Kellylee Evans  ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Kellylee Evans pays tribute to swing music and Ella Fitzgerald in the NAC Studio on November 8 ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Updated November 18

For Kellylee Evans, swing music and swing dancing are a source of joy, as she figures out where she's going next.

On Wednesday, November 8, she's asking jazz fans to share that joy and put on their dancing shoes for her “Swing, Swing, Swing!” show at the National Arts Centre.

The Juno-winning vocalist is teaming up with saxophonist Petr Cancura and the Ottawa Swing Dance Society (OSDS) for the show, which will celebrate swing music in general and the 100th birthday of jazz great Ella Fitzgerald in particular.

The show comes at a busy time for Evans, as she gradually restarts her career after several years of recovering from two serious injuries: being hit by lightning while washing dishes in 2013, and suffering a concussion after a fainting fall in November, 2015.

On October 27, she finally released her latest album, Come On, in North America – two years after she released it in France. She's currently preparing for several CD release shows, finishing off her period as musical artist-in-residence at Carleton University, and thinking about what she'll do next.

Evans was first introduced to swing by Marc Stevens, the general manager of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. They met backstage in 2014 when Evans was preparing for a Canada Day concert with the orchestra.

Stevens is a big swing dance fan, she said, and was “selling this idea to the band and I and anyone who was coming, to go swing dancing. I had just recently started to get a little bit better after my accident, and he sent me a video of swing dancing. And I was … this video of people being thrown over heads and Lindy Hop just looked so difficult – I was like, I can't do that with a brain injury! So I told him, 'I don't think so!' ”

In the spring of 2015, she finally acceded to Stevens' continued invitations, and started going to the Ottawa Swing Dance Society's events. Her daughter has also become an enthusiastic swing dancer, she said.

“The swing community is so warm, they're so just welcoming. It's weird, I don't understand what it is about swing, but once you drink the Kool-Aid, you want to serve it to everybody else too. You want everybody to come in!”

“I remember just falling in love with swing! And thinking 'Gee, it would be so amazing if this was at the NAC!'”

"A really dancer-friendly event"

Coincidentally, Petr Cancura had invited her to perform with his Crossroads quartet at the NAC, and asked her what type of program she'd like to do. “I said, 'I'd love to do a swing project.' He was just game from the beginning.”

But “how could this actually work? How could we do this?” She and Cancura met with Stevens and with representatives of OSDS, which runs weekly swing dances in Sandy Hill, as well as special swing dance events.

The result: “a set-up that is reminiscent to how people would have done it originally.” The musicians will be on one side of the stage area in the NAC Studio and the dancers on the other, with the audience seated around and above them.

This music was performed with people dancing! I always wanted to see people dancing when I performed my music, regardless of what kind of music I was doing. I love seeing people engaged and moving. When you are singing and you see people are … they're not just looking at you. You feel like you're part of it, but they also feel part of the music as well. And the energy is just so different.
– Kellylee Evans

Before the show, the OSDS will offer an introductory free swing dance lesson. It will begin at 7 p.m. in the NAC’s Rossy Pavilion (at the new NAC Elgin Street Entrance, up the large wooden staircase). Professional swing dancers from two local schools, Side Street Swing and Dance with Alana, will give energetic dance demonstrations during the show.

Evans hoped the audience would dance as well. “There will be people who dance and there will people who just sit and listen, but our hope is that there will be enough room for everybody who wants to dance to dance. And also that there will be enough people that want to dance.”

The music will include “tunes that the swing dance community would know and be excited about hearing”. She and Cancura met with swing dancers to learn what they wanted from from a live band.

“Live bands play swing dances all the time, but a lot of times those band members are not dancers. And so maybe the songs will be long, or the tempos are off, or things are too fast, or things are too slow, there's not enough fast songs, not enough slow songs. The goal is to make it a really dancer-friendly event.”

"Playing the music as I think it was meant to be played originally"

The first set will be a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, including her classic songs as well as some tunes from the Ella and Louis CD she recorded with Louis Armstrong. “Songs like 'Shiny Stockings', and 'Stomping at the Savoy', 'Pennies from Heaven', things like that.”

“But then there's a lot of other tunes also. We've done some retakes on some tunes from my songs and other songs as well. So it should really be fun.”

Cancura will perform with his Crossroads band – guitarist Roddy Ellias, double bassist John Geggie, and drummer Greg Ritchie – at the show. All are highly experienced jazz musicians, but better known for playing modern jazz, chamber jazz, or classical music as opposed to swing music. Two more local jazz musicians will join the band – Mark Ferguson on keyboards and trombone, and Ed Lister on trumpet. Both have considerable big band experience. Ferguson has been a longtime member of the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra, and leads groups that include Los Gringos, and the Holly Larocque and Mark Ferguson Orchestra. Lister leads his own Prime Rib Big Band.

Pete Liu and the Pollcats performed to a sellout crowd at a swing dance at the Canadian War Museum in March  ©Brett Delmage, 2017
Pete Liu and the Pollcats performed to a sellout crowd at a swing dance at the Canadian War Museum in March  ©Brett Delmage, 2017

Two weeks ago, Evans had a brief try-out of singing for dancers, when her friend, jazz vocalist Pete Liu, released his swing dance CD at an OSDS dance. Liu will also sing one song with Evans at the NAC show.

