Anne Lewis ©Brett Delmage, 2017
Anne Lewis singing her favourite jazz standards at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel (with J.P. Allain). She'll release a CD of her own songs on Saturday at the NAC Fourth Stage. ©Brett Delmage, 2017

When she steps onto the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage this Saturday, vocalist Anne Lewis will be combining two of her passions: for songwriting and for jazz.

With a landmark birthday coming up soon – she'll be 60 next July – she's releasing her third album, the first in more than two decades.

Expressions is a collection of her own original songs, in jazz arrangements by composer Mark Ferguson. She recorded them last year with four jazz musicians well-known to Ottawa audiences: Ferguson on piano and trombone, Mike Rud on guitar, John Geggie on double bass, and Jeff Asselin on drums, along with Petr Cancura on saxophone and Anthony Bacon on cello. She'll perform them with the core quintet at the Fourth Stage.

While she's always loved singing, Lewis' passion for jazz came much later, after she'd already established herself as a singer/songwriter. The reason for her conversion: long-time Ottawa jazz pianist J.P. Allain.

Although it's not obvious at first glance, Lewis is legally blind. In her early 30s, a hereditary disease robbed her of the central part of her vision. Shortly after that, she agreed to sing at a fundraiser for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and hired Allain as her pianist.

He introduced her to jazz standards, and she fell in love. With some interruptions due to illness and temporarily losing her voice, she has been singing jazz ever since, and is now a regular in the Ottawa jazz scene, with a monthly gig at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel. editor Alayne McGregor interviewed her about her Fourth Stage concert, her love for jazz, and what inspired the music on her new album. Anne, why are you releasing your new album now?

Anne Lewis: I'm releasing it now because if I don't do it now, I probably never will. It's just a good timing. What inspired you to do an album?

Lewis: I guess the inspiration for doing an album now really is about – is it safe to say that I'm getting a little older? And I just wanted to put down some of my music, to lay down those tracks, at this point in my life. You're known more as an accomplished jazz vocalist. Why did you decide to do an album strictly of your own original songs?

Lewis: I guess because I'd written so many tunes, and my greatest passion truly is jazz. While I would admit to you that the album is really a blending of various musical styles – I would say adult contemporary, easy listening, and jazz – I really wanted to do something that was as close to my passion as I could. And my original songs, it just worked out! The experiences that you write about – are they mostly about your life as it is now, or are you looking backwards? How do you describe them?

Lewis: You know, it's looking backwards, and looking fairly recently as well. Two of the songs on the album I actually recorded back in 1993 and 1995, on two previous albums. And those songs had such meaning to me that I wanted to redo them. I asked Mark Ferguson to help me infuse them with the sound of jazz.

One of the songs, in particular, “Can You See More than Me?”, its inspiration came from a gentleman that I used to travel with on the bus. I didn't know him, but he used to travel on the bus with his guide dog. He was completely blind. And I sat about three rows away from him and I used to watch him, every morning and every night. And I truly believe that, because of his blindness, he could probably see much more and understand much more than I could. About six months after I recorded that song, I actually approached him and introduced myself, and told him that he was the inspiration behind “Can You See More than Me?” What was his reaction?

Lewis: Oh, he was a sweetheart! He was so kind. And in fact, back in 1993, just after my own diagnosis of visual impairment, I did a benefit concert for the CNIB and he came to the concert. I was able to do that [song] for him live, and it was special for me. What about some of the other songs? More recent ones?

Lewis: In the last year, [I wrote] “I'll be there soon”. The trigger for that song was a friend of mine who was going through the unraveling of her relationship. One day she was having a particularly bad day, and I was so sad for her, I just wanted to give her a hug! And I went home and I wrote that song.

“About Me” is also brand-new. Again, I think it's that “Here I am now, my happy, full life” and I just did a look-back one day. I was in a very pensive mood. We're not supposed to say that we have regrets – and while I don't really have a lot of regrets, there are some things about my life that I would liked to have changed, or perhaps done differently, and that song is about me. That's why it's called “About Me” [she laughs]. What about “My Mother”? Can you tell me about that one?

