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Fawn Fritzen matches originals with vocal jazz classics in a finely-tuned show

Fawn Fritzen Trio
Steinway Piano Gallery Ottawa
Wednesday, May 11, 2016 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Judging from her Ottawa CD release show, Fawn Fritzen is a jazz vocalist to watch.

In two one-hour sets, Fritzen charmed her audience with a nicely-judged mixture of jazz standards, gospel numbers, and originals, delivered with both sincerity and considerable animation. She sang a beautiful lullaby in Mandarin (her first language), and added lyrics in both French and German to standards in English, in a wide-ranging set list which never flagged.

Fawn Fritzen and David Restivo ©Brett Delmage, 2016

The show was the second-last stop on a six-city tour of Ontario and Quebec (she's in Montreal tonight) – a rare chance to hear Fritzen, because she's based in Whitehorse, Yukon. She was showcasing her just-released second CD, Pairings, which consists of duets between her and a variety of Canadian jazz instrumentalists.

Two of those instrumentalists, both from Toronto, were on tour with her: David Restivo on piano and George Koller on double bass. Both have considerable experience performing with jazz vocalists, which showed in their sensitive playing and easy rapport. Several songs, including George and Ira Gershwin's “Do Do Do”, opened dramatically with Koller's signature growling bowed bass, and he also contributed occasional scatting and background vocals. Restivo in particular enhanced the ballads with sparkling solos and thoughtful intros.

Fritzen told the audience about her two-year quest to make Pairings, initially grabbing opportunities to record when musicians visited Whitehorse, and then finishing it off in Toronto. She sang most of the songs on the album, many of which were not recorded with piano or bass. Those featuring guitar or saxophone she adapted for piano, but she was especially inventive with the Cole Porter number “Begin the Beguine”, which is a percussion-voice duet on the album. For the concert, Koller (“my secret weapon”) drummed on the front and top of his double bass, adding a repeated, propulsive rhythm underneath her sensuous vocals.

I was particularly impressed with Fritzen's original songs, which had intelligent lyrics and felt like worthy successors to Great American Songbook classics. The gospel number “I Will Carry You” was uplifting and forthright; the 1920s-style number “When I'm in Your Arms” was sweet and romantic; the bossa number “La Tête dans la Lune” was sung with a smile in her voice; the very catchy “Just a Little Dance” was a bluesy duet with Koller with a memorable riff. The sly “Make It a Double” was so close to something that Peggy Lee might have sung that, when I first heard it, I had to check the credits twice before I was convinced it wasn't a standard.

The trio has been regularly shaking up the show set-list during the tour, and for this show Fritzen premiered a new tune for which Restivo wrote the melody and she the lyrics. “Dragonfly” harks back to her childhood nickname of “Little Dragonfly” and was a lovely, delicate ballad, evoking the magic of nature's stillness.

Fritzen sang two duets with Ottawa jazz vocalist Peter Liu. Their rendition of Cole Porter's “So in Love” was sincere and a bit dramatic, with Liu singing in a huskier, deeper register than his previous smooth tenor. In the second set, they had a perfect musical conversation in “Make It a Double”, and even waltzed during Restivo's rippling piano solo.

Fritzen's background is in musical theatre (she sang with Orpheus when she lived in Ottawa). You could see that dramatic training in how she approached songs like “Do Do Do” or Lisa Lindo's “Drink Your Coffee While It's Hot”, as much narrating them as singing them. She has a powerful, clear voice, and can vamp as necessary (for example in Leonard Cohen's “Dance Me to the End of Love”, or Percy Mayfield's soul number, “Please Send Me Someone to Love”). But I was even more impressed by her sensitive approach to the wryly melancholic lyrics of Francesca Blumenthal's “Lies of Handsome Men”, giving them the ironic yet clear-sighted reading they needed.

The concert was held in the Steinway Piano Gallery in Ottawa's east end, which has recently started hosting occasional jazz concerts. With primarily hard surfaces from the tiled floor to the corrugated steel ceiling, it's not your typical concert hall, but in fact the sound was warm and clear. The careful attention of a sound technician who was listening throughout also undoubtedly helped. The location also ensured that Restivo had a top-notch Steinway piano to play, and he took full advantage of it – although unfortunately I couldn't hear much difference when he “prepared” the piano for “Tea for Two”.

Fritzen had a good rapport with the audience, telling stories and giving the background to each song. She even got them to clap and stomp to an odd beat to accompany the gospel number which closed the first set. Each song was greeted with warm and often strong applause by listeners in the almost-full house.

It will be interesting to see where Fritzen goes from here. She has a real talent for singing, writing, and picking good musical collaborators. Her Ottawa concert was engaging, varied and well-paced – a highly satisfying evening of jazz vocals.

    – Alayne McGregor

Fawn Fritzen, with George Koller and David Restivo, will play the Upstairs Jazz Bar in Montreal tonight, May 12, for three sets starting at 8 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Listen to the OttawaJazzScene.ca podcast interview with Fawn Fritzen about how she got turned on to jazz, and her two-year journey to complete her new CD: