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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.

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."

She decided to take up the sport of tennis when she sustained an ankle injury. At the hospital emergency room, "they gave me a prescription and I was allergic to it. I almost passed away. I went into epileptic shock." That had a profound impact.

"Almost dying made me realize that life is really short," says Evans. "Watching my mom go before me. Seeing my daughter come into the world, and then almost losing my life was enough to make 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. It was really easy from that period onward to stay motivated. This is what I'm doing. That's been life so far. I've really had a blast with this. I'm proud of the work I've been doing and I'm proud of still being here."
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