What sets EvenSong apart is the idealism, the warmth, and the spiritual dimension which its members bring to their playing.

EvenSong CD cover
EvenSong CD cover (photo: Scott Doubt)

The Ottawa jazz quintet will release its first CD on Sunday evening in a concert at MacKay United Church. It's a collection of jazz and popular tunes and one hymn – easily recognizable pieces – to which the ensemble has added its own jazz voice. The tunes have been audience-tested, not just in local clubs and festivals, but also at fundraisers and church events, to be touching and emotionally resonant.

The band's motto is “hope and affirmation”, says its saxophonist, Peter Woods.

“Especially in our current society and political climate around the globe, to be hopeful and affirming isn't just being naively optimistic. To really dig into being hopeful, in the current global climate, is to resist the trend towards divisiveness and hatred and despair and all those things. I think there's a real edge to being hopeful, and it's not just being optimistic. You are saying: we are going to affirm the good things in our community and in our world and what we find in individuals – and play to that! Play music that affirms that and hopefully feels like a soundtrack or background music for that sort of resistance work.”

EvenSong began in 2016, with Woods and pianist James McGowan. Woods is the minister at MacKay United Church in New Edinburgh, while McGowan is director of music at Trinity United Church in west Ottawa as well as a professor of music at Carleton University. Both regularly play in various jazz groups in Ottawa.

“There was a term we were hearing a lot: 'I'm spiritual but not religious.' We were wondering what the soundtrack would be to being spiritual but not religious. There was a bit of humour involved in it, just having fun with that term and recognizing that so much of what we're playing musically, in any setting, has a spiritual resonance, with no religious overtone, really. But it has that warmth, that desire for unity and welcoming and building a community vibe.”

“So we thought, what if we put a band together to really explore that music? Or music that we thought would be in that zone. We were looking at playing in a jazz idiom but really looking at tunes that lyrically and musically are about crossing boundaries, being connected, and being inclusive, affirming diversity, all those sorts of ideas. I value those from my religious tradition , but I also really acknowledge that there's so much a part of our communal musical tradition.”

Both churches and clubs

From the beginning, they wanted the band to be able to play in a church setting but also in a club setting.

“It wouldn't be pigeon-holed one way or the other, and it would be strong and coherent musically. We got together with Leah Cogan, the lead vocalist, and started talking repertoire. She brings a real wisdom around songs that really connect people around their hearts, emotionally. And then we got [drummer] Jamie Holmes and [bassist] J.P. Lapensée involved and we got a fantastic anchor to the band with those two guys.”

Cogan's background is in musical theatre and film, while Holmes and Lapensée are busy in a variety of jazz and pop groups, including together in the HML Trio, the Chocolate Hot Pockets, and with McGowan in Modasaurus.

Woods has played the saxophone since high school, and for the last two decades been “very actively gigging in rock'n'roll and blues and jazz settings. Certainly I had this wonderful experience for over 15 years of playing with [master jazz pianist] Brian Browne monthly: I felt like I was in a 15-year masterclass.” He's been a United Church minister for 28 years, serving churches in New Brunswick, Smiths Falls, and now Ottawa.

The name “EvenSong” came from the old traditions of the medieval church, he said. Evensong was “that service at dusk, when you get to end your day and think about where you are in the world and what's important.” That name frames what they wanted to do and “rings that bell for us.”

The band has performed at local churches and benefit concerts, but also at Live! on Elgin and at jazz and folk festivals. Woods said he saw similarities in both audiences: “There's a lot more in common between those two experiences than I had anticipated ahead of time. I find a lot of common ground – maybe just the fact of people coming out to hear live music. That's a bold move in our community. People don't go out. People that choose to go out to hear live music – it's wonderful to welcome them into whatever space we're in!”

Crossing between polarities, places, experiences

In choosing the music for those audiences, he said, they looked for songs whose lyrics invite hope, and invite a sense of crossing boundaries.

“We're constantly looking for new repertoire that feels like it's got that resonance – and that also connects with our audience. So we were looking for songs that feel that they could speak to a deeper spiritual reality, but also have an immediacy. [Joni Mitchell's] 'Both Sides Now' is a wonderful example of that – such a deeply personal song, but also one that just frames that yearning for connection.”

“And because we have such a strong lead singer, we wanted songs that felt right for her. So some of that involved workshopping some songs. We're currently playing a song by Arcade Fire, playing it with our arrangement. [Singer-songwriter] Sufjan Stevens – we've been playing one of his songs.”

They called the album Songs from the Bridge to reflect that conversation around crossing boundaries. The album cover is a photograph by Scott Doubt of the Champlain Bridge over the Ottawa River, which crosses the Ontario/Quebec boundary.

