Voicing a Passion for Jazz

Karin Plato loves her art form, but she is not blind to the fact that jazz music can be a tough sell.

Plato herself came late to the genre and she knows that jazz is not everyone’s cup of tea. That said, she is also a living, breathing example of the way that jazz can win you over.

“I did not like jazz at first,” Plato admits.

“I came from a classical music background and I already had a degree in voice and piano from the University of Saskatchewan before I had any remote thoughts about jazz.”

It wasn’t until after Plato moved to Vancouver that a teacher suggested her voice would be well-suited to jazz. That led Plato to take two vocal jazz programs at the Banff Centre for the Fine Arts in the late ’90s.

“It was a big turnaround for me. I finally heard something in the music instrumentally and vocally so that I crossed the line and I loved it,” Plato says.

“Now it’s become the most important music for me. So I think that if you have an open mind and you try the music, more than just one or two times, you may actually come to love it.”

Plato credits her conversion to Banff Centre instructors Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton. That, plus the experience of being virtually surrounded by other vocalists from across Canada and the United States who were singing the same kind of music, to and for each other.

“It was a spurt of musical growth for me as I learned to sing and listen to this music as I might not have done before.”

Plato went on to pursue a successful career as a jazz vocalist and composer, appearing in many jazz clubs, festivals and concerts. She has recorded a half-dozen jazz albums and has been nominated for numerous awards.

In 2001, she appeared in Whitehorse at Jazz on the Wing. She led a vocal jazz workshop at the Yukon Arts Centre last March, and will return next month to teach a second workshop and sing in concert at the Old Fire Hall.

As Plato’s performance career grew, so did the invitations to instruct others in what she’d learned and accomplished.

“Because I’ve had some great instructors myself, they’ve influenced me in terms of what I try to pass on to budding jazz vocalists. As I get older, I find the importance of that is even greater,” she says.

“If I can encourage people to be interested in vocal jazz, that’s fantastic. It means that more people will hear jazz and blues and bossa and all those things that are a bit beyond the pop music they would hear on a typical radio station.”

So what is it about jazz that keeps Plato so interested and passionate?

“My reason for loving jazz is the sense of freedom in performing and playing the music and the sharing of the music with your fellow musicians,” she says.

“If we’re performing a standard that someone like Ella Fitzgerald did, and maybe even made famous, then what we do now with the tune is a surprise, even for the musicians.”

Plato says the performance is a shared experience with the audience because, even if the tune is familiar, there’s an element of re-interpretation and improvisation.

“There is a personal element that each singer, depending on their age, style, experience and taste, will add to that song, along with their fellow musicians. It’s the unknown that makes it exciting each time.”

Plato is inspired by thousands of jazz standards written and performed first in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. She sings the blues, swing, bossa nova, waltzes, ballads, samba, bebop, show tunes.

She also takes traditional folk tunes and interprets them to fit under the jazz umbrella, and even writes her own jazz songs.

Plato hopes to showcase as much of that as possible at her September 14 concert, a Jazz in the Hall special presentation. Besides entertaining the wider Whitehorse audience, she wants her show to be a learning opportunity for students in that week’s workshop.

“In the workshop, we can talk about why I made certain decisions and why did something work or not work in the set,” she says.

“Maybe I can lead by example in terms of ways that vocalists can interact with the whole rhythm section, because I’ll be trying to create variety, a whole palate of colours.”

Karin Plato’s next workshop takes place September 12-16. For information, email [email protected].

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