Vocalist Renée Yoxon returns to Ottawa Saturday, with a show evoking memories of childhood.

Chad Linsley and Renée Yoxon in the midst of their research on children's stories. Photo by Jesse Daniel Smith
Chad Linsley and Renée Yoxon in the midst of their research on children's stories. Photo by Jesse Daniel Smith
Together with two Montreal musicians – pianist Chad Linsley and bassist Adrian Vedady – Yoxon will present music from and inspired by film adaptations of children's stories, arranged by her and Linsley for jazz trio.

The GigSpace concert will be a “sneak peek” at songs she'll be releasing on a live CD later this summer, she said. Discovering those songs has obsessed her in an “archaeological project” for the last year.

Yoxon was a major force in Ottawa's jazz scene from 2009 to 2013, developing new venues and series and releasing two CDs. For more than four years, her jazz series at the Mercury Lounge was a Monday night staple. Her tribute concert to Dave Frishberg, in collaboration with pianist/arranger J.P. Allain, garnered her praise from Frishberg himself.

She moved to Montreal two years ago, and since last fall has been studying in the jazz performance program at McGill University.

Yoxon ended up watching – and rewatching – many movies to pick the songs for this concert: two different versions of Cinderella, the 1960 version of Peter Pan with Mary Martin, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and even The Muppet Movie.

The start: Lerner and Loewe's score for The Lost Prince

But where it started was the 1974 movie musical adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic story, The Little Prince.

“This is what happened: I am a Netflix junkie and I was really getting into Jazz Age musicals like My Fair Lady, and lots of different ones. I found The Little Prince on Netflix, and I thought, 'Wow, that's unique!' And so I watched it, and it was so enchanting and beautiful.”

That score was one of the last collaborations between lyricist/librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe – and its title song was one of the first collaborations between Yoxon and Linsley.

Linsley regularly plays with Juno award-winning singer Ranee Lee. In 2009, he was a nominee for the Grand Jazz Award at the Montreal Jazz Festival for his debut album of original compositions, Slideshow. He had been reading her blog, she said, and wrote her to say they had similar interests, and suggesting they get together to play.

They finally met at a concert in Ottawa in January 2014, and started jamming, including recording the song “The Little Prince”.

“And once we recorded 'The Little Prince', I knew that I was on to something. I was really interested in what other musicals have been adapted in this way, what other stories have been adapted this way. It became like an archaeological project. I would do research, I'd go to the library, I'd scour YouTube, I'd look through old books. Some of the songs I had to lift from recordings.”

Renée Yoxon with Winnie the Pooh. Photo by Jesse Daniel Smith`
Renée Yoxon with Winnie the Pooh. Photo by Jesse Daniel Smith
She also remembered movies she'd loved as a child. That included the 1997 version of Cinderella, starring Brandy as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother – and a score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. But then she also went back and watched the 1957 live to television version starring Julie Andrews, with the same score. And in both cases, “I love, love, love, love all the music from that movie. So, so beautiful.” The concert will include two songs from that score.

Some of the songs they picked – like the Muppets' “It's Not That Easy Being Green” – were written for children. Others, like “Rip Van Winkle”, were about a children's story. And “we tried to stay away from too much Disney songs, because that would have been a little too easy, I think, and it all would have sounded the same.” The one Disney song they did include is “The Age of Not Believing” from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song.

Some of the songs are not directly from children's stories, she said, but instead are jazz standards which are thematically linked: “We do 'Far Away Places', and we mash it up with 'My Ship'. Both songs are about travel and the urge to run away, which a lot of children experience.”

One composer of jazz standards Yoxon said she particularly liked is Alec Wilder: “a lot of his songs had an aesthetic that I found, not childish but childlike, really innocent and beautiful.” She wrote new words to his song “Ellen” to link it thematically to the show. That will be the only (partly-)original in the show, she said.

So who is the audience for this music: adults or children?

“That's a good question. I've asked myself this. I think primarily it's adults, because it's playing on nostalgia in a big way. A lot of people listen to these songs and they don't even realize that it's not the first time they've heard them. Until they're listening, and you can see in their face that they're recognizing it for the second or third time. But of course children will like this music, also, and maybe become curious about the stories that they're from. As songs, they're really acceptable for children: there's not a lot of great love songs.”

