A Feast of Jazz

Jazz lovers in Whitehorse often look at each other and say, “There’s so much music going on. And so much jazz!” And there is.

We are blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the arts.

However, jazz pianist Grant Simpson noticed a gap. After several vocal jazz workshops held by Jazz Yukon and the Yukon Summer Music Camp, there was a growing group of jazz vocalists, but few venues to sing.

“After a workshop, there would be a rush of enthusiasm, inspiration and excitement, but it would soon die off,” says Simpson. “There was no outlet for the singers to practice what they’d learned.”

So, Grant dreamed up the idea of Café des Voix. It’s a recurring event that takes place at Antoinette’s Restaurant and the Westmark Whitehorse, with more venues to come.

A few of the Cafe des Voix singers and players after a performance at the Westmark Whitehorse Lounge. Left to right: Leith Hill, Coralie Langevin, Erin Evangeline Brost, Shauna Jones, Harold Sher, Malorie Gendreau, Sylvie Painchaud, Lillian Strauss, Olivier de Colombel, and Elaine Schiman, with Grant Simpson at piano, centre.

The Café des Voix features a potpourri of voices, some well-known and others new and emerging, with Simpson accompanying most on piano. The jazz café setting offers a warm ambiance and some surprises. People you never imagined were singers are suddenly onstage wowing the crowd.

“I’d been practicing singing jazz with a friend and we performed at some open mics, but with Café des Voix I’ve been so excited to sing at an actual venue,” says vocalist Deb Jutra. “It’s so nice to work with an amazing musician like Grant, and the cafés are delightful get-togethers. It’s inspiring to hear other singers who are so great.”

Café des Voix is similar to an open mic, but the unique feature is that singers don’t have to bring a band or accompanist with them. Instead, Simpson meets with each singer for a brief rehearsal before each Café, allowing for more polished performances.

“This experience has been fantastic,” says singer James McCullough. “It’s a great way to develop a repertoire, get comfortable with a microphone and play around. Having Grant as a resource is key. He suggests great songs and is fun to work with. I’ve been surprised by the breadth of music being sung. It’s not just jazz, it’s a great night out.”

Brooke McLean Rudolph is a long time jazz fan, singer and musician, but hadn’t sung much jazz since university, until the Café des Voix started.

“It’s a wonderful way to get up and sing a few jazz tunes in a supportive atmosphere,” she says. “It’s a friendly, encouraging and professional group of people who love good old standards. Jazz doesn’t have to be crazy or experimental; most of the songs are very familiar.”

Singer Sophia Marnik has performed at about a half dozen Café des Voix and loves the opportunity. “You can try new songs and gain confidence. Café des Voix is the place to try your hand, or voice, at singing jazz. It’s supportive and friendly. Plus a lot of fun.”

Sylvie Painchaud is one of several francophone singers who are part of Café des Voix. “I used to think jazz was not for me, that I didn’t have the right kind of voice. But I’ve become passionate about jazz composers and want to learn more. The fact that Grant Simpson rehearses with us, suggests songs and provides advice is crucial. He and all the singers are very supportive. The feeling in the venue is hard to describe, but I will try: imagine yourself, after singing your songs, like a runner at the end of a marathon, with many people waiting for you, hands extended, to celebrate your effort. That’s Café des Voix.”

Café des Voix has about 25 singers on its roster. Between six and 12 perform at each event with Simpson, sometimes with guest players on piano, guitar, saxophone or ukulele. At first, singers joined because of the vocal jazz workshops held in recent years, but now the Café des Voix is creating a buzz of its own and other singers are signing up

Simpson sums it up this way: “It’s been a joy to watch people develop as singers and performers. The more they do it, the better they get. I’m impressed with the level of challenge these singers continue to give themselves – and throw at me!”

If you’re interested in singing or attending Café des Voix, check out their Facebook page, or email [email protected] for more information.

Upcoming Café des Voix events include May 29 at the Westmark Whitehorse Lounge, and July 9 in Atlin, during the Atlin Arts and Music Festival.

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