For Toronto vocalist Denielle Bassels, swing music is a happy escape – one that she likes sharing with her audiences.

Vocalist Denielle Bassels will give a sneak peek of her upcoming CD at GigSpace Saturday with her quintet, including saxophonist Jacob Gorzhaltsan and bassist Scott Hunter. ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Vocalist Denielle Bassels will give a sneak peek of her upcoming CD at GigSpace Saturday with her quintet, including saxophonist Jacob Gorzhaltsan and bassist Scott Hunter. ©Brett Delmage, 2014

“I just love that sound. I'm drawn to this kind of rhythm, swing and happy rhythm, because I think it's an escape for me. You know, to feel this happy, driving force. It just takes you away from the monotony of life, and things that might be bothering you at the time, which for me is kind of an escape.”

And for her audiences? “I like to take them with me me, yes!”

Bassels and her quintet will perform this music – including selections from her upcoming CD – at GigSpace this Saturday, August 20. It will be her first full show in Ottawa proper, although she was a big hit at Merrickville's Jazz Fest in 2014.

Although Bassels is a big fan of Ella Fitzgerald, her music isn't just standards. Rather, it's a blend of her own originals, and covers of songs written anytime between the 1920s and the 1960s – all in a swinging style.

Why that style? “Because that's the way I feel the song. There's a lot of songs that I love that aren't swing, and I just find that when I do take a stab at singing them myself, there's just this rhythm they seem to fall in. I feel more attached to the song and more invested in the song when it feels right to me. And with that rhythm, it just flows more.”

At Merrickville, her quintet played jazz standards and songs made popular by Nina Simone and Edith Piaf to movie themes and a song by 60s rock band The Kinks – plus originals. Bassels expected that this Saturday's concert would be two-thirds covers and one-third originals.

“We're going to give some sneak peeks of a couple of tunes that are going to be released later on on the full album, plus the EP, as well as a song that isn't going to be released at all. It's a song that I wrote that I want to incorporate in my band, but I have no idea where to put it. So if somebody wants it, maybe I'd sell it. It's called 'Catch Her and She Gone', and it's more of an a cappella tune, and I get the audience to participate in the three-part harmony.”

An unexpected win

Bassels' biggest success so far has been her song “Cool Cool Water”, which was a Grand Prize winner in the jazz category in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition in 2013, and which was charted by the Toronto jazz station Jazz.FM91.

She wrote the song at a time when she was struggling to meet self-imposed deadlines. It was inspired by her brother telling her about the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu: “how his assistant was the only thing keeping him going, because he believed in him when the guy didn't. And so I was thinking – OK, what does this remind me of? Running for cool, cool water, like, hurry before the water's gone. The river's drying up. And that just came out, like as soon as I thought of that, that song was done! But that's luck – that doesn't happen all the time.”

“I've written a lot of songs, but that one just kind of was like 'Hey, this is going somewhere'.”

Unexpectedly winning the Lennon competition not only garnered her $8,000, she said, it also “gave me a ton of encouragement to just keep going”. She's continued to enter the competition, she said, and has been a finalist four times.

Her songs can come from “just hearing a chord and feeling an emotion, and the story, when you hear the music. Very rarely I have the whole story first, as far as a lyric or a poem. I have to hear the story of the music or the first few couple chords, and then the story kind of develops, and it would be a combination of the story and then the story of my life, intermingled.”

Thinking of herself as a "true singer"

Bassels listened to a wide range of music as a child from her mother's record collection. After Joni Mitchell, Abba, Fleetwood Mac, and the Beatles, she started getting into jazz: “Nina Simone I heard when I was in my teens, and I couldn't believe how incredible she was. And then that sparked an interest in jazz and blues."

As well, “my grandmother loved early jazz, and she was playing it in her kitchen while she was cooking – like Perry Como, and Maurice Chevalier. So I just started digging and finding the kind of people that I just adored, and incorporated it in my own music.”

She didn't start singing professionally, however, until her early 20s, when she was in Lausanne, Switzerland. She worked for two years there as an au pair, taking care of a little boy, and at his drum lessons met jazz musicians.

“They took me around to these places called jazz 'caveau'. They were like caves that were super-old. They were usually underground, and they had a really nice jazz culture. So I was hearing people just coming together and playing and jamming and speaking about the music, and it was a real community.”

