Kellylee Evans: A Nod to Nina, Then Onward

R.J. DeLuke By

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Almost dying made me realize me realize that I didn't want to spend any more time not doing what I wanted in life. So from that period on I started writing music and I started to make plans.
In a sense, singer Kellylee Evans was fast-tracked into her career in music, deciding relatively late in her still-young life that she would plunge into show business waters; waters that can sometimes be murky and beset with storms.

When the Toronto, Canada-area woman made a decision to drop pursuit of a master's degree to pursue singing—a decision made after a near-death experience—it wasn't long before she was working on her first recording, an album created with the aid of noted jazz bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and recorded in New York City. While that was going on in 2004, she entered the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute Vocal Competition and came in second (Gretchen Parlato took first). All this from someone who didn't grow up listening to jazz. She was relatively late in developing an appreciation for the music, but her skills quickly adapted to it.

Evans doesn't plan to exclusively sing jazz, and in her writing and performing she is just as easily at home in pop, soul and R&B. She likes country music, too. But her latest CD is a group of songs associated with Nina Simone, aptly titled Nina (Plus Lion Music, 2010). It's a worthy tribute and could be the first in a series of recordings where she covers standards in various genres, paying tribute to the voices that came before hers.

Evans, now based in Ottawa, Canada, is a voice that blossomed onto the international music scene and is making some imprints in the jazz world, even though she eschews the "jazz singer" label. "I consider myself just a singer," she notes. "A singer/songwriter." There's no doubt she has the tools to play jazz clubs or festivals, thought she hasn't really done that yet. The Simone material will certainly boost those options.

"I like being able to feel free," she says. "It's a big deal to me to feel a sense of autonomy in the CDs that I make. To be able to choose my repertoire and to choose how I performed this last disc was important to me. To have that same autonomy for the next disc is a big deal." She adds, "I love so many different kinds of music. I'm pretty open."

She wrote all the music for her first two self-produced recordings: The Good Girl, which came out earlier in 2010, and Fight or Flight?, from 2007. Plus Lion, a French label, heard about Evans thought the Monk competition, and brought her into the studio in 2009.

Evans wasn't an immediate fan of Simone growing up, when she would have to continually put those records on for her mother. "I remember back then I was, like, 'Aw c'mon mom.' At that time I wanted to listen to Michael Jackson or Blondie. Pop music. [But] Listening got me closer to the music and her voice." Her boyfriend, now husband, was also a Simone fan. The constant exposure continued.

"She really grew on me and became part of my life. It wasn't long before I became a fan. So when they asked me to put together a CD of standards, right away I knew I wanted to do this project."

For Evans, the music strikes a strong nostalgic chord, as much as Simone's style. "She really sings with a lot of feeling and a lot of emotion. When I was listening to her, there were certain things happening in my life. So, for instance, when I think back to listening to her with my mom. My mom's passed on, so it reminds me of her. For me, music is like a touchstone to different periods of my life. Listening to her, as well, I can think about being a student at university, sharing an apartment with my boyfriend—my husband now—and it takes me back to that. And back to the time of my mom as well; it's more memory as opposed to what [Simone's] voice can do. It takes me back. And I love that."

For Nina, Evans was joined by guitarist Marvin Sewell, Cassandra Wilson's musical director (Sewell also appeared on her inaugural CD), along with bassist Francois Moutin and drummer is Andre "Dede" Ceccarelli.

Evans doesn't try to grab the in-your-face nature that could come out in the work of Simone, a noted civil rights activist. Rather than imitate, she brings her own presence to the material and the results are strong. Evans has a crystal clear voice and she enunciates precisely. Her full-bodied instrument is pliable enough for pop, soul, R&B and jazz. In jazz, she's not an explorer like, say Betty Carter or Cassandra Wilson. Nor was Simone. But Evans has a good sense of swing and enough melodic invention to address the jazz lexicon, and do so engagingly. She's a fan who discovered she has an affinity, and her musicality and vocal abilities allow her to glide into that realm. Her love of music propels her to approach jazz, enjoy it, express it and discover what she can do when her skills are applied. There is beauty that results.


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