ELIZABETH SHPHERD TRIOCD release party, with the MOVEMENT COLLECTIVE and DB CLIFFORD at Supermarket (268 Augusta), Wednesday (September 20), 9 pm. $10. www.dorightmusic.com Rating: NNNNN
The upwardly mobile couples who've stopped by Le Saint Tropez on King West for a late dinner Monday evening are too engrossed in their swordfish fusilli to take much notice of the sad-eyed woman at the piano scatting through a stirring version of Bye Bye Blackbird.
As Elizabeth Shepherd finishes her first set, a brazen gent at a corner table puts down his fork and enthusiastically applauds her performance, causing the befuddled regulars to crane their necks to see if some Hollywood celeb in town early for the film festival has wandered in to ask directions.
False alarm. They go back to their meals and idle chatter, oblivious to the fact that the entertainer they've been talking over all night is one of Canada's most promising young jazz talents.
It's like the scene in Franois Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player where the Charlie Kohler character portrayed by Charles Aznavour who happens to be taking his final bow at the Hummingbird Centre Friday (September 15) pounds the keys at a dingy Paris bistro each night for boorish patrons unaware that he's actually a celebrated classical pianist. The difference is that Shepherd is a rising star of the nu-jazz scene in Europe and England.
"It's funny. This whole thing began as kind of a fluke," explains Shepherd. "While I was studying music at McGill, I thought I might go into music therapy or maybe teach music, but I never seriously considered making a living as a performer."
She actually started working at Le Saint Tropez as a server when she first moved to Toronto from Montreal two years ago.
"On my application I listed my music studies at McGill, so they asked me if I could sing. Of course I said, "Yeah, sure,' even though I'd never sung any jazz before. So I busted my ass learning as many tunes as I could, and I'm happy to say that my first shift as a singer/pianist was my last as a waitress. It felt like fate had intervened."
In August, Shepherd's trio (with bassist Scott Kemp and drummer Colin Kingsmore) made their UK debut at London's famed Jazz Cafe, where they rocked a packed house of jazz dancers with the groove-heavy joints from her fabulous new Start To Move (Do Right!) disc.
Judging by the overwhelmingly positive reports, the stage and the studio are where she belongs not wasting time providing background music for snooty Chardonnay sippers who'd probably rather listen to a dreary Diana Krall disc on repeat.
It seems that fate is still on Shepherd's side. Just days after hearing that Jazz Cafe programmer Adrian Gibson, totally impressed with her kick-ass opening set for Finland's Five Corners Quintet, wanted to book her trio for a week-long residency at the club to coincide with the UK release of the album in October, Shepherd found out that her services would no longer be required at Le Saint Tropez. Boo freakin' hoo.
"Playing at the Jazz Cafe was the best night of my life and also the most nerve-racking. For one thing, I've only ever played small clubs not concert venues and no one there knew who we were, so I really didn't know how the crowd would react to my music. That's a scary situation. We opened with the song Start To Move, and from the first note I could tell that my guys were on it. People began to dance right away, and they kept on dancing for the entire set.
"It wasn't like some clubs here where people get smashed and lose themselves on the floor. Everyone was listening really closely and interacting with the music. That was amazing for me, because I've never had anyone dance to something I was playing, ever. It's hard to describe my Jazz Cafe experience; this might sound corny, but it was like finding a family I never knew I had."
Hearing the rhythmically assertive concept Shepherd and her super-tight crew came up with for the Start To Move album, it makes sense that their head-nodding jams connected with the London jazz dance scenesters who read Straight No Chaser, buy Adrian Gibson's Messin' Around CD compilations Shepherd's track Four appears on the just-released Messin' Around: A Decade Of Dancefloor Jazz (Freestyle) double disc and listen to Gilles Peterson's BBC Worldwide radio show every Sunday.
It's undeniably powerful, thoughtfully composed and tastefully arranged music with a relentless groove, but there's still some doubt about whether Shepherd will be able to find an audience for her sound on this side of the ocean.
"I'd actually had these tunes written for a while, but I never went ahead and recorded them because I was always concerned about whether they were proper jazz. It wasn't that I was worried what listeners might think, because most people couldn't give a shit about whether something is "jazz enough,' but that stuff matters to me. I never try to categorize the music I make, but the reality is that you need to have an idea of who you're trying to reach.
"In North America, there's a very clear-cut separation between jazz music and club music with nothing in between. That's where (Movement DJ and Do Right! label boss) John Kong was very helpful as the co-producer. He introduced me to what was happening in Europe right now with artists like the Five Corners Quintet, Povo and Koop. They made me realize that people in different parts of the world are doing things very similar to what I had in mind, and there's a demand for it."
Interestingly enough, tastemaking Jazz FM 91.1 host Bill King and various CBC programmers have been focusing on Shepherd's soulful update of Jean-Pierre Ferland's melancholic standard Ton Visage, which happens to be the album's lone ballad. While it demonstrates Shepherd's refined interpretive skill (check out Celine Dion's woefully mawkish version for comparison), the downtempo 6/8 shuffle is very different from the rest of Start To Move.
It could be that Shepherd's concept, which is no closer to contemporary fusion than it is to old-school soul jazz, may be a little too progressive to fit existing jazz radio formats here. She's willing to wait until they catch up.
"Just out of curiosity, I've been Googling regularly to find out who's playing what and which songs are doing well where, and you're right that Ton Visage was getting some play at first. But it seems that the other songs from the album are getting played even more, which is a good sign.
"The deeper I get into the business of music, the more I'm realizing just how much image and song selection can affect whether or not an artist is accepted in a certain scene. It's strange, and, honestly, I feel a bit like an outsider in the jazz world, but that's all right with me. It's more important that I just do my thing and make this last a lifetime."