Friday, March 8 is International Women's Day, and a group of local musicians will be remembering it in jazz.
“Elles Jazzent” is what they've called their concert. It's five women presenting songs by, about, and influenced by women, in a show produced by a woman, and presented in a restaurant co-owned by a woman.
It's a project that jazz vocalists Caroline Cook, Brigitte Lapointe, and Michèle Tremblay have been working on for more than five months, and they're excited about the songs they've discovered. Some are standards, some are originals, some were especially arranged for this show, but all honour women.
OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor interviewed them on Sunday, just before their second rehearsal of the weekend.
“We've known each other probably now for at least 10 or 15 years,” Cook said. “We used to sing musical theatre. I jumped into the jazz stream a while ago, but they jumped into the pool about maybe two, three years ago. They were taking [jazz vocal] workshops with Nicole Ratté, but Nicole took a sabbatical this year.”
They wanted to continue singing jazz, “So we got together and said, hey, maybe we could put on a show.”
On September 21, 2018, they were in a studio doing some vocal backup tracks for a friend, when the tornadoes hit Ottawa. “We emerged after the tornado, and we didn't know what went on because we were in the studio, and we went to a restaurant to talk about the show. When we were at St. Hubert's (that's where we were because we all love chicken!), we were just starting to crystallize the idea.”
They had already decided to approach pianist Ginny Simonds for the show. “I looked at them, and I said, you know we're all women! And we want to do this in March. And you know that March 8 is a Friday which is a good show date – and that's International Women's Day! And then the little light bulb went off.”
Finding material wasn't a problem, Cook said; many of the tunes they had wanted to sing naturally fit into this theme. “Every single one of them is a song that we enjoy singing.”
They decided to have the first set be songs written by women: for example, “Hymne à l'amour” by Edith Piaf. The second set will include “songs that were made famous by women, or songs that were influenced by women, that were either written about a woman or something about it showed an influence from women.”
Also included are several songs where they have a more personal connection: “we either wrote a song or we know someone who is connected to the show who wrote a song.”
But then Tremblay suggested a twist. “There's a song that Caroline wrote that I really love and I wanted to sing it. So I asked to sing Caroline's song, and then Caroline said, 'Well, I'll sing your song!' So we switched.”
Lapointe will sing a song written by Louise Rousseau, who is producing the show. Rousseau had written “Dernière Cri” 20-25 years ago, Lapointe said, and “it's a very personal song to Louise. We've been friends forever, since we were teenagers. I've been wanting to sing this song in a show for a very long time.”
It was originally written as a pop ballad, and the trio wrote a jazz arrangement for it “that has a nice little Latin groove coming around”.
Cook reached out to Toronto jazz vocalist Julie Michels, whom she'd met at JazzWorks jazz camp, “and she graciously offered one of the songs she wrote because I love singing it. With this project, it was like I have to sing this song. It's called “Fall From Grace”, and it stuck with me the first time I heard it.”
“Julie also said 'Hey, feel free to take it where you need to take it, and I'm looking very much forward to seeing what you guys do with it.' Because she's done it two different ways, and it's her song. But it's always tricky: we improvise songs that have been written for a while, but it's a little bit interesting when you improvise a song of a friend of yours. How much liberty do you take?”
Tremblay will present a song by Ann Ronell, an American jazz composer from the 1920s and a protégé of George Gershwin. “In the 20s not many women were able to go through with their songs. She wrote songs, she wrote music for musicals, and the song that has been the most popular and the one that we remember of her is 'Willow, Weep for Me'. And I'll be singing that song. It's a beautiful song!”
“Especially the way she sings it!” Lapointe said.
When choosing the songs for the second set, Cook said, they kept getting surprised by “little interesting tidbits” they learned – even about songs they already knew – and will share these facts and stories with the audience at the show.
That includes songs like “C'est Si Bon”, which has been a hit for both male and female vocalists, and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” for which The Andrews Sisters won their first gold record – and were “the first female vocalists who ever won a gold record with that song”.
They'll also sing “Girl Talk”, which was written by a man, but they'll use Holly Cole's version, and Tremblay has added French lyrics as well. “So it's clearly no longer in the male purview – it's our song.”
Choosing the songs became a very creative process, Cook said. “Interesting things open up, and on this song as we were … because in French when you say 'Girl Talk', it's sort of like 'on jase' and when we heard that, I went, 'That's really almost the title of our show'! So we bring the title of the show actually to everyone in the song – 'We talk and we jazz'!”
They didn't vacillate over their choices, either. “I don't think we actually changed any of them. There was no “I don't know, maybe...”. We ended up just putting them in the right order. It's like they naturally fell in the order, and then we were like, these are the ones we have to sing.”
The show will also feature lots of vocal harmony, reflecting their previous experience in groups like the Adagio Vocal Ensemble. “We also sing together in a 14-voice vocal ensemble, so harmonies and things like are something that we actually like to do wherever possible. It's the choral experience, singing when you've got other voices singing. We're looking forward to that!” Cook said.
She estimated that about a third of the songs have at least background vocals. “We're doing two Andrews Sisters songs full harmony. In 'Girl Talk', we're actually having a conversation between the three of us, for example. We'll be doing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” as a full harmony from beginning to end.”
Backing them will be two Ottawa musicians: Ginny Simonds on piano and Ann Downey on bass, with Cook also adding percussion to some numbers.
Simonds has played with many jazz vocalists in town, as well as leading her own quintet, and is a musician they “all love working with”, Cook said. “There's just something about the joy she brings when she's playing.”
Downey is well-known as a jazz bassist and for playing folk, bluegrass, and country swing with artists including Sneezy Waters and Pat Moore, and her folk trio Finest Kind. Cook had met her before but they'd never worked together. When she approached her, “She just said, let me check my schedule and then she was like, 'Absolutely!'”
The show will be held at Bistro Mexicana 129 in Aylmer, Quebec, which is co-owned by Chantal Labrie, and where Rousseau regularly presents shows. It will be bilingual, with songs and introductions in both French and English.
Cook said developing this show has involved a lot of laughter and fun – and a lot of getting together for Friday night chicken dinners.
“We would get together and go through the songs. We would sit with our laptops and our iPads doing research and finding out the interesting little tidbits. it's interesting to work with creative people because interesting things open up.”
“I'm always amazed by the creative process. Shows are as much about putting a set-list together and constructing them like you would build a house, but the real magic is when you start to [see] patterns and how they [are] connected. Then we were feeding off each other about even the order in which the songs went from one to the other. One is the end of a sentence so to speak for the other one. It's something I already know but I'm always amazed every time it happens! And I just hope I never cease to be amazed.”
Caroline Cook, Brigitte Lapointe, Michèle Tremblay, Ginny Simonds, and Ann Downey will present Elles Jazzent at Bistro Mexicana 129 in Aylmer on Friday, March 8, at 7 p.m. (the restaurant opens for dinner at 5:30 p.m.). Tickets are $20 on-line in advance and $25 at the door. The Bistro is located at 129 Rue Principale in the Aylmer sector of Gatineau, right on the main street through Aylmer and only a few blocks from the riverfront. You can check the STO transit planner to find a transit route to the show (including directions from Ottawa).
March 6: Corrected the at-the-door ticket price.