it had to be big. I think it was a competition in Toronto that I thought, "Oh, let's write a song and go to this competition." I never ended up actually going to the competition, but just the process of writing that first song made me realize how much value there is in just doing something small. It doesn't have to be gargantuan and epic. It can be a little more so of music – that is complete in and of itself. And I really enjoyed that, and I guess that was it. I started writing a lot after that and continued to write a lot. I think the thing I enjoy the most about being a musician is writing.

OJS: How do you write your music? Do you primarily just compose the piano part and the lyrics first, and then work in the arrangements after that?

Shepherd: No, usually I have a really good sense of the whole thing as a totality from the get-go, except for the lyrics. The lyrics always come last and I find that the most arduous part of the whole process. But I'll have a really clear sense of, "Okay, the bass line will sound like this, and this is the drum groove or beat that I'm going for, feel, and this will be the keyboard part, and I'm hearing the horn doing this, and this is the melody." The arrangement seems to come first, and then I sort out the finer points, like melody and lyrics, which kind of come together at the same time afterwards.

OJS: I listened to three of your albums today and one of the things that's characteristic is the bass line. A number of your songs begin with really cool bass riffs.

Shepherd: Yes, where I start is often with the bass because it is the foundation, and it provides both the groove and sort of rhythmic direction, as well as harmonic sense of where the song's going.

OJS: One of the other things that's hugely characteristic is there's a lot of rhythm in your music. It depends on the song, but it's not just straight, pure melody. There's a lot of rhythm underneath in practically every song you're doing. It actually seems to show up both in the standards on your latest album and in your other music. Is that just part of the way you envision the songs, the way you hear them?

Shepherd: I think so. I mean, I think I've always maintained that if I were to pick up another instrument – which I still would really like to do but, with a 16-month-old, it's not going to happen for a while – but I always maintain that it would be the drums. I guess rhythm is what I find most exciting. Partly what got me out of classical and into jazz is the fact that there is such an emphasis placed on rhythm.

I guess I carry some of my love of hip-hop. I mean, what I loved so much about hip-hop, one of the things I love the most is the flow of a really good MC. It's the delivery of their speech. It's like hearing a great drum solo with words on top of it. So I feel like maybe I have taken a bit of that and brought it into my jazz music.

Moving away from personal experience

OJS: So you write the lyrics last. Where do they come from? Do they come mostly from your own personal experience?

Shepherd: They used to. I think it's changing more. I'm just finishing up the next album now and, of course, the lyrics are the last thing to come for a couple of these tunes that aren't yet finished. With this project, and I would say even with Heavy Falls the Night, which was the last original project I did, it's getting further away from me and more into storytelling and observation of the world around. I think maybe that comes with getting older. Just, I feel like there are so many stories out there and there's less navel-gazing, and less of a need to figure out what I'm about and less angst about that, which I think makes for more interesting stories in the end. So, yes, a lot of the new material, it's bordering political because everything has become political in this day and age. I feel like being so interconnected . . .

One of the songs is about Monsanto and the effects of Monsanto. It's one of the strains of cotton that a lot of Indian farmers are being forced to use and it doesn't have as good yields as they were promised, and so they end up committing suicide by ingesting the very seeds that they were given. So it's a heavy topic, but then, in turn, we are consuming goods that are made from this cotton so I feel like there is this sense of interconnectedness. If you scratch the surface of anything, any aspect of life, there's a story behind it that's likely worth telling. It may not be one that people necessarily want to hear. So I guess that's what I mean when I say there's a lot of political content in the stories that I'm currently telling.

OJS: When's that album coming out?

Shepherd: 2014, I think, because there's still a lot of life in Rewind. I'm going to be touring it right up – well, right now, it looks like right through to November of 2013. So I guess 2014.

"It came out of a place of fear and ended up being a hugely enjoyable process."

OJS: And, Rewind, what was the impetus to do Rewind?

Shepherd: Well, I was coming off the road having toured Heavy Falls the Night for quite some time. While I was in Japan, actually, for the launch of Heavy Falls the Night, some A&R reps from JVC [Japan] were at one of the shows at The Cotton Club, and asked if I was planning on doing an album of standards. I said, "No," because at that time I was planning on my next project being original material. I continued touring Heavy Falls the Night for about a year after that – 14, 16 months.

