Voo Doo Scat: Reminiscing
It takes no small courage to record a CD of standards, all of which have been recorded hundreds of times by the very best the genre has to offer, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.
So if the entry level criterion is you better have something to say and say it well, Reminiscing, from Montreal's Voo Doo Scat, deserves A-major consideration. The group is a quartet with its nucleus comprised of guitarist JF Giguère, the steady breath that feeds the flame of singer Céline Bélair, who, incidentally, is one of the members of Moonlight Girls that burst onto the scene during the 2005 Montreal Jazz Festival.
What gives Voo Doo Scat its edge and notoriety are the highly innovative and brave arrangements of JF Giguère, who writes to win big time, which he does on most of Reminiscing's eleven tracks. With high-tech and amplification assuming a more prominent role, Giguère successfully introduces the standards to 21st century sound codes without betraying the music's essence. His intros, in particular, are inventive, where no effect, including folk, is ruled out. Critical to Giguère's refreshingly radical remakes is the outstanding playing of alto saxophonist Rémi Bolduc, whose busy bebop, often contrapuntal to the mood, takes the music where you'd least expect it to go, and once there, makes you wish he would stay. He's one good reason to catch this exciting group live, where he's allowed more space to fulfill Giguère's vision.
The wild card of the group, and an attractive one at that, is Céline Bélair, whose stage charm could light up a coliseum, but whose strong, dynamically versatile and top notch voice occasionally lacks the control of the master and sometimes shows itself a bit too self-conscious, that is overly concerned with singing well instead of serving the lyric. But in all fairness, if she occasionally falls short of the band, she often memorably exceeds it. And let's not forget that even the immortal Chet Baker sometimes dragged out notes until they almost disappeared, and Ella overused the technique of melisma to the point of parody; and both managed very nicely to survive the slings and arrows of their harshest critics.
Staying true to the founding frontier spirit of the group, Bélair approaches the mike as if it were a living creature under her care, sharing with strangers what only music allows, where the almost tactile closeness of the singing and breathing constitutes an unbroken intimacy, which especially succeeds in "My Funny Valentine" and "In a Sentimental Mood," while falling a bit short in "Night and Day," whose promising beginning strays into an unconvincing shift in mood and rhythm.
Not yet thirty, there's every reason to believe that Bélair, whose strengths lie in her range and ability to shape a note, will much sooner than later get the better of the proverbial learning curve. That being said, she already joins the prestigious ranks of Canadian jazz singers such as Carol Welsman, Susie Arioli, Lee Aaron, Annie Poulain, Samina and Sophie Milman, who have made the standards their cause célèbre, but in Bélair's case, under the inspired musicianship of JF Giguère, she takes the music where the other names have thus far feared to tread.
"My Funny Valentine" is, without doubt, the diamond in the jewel box of Voo Doo Scat's debut album. The song opens with an unlikely but arresting, spacey Wurlitzer reverb, out of which arises, like the act of creation itself, the magnificent and tremulous voice of Bélair that you feel is going to snap in mid-flight, such is the high tension produced by what I believe will go down as one of the most memorable and haunting interpretations ever of this classic. With her eyes closed, hands clasped, her pristine and perfectly modulated voce has the effect of turning even the smallest club into a Cathedral a sound.
Voo Doo Scat reminds us that for enduring music to endure, it must be able to absorb new forms of expression that respond to and reflect the concerns of the present no less than the original music revealed the spirit of its time.
As you might have divined, there isn't much that isn't heterodox about Reminiscing, such that even when it falls short of what its best forces you to expect, there are always lots of interesting things going on both up front and in the background, the sum of which promises a challenging and edifying listening experience.
Without over-emphasizing the obvious, Voo Doo Scat's first priority has to be to get their music out there, because once out, there's no mistaking the originality and considerable talent that underwrites it.