See the review of this concert: Warm and sincere, Denzal Sinclaire wows the orchestra audience

Denzal Sinclaire used to get upset when people compared his singing style to that of jazz vocal legend Nat King Cole.

Juno-nominated vocalist Denzal Sinclaire (photo courtesy of Denzal Sinclaire)
Juno-nominated vocalist Denzal Sinclaire (photo courtesy of Denzal Sinclaire)

“I would spend a lot of anxious time, saying 'I'm not trying to sound like him. It's just kind of there',” the Juno-nominated jazz vocalist said.

“Then after a while I just accepted it. It's essentially a compliment. And it's also if I were to have been a classically-trained vocalist, and with any sort of appealing-sound voice, [fans] might say that I sounded like Pavarotti – you know what I mean? It's a category. So I got that after a while."

In fact, Sinclaire has often included in his own repertoire songs which Cole made famous, albeit not sung in exactly the same way. And on February 20-22, he will sing those songs in Ottawa together with the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

This will be Sinclaire's first appearance in Ottawa in almost a decade; he was last here in 2005 at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, opening for Diana Krall.

The three evenings are billed as “Denzal Sinclaire Sings the Nat King Cole Songbook and more”. The “more” is an important distinction, because while the first set will be all-Nat King Cole, the second set will be Sinclaire's own choices.

The show is actually a collaboration between Sinclaire and conductor Jeff Tyzik, who created new “fleshed-out” arrangements of the songs for symphony orchestra in a Pops setting.

“It was Jeff's brainchild, and he approached me about it. And the selling factor for me was that it was just half of the show: the first half would be from the Nat King Cole Songbook, and the second half would be tunes that I normally perform.”

They debuted the show about a year ago with orchestras in Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton: “those were the pilots. It's pretty fresh.” The Ottawa performances are the show's only appearance in 2014, and they will have a few dates in the United States in 2015.

[Singing with an entire orchestra behind him]
It's like going from driving a Corolla to a Bentley.
– Denzal Sinclaire

The Nat King Cole set-list will include suggestions from both him and Tyzik, Sinclaire said. It balances between highly recognizable numbers which topped Billboard charts like “Mona Lisa” or “Nature Boy” – and not-so common ones like “To the Ends of the Earth”, which only “a real Nat King Cole fan, a real fan who has a lot of his recordings” might know.

The second set will include “songs that resonate with me, that have for the most part a decent message.” It will include Great American Songbook “chestnuts” like “You and the Night and the Music”, but also more recent pop songs such as “Follow You, Follow Me” by Genesis, and a song that's only a few years old (whose title Sinclaire wanted to keep as a surprise) by UK singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka.

On his own albums, Sinclaire has played with at most five other musicians. What's it like singing with an entire orchestra behind him?

“Well, it's a grander sound, so it is inspiring. I might hold notes a little longer. At times it does affect the way I might project, but it's certainly not overwhelming or overbearing. It's like going from driving a Corolla to a Bentley.”

And he certainly won't be doing a note-by-note copy of Cole's interpretations. “I could see where you could be trapped because something that has a stamp on it, it's very easy to do it that way. For me, I do stay somewhat true to the original recording, but I can't help but project a little bit my perspective as well, just because there is only one of each of us. It's going to be an individual interpretation regardless of how similar it might sound in theory.”

Although many of his performances and all his albums have featured him playing piano as well as singing, Sinclaire said his primary role in Ottawa would be as a vocalist. “I will play a little guitar, which is new, I'll have a little melodica, but I'll leave the piano playing to someone else.”

In Ottawa. that will be Ottawa pianist Mark Ferguson, who together with bassist John Geggie and drummer Dave Mancini, will form a jazz trio playing with the orchestra.

Attracted by Nat King Cole's “gentler approach” to singing

Sinclaire's connections to Nat King Cole go back to childhood. He was first introduced to jazz informally through his parents' record collection which included musicians like Duke Ellington. Although they had a few Nat King Cole records, they were all vocal records: “I only realized that Nat played piano when I was visiting my uncle in New York years later.”

But he wasn't really aware of jazz as a genre until high school, when “some of my contemporaries were way ahead of me in terms of listening to interesting music, and jazz and so they tried to hip me to that. A cousin of mine had some John Coltrane records and he hipped me to that.”

Sinclaire said he was attracted to Nat King Cole's music as a child because of its “soothing effect”. He liked Cole's “gentler approach” to singing instead of belting out songs. “I resonated with that very much and there's a similarity there. ... It was a natural fit for me.”

Listening to Cole influenced Sinclaire's vocal style, he said. As a child, he enjoyed singing along to Cole's records: “I liked the sound of his voice and it felt comfortable.” He also liked Cole's understated approach, he said, and how different he sounded from other vocalists.

I won't play piano if you don't sing.
– Nat King Cole to Oscar Peterson

Both he and Cole were also pianists. Sinclaire noted that Cole started out as a pianist and was influential in that way in addition to as a vocalist: “That was where he made a big impression and won a few Downbeat awards for the great trio that they had. And then the singing started to overshadow that, but the piano playing was very sophisticated the way they worked together in the sections: the piano, guitar and bass. A very sophisticated group with interesting arrangements.”

