This Friday, two Ottawa male vocalists will show how their voices can meld together to create a sound that can't be produced by just one.

It will be Boy's Night Out at the Shanghai, and Peter Liu and Floyd Hutchinson will sing songs from the Great American Songbook – some solo and some together

Peter Liu   ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Peter Liu ©Brett Delmage, 2012
It won't be your usual gig, Liu said. “I really haven't heard a lot of guys [doing this]. I've heard a lot of women doing group concerts together and doing interesting things together, but this was a real unique opportunity to showcase some guys and guys singing together in duet and trying different things and singing together in creative ways.”

Hutchinson and Liu have appeared separately at venues in Ottawa-Gatineau and have known each other for about four years, but this will be their first time as a duo. They will be accompanied by veteran Ottawa musicians Art Lawless on piano, Tom Denison on bass, and Glenn Robb on drums.

The two singers had tossed around the idea of a two-singer gig earlier at jam sessions, but it gelled after the National Art Centre's Manhattan on the Rideau masterclass that both took part in on April 3. “After experiencing that together, we decided now we were going to make this happen,” Liu said. “We're really happy about what we're doing. We've had a couple rehearsals and things have come together really nicely.”

Hutchinson concurred, saying that singing with Liu was “great”.

Both are tenors, but that doesn't mean they sound alike. “Floyd I think has a darker, maybe richer sound, and I have more of a smooth, I think maybe a little bit more of a classical tenor sound, and so I think when we're singing together, especially, there's a real nice complementary fusion that happens,” Liu said.

And that gives them more opportunities. “Even just the idea of singing together in duet – the more we sing together the more ideas come out of that, whether we're trading eights or fours or singing parts of the song together, or whether we're doing more of a call and response singing or one person is singing melody and the other the harmony. And maybe one person is improvising a little bit while the other person is singing the melody more straight. There is so many things that you can do that are impossible to do as a solo vocalist.”

Channeling the power of the lyrics

The set-list will include the Beatles' “Yesterday”, and a version of “Summertime” by George Gershwin which will “groove in a special way”. Liu said the two were also enjoying being challenged by Thelonious Monk's “'Round Midnight”: “it was a moving experience to practice this together, so we're hoping to channel the emotional power of the lyrics into our performance.”

The idea was to get enough variety to “showcase different sides of our vocal performance as well as a chance to express different emotional stories in the lyrics,” he said. “We wanted to pick the songs where we both overlap in our repertoire, to sing in duet together.”

“Our goal is to pay hommage to the standards, to really do some tasteful interpretations of them, so we're not going really outside and doing things that are too crazy, but we also want to make our own mark in our individual interpretations of these songs. And the ones that we're doing together we're hoping that there's some kind of synergy that comes out of it, something that's unexpected and something that's really alive and exciting.”

Tasting the creativity in the air

The show will be at the Shanghai restaurant in Chinatown, which is also not your typical jazz club. “Yes, It something you wouldn't normally think of – a Chinese restaurant? Creative arts? Jazz? But it works really well. And I think their openness and their willingness to take risks is something that is very inspiring,” Liu said.

“The Shanghai is really a wonderful – it's not really strictly a jazz venue but what I love about it is the intimacy of the place, the funky vibe, the really supportive atmosphere and above all I think you can almost taste the cultural and artistic creativity in the air, that's supplied by the [Kwan] family that is doing this. And there's always beautiful art and really interesting sculptures that are in the restaurant which add to the atmosphere.”

Floyd Hutchinson  ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Floyd Hutchinson ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Being inspired by Manhattan on the Rideau

Hutchinson said that the April Manhattan on the Rideau masterclass, with NYC vocalist Peter Eldridge, helped him a great deal. “When someone like Peter Eldridge gives you a critique, you should listen.” He said he has since worked on his singing technique based on Eldridge's suggestions, but the class gave him more: confidence in his singing and in his song choices.

In the long term, he said, he hoped that Eldridge's feedback would help him improve as vocalist, and lead to his eventual goal of putting out a CD.

Liu said that participating in the masterclass was a turning point for him. “It helped me feel a lot more confident in being able to put myself out there in a highly scrutinized performance experience, and learn to be really open and flexible in trying different things in terms of how I'm interpreting the songs, trying to change up some technique, taking in the advice from Peter Eldridge and trying to implement it right away – was a tremendous opportunity to expand and to learn to be more adaptable and flexible in my singing. And above all, it's to really focus on delivering the best sound that I can with the best phrasing I can through that openness instead of a more rigid approach or a more practiced approach.”

The intensive experience of the masterclass was actually empowering, he said, because “I realized that I can learn a lot more than I think I can. And there's a lot more directions that didn't even enter my mind to go into that I was exposed to.”

The class itself wasn't stressful, Liu said, partly because he had been planning and rehearsing for it, “but I think the real key was Peter Eldridge himself. He was such a calm, supportive presence with some really, really finely-tuned feedback that was easy to absorb and integrate. I didn't find it stressful at all to be in that situation. He really helped it to be a very safe learning environment.”

Hutchinson and he discussed the class afterwards and concluded that it helped to listen to each other – and to the third vocalist, Renée Yoxon – and to hear the feedback for all of them. “We were both just talking together about how it inspired us both to really focus on learning and growing more and trying new things and trying different things in what we do vocally.”

Growing the community of jazz vocalists

Liu said he hoped this Boy's Night Out would be the first of many dates to come, and might expand to include other male singers. “Sometimes people might have the impression that it's a competitive atmosphere, because there are many jazz vocalists in town for a limited number of venues, but I take a longer view on that. I think we can all support each other and encourage each other and work together in getting to know each other, rather than feel like we have to do our own thing and compete with each other. I don't think that's a helpful thing for the community in general. I think most of the people I have gotten to know – jazz vocalists – take more of that view as well. So it will be nice to develop that.”

   – Alayne McGregor