“The metaphor that we kept coming back to was the metaphor of the bridge, crossing between two polarities, or two places, or two experiences. We wanted to be on the bridge, between various realities and experiences.”

Peter Woods ©Brett Delmage, 2018
Peter Woods ©Brett Delmage, 2018

The strength of the familiar

The group deliberately chose songs for the album that most people would know, Woods said: both jazz classics like “Nature Boy” but also songs by Curtis Mayfield or Bob Dylan. That allows the audience to easily connect with a song, “and then connect to what we're bringing to the song as jazz musicians.”

Brian Browne used to say all the time to me: 'play the hits'. Because when you play the hits, you can then express other things, and people are with you. So that's part of the reason we ended up playing 'Wayfaring Stranger', and 'God Bless the Child'. We're staking out a ground that is somewhat familiar to a jazz audience or a pop audience, and then giving it what we feel is a fresh musicality.”

They picked Bob Dylan's “I Shall Be Released” because “I think I've never really gotten over the first time I saw The Last Waltz. [he laughs] That was a Ground Zero for me, growing up. 'I Shall Be Released' also has that combined sense of hope and resistance, that idea of deep, abiding hope but also not making light of the state of the world.”

The album also includes the traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision”, which the group loved not just as a tune but also because it “boldly proclaims that there's a big picture that we don't pretend to understand … but that we're part of something bigger”, Woods said.

“And the funny thing is – it happened a bit on the recording and it certainly happens in concert – it's such an old familiar hymn, that's an opportunity for us often musically to become more adventurous. Sometimes the more familiar – that's in the DNA of my faith community – you can just take that outside and really play, go deep and take that further than on some other tunes. [We can] really stretch out.”

The spontaneity and creativity of a duo

The album closes with “Lament” by jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson. “It's an invitation, as the album concludes, to recognize that our work is never done. There's more to be done. There's some rough things going on in the world, and it's important to lament the brokenness in the world, but that tune is also an invitation to feel the beauty that's inherent and also present, even when you're lamenting the state of the world. There's a great history of people who have played that tune!”

That song, and “Body and Soul”, are piano-sax duets between Woods and McGowan. They were recorded live at MacKay United Church during a summer noon-hour concert there. “We have a whole bunch of other tunes from that recording, but we just decided to release those two [on the album].”

It's a format Woods enjoys. “I love the spontaneity and creativity that comes when you're just two people finding your way through a tune, a set of chord changes. There's an intimacy to the duo experience that I really love.”

“We wanted it in the album to acknowledge the breadth of things that we're able to do as an ensemble, which sometimes means coming on with the full band, but also that we can go in different directions.”

At the CD release concert Sunday evening, the audience will hear tunes from the album, plus “some of the material that we've been developing more recently. It's a jazz ensemble, so part of it is to get us all together and then see what happens!”

Woods said the group wanted to “continue to dig as deeply as we can into the jazz side of the equation. We're looking for more and more opportunities to really push and to explore more deeply the jazz side of the experience.”

The album was funded by a $25,000 grant from the United Church of Canada from its “Embracing the Spirit” fund, which encourages creativity around building community and spiritual expression, and fosters projects that are spiritually creative and community-building. “It's a new fund that is really encouraging people to try new ideas, and be prepared just to see if it works, see what feels right and see what feels creative, and just get out there and do it.”

He said it was the first jazz album funded by the United Church of Canada, and “I'm pretty sure by any church”.

Woods emphasized the band was not specifically religious, but was informed by and acknowledges the religious faith of its members. “It's got deep spiritual roots, but we're really trying to make it clear in no way is it proselytizing.”

Music is very much in the tradition of the Methodist Church (one of the churches which united to form the United Church of Canada), he said. “It's funny when you phrase it that way, how rooted some of my jazz experiences are in the denomination that also formed us.”

For himself, he said, “the Wesleyan tradition around singing hymns together, but also about knowing that there's a light of inspiration in each life, is certainly at the core of my musical experience. I have a sense that that light that I would call God is revealed in musical expression, time and again, almost inevitably, on any gig. You can hear it in the tone of Johnny Hodges in the Duke Ellington Orchestra and you can hear it in John Coltrane – but you can also hear it at a gig at Irene's.”

EvenSong (Leah Cogan - vocals, Peter Woods - saxophone, James McGowan - piano, J.P. Lapensée - bass, Jamie Holmes - drums) will release its debut CD, Songs from the Bridge, in concert at MacKay United Church on Sunday, November 25, 2018 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20,  Advance tickets are available at the MacKay United Church office, at Books on Beechwood, and on-line at EventBrite.

Get there! MacKay United Church is located at 39 Dufferin Road in New Edinburgh. OC Transpo routes 6, 7, 9, and 19 stop within walking distance. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!