She was encouraged to get up on stage and sing – and then to sing more and improvise, and perform with other musicians. “I had no idea what was going on as far as the music. I didn't know how to count in, but it was a lot of fun. So then I started singing with the bands there and leading some bands, and then that's when I knew. I was writing music as well in my little room, and I knew this was something I needed to do all the time every day, for the rest of my life.”

On returning to Toronto, she was accepted into the music program at Humber College. She received a degree in jazz performance, studying arranging, composition, and orchestration.

At Humber, she also met the other members of her quintet: drummer Joe Ryan, guitarist Andy Mac, clarinetist and saxophonist Jacob Gorzhaltsan, and bassist Scott Hunter. They've been playing together for about four years, she said. For the Ottawa show, Mark Freedman will sit in for Andy Mac.

She recruited each of them after hearing them play, she said: “It was like 'Oh, I love your playing. Will you just come play with me?' And we've been together ever since."

Gorzhaltsan was a lucky addition when she needed a clarinet player for one song on her 2013 EP, Gypsy Summer.

“I was recording 'Je Cherche Un Homme', and I had gotten everything recorded – except I knew it needed clarinet and I didn't know any clarinet players. And so I had an hour or two to go before I was supposed to get someone in to record, and I went up to Humber, and I was peeking in the windows. And just by chance I heard the most amazing clarinet. It sounded exactly like Benny Goodman, and I knocked on the door, and he opened the door, and I said, 'What's your name? Can you come and record a song right now?' He said yes.”

“And all my players and the producer were like, 'What are you doing? You just can't throw someone on. They need to practice!' And I'm like, 'No, this guy doesn't need any practice.' And he was cool with it. He said, 'I'll do it, I know that song.' And I said, 'But it's in 3/4, and it changes!' And he's like, 'No problem.' And he killed every take, and shocked everybody!”

Having a lot of fun with her upcoming CD

Bassels has now recorded and mixed her first full-length album. However, she still needs to raise money for mastering and promotion, and said she planned to start an Indiegogo campaign in the next month to cover that.

It's tentatively titled “What About Wool Wish Bags?” after one of the songs on the album.

“The reason that I called it that is that this album is kind of embracing my silly side, my true side. It is introspective, but I'm also revealing other corners of my nature and not being afraid to put it in the music. And having a lot of fun, and just being super-incredibly honest.”

“So, 'What About Wool Wish Bags?' is a song about a woman that's just completely free, self-destructive, and on this path of no return because she's just in the whirl-wind romance with the totally wrong guy, and turned into someone that's just super-self-absorbed and super-involved in this vortex of destruction. And everyone's getting bored with her story. It's driving, it's exciting, and it's fun.”

Although strictly acoustic, her EP was popular in electro swing circles, she said. She's added a few electronic nuances to the music on the upcoming album. “You wouldn't really recognize how much electronics is in it, because you're just enjoying the song. It's a songwriter's song, it's a swing song, but it just has added nuances from either samples or beats, but not a steady sound throughout. It's just enhancing or contouring the song.”

Her live performances, though, are currently completely acoustic.

In October, she said, she'll release two songs from the album as singles – and depending on the success of the fund-raising campaign, she may release the album soon after.

She'll give a sneak peek to at least one of these new songs, “Dreamer” in Ottawa. It's about “someone who doesn't want to wake up. They're stuck in dreamland and their love is there and this is where they go to be happy because they don't want to face reality. You know, when you're sleeping and you just need that five minutes longer because wherever you were was so awesome, and when you open your eyes. it's going to be gone.”

The importance of connecting with her audience

This spring, Bassels spent a month in Europe on a grant from the Ontario Arts Council. She was listening to as much live jazz as she could, and studying with bossa nova vocalist Thaïs Morell in Valencia, Spain.

“I needed to regroup and get re-inspired again, and so I went to jamborees, tons of nice jazz clubs in Valencia and Barcelona. I just got a real taste of the way that performers perform and how important it is to connect with your audience and invite your audience on your journey – instead of just going through your set and playing your songs, with a little bit of talking in between.”

“It's more about them, than it is about you.”

– Alayne McGregor

The Denielle Bassels Quintet will perform at GigSpace on Saturday, August 20, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20. More information and tickets.

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