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Capital Vox: having fun with Paul Simon

Mike Steinberg (l) and Tim Lash (r) read at the 2009 May 30 Capital Vox concert. photo ©Brett Delmage, 2009Capital Vox Assistant Music Director Richard Fujarczuk solos at the 2009 May 30 concert. photo ©Brett Delmage, 2009Capital Vox will be exploring a new source for jazz standards with its two-show tribute to Paul Simon this weekend.

And choir director Elise Letourneau expects it will be a lot of fun – for both the Ottawa jazz choir and its audience.

The singers are "very psyched" at doing these songs, she said. "Paul Simon is such an icon and he's so incredibly well loved. He touches so many people in so many different ways." For her, Simon's music is "part of my inner ear."

"We have no intention of stopping being a jazz choir; however, we did want to address the issue that the standards are changing, and the standard repertoire is expanding. Time moves on, and people age and new generations bring their own standards."

In 2008, Herbie Hancock, who performs at the Ottawa Jazz Festival again in 2010, won the Best Album Grammy for River, his tribute to Joni Mitchell. Canadian jazz guitarist Michael Occhipinti was nominated for a Juno in 2000 for Creation Dream, his interpretations of Bruce Cockburn's songs.

With Paul Simon having received the Library of Congress's George Gershwin Award, Letourneau said, "it's more than just liking the guy. He's done some amazing things, well received in so many ways over the years."

"We're not necessarily trying to turn everything into jazz. We're trying to do Paul Simon right. That said, with the choir, there is a lot available in terms of sound, and some of the things lend themselves to a swing versus a shuffle. He wrote a lot in three, so there's a lot of possibilities for jazz waltz. I have thickened some of the harmonies." But because Paul Simon is "such a savvy writer both lyrically and harmonically", very often "it was more a playing up something that was already there, and maybe emphasizing it a little more."

Simon's huge catalogue of music was a real advantage, she said. "Some songs everybody knows", but one Simon song that may touch one person deeply may be completely unknown to another. The concert will range across Simon's career: from an early songs like 'Scarborough Fair/Canticle' (1966) and 'At the Zoo' (1968) to songs from One-Trick Pony (1980), Graceland (1986), and The Rhythm of the Saints (1990). "It will be quite a retrospective."

In his solo career, Simon has toured with jazz artists like Michael and Randy Brecker. Letourneau said Simon, like Joni Mitchell, wasn't necessarily a straight-ahead jazz person, but he could get anyone he wanted because he was "so well-respected and so creative".

The choir will be accompanied by a larger-than-usual variety of instruments: as well as piano, bass and drums, the band will also include violin, saxophone, accordion, and percussion. Letourneau said this "gives a lot of wonderful places for colouring. Sometimes it's violin and accordion doubling, so we're playing off of each other. It was hard to imagine doing a Paul Simon concert without a percussionist, because he's such a world citizen musically and he has taken his musical sense so many places in the world. So it was a wonderful addition to have percussion."

But that still doesn't give a full horn section – so the choir is filling in. "For example, the big horn riff in 'Late in the Evening', or the horn riff from 'You Can Call Me Al': we're singing those."

For some songs, the choir will be split in two, she said, so that it's effectively singing a duet, just like Simon sang with Art Garfunkel. "There are several selections where we have a soloist coming forward to sing, and in those pieces the choir is functioning more like a large group of backup singers than a choir. But there are many selections that are choral in texture."

As well, she said, the choir will do some of Simon's lyrics "as poetry, without music." Several of Capital Vox's previous concerts have included poetry, either sung or spoken, including pieces by American masters Emily Dickinson, Jack Kerouac, and Langston Hughes, and by local Ottawa poet Tony Cosier.

What should the audience expect? "A lot of fun, as well as in some cases some slightly different treatments of Paul Simon tunes."

"I think the biggest highlight for this one isn't so much a musical one as it is the obvious fun that the choir is having with this. They're absolutely exuberant this time around. Not that they haven't have had any fun before, but this one's just different – I guess because it is part of their memory as well."

For the first time, Capital Vox will be presenting a concert twice, on a Friday and a Saturday. Why two evenings? "We wanted to try it, and see how it went. We've sold out the other concerts and the audience has been growing. If it's nervous-making, it hasn't hit yet. Yes, it is more challenging, but we know that we won't be playing with an empty house."

Originally, the Paul Simon concert had been scheduled for next season. Letourneau said that the choir's extra show this spring with the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra "was a fabulous experience and we wouldn't have missed it for the world, but there weren't an endless number of rehearsal hours" to do that show in March and another show in May. Because the Simon show didn't need quite as much rehearsal as the planned Oscar Peterson/Canadiana Suite show, the choir decided to flip the two.

The Peterson show is now scheduled for the end of April, 2011. Capital Vox is also planning a concert in early December: not a Christmas show, but rather sacred jazz music for Advent, including a jazz mass. That concert will be held at All Saints Church in Sandy Hill, where the choir sang jazz vespers last fall.

  – Alayne McGregor

Capital Vox presents its Tribute to Paul Simon Friday, May 21 and Saturday, May 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the NAC Fourth Stage. Full listing here.

Full disclosure: OttawaJazzScene.ca publisher Brett Delmage has previously been paid by Capital Vox for the use of his photographs.