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Kellylee Evans: body and soul (review)

Kellylee Evans
Ottawa Jazz Festival Fundraiser
Thursday, December 8, 2011
National Library and Archives Auditorium, Ottawa 

Kellylee Evans sings jazz with her entire body.

Kellylee Evans sings and runs through the 2006 Ottawa Jazz Festival audience ©Brett DelmageShe dips, she reaches, she grooves. She has a duet with her guitarist in which she ends up playing air guitar, using her body as a fretboard. She moves upstage, downstage, and off and on the stage. She glides through the audience, urging them to sing along.

She underlines each word, each riff with movement. She mimes and then scats a muted trumpet, followed by a sax.

Despite her having such a fluid voice and a huge vocal range, going to one of her concerts is at least as much a visual as an auditory experience – as was obvious at the Ottawa Jazz Festival's 2011 fundraiser.

Before the concert, Evans socialized with fans outside, wearing a long black dress and scarily high-heeled strappy shoes. But when she appeared onstage she wore a long silver lame number with a cowl neckline and plunging back – form-fitting but very easy to move in. And she was barefoot, as she always is when she performs. The dress added a touch of old-school elegance to her performance, reminiscent of the era from which much of that evening's music came from.

The Ottawa vocalist has been on the road for most of the time since she won the vocal jazz Juno Award last March for her album Nina. All that touring meant that she and her band (Dave Thompson on guitar and Giampaolo Scatozza on drums) were tight and together. Newcomer Russ Boswell on double bass fit in well, too: when the pickup failed on Thompson's Gibson guitar, Boswell immediately took up the riff and no one dropped a beat. And then Evans took the opportunity to tell the audience all about how George Benson tried to buy that guitar from Thompson (a great story!), while repairs went on offstage. Afterward, Thompson played the guitar acoustically, and Evans and the other musicians adjusted their style to fit the different sound.

The majority of the songs Evans sang were from Nina, her tribute to renowned original jazz singer and black activist Nina Simone. But after the first three songs, including "I Loves You Porgy" and "Love Me or Leave Me", Evans' clear, swinging style was more reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan than Simone's darker and more edgy music.

However, Evans then moved to a bluesier mood, and took more chances, although she never got into political songs like "Mississippi Goddam". Both she and her musicians extended themselves with songs like "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". In "Ain't Got No/I Got Life", which got mashed together with "On Broadway", her rapid scatting matched Thompson's solos, while her simple and heartfelt rendition of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" drew huge applause.

The last song was another Simone number: "Feeling Good", and her soulful, full delivery of its message of new dawn and new day ended the show off on a hopeful note, and got her an immediate standing ovation.

The concert clocked at well over 90 minutes with a double encore: "Through" from The Good Girl, and (an audience request) "What About Me?" from Fight or Flight?, both more pop-oriented numbers. Throughout, Evans looked genuinely comfortable performing and made the audience enjoy themselves, and – surprisingly for staid Ottawa – even participate in several call-and-response numbers.

The concert was preceded by a live auction run by CBC Radio host Alan Neal, where bids on some items reached $1800, and the total raised was more than $20,000.

    – Alayne McGregor