Canada's National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Thursday, November 15, 2018 - 8:30 p.m.
Love, anguish, and triumph are celebrated in jazz vocalist/pianist Elizabeth Shepherd's latest album, a personal tribute to many visions of Montreal. She gave the album its premiere in Ottawa on Thursday at Canada’s National Arts Centre.
It was the first stop on her launch tour for MONtreal (a play on the French for “my Montreal”), that will shortly take her and her four bandmates across Western Canada, as well as to Toronto and of course Montreal – and next year over to Europe.
The album, though, is very specifically tied to Montreal, which Shepherd considers her home town. At the NAC show, she performed all 11 tracks on the album, plus two tunes on earlier albums, to a welcoming and interested reception from the audience.
As she told the crowd, each track on the album is associated with a specific location in the city, and based on an interview with someone living there, telling the story of their Montreal. Some, like her mother, she knew well; others were complete strangers picked at random. Over a five-year period, she interviewed 40-50 people, then culled the interviews down to 11 and wrote and recorded the songs.
Ironically, Shepherd recently moved out of Montreal. She explained to the audience that she now lives in the Laurentians, outside the city, because she and her husband have two children, and “it's a much saner way to raise kids out in nature.”
As she was developing the project, Shepherd said she realized it was more than just music. She collaborated with a filmmaker to create a film about the project, and wrote a book “because I learned so much and there's so much to share.” They will both be released February 8. The NAC show had originally been planned to also include visuals, but it was announced at the show that they were unable to do so that evening because of unspecified technical difficulties.
Some of the songs were in English; more were in French, and the first piece was dedicated to the Mohawk peoples who originally settled that area at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers – all reflecting the cultural and linguistic diversity of the city. Shepherd introduced almost all the songs with interesting and well-told stories about the people at their core or how she developed that song. She spoke in both English and French, easily and frequently switching between the two.
In picking the stories, she didn't shy away from talking about the city's gritty underbelly. “Our Lady” was inspired by one woman's harrowing story of how she managed to get out of an abusive relationship without dying. It opened with a deep, ominous bass beat, and featured harsh, crying solos from trumpet and electric guitar, almost shrieking – all adding to its dramatic impact.
One of the most compelling songs was “Suits and Ties”, based on her interview with the owner of a gay club which was raided by the police in 1977 with 140 men in the club arrested for simply being there. The next day, thousands protested, laying down on the street and saying this was enough. The protests eventually led to Quebec passing a law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the second place in the world to do so.
Shepherd opened that song with a clip from her interview with the owner, and interspersed another partway through, using his own voice to tell the story. It was an overall hopeful and anthemic piece, with a percussive dance beat adding tension to the first section, and then moving to a more flowing and optimistic vibe with powerful trumpet calls closing the piece.
Throughout, she used melody, percussion, and a rich mix of instruments to underline the lyrics and add emotional intensity to the stories, each with a style appropriate to that narrative. Overall the sound was driving and exciting, with considerable contributions from all the musicians.
She recruited four well-known jazz musicians from Toronto and Montreal for this tour: guitarist Michael Occhipinti, trumpeter Jacques Kuba Séguin, bassist Rémi-Jean Leblanc, and drummer Mark Nelson. All but Occhipinti played on the recording; he and Shepherd have regularly played together on their individual projects. Shepherd herself contributed vocals and keyboards (in several different voices), as well as samples and percussion from her laptop.
On “Reine du Monde” (dedicated both to Shepherd's mother and to a Montreal cathedral), Kuba Séguin's trumpet sang joyfully over radiant keyboards and guitar, while Nelson's energetic drumming and Leblanc's steady bass lines created a strong forward momentum over which Shepherd's heartfelt vocals flowed sweetly.
I particularly enjoyed “Good Lord's Work”, which was dedicated to Union United Church, “the heart and soul” of Montreal's anglophone black community in Little Burgundy. Opening with muscular bass and guitar riffs, the song's syncopated, gospel-influenced vibe was accented by hard-edged trumpet calls and drumming, as Shepherd repeatedly called out “Do it, do it, doing the Good Lord's work”.
