Kellylee Evans is used to having quiet Canada Days with her family. This year, she'll be on the main stage of the National Arts Centre, with almost 400 other musicians around her.

Kellylee Evans rehearses with the NAC Orchestra and Unisong Choir
Kellylee Evans rehearses with the NAC Orchestra and Unisong Choir

The Ottawa-based jazz vocalist will be the headliner with the NAC Orchestra for its annual Canada Day concerts, playing in the air-conditioned 2,323-seat Southam Hall. Both concerts, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. are free.

When she talked with, she was bubbling with excitement, because this was her very first official Canada Day gig. “I'd got used to not doing anything on Canada Day. I've lived here for so long, and I don't think I'm on the National Capital's radar.”

“I never knew the NAC did anything [on July 1]. So when they wrote me I was shocked ... and happy. What an honour! And it was absolute like yes, right away.”

Besides the 50-odd orchestra musicians, Evans will also be joined by her jazz trio – and the Unisong Choir, composed of 72 local and over 250 visiting choristers from across the country. “It's a really tight space.”

Evans' share of the program will be four songs, each of which has been rearranged for the orchestra. She will perform “Free”, a song she wrote in honour of Nelson Mandela, with the Unisong Choir. She said she picked that song and “Feeling Good”, from her Juno-winning album, Nina, because both are “message songs, songs that I felt would be really great for Canada Day.”

The remaining two are from her most recent album, I Remember When: the title track and “My Name is”. That song was inspired by two Eminem songs, “so the NAC Orchestra is going to be playing music inspired by Eminem – I'm sure that's a first!”

The hip-hop beat in those songs will be provided by three musicians Evans regularly plays with: drummer Mark McLean, bassist Wesley Allen, and keyboardist Michael Shand. But she expects the Orchestra will fit in as well.

“We're all going to be working as a team. People keep asking 'How is that going to work?', and if I hadn't already worked with the NAC Orchestra for the Gospel Christmas Project, I would also be wondering. But I know they're great. It's really just a matter of working together and once we get there, once you lock in, you feel it, everybody feels it. And we have a day of rehearsals the day before. And I'm hoping that we'll find that synergy.”

Singing at a Canada Day concert makes her “feel Canadian”, Evans said, and “part of the community”.

It was a huge gift. It was just a later dream that I had that which was like 'Wow, wouldn't it be great to play at Southam Hall one day?' But I never thought that that was coming soon. So it matters.
– Kellylee Evans

But she also sees it as a gift for her career: “from a performer's perspective, to perform in the National Capital on our national holiday it's not just historic, it's an important step in your career, to be asked to do that. It's a big deal.

And as a singer who started off in Ottawa, she said, headlining Southam Hall is “not a small thing. [At the NAC,] I went from renting the Fourth Stage, to being programmed in the Fourth Stage, to being programmed in the Studio, to now being programmed in Southam Hall. I get the progression because I wrote that check to pay the NAC to play there.”

“And I think every other musicians in town who has run that same path gets it. And so for somebody else it might be just 'Oh look, Kellylee's playing the NAC!' but I think for our little community of musicians that are here, we understand like how that's your goal! That's a huge goal and we've worked really hard to do that. So I'm really happy. And the biggest thing about it is that it's almost like I had nothing to do with it. It was just like it came to me and I wasn't even expecting it. It wasn't even on my list of goals this year.”

“It was a huge gift. It was just a later dream that I had that which was like 'Wow, wouldn't it be great to play at Southam Hall one day?' But I never thought that that was coming soon. So it matters.”

Back to dancing on-stage

Just over a year ago, Evans was hit by lightning in a freak accident in her kitchen. During her recovery, she had to sit during most of her performances, which was “really disquieting for me and my musicians, both here and in France. They never really got used to it.”

But she will be back dancing for this show. “It's so important for me to be standing.”

Earlier this spring, she said, she was having her eyebrows done in Ottawa, and it turned out that the esthetician had seen her perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival last year without knowing who she was.

The woman told her, “I went with my Dad to the Montreal Jazz Festival last year and I saw this show, it was like one of the best shows, and there was the girl and she was just sitting on a chair and I couldn't figure it out because the music was just so up! And it was the kind of music that you should just be dancing to. And she was just sitting on this chair.” And then Evans let her know that it was her, and why she had been singing instead of dancing.

A few weeks ago, Evans said, she had a “tiny relapse” at a concert in France, and “I had to decide whether I was going to have to do a concert seated. I just pushed through and stood even though it wasn't great for me and I was a little dizzy, but I just couldn't go back to sitting. I sat for a couple songs and then I sat for the end of the concert but for the majority of it I stood and, the next couple days later, I was fine.”

New songs for a new album

On July 22, Evans said, I Remember When will be released in the United States (it was released in 2013 in Canada and Europe). But she's already working on a new album, slated for next spring.

“I've started writing. We gave a preview in Wakefield – just one new song – and then we gave another sneak preview of a few more songs in France a few weeks ago, so yes, it's beginning!”

She's also back to Europe soon, performing in Belgium, and then off to new territory: Istanbul and Martinique.

On July 30 she'll be performing another free local concert, outdoors in a small park in Aylmer, as part of the annual Festival de Jazz Desjardins.

    – Alayne McGregor

See other coverage of Kellylee Evans and of jazz with the NAC Orchestra: