Tara Kannangara combines two jazz passions – for trumpet and for voice – in her performances and compositions, to fully express herself and connect with her audiences.

Tara Kannangara (by Alexander Ordanis. Photo provided by the artist)
Tara Kannangara (by Alexander Ordanis. Photo provided by the artist)
When she brings her quintet to the Brookstreet Hotel Options Jazz Lounge today and Saturday, the 29-year-old Toronto musician is likely to be both singing and playing trumpet on each of the pieces they'll be performing, whether originals or modernized jazz standards.

Ottawa audiences have heard Kannangara twice in the last few months – as the trumpeter and occasional backup vocalist for Elizabeth Shepherd's group at the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival, and then as a featured trumpet soloist in the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra's “Invention” concert on April 9.

But just a few weeks after that, she was singing re-imagined arrangements of Ella Fitzgerald's repertoire, in “An Afternoon of Ella” tribute at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

Trumpet and voice have many similarities, she said, in their phrasing and their range. “I think both instruments are similar because you have to breathe. I can't sing and pitch up at the same time, so it's like you're taking a breath and phrasing is something always quite similar. I'm very attracted to melodic trumpet players.”

But both are also particularly demanding instruments, which Kannangara acknowledges. To combine them, she says, “I just work as hard as I can.”

“The trumpet is a daily thing. You can't leave it alone. And that's OK. I don't mind that. It's kind of nice to have a daily ritual to get in touch with the instrument and connect with it. Trumpet makes it hard, like it's unnatural to shove a piece of metal up against your face and blow. Your body fights against it. But if you do it every day, and if you practice, it all ends up being fine.”

“Voice is the same way. Voices are persnickety. You're at the mercy of elements around you, if it's too dry, it's too cold, all kinds of things. But I think both the trumpet and the voice are very similar in a sense. I love the combination of the two. One's kind of brassy, and one's more sensitive and personal. So I like that they're similar in that they're both like voices, but they're different in that they have different characteristics.”

She's been studying both for many years. The Ottawa-born musician (who grew up in the greater Vancouver area) is the daughter of immigrants from Sri Lanka. Her parents, a lawyer and a botanist, encouraged her musically, and she started studying piano at 3 or 4 years old, and singing in choirs at 8 or 9. Trumpet came in high school, where the only options left for a musical credit were trumpet and flute.

“I thought the trumpet was a lot more interesting than the flute. There was a little more dimension to it. So I decided trumpet. I wanted to be heard.”

She was also exposed to jazz through her older brother, who was playing saxophone. “He had a John Coltrane compilation CD that he listened to over and over again and he's like, 'Tara you should check this out. It's really, really cool.' I was skeptical and he was right! It was very cool.”

I think both the trumpet and the voice are very similar in a sense. I love the combination of the two. One's kind of brassy, and one's more sensitive and personal. So I like that they're similar in that they're both like voices, but they're different in that they have different characteristics.
– Tara Kannangara

By the time she attended the University of Victoria, she was taking a double major in classical voice and classical trumpet (she graduated with a trumpet major). But, while it gave her technical proficiency, “it wasn't really what I was looking for in terms of what I wanted to express personally.”

She ended up doing another B.Mus. – this time in jazz – at the University of Toronto, graduating about 1½ years ago. “It ended up working out really well. It was actually the best decision I ever made, to do it right.”

“The thing I liked about jazz was you had the opportunity to express your own personal voice, through improvisation, but I didn't know exactly what I was going to end up doing. I was kind of naive that way: I just had the feeling this is going to be the right thing for me. There's certain musicians I really identified with, especially Miles Davis, his melodic sensibility, and he was really one of the few trumpet players I knew at that time. So if I could just capture some of that and make it my own, I would be a happy person.”

In 2013, she also studied at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music. Banff program director and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer provided a testimonial for her website: “Tara Kannangara is a wonderful young artist with prodigious musical gifts and a remarkably mature creative vision. Her music is packed with ideas, and yet it flows along with a natural warmth and elegance.”

At Banff, she also met and worked a bit with bassist Esperanza Spalding. “She's really interesting to me for obvious reasons – she sings and she plays an instrument, with ease. Being a supporting bass player and then having to sing and be someone who's out in front, it's hard to combine those two worlds. But she managed to do it, and do it very successfully, and do it in a way that's very unique for her. So seeing her do that made me feel like it's possible to do that really well.”

Other influences have included trumpeter Tom Harrell, for the “beautiful simplicity to his playing which is actually quite sophisticated”, and vocalists Sarah Vaughn and Ray Charles, particularly for the “rough around the edges” and “not too tame” quality in Charles' voice. After the recent Ella tribute show, she said, she has developed a new appreciation for Fitzgerald and “how innovative and how many chances she was taking with her voice and improvising as well.”

And Canadian women trumpeters like Ingrid Jensen and Lina Allemano. “Ingrid and Lina are outstanding role models for any trumpet player. Ingrid is a really ballsy, powerful. She's got a great range and a virtuosity, and she's not afraid to go for it! I remember a time when people say well, female trumpet players have to be sensitive and they always have beautiful sounds, and she showed me that you can be a more powerful, aggressive trumpet player.”

“And Lina is inspiring because she has such a personal sense of who she is. It's her own music, her own way. She's quite an exploratory improviser, she's a great writer, and she does things on her own terms. She's not beholden to anyone. She does her own group, she does her own thing, she does her own writing.”

She said she appreciated playing with two other women soloists in the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra show: saxophonist Christine Jensen and violinist Laura Nerenberg. “There is a camaraderie that happens between women that play together. There's a warmth and openness. But to be honest, when I was there I didn't think about it as much as I thought I would. Christine's a prolific writer, arranger, composer, saxophone player, so when I saw her I really thought of her as Christine. It was like Wow! It's Christine Jensen! It's like it transcends the idea whether she's a female jazz musician or a male jazz musician. She's just this person that I really respect and was excited to get to know.”

“I think after the fact some people mentioned it – it was so nice to see a bunch of women up there – and I was like, yeah! It is nice to see women up there doing jazz and doing it really well."

Kannangara has discussed the issue of women in jazz, and whether all-women jazz ensembles could be seen as tokenism or as an opportunity to celebrate their abilities, in a blog post on her website. “I honestly still don't know the answer – it's really hard. Female musicians should be encouraged and there should be opportunities for them, just because there aren't and it is really nice to get a different perspective. And women do play differently from men, because we're biologically different.”

Even if it's a short tour, the music transforms into something different and better than before, because you've been doing it a lot and you've been together in a van for hours. Having that kind of experience really helps the band and the music grow.
– Tara Kannangara

The Brookstreet shows are part of a three-city (Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto) mini-tour for Kannangara's quintet. She's known the musicians in her quintet (guitarist Colin Story, pianist Chris Pruden, bassist Julian Anderson-Bowes, and drummer Mackenzie Longpre) for years. They all studied jazz at the University of Toronto or Humber at about the same time, she said, and play in each other's bands. This is the first tour for this particular group, “and it's such a thrill to play with people that you care a lot about.”

Story is also her partner in life, and collaborated with her on two tunes on her 2013 EP, September. “He's an outstanding guitarist and he's a wonderful collaborator. People have had issues working with their significant others in the past; I know a lot of people have a hard time with it, but Colin and I work really well together so I'm pretty lucky that way.”

They're doing the tour because “by the end of it even if it's a short tour, the music transforms into something different and better than before, because you've been doing it a lot and you've been together in a van for hours. Having that kind of experience really helps the band and the music grow.”

"A jazzy-poppy-indie kind of vibe"

At Brookstreet, they'll be playing Kannangara's originals and some jazz standards done in a modern way. She described the music as “a jazzy-poppy-indie kind of vibe”. What that means is “no swinging”, and an emphasis on melody.

“I make the associations with pop because there's a lot of fun melodies and repetitive melodies that pop music has. A little bit more accessible to an audience, I would say.”

Her long-time jazz influences, like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, sometimes used show tunes, like “Summertime” or “My Favourite Things”, as the basis for jazz instrumentals. Like Coltrane, Kannangara has reached back to The Sound of Music for one song in the band's repertoire. But she's chosen “Edelweiss”.

“A lot of people think of it as a very corny song and it kind of is, but when I was a kid, I was a big fan of The Sound of Music and simple melodies. There's like a lot of musical possibilities in that very simple song. It's so very simple there's so much you can do with it. You can really broaden it and make it your own.”

The song is written as for a male voice (it's sung by Christopher Plummer in the movie). She's reharmonized the tune for a “more exploratory version. ... There's a lot that can be done with it, and actually it has good bones. It doesn't get enough credit.”

Kannangara will release her first full CD, Some Version of the Truth, in September. It's already recorded, and includes eight originals, plus a covers of “Atoms for Peace” by Thom Yorke from Radiohead, and “Edelweiss”.

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of The Sound of Music and simple melodies. There's like a lot of musical possibilities in that very simple song. It's so very simple there's so much you can do with it. You can really broaden it and make it your own.
– Tara Kannangara

Writing the material for the CD took over a year, she said. “A lot of it was just me sitting alone in a room hoping that something would happen – and doing that every day. Learning how to write is like practicing an instrument. It's the same thing. You could allot yourself some time by yourself. You need to go through successes and failures, trial and error. Some of them were already in the works, but I spent a lot of time on my own just trying to figure out what felt right and what felt honest. I went through a lot of draft and redraft and first, second, third drafts and finally when I got to something I felt was OK, I presented it to my band and then it grew from there.”

And, as in her live shows, she's both singing and playing trumpet on the CD; on almost all the tunes, she does both.

Kannangara said she finds audiences still connect better when she sings than when she plays the trumpet – simply because “singing is really accessible to people.”

“I'd like to think that it's the same for instrumentalists, but it's not. I've played gigs where I've just been a trumpet player, not even headlining but just as a side person playing instrumentals, and people are appreciative, but as soon as you get a singer out there people really ... I think everyone can connect with the human voice.

“When I started gigging I just only gigged as a trumpet player. Because it was like, I don't want it to be gimmicky. If I want to sing, I want to do it right. I don't want it to be some kind of silly double act. And it took me a long time to get to the point where I felt good about singing and playing trumpet on the same gig, and have it be something that wasn't gimmicky, but something that made sense to the music that I was performing.”

    – Alayne McGregor