Megan Jerome and the Together Ensemble
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Monday, December 17, 2018 – 7:30 p.m.
It was a very personal – but also very sociable – concert at the NAC Fourth Stage as Ottawa vocalist Megan Jerome celebrated the one-year anniversary of her most recent album.
Jerome's sunny smile encompassed everyone in the room, as she praised her band, celebrated a friend's 50th birthday, told how she collaborated with choreographer Tedd Robinson, promoted everything from Pilates exercises to a friend's campaign to fund a community kitchen to teach kids in Vanier to cook, and explained how she used pictures as seeds for her songs.
Throughout, she sang her original music and lyrics, her appealing voice combining with the rich instrumentation of the musicians behind her in a stream of images, emotions, melody, harmony – and quite a few love songs.
Jerome, sitting behind her vintage Wurlitzer piano, was supported by her Together Ensemble: Don Cummings on Hammond organ (provided by the NAC so he didn't have to cart in his own), Fred Guignion on electric guitar, and husband Mike Essoudry on drums. Her latest CD, Ooh Aah! had had its release at the Fourth Stage a year before, almost to the day. She performed many of the songs from that CD, along with others across her career.
Each tune was a scene or point in time, captured in miniature. The opening number, “Flora”, vividly evoked the joie de vivre and magic of a local bag lady, in simple but effective rhyming lyrics over a delicate melody.
The imagery in Jerome's lyrics is vivid and immediate. In songs such as “A Field! The Moon! The Stars!” or “Skating”, the visual feel of the words drags you in: “milk-white under a bowl of stars”, “tin-foil pie-plate stars”, “floating like the little glass angel that hangs from the tree”.
I've always enjoyed the hypnotic and beautifully timed flow of words in her song “Love”: “old love”, “bold love”, “gold love”, “hold love”, “soul love”, and so on, which she let develop slowly, using the repetition like an ever-increasing wave – echoed by guitar, organ, piano, and drums. And I liked how Jerome used the central image of a glowing candle in both her lyrics for “Candles” (which she told the audience was inspired by Chagall), but also to inspire the flowing and serene melody.
The tunes' melodies and instrumental accompaniment also substantially increased the impact of those lyrics. For example, the joyful R&B vibe of “Love Lift Us”, with its strong organ lines, underlined the hopeful message of that song, while the slinky feel of Guignion's steel guitar and Cummings' organ on “Stars Streak Across the Sky” was an excellent match to Jerome's sensuous lyrics and sultry delivery.
Other songs ranged from soulful with bluegrass overtones (“Let It Come”), to atmospheric with wordless vocals (“Ooh Aah!” and “The Way You Love Me Is As Big As the Moon”), to sweet and sincere (“Mike”, her love song to Essoudry), to flowing country-gospel (“I Am”). The stripped-down “Breath”, with its mesmerizing and building rhythms that underlined and echoed its lyrics, was particularly memorable.
My favourite moment of the show was when she resurrected one of her earlier songs, "Chanson d'Embonpoint" aka “Boobs”, and introduced it by telling the story of how her mother took her at age 11 to buy her very first brassiere. The snooty clerk at The Bay treated them with disdain when her mother explained, and just waved them over to the brassiere racks, not caring in the least how important an occasion this was. But her mother took her revenge – before they walked out, she had completely and carefully disarranged the entire bra section. She was not a woman to be trifled with. The song itself is funny and warm and very true for many women, and left everyone laughing – and strongly applauding and cheering at the end.
Jerome describes herself as a singer-songwriter, but she's certainly not a standard guitar-strumming singer. She has a degree in jazz piano and has often sung with well-known local jazz stalwarts: for example, in duets with Roddy Ellias, as a featured vocalist in several of Rob Frayne's Dream Bands, and singing Nancy Wilson numbers in René Lavoie's Cannonball Adderley tribute. Essoudry and Cummings similarly have strong jazz credentials.
Both in its range of styles and rich instrumentation, and in the pointedness and importance of her lyrics, I'd describe her music as jazz-influenced cabaret – particularly in songs like “Amour”, a very intense and intimate love song sung à la Piaf in both French and English.
Central to her performance, though, is telling stories, both in her songs and in her between-song patter. Jerome's in-concert persona is downright bubbly, inviting everyone in to enjoy her music and appreciate the musicians playing with her. And you could see the audience responding to that friendliness. Despite it being a Monday night, the place was packed, and the audience began clapping as Jerome walked to the stage.
The ensemble closed with “Fuck It! Your Voice is Love!” from Ooh Aah! – a polemic in favour of the power of creativity and against the destructive jealousy of comparing yourself on social media. “If you're hurting, make something – creativity heals!”
Jerome encouraged everyone in the audience to sing backup to her on the song. It built and built and built with her preaching her message over the singing and an increasingly intense instrumental groove – before climaxing in an extended organ solo and much of the audience singing together with Jerome in celebrating “your voice”. The audience then erupted in extended applause and cheers.
Megan Jerome and the Together Ensemble will next be featured in the 2019 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival on February 9.
- A Field! The Moon! The Stars!
- Let It Come
- Love Lift Us
- Stars Streak Across the Sky
- Ooh Aah
- The Way You Love Me Is As Big As the Moon
- Chanson d'Embonpoint
- Starry Star
- I Am
- Lumières Tortières
- Fuck It! Your Voice is Love!
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