When Calgary jazz vocalist Ellen Doty sang before thousands of jazz fans at the Tokyo Jazz Festival she discovered that jazz could transcend language barriers.

Ellen Doty (photo by Brendan Klem)
Calgary vocalist Ellen Doty makes her National Arts Centre debut Friday, showcasing her second album, Come Fall . She'll perform Saturday at Neat in Burnstown and Sunday at Burdock in Toronto. (photo by Brendan Klem)

“I learned that music is its own language, really. Even if people couldn't understand the lyrics, a lot of them still came up and waited in the line to talk to me afterwards. There was a translator there that helped with some stuff. That people feel an impact from something, even if they don't understand all the lyrics, is really cool.”

“And to feel that connection with people even though it's in another language is really cool.”

Doty is looking to make that same connection with Ontario audiences this weekend. She has a sold-out show at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and will also perform at the Neat Coffee Shop in Burnstown (85 km west of downtown Ottawa), and at Burdock in Toronto. She's presenting her latest album, Come Fall, whose songs are primarily concerned with emotional relationships.

“Lyrically, I think there's quite a few different threads that go through the album, but the most important one is the idea of giving love to other people. Whether you know people or not, to treat people around you with kindness and generosity, and just to try and express what you don't always say typically to people that you love, and to not be afraid to do that.”

One of the songs commemorates a close friend who died of cancer at age 34. “She was a really brilliant woman. She was doing her PhD at Oxford in science at that time, and was a marathon runner, and so fit and healthy and just full of life. That song was certainly inspired by her, and I know she wouldn't have wanted to write a sad song about her.”

“She, I think, was someone who inspired other people to live in a good way. She was always just so kind and giving of her time with everyone. She set a really good example for how to live life. I'm trying to pass that along to other people – it was the goal of that song.”

Another tune, “Stranger”, deals with broken relationships, opening with “I used to know your naked soul. Now we barely get along.”

“It's that idea of sometimes you know someone so well, and then something could happen and you see them on the street years later and they seem like a complete stranger at that time, even though it was someone you knew so closely. It's how relationships like that can change.”

Going minimalist

Unlike many jazz albums, Come Fall creates a strong focus on that message and on Doty's voice – with an unconventionally stripped-down style. That style was a deliberate choice, but not part of her original plans.

Her first album, Gold [2014], was a jazz/pop release with a full band including horns. In late 2016, she went back into the studio to test out her songs and record a few demos for the follow-up – again with a full band.

“I experimented a lot with different sounds and things, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with this album. We finished the session, and everyone sounded great – all the players were amazing.”

She and her two producers, drummer Davide DiRenzo (known for his work with Molly Johnson and Holly Cole) and pianist Mark Lalama, were sitting in the studio after the other musicians had left. DiRenzo suggested they try playing the tunes again just as a trio and “seeing what we could come up with”.

“I still remember going in there and putting on my headphones. I got goosebumps all over when we started to play with just the three of us. And I think I just knew that that was the right direction to go.”

“Once we homed in on that sound, and really stripped everything away, I think we all got such a powerful feeling from having the music be presented like that.”

“We ended up making a whole album with that sound.”

Davide DiRenzo ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Davide DiRenzo ©Brett Delmage, 2019

They worked without a bass player, she said, by having the piano covering “a lot of the low end of things, so it acts like a big bass, and then we tuned the bass drum on the drums for a lot of the songs, so it acts a little bit more like an instrument, versus just being a rhythmic element.”

Doty said she wrote more than a hundred songs over a couple of years for the album, giving her lots of options to choose from, and then worked with the producers to find songs they thought were really strong and also fit together well. “So it's a combination of that, making sure that you have the best works but also ones that there's a variety of tempos, and melodies, and keys. So having that variety in there too is important for building an album. And things that fit together thematically too.”

They recorded the album in early 2017, at Lalama's farm near Niagara in Ontario.

“It was like being at the Banff Centre [where Doty has studied several times], just being out in the middle of nowhere. Just having time and space to work when we felt inspired to be in there. If we wanted to stay up late one night or start early, we had that option to be flexible.”

Calgary's tight-knit jazz scene

The official album release, in March 2018 in Calgary, was much busier.

