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Elizabeth Shepherd plays bittersweet music for a full house (review)

Elizabeth Shepherd
Friday, February 8, 2013
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage

Elizabeth Shepherd produced a night of bittersweet music for a full house, at her NAC debut on February 8.

Elizabeth Shepherd (photo by Zuzana Hudackova)The show opened dramatically with “Love for Sale” by Cole Porter, the first song from her latest CD, Rewind. As on the CD, the Montreal-based vocalist emphasized the irony and the contrast between the light, romantic melody and the bleak lyrics. Singing in a slightly distanced manner, she first gestured with her hands and then used the piano to emphasize the syncopation in the melody.

The show's setlist ranged across Shepherd's career, with the jazz standards from Rewind fitting in well with originals from previous albums. If there was one defining characteristic, it was the contrast between her clear, smooth soprano and the strong underlying beat. One could enjoy the concert as a piano trio, as a collection of jazz songs, or as a combination of both.

Shepherd, playing piano and singing, was supported by two long-time musical compatriots, Ross MacIntyre on double bass and Colin Kingsmore on drums. Neither was a mere accompanist. For example, “Midnight Sun” (by jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton) began with MacIntyre's supple bass riff against strongly accented piano from Shepherd and hand-clapping from Kingsmore. Shepherd and McIntyre later continued in a duet, his bass echoing her melodies and fast rhythms on piano; then Shepherd and Kingsmore traded individual notes, his on cowbell and drums. Shepherd changed her vocal phrasing throughout the song as well, adding extra space as she repeated lyrics – and the whole was greeted by strong applause at the end.

Shepherd easily engaged the audience, with a series of amusing stories and background explanations of different songs: for example, how her band almost ended up at a Saskatchewan erotic arts festival. She dedicated “Just Getting By” to those can't yet fulfil their dreams because they have to pay the bills, and she talked about her own times starting out as a waitress and how it inspired her to keep up her studies instead of being stuck forever carrying plates. “Lonely House” inspired her to talk about the lonely place which new mothers inhabit – and the resulting very simple delivery of that song in a pure soprano carried a big emotional punch.

Other highlights of the show included “It's Coming”, Shepherd's bluesy tribute to jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown; the standard “Feeling Good” by Leslie Bricusse, which began hopefully and moved to funkier places; “Heavy Falls the Night”, where her sensuous vocals and occasional scatting invoked the vibe of the night; and “Seven Bucks”, a sad tale of homelessness sung straight with a simple bass rumble and sticks on drums underneath, and all the more powerful for that.

She ended with her own song “Let Me Be”, where repeated riffs on each instrument contrasted and played off each other, and her sultry voice floated over all. The concert ended with a standing ovation, and another bittersweet song, “All the Lovely Ladies” by Gordon Lightfoot.

What I particularly enjoyed about this concert was Shepherd's choice of material: not one of the jazz standards she picked was hackneyed or over-exposed. The best known were probably “Love for Sale” and “Feeling Good”, and neither of those did she deliver as a straight jazz lyric but instead added her own vocal and instrumental interpretation. If she continues on this original yet approachable path she'll go far.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set list

  • Love for Sale
  • It's Coming
  • Lonely House
  • Pourquoi tu vis
  • Midnight Sun
  • Just Getting By
  • What Else

  • Feeling Good
  • Heavy Falls the Night
  • Start to Move
  • Seven Bucks
  • Close Enough for Love
  • The Taking
  • Let Me Be
  • Encore: All the Lovely Ladies (by Gordon Lightfoot)

See the OttawaJazzScene.ca interview with Shepherd about this concert: