Ottawa Jazz Scene editor Alayne McGregor talks to singer Nicole Ratté about her musical path to the release of her first album.

You can hear the excitement and anticipation in Nicole Ratté's voice, right down the telephone wire.

Nicole Ratte CD: When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful (courtesy of Nicole Ratte)
Nicole Ratte CD: When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful (courtesy of Nicole Ratte)
The Ottawa jazz singer will launch her first CD on March 19, at a concert at the NAC Fourth Stage. It's the culmination of two years of planning and work, and close collaboration with several local musicians – and she's proud of it.

But she's come to this milestone by a path particularly her own. A francophone vocalist in a primarily English-speaking genre, a musician who didn't discover jazz until well into adulthood, and an entrepreneur who has opened up new venues to jazz, Ratté hasn't followed the standard jazz career.

She was raised in a family that was "wall to wall music" – but not jazz.  She sang in the church choir, and played guitar and sang in her own pop band as a teenager. After high school, Ratté studied piano and cello at a private college of music.

But then she decided she didn't want to teach, and instead went into business administration. She worked for years in that field, always keeping up her (mostly classical) music on the side. As she entered her 30s, she got involved in vocal groups, and started concentrating on singing.

In 1996, a fellow vocalist convinced her to try the JazzWorks summer jazz workshop. "That's when I really fell in love with it [jazz]." She met some wonderful musicians who accompanied her into her discovery of jazz, lending  her cassettes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, and preparing her charts.

Since then, she's sung in everything from duos to big bands. Singing with the Big Band Caravane, she said, gave her more confidence that her light voice could be heard on stage. She played for three months at the Hilton Lac-Leamy, working with local jazz pianist J.P. Allain, and learning how jazz standards are structured and how to sing them and more about charts.

"Since I was not born into it, I had to learn everything."

"I still feel I'm a beginner
because it's so vast – jazz"

In 2004, she created her Jazz Workshop for vocalists to teach them how to sing jazz, because the director of a music school where she was taking lessons offered her the opportunity. Working with Allain (a former teacher), she prepared the courses minute by minute. They were a success, but she also ended up learning "so much" herself doing them, filling in gaps in her own knowledge. "I still feel I'm a beginner because it's so vast – jazz – but of course I know more than four years ago."

She's performed four times at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, but in the last few years most of her performances have been on the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River – at locations like the Molto Kitchen, the Bacci Bistro, and the Chelsea Pub. Ratté introduced jazz into the latter two venues – partly due to the owner of the salon where she had her hair done, who also owned a local restaurant where Ratté started booking jazz. That owner then recommended her to the Chelsea Pub and Bacci.

The greater number of venues in Quebec has grown the audience for jazz there, she says – "and people love it." Ratté says there isn't a great deal of difference between Ottawa and Gatineau audiences, other than the balance between English and French in the between-song patter, and most people living in this region are used to hearing both languages in a performance. "If you speak slowly when you speak French, you know most of the anglophones will understand, too."

Ratté said she had started thinking about recording an album a decade ago, but health problems interfered. "But I'm glad I waited because I'm way more ready [now]." She started planning this album two years ago, and J.P. Allain started writing arrangements for it 18 months ago.

The CD's title, When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful, reflects its content: "there are no sad songs on the CD; it's a happy, tender, warm CD". It also reflects her current situation. "Everything's settled now in my life; I'm happy and things are great."

"I'm not a singer who
would always like to sing
cute and easy songs.
I like challenges."

She started with a list of 60 songs which she loved, and after discussions with Allain and sound engineer and bassist Normand Glaude, narrowed it to 14: songs suited to her voice and which had special meaning for her. Two songs she loved but the other musicians hesitated at turned out to be "two of the best" on the album. She recorded all 14 songs, intending to pick the best 12, but ended up not being able to remove any.

The pieces are in English, except for “Besame Mucho” ("Normand insisted we do it"), "La Maison sous les Arbres" by Gilbert Bécaud, and a French version of a song by Jobim. Singing mostly in English was a challenge, she said, because the sensitive microphones forced her to work very hard on her accent. But she didn't want to sing French songs just because she is a francophone, and since most jazz is in English, that's what she wanted to sing.

Ratté said she "just fell in love" with the CD's title song when she first heard it sung by Bryan Ferry on his jazz album. "His voice was so emboutant; I couldn't stop listening to that CD and that specific song. It said such beautiful things. It makes a difference in your day." The song was originally composed for Fats Waller, and "it has that old-timey, swing feel. It's very different from anything else on the album." She said it was one of the first songs she wanted on the CD.

Besides Allain on piano and Glaude on bass, the musicians on the CD include other area favourites: Denis Ouellet on drums, Mike Tremblay on saxophone, Don Paterson on trumpet, René Gely on guitar, and Rob Graves on percussion. The launch concert will feature slightly fewer musicians: Allain, Glaude, and Ouellet, plus Vince Rimbach on saxophone.

At the concert, Ratté will sing all the songs on the CD, plus a few more "babies I had to reject" for the album: "the songs that I particularly like or are significant, but that are interesting, that make the show very vibrant, [with] lots of different textures.”

"I want something relaxed and simple, but I'm not a singer who would always like to sing cute and easy songs. I like challenges, I like different rhythms; I like when there's a lot of nuance in the show. I like it when the ceiling wants to explode, and I like it when it's very, very quiet."

Ratté is already planning her next album, which she hopes will take less time and less energy. With this recording, “I learned a lot about my voice and about some things I was doing that I was not aware of.” The next time she records “I'll know more how to work, to be ready for the studio; it's such a wonderful experience and I really learned a lot.”

– Alayne McGregor

Nicole Ratté will launch her first CD on March 19 at a concert at the NAC Fourth Stage. See the listing