Shepherd: Then, on the last leg, I was four months pregnant and realized there's five months until I become a mom. I had no idea what lay on the other side of that huge life-transforming day when my kid would arrive. And I had this fear that I would disappear into mommyhood and people would say, "Whatever happened to Elizabeth Shepherd?" "Oh, she became a mom." "Oh, okay. End of story and we never heard from her again."

I really had no clue how it was going to play out, but I was kind of prepared for that. And so I thought, "I need to put an album out, to record an album between when I was four months pregnant and all this was happening in my mind, and I need to get it finished by the time that I delivered, so that I would have something on the other side that was mine, something other than just being a mom." Not that just being a mom is a small thing.

Then I thought back to that proposal JVC had mentioned that, "Oh, you should put out an album of standards. We'd love to hear it," and thought, "Well, maybe this is the time. In five months, I'm not going get an album of original material composed, arranged, rehearsed, recorded. It's not going to happen."

So I opted for the standards and had a really, really fun time in the process. It proved to be really fruitful. It takes a lot less time to arrange someone else's material than to write everything from scratch. So I took a really light-hearted approach to it, and thought, "Just have fun with it. Don't be precious about it," and I feel like I actually retained a lot of that approach. So I guess it came out of a place of fear and ended up being a hugely enjoyable process, and I realized I was wrong about the fear.

OJS: It's a very interesting combination of songs. For example, the Georges Brassens piece – it's not your typical Anglophone standard. How did you get introduced to him?

Shepherd: When I was in France. I was there for four years and my parents were there for another four, and so I would go back and visit during holidays and the summers. I feel a real connection to France and to French music, so I felt like I wanted to honour that. Being an Anglophone, having done all of my schooling in French and feeling equally at ease in both languages, I felt like it's a bit of a misrepresentation to only have English stuff on all of my albums – and maybe it's time to rectify that.

So naturally, if you've lived in France, you're going to know Georges Brassens. I guess he's like the Leonard Cohen or something. He's a phenomenal wordsmith and social commentator and poet, and writes some really interesting tunes also. So it seemed like a natural thing to go with him. And then the other song, "Pourquoi tu vis" was a huge hit when I was there. It was actually initially a Spanish tune from a film that became a massive pop song.

I just felt like, "Yes, I'm going to choose songs for this album that mean something to me, that have meant something to me at some point in my life," and so those are from my French years.

OJS: Why did you decide to write lyrics to the Bobby Hutcherson piece?

Shepherd: It's a gorgeous melody and I got that album, actually, at the recommendation of a drummer that I was studying with at McGill, Chris McCann. The album was called Happenings and that tune really stuck out. I was in love at the time that I wrote it and it just felt like, "Oh, this tune needs to have some kind of lyrics. It's a shame that I haven't heard it more and I would like to present it, do my small part in presenting it to the world." So I wrote the lyrics.

OJS: Now, "Feeling Good" is very, very much associated with Nina Simone. Did that affect how you presented your version?

Shepherd: No, I don't think so. I mean, this is a bit of the benefit of growing up in a bubble is that I didn't grow up with Nina Simone. I didn't grow up with a lot of things. When I came to jazz, like I said, it was quite late. So at the time that I was coming to the song "Feeling Good", I wasn't really aware of Nina Simone. I heard the song as its own thing, and knew of it as a show tune by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Then later on found out, oh yes, there's a Nina Simone version as there is another version and hundreds of versions. So it wasn't like I was aware of that being a quintessential version. I feel like that's the one good thing about growing up in a bubble is you don't have all the pressure to do or not to do certain things because you're just not aware of them.

OJS: One thing I really liked was the bold bass introduction on "Buzzard Song". How did you come up with that?

Shepherd: Well, that was a lot of editing, actually. It was really fun. I had a lot of fun with that tune. I asked Ross, the bass player, I said, "Just vamp on an open E chord for a bit." So he did and I said, "Okay. Now let's try something else. Let's try this approach now." And we did about ten takes. Then I went home and sat with them and then started splicing them and piecing them together – so the end result is nothing like what he played at any one time. It's a composite of all kinds of lines and takes. I was really happy with it.

