In her new CD, Ottawa jazz vocalist Geri Childs is looking back – and maybe even getting a bit sentimental.

Geri Childs: More than Magic
Geri Childs: More than Magic
More Than Magic has its official release concert this Friday at the NAC Fourth Stage. It contains “the songs that have influenced me not only as a singer, but as the woman I am today,” Childs said.

The CD is filled with ballads – but not the jazz standards she's best known for singing. Instead it contains some of her favourite songs from the movies and the folk and pop worlds, rearranged in a quiet jazz style by Ottawa composer/arranger Mark Ferguson.

“There's not one song in the CD that is what you would consider to be the Great American classic standard. Not because I don't like that music – I love that music! I just wanted to go in a different direction. I thought this is an opportunity to do songs that I've always wanted to do, and I grabbed it.”

Which gives it an interesting duality. “The CD has a sentimental feel to it. The lyrics are very sentimental. But the arrangements aren't necessarily. They're quite up in a way. It's a bit of a juxtaposition.”

It also reflects her own journey as a vocalist, where she only started singing jazz well into her 20s, after singing folk and pop professionally – and has kept singing despite many years abroad.

Ottawa audiences are probably most recently familiar with Childs from the sold-out concerts she's put on at the NAC Fourth Stage; the most recent (October 2013) was 'Torch', which celebrated torch songs, those jazzy, highly emotional, and sometimes risqué numbers. Her two previous shows, also with a specific theme, were 'Winter Songs and Stories' in 2006 and 'Nightfall' in 2012. She's also presented 'Homage' at Les Brasseurs du Temps and two Christmas shows at GigSpace, and sung at many jazz clubs around Ottawa-Gatineau.

But More Than Magic will only be her second CD, after a gap of 17 years. Credit Mark Ferguson, who also produced Childs' first CD, Intimate State of Mind, back in 1997.

“We did the CD together many years ago, and I'd been out of the country for a long time. I wouldn't say I gave it up – I did some singing – but I wasn't doing much professional work. When I came back [to Ottawa], I thought, did I really want to get back into the scene? I ran into Mark, and he said, 'We should do a gig at the Fourth Stage.' And then we did a gig at the Fourth Stage, and he said, 'You know, we should do another recording.' ”

Which was something Childs had been considering ever since the last CD. “And this is the time to do another one because I doubt I'll be doing another one in 20 years. And it's also a time in my life where I've been going over songs I've always wanted to work with.”

For example, “I Don't Know Where I Stand”, from Joni Mitchell's very first album. “I love Joni Mitchell. I was 15, 16 when she was around originally. I'm very much inspired by Joni Mitchell and always have been.” In fact, she said, she learned that song on guitar from a music book before she even heard Mitchell's actual recording.

Similarly, she said, she's always loved Burt Bacharach, but “the version of 'Trains and Boats and Planes' [on the CD] is quite similar to one that Astrud Gilberto did. And I love Astrud Gilberto. So I guess you could almost say it was a bit of an indulgence for me in a way."

“I'm telling people [the CD is] stepping aside from what I'm normally doing, what I've been known to do, but [also] in some ways a stepping back into a time, and even vocally. And collaborating with Mark was perfect because he felt the same way. We both like the same music. Some of the songs he actually chose on the CD.”

In one of their planning meetings, he suggested Gordon Lightfoot, and started to play “Beautiful” – and she immediately agreed. “The other one – I think we're both sentimental – I know I am! And he is too. The other one is from Toy Story: 'When Somebody Loved Me'. It's like the modern-day version of 'Puff the Magic Dragon'.”

I thought this is an opportunity to do songs that I've always wanted to do, and I grabbed it.
- Geri Childs

Other songs include “If These Walls Could Speak” by Jimmy Webb, and the wistful “Where Are They Now” by Jeff and Don Breithaupt. “Nine”, a song by jazz singer Dianne Reeves, reminded Childs of “going back into my children's childhood, and my childhood. I think my children are probably the last generation of children who played like that.”

The last track on the CD starts with “Beau Soir” by classical composer Claude Debussy, with Childs singing wordless vocals. Over that, local poet Evelyn Voigt recites a poem she wrote for the album. The music then seamlessly merges into the Beatles' “Goodnight” to close the album.

Originally, Childs said, the CD was just going to be her with Ferguson on piano and trombone, inspired by a CD that Janis Ian did with Fred Hersch. But on “Nine”, they needed a rhythm section. “And I really want to work with percussion, a good bass player, and I love cello. So we added that on as we went along. And why not this? And why not that?”

At Friday's concert, Ferguson will play piano and trombone, along with John Geggie on double bass, Rob Graves on percussion, and Margaret Tobolowska on cello – all of whom were on the CD. In addition, René Gely will play guitar, and Sharon Timmins will provide backup vocals.

"I learned music on my voice"

Childs describes herself as “probably a singers' singer. I mean, I love music, I love the musicians and I love the musicality of it all and I think it all goes together or I wouldn't be using the musicians that I'm using, and the arrangements. But I've always thought like a singer first because that was my instrument. I never learned music on an instrument; I learned it on my voice.”

She comes from a family where music and singing was always present. “I always sang. Some people babysat to make extra money – I sang at people's weddings. I sang at a couple of funerals.”

She sang in church choirs, and at about age 12, started taking classical voice training. But she ended up “having a bit of a row” with her teacher when she realized she was more interested in Joan Baez and Gordon Lightfoot.

At age 22, she answered a newspaper ad from a production company looking for singers to front bands, and started singing professionally, performing middle of the road rock – which was a bit of a culture shock. One musician told her she needed to put more balls in her voice: “I got really upset. I was steaming about this. I came back and I said I don't have balls. I have ovaries. And I basically said, don't try to make me something I can't do because I knew a lot of singers that when you push your voice to the point and then... I wanted longevity; I wanted to be able to sing when I'm 90.”

She was introduced to jazz a few years later, while singing six nights a week in a Toronto dining room. While the band's repertoire was contemporary pop, it turned out that the other musicians in the band were talented jazz musicians – Steve Wallace on bass, Barry Elmes on drums, Lorne Kelly on piano, and Bobby Brough on sax. “These were heavies! And some nights when it was quiet, we'd do some of the standards.”

"It's so easy to make jazz standards your own"

A year later, she moved to Ottawa to join her soon-to-be husband, and “it just happened that I started doing jazz standards. But I was also doing other music. I was doing a real mixed bag of things.”

Playing the Grill Room at the Chateau Laurier, she met local jazz musicians including trombonist Dave Arthur, guitarist Roddy Ellias, pianist Champ Champagne, drummer Glenn Robb, and particularly trumpeter Chris Portinari. Portinari hired her to help book jazz acts, and organize jazz shows in the schools.

Portinari was a wonderful storyteller about jazz and its history, she said. Under his influence, “I started to understand the standards more. And the one thing I still love about standards – is that it's so easy to make it your own. Each musician or singer can take a standard and work it to make it their own because the music just allows you to do that. You can't do that as much with a lot of popular music. Not really. And they're beautiful. So. I learned to understand that and appreciate that.”

After her marriage, she continued to sing, and released her first CD while raising small children. But her husband was in Canada's diplomatic corps, and in the summer of 1997, a few months after her CD came out, they were posted to Trinidad and Tobago. They were abroad, first in Trinidad and then in New York City, for seven years. They came back to Ottawa for a few years, and then spent a further three years in Seattle, before returning to Ottawa for good in 2010.

Trinidad showed her that "music is from your heart"

While in New York City, she sang in a 20-voice jazz group which included several well-known professionals. In Trinidad, she did several shows with a steel pan orchestra, including singing jazz standards like “Just Friends”.

“A lot of these players don't read, let alone read the music, but the director of the band really wanted to do that song. And it was a Christmas event, so they did two other songs “Christmas Time is Here”, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. It was an incredible experience. Not so much musically but just the sentiment.”

One effect of living in Trinidad, she said, was to show her that “music is from your heart.” People there are “really open. If you sing or you play an instrument, people expect you to just get up [and play at a party]. I've always been really nervous being in a small room with a group of people and people saying 'Well can you sing?' My husband was High Commissioner, and at the same time it was formal but I thought 'I can't insult these people.' I started to do that and as a result, I started to like it! (laughs) And I started to just sing with other people and I didn't feel as uncomfortable about it, because everyone was doing it."

Coming back to Ottawa in late 2010, and doing her first show in 2011 left her quite nervous, but she regained her confidence after a few gigs.

“It's easy to lose your stage legs – getting up there and having the nerve, and to work on all these songs. And I always like to get new songs: I'm not pulling them out of the book. I'm sometimes pulling them from all over. And it makes it a little bit more work. I guess I like the challenge.”

And what challenge will she take up next?

She's not sure yet. “But let me go through the winter. I usually hibernate and then maybe I can come up with another idea. Nothing immediate. Although I always have show ideas, but whether I have the energy. Right now I'm just going through this. I'm sure I'll come up with something.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Geri Childs will release her second CD, More Than Magic, at the NAC Fourth Stage on Friday, October 31, together with Mark Ferguson, John Geggie, Rob Graves, Margaret Tobolowska, Rene Gely, and Sharron Timmins. And yes, Geri says they will recognize that it's Hallowe'en!