Lewis: That, again, is new. Mom is in her fourth year of a dementia diagnosis – Alzheimer's and vascular dementia – and over the course of the last four years, I have been a witness to my mother going down that path. While my Mom, for the most part, doesn't know me, I truly believe in my heart that the essence of my Mom won't ever change. One song I really liked was “Osprey Eyrie”.

Lewis: “Eyrie” means “nest”, and there's a wonderful story about “Osprey Eyrie”. About 32 years ago, my Dad and Mom built a beautiful home on Sand Lake just outside of Elgin, [Ontario], part of the Rideau system. And we as a family we would go up there, probably twice a month, just to enjoy the Sand Lake, and Mom and Dad's home.

Little did I know that two years ago, the home next to Mom and Dad's came up for sale. So my husband and I bought it. Then last summer my son and daughter-in-law also bought a cottage in the same lake. So “Osprey Eyrie” is about the beauty of all the ospreys, the beauty of nature and the coming together of my family and my friends. It's a place that one can go to and just lose yourself, and almost have a rebirth of self – it's so lovely. Do you think that other people would also find that these songs speak to them?

Lewis: I sure hope so. And you know, if someone would listen to my songs and take the meaning behind my songs and put it in their own pocket, and relate to it, I think that's probably one of the most important things about writing songs.

My song, “Unkind” – how many of us have experienced someone being unkind to us? And trying to wrap our heads around the “Why?” behind that kind of lack of generosity of spirit. Have you tried any of these out on audiences?

Lewis: None. I have not sang one. Not one. I'm saving all of that for the Fourth Stage. What was your song-writing process with Mark Ferguson? How did you work together?

Lewis: I play the piano. So I composed them all on my piano and then I wrote the lyrics. And then Mark would come over and I played each song for him. He would then record me on an iPad singing the song, and he would take it home. And then change a lot of the chords, the harmonization – for example a C might become a wonderful diminished 9th or something – because I wanted him to enhance those songs by infusing them with the sounds of jazz. The melody never changed.

Everybody told me – J.P. Allain, everybody that I spoke to, Peter Hum – the best arranger to go to is Mark Ferguson. He has a gift. He is an unbelievable talent, and he has brought my songs to life. So that was the process.

And then we talked, we collaborated on what instrumentation would we like to use for each of the songs. We brought in the cello and saxophone for a few of the songs.

I knew from the outset that I really wanted Mike Rud on guitar and I wanted piano. I wanted everything to be as acoustic as possible. I wanted to be able to reproduce the sound of my album live. That was really important to me. Had you heard Mike play before?

Lewis: I heard Mike at Brookstreet, and bought his album, Notes on Montreal. And I was just blown away. Not only is he a really nice man, but he is such a gifted guitar player. We just connected, and he was agreeable to coming down from Montreal to help me out.

And John Geggie, I've played with him several times. He is a master at his craft. I noticed the sound on the album was very clean...with little or no effects. Was that deliberate?

Lewis: Absolutely deliberate! I didn't want any computer-generated sounds. Everything had to be real. And I guess the reason for that is because the messages behind my songs and my personality just want to be as real as possible. And to be able to reproduce it live. Were there any particular challenges you faced in making the CD?

Lewis: Well, there were some fun challenges. One of the funny ones – we recorded the five of us, we laid the tracks down at Venturing Hills Farm. It's an equestrian farm and the owners of the farm converted a barn into a studio. There were two lovely acoustic pianos there. On the first day of recording, we heard some sounds coming through!

It turns out that there was a stable full of horses right below the barn. And so we could hear them clomping [laughs] and we could also hear them whinnying. It was the funniest thing – we would go back and listen to the take, and we would go, “What is that sound?” And it was the horses. So we actually had to pause, now and then, over the course of three days, [for] the horses.

We recorded live off the floor, so there were some funny things in there as well. Mike Rud kept squeaking his chair. He was sitting in a funny chair and we could hear the squeaks.

But you know what was important to me? I didn't want to go back into the studio after the fact and make this album squeaky-clean. I think that there has to be some imperfection, because you can't reproduce something live. And so there are parts in there where … my voice may have cracked a couple of times or there might be the odd breath that doesn't belong.

Ross Murray was the recording engineer and producer. After the three days at Venturing Hills, we went to his studio to do a little bit of clean-up, and to add the cello and the sax. Some of the parts that were maybe a little untidy we did tidy them up a little bit. It was a lot of fun. Did you find that your experience singing live many times helped you with doing a live off the floor album?

Lewis: Absolutely. It sure did. It's funny, I think, as a singer – singing my own songs with a band is probably a little harder for me than singing a jazz standard. And I can't explain why.

I've thought about it, and I think that when I'm singing and playing the piano, it doesn't matter if I decide to loop it back around three times. It doesn't matter if I decide to change my intro. It doesn't matter if I repeat a verse. But when you're recording something, I've got to follow the rules, the structure. And that can be a little bit of a challenge for me, I admit! But that's a jazz singer speaking there, right?

Lewis: Yes! You're legally blind. What effect has that had on your music?

Lewis: On singing in general … well, from time to time there are some challenges. So I have options. I can memorize the lyrics and try to remember when I'm coming back in. I think I do that OK because I know these songs now, and there's so much flexibility with interpretation.

[Or] I could blow them up to a 20[-point] font and put them on a chart stand in front of me and put on my big magnifiers and peer down at the words, but that would be too difficult. And I also think that I would lose the joy, the essence of the song, if I did that. So, because of my vision, I just memorize everything as best I can. And if I blow a part or I forget the words, I just pretend that that was intentional [she laughs]. Many instrumentalists I know say that memorizing the music actually helps them get further into the music.

Lewis: You're right! I think so too! Because you don't have to worry about reading something. It's already become intrinsic. You already feel the passion. You're not worrying about anything else other than what do the lyrics mean, what is the melody like, and how do I feel singing it. And then you can be expressive right from the heart. When did you actually start losing your vision?

Lewis: I started losing my vision at [age] 30. My sister and I – I'm one of five children – we have what's called Stargardt disease. So it was a progressive macular degeneration that eventually robbed us both of our central field of vision.

But in the world of vision, while our peripheral vision is intact, it isn't that tangible. It's not as defined. So over the course for me of probably two years, I remember going in to see my ophthalmologist and he told me you've got the disease, and probably should stop driving. But way back, you know, 25 years ago, you could keep driving until you made the decision to stop driving. Nowadays it's very different. So it took me about two years, and I remember the day that I finally stopped driving. I was instructing an aerobics fitness class at the Diefenbunker, and, coming home, I just missed hitting somebody. I stopped and pulled over and waited, and then drove home and hung up my keys.

But, you know, I'll never go blind. And there could be much worse things to happen to me. It's OK. I've adjusted, I certainly have. Isn't that late? I was reading about the disease and I thought it usually affected people much earlier than that.

Lewis: You're right! I think by the age of 11 or 12. And maybe it was there, and I just wasn't aware of it. And maybe its progression was very, very slow. But for me it was around 30, 31. So you can read very large text.

Lewis: Yes, and I have adaptive technology that I use. I just wouldn't use it when I'm performing. My older brother actually has founded a company called eSight Eyeware that's actually doing very well for helping many, many people see much better. And I could wear those if I wanted to [for] singing but again I feel that there would be an impact on how I feel about the song. Will your CD release concert at the NAC Fourth Stage feature the same musicians as on the CD?

Lewis: I'm having the core group, the five of us. I'm not bringing in the sax or the cello, and the reason that I'm not is that I wanted to perform the album in an intimate setting, intimately. And I just wanted to keep it that way, for this time.

The other consideration, too, is the reality in Ottawa is in a lot of the venues you have to have smaller [groups]. I'll probably end up performing these songs as a trio more often even than as a quintet. It's just the nature of the beast, and I'm OK with that.

I hope for a time when I'll be able to just be me and my piano. I thought about that, doing one of the songs with just me and my piano at the NAC, and decided not to do that this time – because these musicians are so good! Are you playing jazz standards at the NAC?