The 513-seat Bella Concert Hall in Calgary was sold out for the show. “It's really nice to, in your home town, feel like you have so much support. A lot of people from the jazz scene were spreading the word and promoting it and that was really nice to see.”

The jazz scene in Alberta is “more tight-knit”, she said: “I think the communities are a lot smaller [than in Central Canada], so I typically know everyone, from Calgary or Edmonton or even Saskatoon.”

An Ottawa connection

Doty has an Ottawa connection: a decade ago she studied jazz at Carleton University and played on the Ravens basketball team for a year. She still keeps in touch with Carleton music professor Dr. James Wright, who she said has promised to attend her show at the NAC. “He's just been super-supportive of my career.”

After that year, she had to have hip surgery, and moved back home to Calgary, in order to recover with help from family – but continued to perform jazz. She has returned to Ottawa three times in the last five years, most recently a year ago at GigSpace. Friday's show will be her debut at the National Arts Centre.

At this weekend's shows, audiences will hear songs from Come Fall, plus a couple songs from Doty's first album. “And I always like to throw in something that people will know or something that I've reimagined that they would know. That part will be a bit of a surprise – whether I do a reimagined standard or a pop song that I've reharmonized and done in a jazz style. I love to keep variety in there, and keep things in there that people will know as well.”

“And then I love to story-tell, so I talk a lot about where the songs came from and what it's like being on the road a lot. We have some good laughs. It's just fun to share with the audience and I like to interact, too, and get a chance to let them come back at me a little bit, too, which is fun.”

The songs on Come Fall were kept deliberately short (under 4 minutes), but Doty said they'll likely be stretched out in live performance. The trio will add more solos, having fun expanding the music, she said.

At the NAC and at Neat, she'll play with pianist Joel Visentin and drummer Benjamin Rollo. In Toronto, she'll return to the musicians on the album: DiRenzo and Lalama.

Doty has already toured this music extensively, with an 18-show Canadian tour in the spring and jazz festivals in the summer. In September, she presented it in Japan at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, with an outdoor show before “a couple thousand people” in Yoyogi Park, and an indoor show in Shibuya.

“It was incredible. I didn't realize what avid jazz fans they were there so that was very cool to see all the support for jazz music there.”

She said she's been asked to return to Japan in the next year, and is also planning a European tour.

Bringing the community together

As in her music, Doty has also emphasized kindness and generosity in an ongoing Christmas fundraiser she's been organizing in Calgary, in collaboration with local coffee retailer. Next December will be the third time they've raised money for local charities by selling a special holiday coffee roast – “we've already started the planning for that.”

“I've become dear friends with the owners there, I spent a lot of time just working on my laptop in their coffee shop over the years. So we decided two years ago to start this charity campaign at Christmas. I wrote a song, and they named a special roast of coffee after that song. We gave away free demos of the song, and we donated $5 from every bag that was sold to a local charity.”

Doty has been the public face of the campaign and performed at launch events, but also has organized all the publicity, hand-delivered coffee, and even put the stickers on all the coffee bags herself.

In 2017, the funds went to a drop-in and rehab centre in Calgary, and in 2018 to a family homeless shelter. “I think at Christmastime it becomes such a commercial time of year, and people are so focused on giving gifts. There are a lot of people that can't even afford the basic necessities, let alone gifts. So I think it's a really nice way to bring the community together around the holiday season.”

On Friday, April 12, Ellen Doty will perform with pianist Joel Visentin and drummer Benjamin Rollo in the Fourth Stage at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, starting at 8:30 p.m. The show is marked as sold out. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!

On Saturday, April 13, she will perform with the same musicians at Neat Coffee House in Burnstown, Ontario (85km west of Ottawa), at 8 p.m. Tickets for the show are $28.50. Dinner reservations for start times between 5:30 and 6:45 p.m. are also available. Neat Coffee House is located at 1715 Calabogie Road in Burnstown.

On Sunday, April 14, Doty will perform with pianist Mark Lalama and drummer Davide DiRenzo at Burdock Music Hall, at 9:15 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Burdock is located at 1184 Bloor Street West in Toronto.