Kellylee Evans does Nina Simone On New Album Nina.

Kellylee Evans in performance

By Lenny Stoute

Photo at right:Kellylee in performance

Ottawa neojazz singer Kellylee Evans is still on cloud nine after her involvement in a dream project. The dream started last summer at a time when she was fantasizing about something different happening in her career. Having put out two albums independently, Evans was looking for a break from the DIY of it all. Top of her wish list, to work with a label so that in essence, all she would have to do is focus on singing satisfying material.

From her mouth to God’s ears it seems, as a week or so later, French boutique label Plus Loin contacted her with a proposition. Evans was on the label's radar thanks to her Monk competition success. That would be a second-place finish at the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, a major springboard for her career. Which immediately took a turn away from the traditional stuff to material that was closer to pop and even smooth jazz, areas Evans was most interested in exploring. 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 magnetic presence have garnered new fans.

Among them the folks at Plus Loin, especially after they’re heard one of Evans’ indie albums. Taken together with the chops she’d exhibited at the Monk competition, they felt they’d found the right voice for a very special project they had in mind. Initially the concept was to give the Evans treatment to a selection of top-flight jazz standards. As it went along, Evans came up with the idea to record a Nina Simone tribute album. This in itself came out of left field as Evans recalls being scared the first time she heard Simone’s voice.

"There was so much pain," Evans recalls. "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." Over time, fear turned to fascination and a sense of responsibility to the legacy of Simone, who died in 2003. Given that the jazz loving French especially revere Nina Simone made the pitch an easy sell. The company gave Evans her head in choosing the song list, the backing musicians and once the sessions started, she was in total charge.

Having flown to Paris with not even a page of sheet music, Evans locked down in her hotel, mentally arranging the material for the quartet. Backed by guitarist Marvin Sewell, who played on her debut album, and French musicians drummer Andre Ceccarelli and bassist François Moutin, Evans and crew nailed the sound in an intense two days. Being that Evans is more of a natural singer than a schooled musician, before each song in the studio, it was left to Sewell to write out lead sheets for the band. Evans would suggest grooves and route maps for how songs would unfold and the process worked smoothly.

The 12 tightly orchestrated tracks on the album range across the breadth of Simone’s stellar career, including 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. But Evans is rightly firm on the point that the album is intended as a showcase for her voice and the emotional punches it packs.

"It wasn't a desire to reproduce a Nina Simone CD," she says. "It’s to show people the songs that Nina Simone had taught me.” And in another area, to demonstrate how Simone’s singing changed Evans perspective on the vocal art "It was really challenging for me to listen to her initially, but I couldn't escape her. I preferred the prettier voices but then all of a sudden I was singing along with her. Then I just had to introduce her music into my repertoire. I just had no choice but to love her."

The album, titled Nina, dropped Sept. 10 and Evans previews it in its entirety Sept.30 at Toronto’s Berkeley Church, then leaves for France in October to work it in her European performance debut.