An unexpected live recording

Yoxon, Linsley, and Montreal bassist Joel Kerr first toured this material last October: to the Upstairs Club in Montreal, to a “Tiny House Mansion” house concert in Gatineau, and to the Musideum in Toronto. At the Musideum, it was just her and Linsley, because Kerr had a previous engagement.

“When we got there, Donald [Quan], who runs the venue, said, 'Oh, by the way, we're set up to record, if you're interested in that. But there's no engineer, so we'll just charge you half-price.' And Chad and I were exhausted from driving and we thought, 'Oh, whatever. Sure, let's do it. We can use it for a grant application, as reference tracks.' ”

“But when I listened to it [after the show], I thought, 'Man, this is nice! I want to share this with everyone.' ”

So she decided to turn the recording into her third CD, and first live album. She said that Impossible: Live at Musideum, which she hopes to release in late August, will contain much the same material as at Saturday's concert.

She was originally planning to only release it digitally, she said, “but now as things unfold and as I listen to the tracks mixed and mastered, and I see the artwork, I'm leaning more towards printing the album.”

Like her other albums, it will be an independent release. Yoxon previously released two jazz vocal CDs: Let's Call It a Day [2010], an album of mostly standards in collaboration with Ottawa guitarist/arranger René Gely, and Here We Go Again [2012], an album of original jazz compositions co-written with Ottawa pianist/trombonist Mark Ferguson.

So three CDs, with three different musicians? “I know. It's the Renée Yoxon plus collection of CDs. I like that: I think it's cool. Thematically, it kind of works.”

Chad really loves this music and cares about this music in the same way that I do. He's perhaps more obsessed with vocal jazz than I am! So it really comes through in his playing: this strong love of the music.
– Renée Yoxon

The trio will perform at Upstairs in Montreal on Thursday, as well as at GigSpace. Yoxon said she was particularly pleased to be performing with Vedady (whom Ottawa audiences may also remember from the Roddy Ellias Trio), and Linsley.

“Adrian is just good at anything he does. No matter what setting you put Adrian in, he's going to excel. And also that goes for Chad, but Chad really loves this music and cares about this music in the same way that I do. He's perhaps more obsessed with vocal jazz than I am! So it really comes through in his playing: this strong love of the music.”

Excited to be back in Ottawa, and to be back in school

Yoxon's last major concert in Ottawa was at the February, 2014, Ottawa Winter Jazzfest. She said she was excited to be back here. “It's going to be super-good. I'm looking forward to seeing familiar friends, and family, and fans. It's been a long time.”

After she left Ottawa in fall, 2013, she said, she took “a really long break from serious performing. You know how I was performing before – pretty much all the time. But since I moved to Montreal, I took a long break, and then I started school and didn't perform at all when I was there.”

Since the school year finished, though, she said she's become almost as busy as in Ottawa, “not even intentionally. I just sort of exploded in May. And now June is just as many gigs as it was last month, so I guess I'm making up for lost time.”

She's also been writing a lot of original material, which she hasn't “really been sharing it too publicly yet. So that's exciting.”

At McGill, she has three more years in her jazz performance degree course. “It's been great. It's exactly where I need to be and what I need to be learning and I'm getting exactly the information I was hoping to get in the way I was hoping to get it.”

The course has taught her the necessary scaffolding for a career in music. “A lot of things that I didn't have a strong hold on before I now understand concretely. So I'm a lot more confident when I perform and I'm a lot more confident when I write and so everything is faster and easier now.”

Most importantly, she's learned “the meat and potatoes of jazz improvising like theory, ear training, and time spent on the instrument. And keyboard proficiency: I didn't think that would be as important as it has proven. Now I'm doing keyboard gigs, where I just perform solo.”

Yoxon's previous degree was a B.Sc. in physics. How is this different?

“It's more enjoyable for me, I guess,” she laughs. “I'd compare it to being at Hogwarts – like I never complain about doing my homework because I'm studying magic. Like it's just amazing: every day I woke up and I'm like, I can't believe this is homework! I love it!”

And looking ahead, that's what she plans to continue doing: studying, performing, writing. “More of the same actually. I'm living the dream.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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