So it's like, yes, it's very inorganic and using technology to come up with something, to compose, ultimately, which is not so different from, say, what a hip-hop DJ does in splicing different elements of different things together to come up with something that sounds like it had been that way all along.

OJS: How did the duet with singer Denzal Sinclaire come about?

Shepherd: Denzal is a good friend. He's a lovely soul and a huge, tremendous musician. We were neighbours, not quite next door but pretty close for a few years there, and it felt like we kept bumping into each other and were asked to be in a lot of the same gigs. I love his voice and I love him as a person, so I felt like we should really do something. Of course he was game because he's like that.

OJS: The Super 8 camera on the cover of Rewind: how did that come about?

Shepherd: It's actually from the '50's, I think. I had a Super 8 camera. I attempted to make some films and they didn't work out so well. So initially I was going to put the Super 8 [on the cover], and then my friend lent us this Holga [camera], which is the one that you see on the cover. And it's a beautiful, beautiful piece of machinery.

I felt like I wanted to evoke that this album was kind of going back in time and revisiting pieces from back in the day – anywhere from the '20's to the '70's, I guess. But I wanted to evoke that in a way other than the typical woman with an old-school microphone and a gown. And I thought, "Well, what props can I use to evoke that?” And enter the Holga.

OJS: The concert you're doing in Ottawa, will it be primarily from Rewind or will there be other new material?

Shepherd: Primarily Rewind – well, I'm going to say half and half. There are two sets so I'd like to split the material from Rewind and then other stuff from my catalogue. No new stuff, though, because it's still very much in a new stage and is not quite ready to be presented.

OJS: Mostly when you've been in Ottawa before, you've played clubs like the Mercury Lounge. Are you expecting a different vibe at the Fourth Stage?

Shepherd: It's funny because I think the Mercury Lounge is known as a dance club. And [for me] they always set it up in such a way that it was like a cabaret. There were tables, small tables closely together with candles. They always transformed it into a really intimate listening space for the nights that I played there. So I feel like it'll be the same vibe, actually, at the NAC. It's just a bit of a nicer room, I think.

OJS: The acoustics are quite good.

Shepherd: Yes, I'm looking forward to having a really nice sound and a real piano, because I really enjoy playing venues that are just a nice listening audience where you feel like people are here to really pay attention. As a musician, that's a great feeling and it depends on what kind of music you make. You want to make people dance, that's another thing, but I really like feeling like I'm taking people somewhere and that they're there fully present and along for the ride.

OJS: When you're doing mostly music with lyrics, how do you deliver the lyrics so that people can both appreciate what you're saying and also what the music is saying? How do you balance these out?

Shepherd: That's a good question. I don't know if it's been so conscious. I mean, I feel like a lot of it comes down to, number one, the lyrics being heard and not being drowned out. So it's a level thing. It's also being sparse with the instrumentation. Especially on Rewind, I think I made a point of that, really, of making sure that none of the arrangements take away from the lyrics or overshadow the lyrics. So I guess that would be in the arrangement and just the volume, making sure the band is, we're all on the same page that, okay, when I'm singing it's really time to listen in to the lyrics and make sure that's what's coming across. The guys I have are great. They're so sensitive and they're really great players.

OJS: I notice that you've been doing a lot of collaborations with Toronto jazz guitarist Michael Occhipinti in the last couple years.

Shepherd: Yeah, he has his Shine On project that he asked me to be part of so I hopped on that. He's got a great crew of musicians. Also, Denzal is one of them. So, yeah, I was touring last summer with the Shine On project.

OJS: And then in New York recently?

Shepherd: Yeah, we were there for APAP so I did a showcase of my stuff and then we did a showcase with the Shine On project also.

OJS: And you also were on Peter Appleyard's project, Sophisticated Ladies.

Shepherd: Yes, and we did a show, actually, just last week with Peter Appleyard. He's the real deal. He's great, a legend, and it's so inspiring to see him at age, oh, 84 get up there and just give it all. It's great. I feel really lucky to have been able to play with so many great musicians in the last year.

A process of constant adaptation

OJS: Now, with a 16-month-old, how do you tour? Are there challenges with a little girl who is just starting to walk?

