Kate Hammett-Vaughan and Bill Coon
National Arts Centre: B.C. Scene
May 1, 2009
Kate Hammett-Vaughan's and Bill Coon's appearance in Ottawa was low-key in the best sense of the word.
They were comfortable together as singer and guitarist; they were comfortable in their craft (each has more than 25 years in jazz and at least one Juno nomination); and they were comfortable with their audience, who responded with rapt attention and near-total quiet.
There was no need for Hammett-Vaughan to raise her voice, or for Coon to increase the amplification on his electric guitar. Instead, she chatted with the audience, informally introduced each song, and treated each number as a separate challenge.
With Jerome Kern's "Bill," she delivered P.G. Wodehouse's lyrics directly and naturally. With Harold Arlen's "I've Got the World on a String," she took a more mannered approach, making the audience wait for some notes, and inserting scatting partway through. With "Bluesette," both she and Coon added a more boppish feel to Toots Thielemans' waltz.
Hammett-Vaughan and Coon have released one CD together, Imagination: Live at the Cellar (KateHV, 2008), and many of the songs they performed in their three sets were taken from it. The songs were a mixture of standards, some unusual adaptations of more recent popular music, and several songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim performed primarily in the original Portuguese. At least three of the numbers they had never previously performed publicly.
Particularly interesting was their version of the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face" without the original driving rhythm, but instead turned into a lament. Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" worked surprisingly well: Hammett-Vaughan stuck to the lyrics rather than the original interpretation and made the sadness her own, and Coon enhanced the song with some restrained country-influenced guitar.
In her introduction to Jobim's "The Girl From Ipanema," Hammett-Vaughan said that it was one number you could always fall back on when you forgot your set list. With her extensive repertoire, I wish she'd tried a little harder: her delicate, swinging interpretation was pleasant, but that song is so overdone it needs to be retired from everyone's repertoire for a few years.
Coon's contribution tended to the unobtrusive. He was always there filling in the spaces between the lyrics and adding definition to the music, but he didn't often show the virtuosity he was capable of. He rarely made eye contact with the audience, leaving such communicative gestures to Hammett-Vaughan. His semi-acoustic style allowed him great flexibility, and every few songs he'd let loose with an intricate, resonant passage, or a complex quick pattern underlying the vocals. On Joni Mitchell's "For the Roses" (an inspired choice), his quiet, repeated guitar chords beautifully underlined Hammett-Vaughan's soft, disillusioned vocal; during the bridge in that song, he produced shimmering chords moving up and down the fretboard.
Hammett-Vaughan has an excellent voice, but not an extraordinary one. There are singers with greater range and greater vocal power. But she has something more than chops: an exact knowledge of what her voice can do, and perfect control over it. When she hits a note, it's dead-on; when she wants an effect, she gets it. Her handling of diction is perfect, and her Portuguese sounded authentic. She ended "I Like New York in June" ("How About You?"), for example, with a long, strong, sustained note that showed off both her control and her dynamic range.
By the end of the second set, the audience was so intent on the music that the sudden large whoosh of a huge mechanical sweeper on the street outside noticeably broke the silence. But that the audience was happy to ignore: it was enjoying the music inside too much.
If there were any disappointment, it was that Hammett-Vaughan didn't perform any of the Monk or Mingus or other straight jazz pieces that enlivened several of her recent CDs, but the arrangements for those tunes likely required her full quintet rather than a single guitarist, no matter how versatile.
The concert was one of a sprinkling of jazz events in B.C. Scene, an extensive celebration of the performing arts from the province of British Columbia, sponsored by National Arts Centre in Canada's capital. For the first time this year, the NAC teamed up with a local jazz club/restaurant, Café Paradiso, to present two events in a smaller venue. This setting benefited both Hammett-Vaughan and Coon, and the audience, as it allowed them to connect more intimately with each other.