Somewhere between upstart success and anonymity, proper jazz and random creativity, independence and a century of jazz legends, Elizabeth Shepherd is finding her groove. We meet at The Local, a tiny, unpretentious, dimly-lit pub in Roncesvalles Village, a ten-block strip in west-end Toronto where she lives and works when she isn’t across the pond, playing her way onto London’s dancefloor jazz scene. She’s sitting at the bar when I arrive, chatting with the bartender who, like the rest of the staff, calls her by her first name.
Shepherd plays piano, sings and composes for the Elizabeth Shepherd Trio, a deep rhythm and groove collaboration with rock-solid drum-and-bass team Colin Kingsmore and Scott Kemp. They released their debut album Start to Move in September, 2006 and the accolades aren’t showing any sign of slowing down: it was voted number three Jazz Album of the Year on Gilles Peterson’s worldwide show on BBC Radio 1 UK, and was recently nominated for a Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year—yet Shepherd still teaches piano for a living. “If I could just play every night and live off that, I’d be quite happy.”
She started playing jazz two years ago at Le Saint Tropez, an upscale Toronto eatery where she applied as a waitress but was hired as a jazz singer when her boss spotted the McGill University music degree on her resume. “I knew about five jazz pieces at the time, so I’d cram frantically for a few hours before each shift to learn enough songs to fill a four-hour set. I ended up recording a demo that sold 700 copies, mostly thanks to my mom, actually. Start to Move has sold more than that, so I’m happy,” she says with a smile.
The reality of the Canadian music industry, however, is that success doesn’t necessarily bring with it widespread recognition, even on a local scale. “It’s kind of bullshit, actually,” she says, laughing. “My trio was nominated for Best Jazz Album at the Independent Music Awards, but they wouldn’t let us in . . . and we ended up winning! We managed to work our way past the door, but no one wanted to talk to us; we just wanted to pick up the award. Someone finally blew us off, saying ‘If you won something, it’ll be in the mail in a week or two.’ So we left.”
“When I talk to career jazz musicians, I don’t think I’m jazz, but for most people who just hear my music, it absolutely is jazz.” Shepherd’s hybrid style of play is heavily syncopated, a characteristic that she recognizes in JS Bach who, along with The Roots, Charles Aznavour, Herbie Hancock, Salvation Army brass bands and Stevie Wonder, feature prominently on her lengthy list of influences.
Whereas “George’s Dilemma” features hip-hop inspired Latin groves, the upbeat ride “Four” is featured on London Jazz Cafe programmer Adrian Gibson's new release Messin' Around: A Decade Of Dancefloor Jazz. “Every musician tries to find a balance between doing something completely different and fitting a mould. It’s about working within specific parameters and pushing them as far as you can.”
Ella Fitzgerald came to mind the first time I heard Shepherd’s playful, agile scatting in “Four,” a resemblance Shepherd flatly denies: “I could never compare myself to Ella Fitzgerald, no way. She used her voice like an instrument ... well, I guess in that sense we do have one thing in common, since I’m a piano player and approach singing as an instrumentalist, but the comparison stops there.”
Okay, so maybe that’s a stretch, but what about Diana Krall? “I guess you hear female piano player who sings, who’s Canadian, who plays jazz and you think Diana Krall—but she doesn’t even write her own songs, with the exception of her last album. She plays straight, slow jazz, and I like groove stuff with raw energy. I want to be edgy.”
“Proper vocal jazz, a name to watch,” writes UK magazine Straight No Chaser, a ridiculous claim considering the huge range of styles that fall under the umbrella of jazz and its revolutionary roots. Shepherd herself sheds the qualifier: “I don’t place much importance on it; I don’t know that my music is proper jazz, or if that’s what I want to do. I hate categorizing what I do, but at some point you need to decide which shelf your album is going to be on at record stores. My number one motivation is to be the best possible musician. That’s why I quit classical and went into jazz: to push myself and improve. The next thing could be folk.”
Shepherd has covered more than a few well-known tunes in the short time she’s played jazz, but a quick listen to the album’s title track should dispel any suggestions that she is aiming to imitate. Shepherd’s music is soulful and honest. No throaty, shrink-wrapped bravado mars the trio’s collective improvisation, as is often the case with mass market jazz. Her playing is unpretentious, conversational and compelling.
“Ultimately, most things can’t be described exactly,” says Shepherd. “The thing with music is that it reaches into something you have no words for, but you don’t want it to be completely self indulgent. Like any form of communication, it should be honest. You can’t fake emotion.”