Shepherd: Yes. When she was born I took six months off, and then we went on the road when she was six months old and that was great. It was really easy, because she was highly portable. She's actually just waking up from a nap right now and is crying. It's a little harder now because she is walking fully and starting to run and wants to explore everything. I feel like I used to go on longer tours and now I'm really keeping it short. So I'll go away for a couple days, and either she and my husband will come with me, or I'll just go on my own for two, three days and then come home.

She's not in daycare, so I spend all my time with her. Then when I have to go away and work I feel . . . you know, it's a hard thing to justify as a mom to yourself because on the one hand I really want to work and pursue my own thing and I really want to be there for her. So I feel like I kind of do that in cycles. Like, "Okay, Mommy's going away now for a few days and then I'll be back and we'll be together for three solid days, four solid days and then you're going to go with Grandma and Mommy's going to do some writing."

It's hard. It's really hard to tour and, like, it's a new stage now with her being very mobile and very curious so we'll see. I think it's just a matter of constantly adapting and checking in with where she's at, where I'm at, what needs to happen on any of those fronts.

OJS: Has she shown any sort of familiarity or recognition with the kind of music that you were singing while you were pregnant with her?

Shepherd: Yes, actually. She loves Rewind and she was there for all of it because I was recording it all while pregnant and that's what she falls asleep to. When we're on the road, we put that album on, and she will always fall asleep to it. She'll hear me sing on the radio and she'll go over the radio and turn it up and go, "Mama? Mama?" Then sometimes when the radio's not playing me she'll go over and start changing stations asking for Mama. Yes, so she definitely knows not only my voice but these songs in particular. It's kind of funny.

"What I love about jazz is the complex and rich harmonies that are not really present in pop music."

OJS: Many press stories about you have said that you have a pop sensibility, and talk about your songs more as pop than jazz. But when I listen to them, I hear jazz. Were you trying to present them as pop in order to reach a wider audience? Was that part of the marketing thing on them, on your previous albums?

Shepherd: No, it wasn't a marketing thing. It was really what I, myself, the aesthetic that I like and I go for. I find what I love about jazz is that, as I had mentioned before, the complex and rich harmonies that are not really present in pop music. You've got pretty basic chords and pretty basic chord progressions in pop.

But what I love about pop music, in turn, is the song being the focus and it's really about a well-crafted song. Often a lot of jazz lyrics, frankly, are kind of lame. It's clear that they are secondary to the melody or to the soloing. And so I feel like I want to marry those. This is more, I guess, in application to my original stuff, but I want to write songs that are really about the song – but they need to be interesting enough for me to capture my own attention. So I guess this is where my jazz comes in. It's odd time signatures and complex harmonies and sort of, yes, these jazzy elements.

OJS: So it's something that you wanted to do because it's the type of music that you like listening to?

Shepherd: That I like listening to and I feel like there's not a lot of out there and I would like to hear more of. I would like to hear challenging pop music or jazz that's really accessible, and not necessarily formulaic like, "Okay, and now it's time for the saxophone to solo over the same chord changes we just heard, and now the bass player's going to solo, and now the drummer's going to solo, and he's going to do four bars and then he's going to trade."

I feel like the irony being that jazz music, the soloing came out of the fact that it was dance music and people wanted to hear the same song go on for 20 minutes. They're like, "Oh, we're tired of playing the melody? Okay, let's branch out and do something different. Now you play it for a bit." "Okay, well if I'm going to play it, I'm going to play it my own way," and the irony that it's become this kind of staid formula that people adhere to, and they're not even dancing anymore.

So I don't feel any pressure, actually, to stick with that tradition, because I don't see the point to it any more. And I opted for something that feels right for me and feels right aesthetically.

OJS: But this would have the side effect of attracting a slightly different audience, than the regular jazz audience?

Shepherd: I think so. And I feel like people who are drawn to jazz tend to be quite open-minded musically. So they're game, also – and I find a lot of people at my shows come up to me and say, “I don't even like jazz, but I like what you do!” And I feel like, “Great!” That's high praise, of one sort.

    – Alayne McGregor

The Elizabeth Shepherd Trio plays the NAC Fourth Stage on Friday, February 8, 2013.