Lewis: Yes, because the album is only 45 minutes in length, and I'm not going to do all of the songs because I want to keep some of the songs just for a surprise if anybody wants to buy my album. But I put a lot of thought into what other jazz standards will I sing that would be complementary to these songs, and I wanted to sing some songs, some classics that would enable me to really express a lot of different feeling.

And over Christmas I learned seven new songs. I have since abandoned three of them. So there'll be some surprises and some maybe more familiar. It will be a mixture of both. Do you have any plans for the music on the album after the Fourth Stage show?

Lewis: No, other than performing it more often here, around town. I'm thinking a little bit about Montreal maybe and perhaps Toronto, but just not right now. Not just now. Is this a one-off? Would you do another album in a couple years?

Lewis: I don't think so. I think this is it for me. But then I think, at the back of my head, that I would love to do an album of jazz standards, too. I always say, never say never, because you never know. How have you found working in the Ottawa jazz scene helped you or produced challenges for you as a jazz singer?

Lewis: I wish that there were more venues in Ottawa – more concert halls as opposed to being a jazz singer and standing in the corner of a restaurant where nobody's listening to you. When I first started singing again in 2013, gosh, I just wanted to sing. I would sing everywhere and anywhere, and I did for the first year and a half. But now I'm more particular about where I sing because it means a lot to me to have somebody listen to the songs. It's important to me and so I'm a bit more selective now.

I love [the Options Jazz Lounge at] Brookstreet. Brookstreet is a long gig; it's a three-hour gig, but I still love singing there. I'm there once a month and the reason I like it there is because, although it's a lounge and it can be very, very noisy, right around the stage there's always people who come for the jazz. And that's really nice. I noticed when we went to see you there, that there really were people listening, which does make a difference.

Lewis: And you know sometimes, I'll be performing there, and believe or not there won't be a peep. And it's just mesmerizing. And it's really fun, the demographics there as well, because an older demographic, may I say, in their 50s/60s tend to come for the first two sets, and then there is a younger crowd that comes in for the final set. And there are always true jazz enthusiasts that come, and it just rounds the whole evening out. And we have a lot of fun.

I tend to play with J.P. Allain most of the time, and J.P. and I go back – we go back to the early 90s. No one knows, but it's J.P. Allain who really introduced me to jazz.

I grew up in a time of coffee houses, and I can remember way back in the late 80s playing at Rasputin's, with my piano – and not really even knowing what is a jazz standard. I used to always believe that jazz was about a collage of colourful instruments colliding without rhythm and making this abstract sound.

I never dreamed in my wildest imagination that a jazz standard – all of the reasons that I was drawn to Broadway theatre, musical theatre, musical films was because I love those songs. I just never sang them.

[But at] that first benefit for the CNIB at Centrepointe, I hired this J.P. Allain. I would say that 50% of our songs were my original songs, but he introduced me to jazz standards. And I was hooked, and that's how it began. He's the one.

If someone everyone asks me, “How did you get into jazz, Anne?”, I always say, “J.P. Allain”.

And do you know that J.P., to this day – every two months, in comes an email from J.P. to a whole group of us, saying “I found some more interesting standards that you might want to learn.”

And what do I do? I try to learn one of them. There was a time I was actually trying to learn a standard once a week, and I can't keep up with that any longer. And J.P., he is a treasure!

When I first started singing the jazz standards, I used to hear, “Dig in and find the ones that aren't so familiar. Do a deep dive into more obscure-sounding classics.” But you know what my view is on that? If I put on my listening hat, if I'm someone coming to listen to a concert, I feel that I want to hear the songs that I remember, the songs that are familiar to me.

And so that's what I do – I sing songs that I just love to sing. Either the lyric appeals to me, or the melody appeals to me. It might have been done by many other vocalists here in the area, but I'm going to do it my way [she laughs].

Anne Lewis will release Expressions at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage, 1 Elgin Street, on Saturday, January 27, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are available from the NAC box office at no charge or via Ticketmaster on the NAC website. She will perform with Mike Rud (guitar), Mark Ferguson (piano and trombone), John Geggie (double bass), and Jeff Asselin (drums). All downtown and Transitway OC Transpo routes stop within a few blocks of the NAC.

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