He pointed that modern musicians like John Pizzarelli and Diana Krall were also influenced by Cole. Both have made tribute albums to him.

And definitely Oscar Peterson, who was a big fan of Cole, and appeared on Cole's network television show many times. “Oscar did a vocal album dedicated to Nat. His singing voice was very similar to Nat's. There was this urban legend that apparently Nat said [to Oscar], 'I won't play piano if you don't sing.' ”

A strong connection to many Canadian jazz musicians

Looking at Sinclaire's career, one aspect that stands out is how much he has become part of the jazz scene in each city he's lived in – Montreal, Vancouver, and now Toronto – performing with many well-known Canadian musicians in a wide range of groups and styles.

After graduating from McGill University with a degree in Jazz Performance, Sinclaire gigged around Montreal, where he first started performing with guitarist Bill Coon. Inspired by Coon's compositions for strings, Sinclaire had the idea “it would be neat to hearken back to the days of the great collaborations between like Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra.” They ended up recording for CBC and Radio Canada.

While in Montreal, he also heard several concerts by tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake. Sinclaire found one performance Blake did of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” so memorable – “I just thought it was a fantastic arrangement” – that he eventually had Blake play that song on his third album. The two performed a vocal-sax duet.

In 1995, a Vancouver producer phoned up Sinclaire and offered him the starring role of Nat King Cole in a new musical called Unforgettable. Not wanting to be stereotyped, “my knee-jerk reaction was 'No, thanks!' The last thing I wanted to do was to portray Nat King Cole. But it was at a time when I was starting to see the world differently and realizing that opportunities come in non-obvious forms. They come in disguise, so 'OK, I'll embrace this and do justice to one of my heroes, but also try to maintain a sense of me'. So that's what I did.”

It ended up being “a great way to be introduced” to Vancouver, allowing him to meet “an instant family, and then I ended up staying there for about 11 years.”

He also brought Coon along with him to work in that production, and Coon and his wife Jill Townsend ended up becoming “a big part of the music community” in Vancouver. Sinclaire said he would be back there in December to sing with Townsend's big band in a tribute to the Frank Sinatra-Count Basie Sinatra at the Sands live album.

While in Vancouver, Sinclaire released three CDs, two of which were nominated for Juno awards in the vocal jazz category. He also received the 2004 National Jazz Award for best album. His most recent two albums featured a mixture of Vancouver and American musicians, and the latest one, My One and Only Love [2005], was produced by Vancouver multi-instrumentalist Brad Turner.

Together with prominent Vancouver musicians Cory Weeds and Chris Gestrin, he and Coon formed The B3 Kings, a Hammond organ quartet.

“That's a fun project where I get to play drums and sing. They've been very generous letting me play drums: I get a little better every year, a little better. But it's fun. That started off as a benefit for the Jazz Cellar, and then it became an annual [event]. We're merrymaking just about every December. We've been doing it a good eight years now.”

On Montreal jazz vocalist Elizabeth Shepherd's 2013 album, Rewind, she included a duet with Sinclaire, and described him as “a lovely soul and a huge, tremendous musician ...I love his voice and I love him as a person.” Sinclaire said the duet was fun, and he was honoured to have been part of the record.

They've also recently performed together in Michael Occhipinti's Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon project, a jazz reinterpretation of Lennon's music. “I wasn't initially in the conception, but at some point they wanted to try something different in the recording, so I ended up doing a couple of tunes and ended up performing with that group a couple of times. It's nice: collaborating is fun and it keeps things kind of fresh and you get ideas,” Sinclaire said.

Looking for a little bit more artistic freedom beyond crooning

Besides singing, Sinclaire has had some small parts in films and in the TV show Battlestar Galactica, and acted in two theatre productions. Since moving back to Toronto, he's been teaching in the jazz program at Humber College. And he's guested on a wide range of albums, including an album of a previously unpublished melodies by Harry Warren, a multi-Oscar-winning composer.

He's learning guitar, to supplement but not replace, the piano. “It's just another colour. And it's interesting learning another instrument: I suppose it would be like learning a new software. It makes you think a bit differently, or just opens up your mind.”

Currently, Sinclaire said he is in a “phase of re-evaluating, just reinventing. Just re-evaluating what I might want to do next. So I've been playing some guitar, and thinking of some projects that I might do, not under the Denzal Sinclaire moniker, but things that would give a little bit more artistic freedom. Denzal Sinclaire is pretty much a jazz guy.”

“I was in Germany for a little bit, a little over a year, and I ended up being in a pop band which was fun and a great experience. ... Because I like other types of music, I might want to pursue other styles not necessarily under Denzal Sinclaire. That's because it can get a little confusing when people have expectations. Not that I'm a straight-ahead jazzer anyway, but people definitely do associate me with the American popular song, even though I actually incorporate a more contemporary interpretation of, for example, “I Got Rhythm”. But still Denz is a crooner, and that's cool, and I'll just leave that and if anything else comes off, it will just be under a project name. And I love the idea.”

    – Alayne McGregor

See also: