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Elizabeth Shepherd: A Jewel is Born

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When a fetus becomes the impetus. "Impetus" is a favored word lobbed by Elizabeth Shepherd into the conversation these days as she takes a deep breath and plunges into the great unknown of traveling on the road with a family. The winsome vocalist and jazz pianist had her first child six months ago and has unplugged her tribe from their downtown Toronto home to cover Canada, literally performing dates from Nanaimo, B.C. to St. Johns, Nfld. "Gosh, that's the hope; it's still a huge uncertainty at this point because I haven't done it yet," muses Shepherd. "If I've learned anything in the first six months of being a parent, you have to let go of all expectations of anything, because they will just be thwarted anyway." That said, Shepherd is a jazz musician, and improvising is has been ingrained in her psyche. "I've never been as flexible as I am now, there's a certain openness that comes with being a parent."

The tour follows the release of Shepherd's Rewind (Pinwheel Music, 2012), which officially hit the streets and avenues of the virtual superhighway and record stores on April 10, 2012, and is available for download, with a limited edition vinyl pressing also in the works.

For Shepherd, jumping onboard the tour bus comes as naturally as childbirth—replete with the requisite pains—but the manouche spirit permeates her very soul. "My parents were Salvation Army ministers from the time I was two until about three years ago. When you become a full-time minister with the Salvation Army, you open yourself up to be appointed anywhere; the army brats and I would have a lot in common," confesses Shepherd. And though such a lifestyle can often lead to solitary childhood, in Shepherd's case spending formative years in France would have an ineffable effect on her sound and musical tastes. "In moving to France I was exposed to a great variety of things. The music you heard on the radio was quite different; it was far more diverse that what typical radio was in Canada."

Though the seeds of a career in jazz were planted in Europe, ironically it was when she returned to Canada to study jazz at McGill University that Shepherd came to embrace the fruits of great songwriting. "'Love for Sale' is one of those tunes that really stayed with me all of those years," she says. So much so, that Cole Porter's unassailably beautiful song opens up the new album. "There is a certain sadness and weight to the lyrics, but at the same time it's the oldest profession, it's a song about prostitution," says Shepherd. "I kind of wanted to infuse it with a little more power, not treat the lyrics as lightly as they have been in the past."

Somewhere in the hallowed halls of every jazz school is a rather haggard-looking pianist hunched over the keyboard, looking like the Grinch on the morning after an all-night bender, thinking, "Please, not another version of 'All the Things You Are.'" Shepherd would be no exception. "When I went to school we had to learn 60 to 80 standards; that was really the bare minimum requirement in jazz school. My first gig, before I even considered being a professional musician, I took because I needed money. I was actually waitressing and they noticed on my CV that I played piano; they asked if I would play because the house pianist was going on vacation. I had to learn a whole bunch of tunes and fell into that gig for three years."

Elizabeth Shepherd RewindAnd if a career is born out of necessity—in this case the need to eat, and there is something magical in watching a talent come to life because of providence—then Shepherd knows the road is not paved with yellow bricks, and every jazz player must pay his/her dues. And so she learned a litany of songs from jazz standards and chanson to pop tunes, and played, and played and played. So much so, that she earned the right to bank studio time and sculpt her own material, which figures prominently on her debut disc, Start to Move (Pinwheel Music, 2006).

Three well-respected albums later, chock-full of delicious observations on contemporary society and accessible grooves—all punctuated by Elizabeth Shepherd's uncanny gift for writing melodies that stick—fast forward to Rewind, a collection of cover tunes. "I think there's a beauty in hearing tunes that come to the public, because they are covered in a certain unique way. I've found that given a chance to reinterpret a song you can find real beauty there." Shepherd goes on to justify her decision by saying, "I wanted to take some tunes that maybe didn't quite make it into the jazz canon, as way of uncovering them I can maybe bring them to light, and have people say 'Wow, that's actually a great tune.'"

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