In her first four albums, and in particular in her jazz standards album Rewind , Shepherd's sound tended more to jazz and soul with strong melodies showing off her appealing soprano voice. But on The Signal , her sound became more funkified with a hint of electronic dance music, and that sound was still present – albeit slightly less, and less in the live show than on the album.
Nevertheless, a number of the songs, notably “C'est Le Temps” and “Our Lady”, were dominated by strong hip-hop beats, with the jazz sound less obvious. This worked in context for some songs, but I found the beat-driven tunes generally less appealing and less diverse in their sounds.
The NAC audience was attentive throughout the show, ending with strong and extended applause and even a few people giving a standing ovation. One of the songs that got the strongest reaction was “The Terminal”. Its upbeat mix of bluesy guitar riffs, propulsive drumming, and soaring trumpet lines evoked Montreal's jazz scene from the 1920s to 40s, when the city was known as the “Harlem of the North”.
Shepherd explained the background: “When Prohibition came to the States, and English Canada went dry, there was still booze in Quebec. And so everyone came to Montreal. It was THE spot in North America at that time. And all the jazz greats would come up, would play, would stay some of them for a while.”
One story which particularly spoke to her was that of a horn player named Mynie Sutton and his band the Ambassadors. They had a house gig at a club called The Terminal for a year playing 5 or 6 nights a week. They were the first all-black dance band in Canada and they were hugely successful for several years.
When the clubs started preferring white musicians, Sutton packed it in and went back to Niagara Falls. He worked on the railways, but never really quit music. He kept teaching music on the side right up until his final days.
“I found him so beautiful because many times I've thought, 'That's it. I quit.' You know, it's tough, a career in the arts and music. But you always get pulled back in! Because you know when you love it, you just can't quit. So this is to all of that: The Terminal, the Strip, the abandoned lots which are now about to house luxury condos where there once was the stuff of legends. Because it never really died.”
All songs by Elizabeth Shepherd and from MONtreal unless otherwise specified:
- Reine du Monde
- Suits and Ties
- La Boxe
- Good Lord's Work
- Long as You're Living / Oscar Brown Jr., Julian Priester and Tommy Turrentine [from Parkdale]
- The Terminal
- C'est Le Temps
- Our Lady
- Beau Voyage
- Parkdale [from Parkdale]
MONtreal CD Launch Tour:
- November 15, 2018: Ottawa, ON – National Arts Centre, 4th Stage
- November 16, 2018: Montreal, QC – CINARS, Monument National
- November 17 2018: Brandon, MB – The Music Studio
- November 18, 2018: Regina, SK – The Artesian, w Andrea Ramolo
- November 20, 2018: Lion’s Bay, BC – house concert
- November 22, 2018: Salmon Arm, BC – Salmon Arm Jazz Club
- November 23, 2018: Revelstoke, BC – Revelstoke Jazz Club
- November 24, 2018: Edmonton, AB – Yardbird Suite
- November 25, 2018: Kamloops, BC – Kamloops United Church
- November 26, 2018: Nelson, BC – Shambhala Hall
- November 28, 2018: Penticton, BC – The Dream Café
- November 29, 2018: Canmore, AB – Artsplace
- November 30, 2018: Calgary, AB – Lolita’s
- December 1, 2018: Saskatoon, SK – The Bassment
- February 8, 2019: Toronto, ON – The Music Gallery
- February 9, 2019: Montreal, QC – Le Ministere
- March 7, 2019: Cranbrook, BC – Auntie Barb’s
- March 8, 2019: Kaslo, BC – Langham Theatre
- March 9, 2019: Vernon, BC – The Vernon Jazz Club
- March 10, 2019: Vancouver, BC – Murray Adaskin Salon
- May 8, 2019: Madrid, Spain – Sala Clamores
- May 12, 2019: Karlsruhe, Germany – TBA
- May 14, 2019: Paris, France – Centre Culturel Canadien
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