When Lara Solnicki abandoned opera and chose jazz, she went all out – and succeeded.

The Toronto vocalist, who will make her first Ottawa appearance on Saturday at GigSpace with guitarist Roddy Ellias, is a classically-trained singer with a four-octave range. She originally intended a career in opera, but in 2008, radically changed her direction – to jazz and creative music.

“I totally changed my technique and my voice. If you do it properly you're not supposed to be on the fence about it.”

She's now reached the point where Radio-Canada's primary jazz radio host, Stanley Péan, offered to write the liner notes for her just-released second CD. He praised Solnicki's “striking sense of nuance that characterizes her style as an interpreter, a lyricist and a composer,” and said that the new album reaffirmed “without doubt, her sure position in Canadian contemporary jazz.”

At the time she changed direction, Solnicki had been listening to jazz (for example, Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson) for years, and had taken some jazz vocal lessons a decade before in New York City. “When I came back to Toronto, I didn't stay with jazz for some reason”, and instead took a degree in classical voice from the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music. “I listened to jazz all through my classical degree, too, but I never thought of singing it at that point.”

However, she realized she wanted more opportunities to compose, to combine her poetry with music, to be more creative, which she couldn't get with classical voice. “I started writing poetry when I finished my degree. I decided that it would be interesting to get into new music and do some collaborative stuff, and then I really did make a conscious decision, that if I wanted to be more of a creator type, that it would be better for me to move into jazz and creative music.”

“I wasn't at that point really that glued to singing Italian opera any more. So I gave it about a solid year, or year and a half, when I started trying out jazz and taking a few lessons, to make a decision whether or not I was going to go all the way with it.”

And the jazz choice worked: she started singing jazz regularly in restaurants around Toronto; she collaborated with well-known jazz musicians like guitarist Ted Quinlan and bassist George Koller; she released a well-reviewed album of jazz standards in 2010.

“Doors just opened for me. I was lucky. I had these house gigs in restaurants for six months at a time, where I could work on my jazz singing and hire people like Ted, or Reg Schwager, and work with really great people in an environment that was pretty easy-going as far as gigs go. So I really had a bit of a crash course during the first couple of years of singing jazz, and then I started working on improvising.”

Now, six years after her switch, she has released a second album, still clearly jazz but incorporating some of her classical influences as well. Called Whose Shadow?, it's produced by Koller and includes performances by many well-known Toronto jazz musicians, including Quinlan, pianist Mark Kieswetter, drummer Nick Fraser, trumpeter Lina Allemano, percussionist Davide DiRenzo, and saxophonist John Johnson.

The CD mixes jazz songs, pop songs by Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, songs by composers Henry Purcell and Maurice Ravel, and two of her own compositions, one based on a poem she'd written earlier. “The album is really all over the place musically.”

Mixing Ravel, Raph Towner, standards and originals in Ottawa

She and Ellias will play pieces from the CD at Saturday's show – or at least those which can be performed with just a guitar as accompaniment. They'll also feature some of the music Ellias wrote for his chamber jazz CD with soprano Donna Brown, Acts of Light. She also hoped to include two “gorgeous” folk songs by Ravel, standards from the Great American Songbook, and at least two vocal/guitar pieces by guitarist Ralph Towner, including one (“Chiaro”) in Neapolitan dialect.

“It's going to be a pretty varied show.”

Solnicki first met Ellias at a Toronto concert by the Walrus Quartet, his four-guitar group. “I really enjoy their music a lot, and their compositions, their kind of orchestral sound. I like things that are between the cracks, like jazz and classical music. I could see that we had a bit of an affinity towards some of the same interests and inspirations.”

Ellias invited her to do a show with him in Ottawa. They're also booked to play in Montreal on November 29, along with bassist Adrian Vedady, when she releases Whose Shadow? there.

Ellias, who has played for many years with singers like Jeri Brown, said he loved working with vocalists.

“I don't get to do it as much as I'd like to, actually. What do I like? I think the voice brings another dimension to the music, because it's a human sound, and also the words bring another dimension. It's a lot more human and I think singers tend not to be as technical. I mean there's a lot of technique involved, for sure, but in terms of improvising and note choices, they have to hear everything so it really comes from their heart, it comes from their ear, rather than pressing a bunch of buttons. I hope they enjoy her voice and the songs,” he said. 

Combining many musical paths

The CD's title, Whose Shadow?, is taken from a line in the CD's opening song by Kate Bush: “Whose shadow, long and low, is slipping out of wet clothes and changing into the most beautiful iridescent blue”. It refers to a tropical butterfly metamorphosing, and she picked it “because I felt like I was at a new phase of development, and I wasn't sure exactly if there was a specific path I wanted to take musically because I had so many different things I wanted to do.” So she included many of those directions in the album.

George Koller, Mark Kieswetter, and Lara Solnicki (Photo by Bo Huang and artwork by Yesim Tosuner, provided by the artist)
George Koller, Mark Kieswetter, and Lara Solnicki (Photo by Bo Huang and artwork by Yesim Tosuner, provided by the artist)

One classic jazz piece Solnicki includes is “A Timeless Place (The Peacocks)” – a languorous and bittersweet jazz standard to which British jazz vocalist Norma Winstone added lyrics. Could that song, in particular, have set the style for the album?

