Coming from an unconventional musical background, Ottawa jazz vocalist Gerri Trimble isn't afraid to challenge herself by singing music out of the ordinary. That's the approach she'll be taking at her show at GigSpace this Saturday.
“I once read an article where somebody was talking about a lack of courage in arrangements, and I guess really I want to bring some freshness to things. I do try for that. And if it can't be fresh, then darn it, it's going to be hard!"
But that's “hard” in terms of what she has to put into the performance – not for the listeners. And she emphasized that her quartet concert at GigSpace will be balanced between lighter and more ambitious jazz pieces.
“I do like trying to work on trickier tunes – there's no doubt about it. As I put together my set list for Saturday, I've been concerned that maybe I have too many meaty tunes, so then I've been balancing it with really, really fluffy ones. I'm hoping it will come to a happy middle place.”
On her Soundcloud page, for example, Trimble includes her performances of two songs by Thelonious Monk, who is famed for breaking the rules and getting away with things that no one else could. “If you look at the bridge of 'Monk's Dream', it's basically one chord for the whole thing, and most of us are trying to make chords progress into the next thing and he's just like 'No. I'm just going to go with this chord right here.' ”
“So it's things like that that interest me for sure, because I think sometimes you could try to take your idea and make it into a conventional form, or you could just let your idea be the way it is, and see what happens.”
The Monk tunes were ones she had to work at: “the melodies are tricky and the intervals are tricky – and I really like it [she laughs]! I really like the challenge.”
This will be Trimble's third concert at GigSpace, and she said she's been using these shows to try out less familiar material – both by others and composed herself.
“One of the things I like about doing concerts is that you can take these trickier tunes and take some time to explore them and maybe work up arrangements and things like that, that may not be suitable for a restaurant or bar gig.”
She'll also be performing several of her own compositions. Two brand-new tunes which she finished in May and June, and one two years old, will be unveiled to Ottawa audiences.
“Two of them are ballads, and one of them I guess is a slower-tempo tune but I don't really know what you'd call it. It's a little song designed to evoke a feeling of being somewhat unsettled.”
An unmusical childhood
Making your listeners uneasy isn't what most vocalists do. But then Trimble isn't a typical jazz vocalist – either in her training or in when she took up music.
Raised in Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario, she loved music from childhood – but didn't get the chance to study it for many decades.
“I think I've been compulsively making music since I was a child. I didn't grow up in a particularly musical household but I've always been making sound and noise. I used to try to organize my friends into little sound orchestras when I was little – they really didn't like it as much as I did.”
Her family listened to old-time country, rock, or pop, she said, and she was the only one who liked jazzy tunes. She was first properly introduced to jazz at age 13 or 14, when she heard a Sarah Vaughan recording at a friend's house. “I had never heard anything like it and I really wanted to know what it was and who she was."
Reinforcing the connection was the fact that the local public library, where she worked at the time, was also named The Sarah Vaughan Public Library – but not after the singer, but instead after an ancestor of Trimble's.
But there were few opportunities to learn formally, and by the time she moved to Toronto at age 19, Trimble had decided to pursue non-musical paths. She was buying and listening to jazz, but she didn't know anyone performing, and decided to give up music.
I decided I could live without music, because I'd never had much of an opportunity to do it. I didn't do any music whatsoever. It's not the smartest thing I've ever done.
– Gerri Trimble
“I decided I could live without music, because I'd never had much of an opportunity to do it. I just thought, 'Oh well. I'll grow out of this eventually'. You tell yourself that in the front of your brain – but really, in the back of your brain, you know that's not true. So for years I just did nothing. I didn't do any music whatsoever. It's not the smartest thing I've ever done.”
Instead, she became an arts administrator.
“I thought the next best thing I could do was maybe help other people who wanted to be in arts and music. It appeals to me in terms of, I sometimes like to make sense of order or help people get through processes. And I'm also very interested in the processes by which arts funding decisions are made, obviously, so I've spent a lot of time thinking and writing about that in my jobs.”
She's currently a Program Officer in music at the Canada Council, covering all forms of music: jazz, classical, world music.
“I think my job lines up well with my interests. It's also fed me tremendously, musically, because any time you sit in a room for the amount of hours that I have listening to smart people talk about music and reflecting back on what they heard, you learn something. I know, for me, my ears have improved since I started this job.”
Finding jazz when she had something to say artistically
It was only in her late 30s that she returned to music: listening, buying CDs, practicing, and trying to “apply myself and be more diligent about it. I'm a bloomin' late bloomer.”
“I think it's good. I think when I was younger I didn't have anything say artistically, and I would have just thought I was awesome because that's what you think when you're young. I wouldn't have looked at myself very critically, and wouldn't have looked back at myself and thought about what I need to work on.”
She's taken private vocal lessons, attended the JazzWorks jazz camp, and twice studied at the jazz summer workshop in the Vermont Jazz Centre with renowned vocalists Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton.
She said that Jordan was a major influence on her own work. Jordan's singing “can be no one else but her. She's so much like herself: I just love that about her. I came to love Carmen McRae desperately because there is no pretense: she is so direct. There is no artifice in the sing: it's beautiful. And Nancy Wilson is also high on my faves just because she has that voice. It's sweet, it's sour, it's all those things. It's polished, it's not. And I saw Cécile McLorin Salvant at the jazzfest last summer. Whew! I knew I liked her from recordings, but holey-moley! Did I ever like her!”
And where does she fit into this jazz vocal tradition?
“Not in the centre, maybe off and to the left a little bit. Obviously I'm trying because I am still very early in learning. I'm trying to learn the tradition and do them but, that said, I think my own tendencies and also how I sing, maybe I don't really fit quite down the middle of it.”
In the last year, Trimble has also expanded her own performing horizons, making her debut as a leader at Brookstreet in February and playing her first Toronto show at the Musideum in June. She said the Toronto show was well-received, and her bassist for that show, George Koller, was “really enthusiastic” about her “unsettling” tune.
Organizing these shows creates new opportunities to perform, she said, and forces her to finish compositions. “I enjoy regular gigs, obviously, and it's for my own development. I really just want to work on getting better at this craft and it's unfortunate that, as much as I practice and work at things at home, the thing that really helps you is playing in front of other people.”
Public performances are an opportunity to play with other musicians, she said, and they're “where you can see if all the time spent practising have manifested in your performance. It's in real time, with no do-overs!”
Sometimes you could try to take your idea and make it into a conventional form, or you could just let your idea be the way it is, and see what happens.
– Gerri Trimble
Trimble said she was looking forward to playing with three strong Ottawa jazz musicians at her GigSpace concert: pianist Steve Boudreau, double bassist John Geggie, and drummer Scott Warren. This will be her first show with Boudreau and with a more piano-oriented repertoire, she said.
Boudreau “intuitively understands what you're trying to accomplish”, she said, while Geggie is “an anchor in many ways. He's brilliant musically of course but he's also grounding as a person. I'm not particularly trained in a formal sense musically, aside from private instruction and things like that, but I look to people like John who have years of experience.”
And Warren – who is also a primarily self-taught musician – is “someone I have great affinity for. I feel he's under-heard in Ottawa. He's got wonderful interpretative drumming that is so delightful.”
And she particularly appreciates him “for that sense of adventure that he brings. Because that's something that I hope I accomplish in my own interpretation of tunes."
– Alayne McGregor