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September 06, 2010
Kellylee Evans' French twist

Ottawa singer invited to Paris to make a CD reflecting her love of Nina Simone's music

By Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen September 6, 2010 9:50 AM

It was only after Kellylee Evans cleared customs in Paris last November that the happy truth sank in.

Once her passport was stamped, the Ottawa-based singer was off to record her third CD, at the request of a boutique jazz label on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

"It just seemed too good to be true," Evans recalls. In fact, the circumstances surrounding Nina, her new disc to be released Tuesday, played out almost exactly as Evans had fantasized, even before the label, Plus Loin Music, contacted her out of the blue.

When the label's e-mail came a little more than a year ago, Evans was feeling tired.

The fiercely independent artist with a foot in pop and a foot in jazz had two self-made CDs of her own compositions to her credit. The mother of three was away from home for part of every month, on the road promoting her music.

Her second-place finish at the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition ignited her career, even though subsequently Evans -- refusing to be part of the herd --made discs that were closer to pop and even smooth jazz than to the more traditional jazz she had sung at the competition finals in Washington, D.C.

Since the Monk competition, Evans has had high-profile gigs opening for Tony Bennett, George Benson and Chris Botti at various Canadian jazz festivals, where her big, expressive voice and effusive presence have garnered new fans.

However, late last summer, Evans, who is in her mid-30s, was fantasizing about something different happening in her career -- a break from all the DIY of it. She said to herself that she would love to work with a label so that in essence, all she would have to do is apply her singing to some material.

A week or so later, as if she had willed it to happen, Plus Loin contacted her. Evans was on the label's radar thanks to her Monk competition success, and the label had heard one of Evans' discs. Now, it had an offer: Would Evans like to come to Paris to record a disc of jazz standards?

Of course the answer was yes. Evans and the label then went back and forth on details, although in each case, the label keenly accepted Evans' suggestions rather than impose its will.

Even Herbie Hancock made his Grammy-winning Joni Mitchell tribute disc because a record label executive put the specific idea in his head. But Evans, a musician with far less of a track record or clout, pitched the idea of doing a Nina Simone tribute disc, and it was accepted. She submitted a list of songs, and it was accepted. She had a say in choosing the musicians who would accompany her. And when she got into the studio, Evans was in charge.

"I expected the musicians to be really bossy because they're so amazing," Evans says. "They're at such a higher level than me."

Instead, over two days, Evans brought out the playing she wanted from guitarist Marvin Sewell, with whom she had recorded her first disc, and two French musicians -- drummer Andre Ceccarelli and bassist François Moutin.

She had flown to Paris with not even a page of sheet music. She only had a list of songs, and for a few days before the recording session, she was holed up in her hotel, mentally arranging the material for the quartet.

"Everything had to be mapped out in a very facile kind of way because I'm not a musician," Evans says, meaning that as a self-taught jazz artist, her grasp of music theory lags behind her singing talent.

In the studio, before each song, Sewell scribbled out lead sheets for the band. Evans would suggest grooves and roadmaps for how songs would unfurl.

After two days, they had 12 concise tracks, ranging from jazz standards such as Mood Indigo and I Loves You Porgy to Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, the French torch song Ne me quitte pas and the disc's dramatic closer Wild Is The Wind.

Above all, the disc is a showcase for Evans' vivid singing. "It wasn't a desire to reproduce a Nina Simone CD," she says. "I was just to show people the songs that Nina Simone had taught me."

Evans says her feelings for Simone, a soulful, intensely passionate singer who died in 2003, have shifted drastically over the years.

Although Evans' late mother played Simone around the house, Evans did not enjoy Simone's music. "There was so much pain," Evans says. "She's really so forthright ... she doesn't mess around. She tells it like it is. She is really strong. I was frightened by that force."

Evans was more partial to "voices that were perfect." Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan were her first heroes, and indeed, when Plus Loin suggested a disc of jazz standards, Evans initially thought of paying tribute to Fitzgerald or Vaughan. However, legions of jazz singers from Nikki Yanofsky on down are to some degree following that path.

Evans remembered what Simone and her "hard, dour voice" had meant to her, and indeed to her late mother. "It was really challenging for me to listen to her initially, but I couldn't escape her," Evans says. "All of a sudden I was singing along with her. All of a sudden I wanted to introduce her music into my repertoire. I just had no choice to love her."

Next month and again next spring, Evans will return to France for short tours. Before Plus Loin contacted her, she had not performed in Europe.

Coming as it has, the Nina project has thrown her career for a bit of a loop.

"I kind of have to readjust," she says, explaining that she's not quite sure how her poppier originals and the jazzier Simone-related material fit on the same bill.

"I still don't really know what a Kellylee Evans concert is going to look like? Is is going to be 50-50?" she wonders.

That question, however, is more of a business consideration. Evans knows that in her musical heart, her originals and covers get along just fine.

"I've got my stuff that I'm writing ... and I feel like my writing's getting better -- that's still happening. And I feel like my need to express myself through standards is also being met.

"I finally feel like I'm doing everything that I wanted to do musically."

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Read more:
September 05, 2010

Sept 3, 2010

Evans & Wright
Kellylee Evans has a voice like a summer zephyr; Lizz Wright's evokes dark honey.  Both singers have new albums that glide between jazz and dusty soul and are at home with unhurried tempos »? and yet, neither will put you to sleep. In Nina, her tribute to Simone, the Ottawa-based Evans captures the late singer's dignity and verve and recasts her music in a starker, winding trio setting, illuminated by Marvin Sewell's spiraling guitars. Fellowship, Wright's collection of the gospel songs she grew up with in Georgia, is more expansive, ranging from acoustic guitar-and-handclap hoedowns to African vamps to full-on choir-led singalongs. This fall, both albums should bring a welcome blast of warm air from the songs of the south. Sept. 7 Mike Doherty
NINA is Number 2 on
September 02, 2010
Kellylee's new album, NINA, a tribute to Nina Simone, was released August 26th in France and has shot up to #2 on the sales charts of, France's largest online retailer.
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