Kellylee Evans: A Nod to Nina, Then Onward
Tomorrow is My Turn" is a good example of Evans' feel for jazz. Like Simone's version, the song swings, and Evans is delightful in the way she phrases over the groove, a strong character to her voice. "Feeling Good" is impassioned soul, sparked by brief, but scorching, Sewell solo. "Sinnerman" is bluesier, with a good dose of soul. Her delivery even has touches of reggae, over sharp electric spears thrown by Sewell. It carries a Simone aura. "Wild is the Wind," the title cut to a 1964 Simone album on Verve, is a soulful torch song in which Evans is elegant. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" has a lilting calypso feel, and Evans adroitly injects puts her sweet sound in just the right spots. Sewell adds a graceful, understated solo that matches the singer's mood.
"I'm happy with it. It's good when you feel happy with your project," says Evans gleefully. "I feel good about recommending the CD. I don't feel like I have to make any excuses. When people say they like it, I'm happy. That's important. The cool thing about it, it didn't take a lot of time to come up with something that I'm proud of." She described Sewell as "awesome. Working in the studio with him was great. All the players that were involved had a really open and warm and generous way about them, so playing with them was very easy."
Adds the singer, "I always had in my mind a series of standard albums. So this is definitely just a start. I don't know what the next CD is going to be. I don't know if it's going to be standards or go back to writing. But I have to keep going. When you're a musician or creator, I think you have to keep doing something. Forward, forward, forward."
Moving forward with her career is exactly what she has done. But it started late. She reveals, "Right from the beginning I always knew it was something I wanted to do. It wasn't always something I was allowed to do. I had to focus on getting good grades." In her family, becoming a professional in music was impractical. "Be reasonable. Be rational," is what she heard. "It took me a while to get into music properly. I was 24."
She was always singing around the house, beginning at a young age, and loved it. "I was always known as a singer, so people would ask me to take part in different functions and be involved," she says, adding the caveat, "but that wasn't serious." She took some piano lessons, but never really learned to read music. At one point, she played some saxophone, "but once I got into grade eight, I didn't want to, because my grandmother was so strict about school, I didn't want to use a credit for music. So I used it for sciences and math and stuff. There was no feeling I was going to be a musician." She performed at various community shows and was a member of the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir.
Evans went to Carleton University in Ottawa, where she earned a bachelor's degrees in both legal studies and English literature, and she wasn't taking any music courses. But there were opportunities. The university had a jazz orchestra and jazz combos. "And a choir," Evans says."I was involved in those after school even though I wasn't in the music program. They would let people from outside programs be involved. That was how I started in jazz. It was really cool and I had such a great time. But I couldn't take seriously because I was supposed to be doing my master's thesis. But instead of working on my thesis, I would be building my repertoire and learning about other singers. Trying to plan a gig here and there. I found that was more exciting than working on my thesis."
When she found jazz, and decided it was a challenge she wanted to take on among other styles of music, "I paid attention mainly to people who did standards and covers. So I loved Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, jazz singers like that. But I'm also hugely influenced by music from outside of the jazz medium. When I started to write, one of the biggest people who was instrumental was Abbey Lincoln. I loved everything about her work. She wrote a lot of originals; I started working on originals based on listening to her. She was the first singer/songwriter that I really started listening to in jazz."
Evans even participated in Jazzworks, a Canadian not-for-profit organization dedicated to the development of jazz musicianship in players and singers.
The transformation to singing was hastened by a pair of events. One was the death of her mother, who succumbed to cancer. Her effort to get a master's degree in legal studies, and write the necessary thesis, was becoming a grind. "I had a one year-old child and I was feeling stressed; I had ulcers, and I was just feeling horrible. Finally, I decided to drop out. It was like this big weight was lifted from my shoulders. I started to think about what life would be like if I wasn't in school, because I'd been in school for 20 years."