“Yes, maybe. You know, that's the only song I had been singing prior to using the repertoire. I tend to not record stuff that I perform, just because I know that there's so much involved in making an album, so I try to start off from a fresh place – which has its advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage being that you're not necessarily comfortable in your voice and the band won't know [the songs]. So what happens is that you're meeting the band in the rehearsal, and they're meeting the repertoire in the rehearsal, or in the studio. 'Nice to meet you, Johnny Johnson. It's 10 a.m. and here we are, making a record.' ”

She also included “Music for a While” by 17th century baroque composer Henry Purcell. It's a popular choice for classical vocalists, but there's also a jazz arrangement – by saxophonist Paul Desmond. That intrigued Solnicki, and then she found another jazz arrangement of it by “the great Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson, that was so great. To me, his version of it set the tone.”

She realized there was no jazz vocal version of the song, and “it would be fun to do it, to somehow try to find a way to keep it classical if possible, but not to make it un-jazz. I kept some of the vocal approach of classical music, which is like a bit of an experiment as well. Ultimately I tried to tie all this music together under a poetic, mythological theme that's a current that runs through all of it.”

“Jim the Dancer” is based on a poem Solnicki wrote, which she reshaped for the album, and which Koller chose to introduce on the album with a deep melancholy solo on bass clarinet.

“What happened was that George Koller and I went into the studio and we did a bunch of improvising at a certain point in the summer of 2011. Just for fun. I brought in some poetry, as we did some free improv around poetry, and that was one of the poems that I brought in. It was the one that seemed it wanted to become a song. So then, after I made that choice, I spent some time with it and I had to make the poem more appropriate, musically. I made some changes to the rhythm of it, made certain word choices, kept it more accessible. Kept it a little bit shorter. It was a poem that had been around already for a couple of years that had no intention of becoming music."

The final song, “I’ll Remember April” harks back to her first album, which was all jazz standards, although Solnicki didn't actually start singing that song until recently. Since that first album, she has learned “Pretty much everything! That first record was recorded at the beginning of my singing jazz. I was learning as I was doing it. It was the best experience I could have asked for in terms of fast-tracking my development. Certainly my phrasing has changed a lot, that's my most obvious thing, that it's become very much more flexible. And then I started improvising after that record was made, and really working on that.”

For the new CD, Solnicki also deliberately chose pieces at the extremes of her vocal range. “ 'Mercy Street' is really rather low, for any singer. I think it goes down to D below middle C. Certainly it hangs out a lot on E below middle C. So that was just enjoying different areas of my voice. And then 'Freedom Dance' goes to F above C above middle C.”

Learning from Christine Duncan

Solnicki has studied with Toronto jazz/avant-garde vocalist Christine Duncan, who taught her “about the differences in vocal techniques, primarily between classical and jazz. I really credit her with being the person that helped me totally transform my sound and my approach to singing. I continue to learn from her. She's a person that I go to with a goal, like for a record something, for an extra set of ears, because I really respect her ears.”

“She has a very detailed way of telling you not only what it sounds like, but how to do it and what the differences are, and when you have been singing classical music for as long as me – I was an advanced level classical singer, there were so many things I just couldn't hear in my sound, that other people could hear. It has a lot to do with a natural or spoken or immediate approach to singing that is in jazz and pop music. It sounds less poised, or prepared, or presented. It's really hard for classical singers to hear that, because they put so much work into their instrument.

Duncan also has a very large vocal range, and has advised Solnicki not to do a song because it was too low. “I say, 'No, but I like the way it sounds, I want to make it work.' ”

Solnicki also sings in Duncan's Element Choir “whenever I can”. She said that experience “really freed me up. It's really the strangest thing around. When I go sing in the Element Choir, a lot of the time it feels like a kind of therapy session for a singer. Because it's not about sounding beautiful at all, it's about communicating something that's honest and in the moment. You can't hide behind anything, like a beautiful voice, or good tone, or anything like that, because all that you have when you're singing a solo – and sometimes she'll point to me and I'll have to do a solo in that choir – is that something moves inside of you and you have to somehow convey that and people are going to feel it. Or not.”

“There's nothing to hide behind in the Element Choir so you're either really improvising and you're really meaning it, and you're feeling it, and you're expecting something, and it actually sounds really awkward when people are trying to do something beautiful, or they're over-thinking things, they're not in it. It's pretty exposed.”

In a European jazz direction

Solnicki said she wanted to continue in a direction that marries jazz and classical music – an interest she shares with Ellias.

“In terms of my own composing, it's like contemporary art song. Not necessarily classical, it's like European jazz. It's related to classical music but it's really jazz. I think of Norma Winstone's trio.”

She sees Winstone as a role model in her style and song choices, although vocally their voices are very different. Both she and Winstone independently chose to sing material by Ralph Towner and by pop artist Peter Gabriel. “There's the odd classical thing that she writes lyrics for, too. It was interesting to see that she was choosing some of the same people that I was choosing to make music to, and I didn't even realize that she was doing this music.”

Solnicki's dream is to work with pianist John Taylor, a frequent collaborator with both Winstone and Towner. “That's the sort of piano sound that I have in my head."

Ultimately, she'd like to sing and compose music that's “poetic and text-driven.” Not as theatrical as opera, but including an actual story. “Something that ends not where it started, that's poetically driven and takes a lot of concentration from an audience.”

    – Alayne McGregor