“He had me come up and do two songs with him. It was wonderful! There's something about playing the music as I think it was meant to be played originally. This music was performed with people dancing! I always wanted to see people dancing when I performed my music, regardless of what kind of music I was doing. I love seeing people engaged and moving. When you are singing and you see people are … they're not just looking at you. You feel like you're part of it, but they also feel part of the music as well. And the energy is just so different.”

“I loved it! You feel less like you're the show and you feel more like you're part of the show. And everybody's part of the show. So I find that singing swing music is just more interactive. It has even more of a sense that anything can happen.”

The music made Evans want to dance, but unfortunately she's not quite up to that yet. “I really wish I were, you know, but the couple times that I have tried to go back to swing dancing I felt really nauseous and sick after. So I've had to really be careful. But it's infectious! [laughs] It's very infectious.”

She's hoping for a warm vibe at the NAC show, to reflect Ottawa's swing dance community. “I think when people come to Ottawa from other swing-dancing communities, they talk about how it's a very welcoming and warm vibe, and how women dance with women, men dance with men, and that it's all-ages. We've got people as young as my daughter, who's 14, and has been dancing since she was 13, and we have people in their 70s or 80s who are still out there dancing. So I think I just want that vibe to continue, this feeling that people have that they can be there and be themselves and just enjoy the music, and in this case, the live music.”

Releasing her new CD in North America, two years later

After the show, Evans will prepare for release concerts in Toronto and Ottawa for her latest CD, Come On. It's a collection of originals she co-wrote with her writing partner and co-producer, French jazz pianist Éric Legnini. She describes it as “lots of fun. It's a more joyful album. Less introspective. I just wanted it to be more vibrant and I wanted it to be a summer kind of album.”

The CD has been “a long time coming” because of the enforced rest caused by her injury. “It's a quiet release, definitely different from how I did it in France, with all the promo and everything, but it's the way that makes most sense for my body's ability to handle it.”

She said she was excited to have it released, but even more excited for her band, “really, because they've just been wondering. We did all this promotion but then nobody could ever even hear it here in Canada! So it felt good to finally be able to tell people: 'Here you go!' ”

What the musical path really can look like

In December, Evans will finish her term as musical artist-in-residence at Carleton University. Working with individual students was not only enjoyable, she said; it helped her “continue to grow.”

“It's nice to go back and see that freshness, see the excitement about the business and about making music. Every time I meet with one of them, I feel like … they're always like they want me to share wisdom, things that I've learned, but I always feel like I've learned something, you know, when I work with them.”

She has also organized masterclasses for students, to help them learn from the experiences of musicians and people working in the music industry. It's training she never had, because she didn't know any musicians or professional singers while growing up.

“So that just made it seem more far away. So my goal has been to bring people working in the industry into the school to talk to students, to figure out what the path really could look for them.”

“I feel that many times they probably thought, 'I'm going to be this. I'm going to be that. I'm going to be a singer', and then when they get there, to I don't want to say the Real World, but I guess it is kind of the real world, they see that things are a little different. And they have to make adjustments. And how did they make those adjustments, how did they continue to be themselves, how did they continue to live the dream that they had and not give up on the dream, either? Or did they have to give up on the dream?”

In the masterclasses, musicians have talked about “what they do on a daily basis, what kind of methods of self-care they've created for themselves, do they get it right every day, just what being on the road looks like, what working actually looks like. Have they had goals dropped?”

Caring for herself in the months ahead

Earlier this year, Evans presented a masterclass at Carleton on “The Artist and Self Care”, drawing on her own experiences. How is she going to be taking care of herself over the next few months?

“I'm still trying to figure that out. I'm feeling really swamped and overwhelmed in the last little while and I'm trying to think like, how can I adjust that? I'm not really sure. I don't want to end up being sick again. It just would feel like a big waste of all this time trying to get healthy. At the same point, I know I'm not 100% yet but I still need to take care of my family.

“I'm not really sure what self-care is going to look like. I'm meditating every day and doing my mindfulness, I take naps every day. I don't know – am I going to be able to take a nap when I have a job? [laughs] I don't know!”

As a single mother of three children, Evans said she needs “to find something, like a salaried position, to figure out how to continue to take care of a family, and to be able to stay here.”

“I feel like I'm in a stage right now where I'm very much questioning what is next, because I don't know. ... People ask what do you know how to do? And I'm like, I don't know! I don't know.”

Kellylee Evans and Petr Cancura will present Swing Swing Swing! at the Studio in the National Arts Centre, 1 Elgin Street, on Wednesday, November 8, 2017, at 8 p.m. There will be a swing dance lesson from the Ottawa Swing Dance Society prior to the main show. Tickets are $39.50 and are available at no service charge from the NAC Box Office, or through the show listing on the NAC website. The show is part of the NAC Presents series.

Kellylee Evans will release Come On at a gala concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Carleton University's Music program, also featuring alumni and Carleton-affiliated jazz artists. The concert will be held on Saturday, November 25, at 7 p.m., at Kailash Mital Theatre, Carleton University. Tickets are $23 in advance, $25 at the door. Carleton students are admitted free. More information and tickets.

Updated November 8 to add information about the swing dance lesson at 7 p.m. before the show in the NAC's Rossy Pavilion.
Updated November 18 to add information about Kellylee Evans' CD release.

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