M is for poster

With one voice, you have a tune. With four voices, you have harmony, and accompaniment, and interplay, and much more texture and richness.

That's what you can hear on Saturday as The Capital Voices will present its final concert of the season – and its final formal season for a while. The vocal harmony quartet consists of Ottawa jazz vocalists Elise Letourneau and Rachel Beausoleil, plus jazz bassist cum vocalist Normand Glaude, and musical theatre singer Kenny Hayes.

The theme for Saturday's show is “M is for...”. All the tunes, both jazz and pop, have some connection to the letter “M”: for example, the jazz standards “Moonglow” and “Moonlight Serenade”. Also included will be tunes by composers Johnny Mandel, Henry Mancini, and Michel Legrand, and “Well, You Needn't” by Thelonious Monk (with lyrics by Mike Ferro which were made famous by Carmen McRae).

Guitarist Tim Bedner, who will accompany the quartet, will perform an instrumental by Pat Metheny. They're also featuring tunes by popular songwriters Joni Mitchell and Michael McDonald (of the Doobie Brothers), and “In My Life” by Paul McCartney – and even some Motown.

Letourneau said that the idea for the program came as the four were tossing around ideas for tunes. “It was just something that we noticed, how many of them had that common thread with the letter 'M'. And we realized well, we've got a third of a program here, and let's just keep going with it.”

“We're very excited about this program. There's a lot of feel-good music on it, and it's a very, very varied program, all rendered in a way that it feels natural to the four of us.”

Ever since high school, Letourneau said, she's done harmony singing.

“I can't ever remember not being attracted to it. It was just a natural progression. I wasn't always singing vocal jazz harmony in high school – certainly not the way I do it now – but vocal harmony has been part of my life for such a long time.”

Singing a jazz tune in three- or four-part harmony, rather than with a single voice, adds depth and timbre, she said. “There's lots of back and forth, and interplay is possible. There's three singers accompanying one; there's four singers accompanying an instrumentalist. There's all kinds of ways to play those voices.”

“Any quartet is going to sound different because of the individual voices that are comprised in it. Where a single vocalist can be a lot more fluent and in the moment and might interpret something differently every single time they want to, with a quartet, it's a little more planned. But that's not to say that there isn't any room to do anything on this fly – there is, but it's a little more planned-out. It's a lot less loosey-goosey, let's put it that way.”

What other vocal jazz groups have influenced the Capital Voices? “We're fans of ones that do it so beautifully, like The [Manhattan] Transfer, or Singers Unlimited, and the New York Voices. For both Norm and me, who have done a chunk of the writing of the charts, [vocalist and arranger] Gene Puerling is a big, big inspiration. He was the founder of the Hi-Lo's and Singers Unlimited.”

She said that Puerling's use of texture and his use of upper-structure triads to add richness to the chords were important to her.

The group also writes fresh arrangements for the standards it sings. “We look for things that we can do with the groove. We look for ways to play with the lyric and the tempo and potentially make it a little more conversational. Not conversational in tone, but passing it back and forth between singers. We look for ways to have the harmony help paint the text.”

For each of their concerts this season, they've had only one accompanist, on piano or guitar. She said that's partially for practical budgetary reasons – but also “so that the voices can come fully into their own. We do a lot of comping for the four voices, and accompanying the accompanist, so to speak, for the textures that we explore. It also tests us as singers more, to have a smaller band.”

Elise Letourneau ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Elise Letourneau ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Letourneau has studied with renowned jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan, and the Capital Voices were the first vocal group to record an authorized arrangement of Jordan's song, “The Crossing”. It's a cathartic composition about recovering from alcohol and drug abuse. “It was quite an honour to be allowed to do that. We enjoyed the process immensely, and were thrilled to have done it.”

She described it as a “very meaningful song”, to which people can relate based on their own life story. “We all hit bottom in different ways. So I think that it's a song that can mean so many things.”

The Capital Voices came together last summer, out of Letourneau and Beausoleil's previous vocal group, the Juliet Singers. The third member of that group, Kathy Eagan, got a sudden opportunity in the spring for an extended world tour, and while they replaced her temporarily with other singers, they were looking for a more permanent solution.

“When Kathy left to go on a boat to Greece, it just so happened that two guys showed up who wanted to sing. And we were like, 'Why say no?' ”, Letourneau laughed.

In July, Hayes attended the Singer-Songwriter camp at Alcorn Music Studios which Letourneau and Beausoleil taught at. “He's a teacher and an actor and does a lot of musical theatre, and plays the piano and sings. He was incredibly motivated in that camp: he set a goal for himself to write a song every day – and he did!” Letourneau recalls.

“When we were talking about how we were going to go on with the next season, he came up and as did Norm. Both of them had expressed an interest in singing and so we thought, 'OK, we've got our quartet here.' It wasn't necessarily what we planned for, but it's what arrived.”

Glaude is best known as a jazz bassist and harmonica player, with decades of experience accompanying local vocalists. “He's just such a consummate musician. He just ticks all the boxes.”

Hayes “brings a very dramatic sense with his musical theatre background. A lot of the higher high notes, and some of the very low notes too – he's got quite a range!”

Many vocal harmony groups assign specific vocal roles to each singer: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. With the Capital Voices, it's much more flexible, Letourneau said.

“We don't limit ourselves to set ranges in the choral music sense. It's not necessarily this is the soprano and this is the bass and this is the tenor and so forth. Often we divvy it up according to what's appropriate timbrelly. And sometimes we flip the parts around if that's what it demands.”

“Both Rachel and I can sing well into the high soprano range and well into the tenor range. So we both make use of our entire ranges. Kenny has a certain sweetness in the tenor range, which is very welcome and very useful, but he's also got some super-low notes. And Norm, he brings a lot to the vocal bass range because of his knowledge of it on the instruments, so it's very natural. Sometimes we tell him, 'Hey, just give us a bass line,' and he improvises it and it sounds great.”

This season, and in past years with Juliet Singers, the Capital Voices presented a formal season of three concerts. But Letourneau said they won't be doing that in 2018-19.

“We are exploring different things in our lives right now. So if people have been thinking, 'Yes, I should see that group one of these days', now is a really good time!”

The Capital Voices present "M is for ..." at Trinity Anglican Church on Saturday, June 2 at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. The church is located at 1230 Bank Street (at Cameron Avenue) in Ottawa South. Tickets are $20 in advance (available on the group's website), $25 at the door. OC Transpo route 6 stops immediately in front of the church. Route 7 stops about five blocks north of the church. Cars can park at Hillary's Cleaners or Bond's Decor during the concert.

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