Sienna Dahlen and François Jalbert
Court, mais jazz
La Nouvelle Scène
Saturday, October 8, 2016 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Sienna Dahlen's music floats comfortably in the intersection of jazz, singer-songwriter, chanson, art song, and cabaret. Her delivery and musicianship clearly show her jazz roots, but her songs are more confessional and intimate – and less swinging – than straight jazz.

God beams, short films, lots of stage fog, and audio distortion distracted from the fine musical performance  ©Brett Delmage, 2016
God beams, short films, lots of stage fog, and audio distortion distracted from the fine musical performance ©Brett Delmage, 2016

She's just released a new CD, Ice Age Paradise, a highly personal collection of songs chronicling a difficult time in her life. It was recorded with a nine-person ensemble including horns and strings, and, at shows this fall in Toronto and Montreal, she's presenting the music with the full ensemble.

But for Ottawa, she performed a stripped-down version: just her on vocals and keyboards, and François Jalbert on guitar. Even with simpler arrangements, the songs still ended up sounding rich and expressive, with Dahlen's strong and multi-octave voice well supported and underlined by Jalbert's inventive guitar lines.

Although the material was personal, the presentation was very Canadian: Dahlen switched effortlessly and frequently between English and French, within songs and during her introductions. This was partly because of the location: La Nouvelle Scène is Ottawa's francophone theatre space. But there was a easy naturalness to the interchange; it felt like simply another mode of expression rather than a political point – not surprising for a vocalist who divides her time between Montreal and Toronto.

Only two of the songs were from the new album. Three were from Dahlen's previous album, Verglas, and she also included a song by the late Montreal singer Lhasa de Sela.

Of the new songs, “Blind Spot” was a lament for a lost love, where Dahlen's soft, full vocals, the minor-key keyboards, and the flamenco-style guitar all contributed to a claustrophobic feeling of seeing no way to return. “Si je pouvais” was a solemn piece about love and commitment; its memorable, hopeful melody and strong piano chords swept the audience along, accented by supple guitar lines from Jalbert.

I particularly enjoyed the bilingual closing number, “Sanguine”, from Verglas. It contrasted Dahlen's sunny, clear soprano with Jalbert's punctuated guitar lines, in a optimistic number – half a Renaissance round song, half a percussive jazz number, with some impressively fun scatting.

Musically, this was a highly satisfying show. Otherwise … not so much.

Dahlen's show was the first in a new series at La Nouvelle Scene: “Court, mais jazz” [Short, but jazz]. The concept is that the music alternates with National Film Board short films, each from 5 to 15 minutes long. At this show, that meant that fully half of the 90 minutes was devoted to films, not music – not enough time to properly showcase Dahlen's songs.

The five NFB films shown included two old favourites which I enjoyed seeing again, and two recent films which each, in very different ways, packed a big emotional punch. All were high-quality in terms of style and story and well worth watching. But they didn't relate to each other, nor to the music. It made it difficult to create a consistent feel for the evening, with the styles and moods constantly changing and with usually only one song between each film.

The effect was scattershot, not consistent. It was as frustrating as riding your bike on a road with stop signs every block. As soon as you started getting into the music, the mood abruptly changed with another film.

On top of that, the sound and lighting didn't fit the intimate ambiance of the show. The music was over-amplified, to the extent that Dahlen's vocals were occasionally distorted. And the stage lighting was ridiculously grandiloquent: you don't need God Beams and high contrast for two musicians singing to 30-35 listeners. The unnecessary stage fog also interfered with the projected sharpness of the films.

The theatre is planning a second installment in this series on November 26, with Toronto flutist Bill McBirnie together with the trio of Ottawa saxophonist and flutist René Lavoie. It's a show I would normally be looking forward to, but I'm not convinced that this format does any favours to musicians or listeners.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List (all songs by Sienna Dahlen unless otherwise indicated)

  • Stray
  • Blind Spot
  • Si je pouvais
  • Verglas
  • J'arrive à la ville [Lhasa de Sela]
  • Sanguine

NFB films shown

  • Entrevue avec un homme libre / Interview with a Free Man [2015]
  • Un dimanche à 105 ans / A Sunday at 105 [2007]
  • Juke-Bar [1989]
  • Ondes et Silence / Quiet Zone [2014]
  • Voisins / Neighbours [1952]

Sienna Dahlen Ice Age Paradise Tour dates:

  • September 10: Toronto - Spadina Theatre - full ensemble
  • October 8: Ottawa - La Nouvelle Scène
  • October 9: Montreal - Resonance - album preview and video screening
  • October 29: Toronto - Music Gallery - full ensemble
  • November 24: Montreal - La Sala Rossa - full ensemble