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Jazzfest: Interview with Rebecca Noelle

By Terry Steeves on June 19, 2015

Ottawa diva and songwriter Rebecca Noelle considers herself lucky to have found out at a young age what direction her life would take. She established an early relationship with all things jazz, a genre she embraced growing up in a family immersed in its music.

“I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald. My grandfather was a jazz musician and so my mom grew up in a house where the band would rehearse their jazz standards. She developed a love for it and used to play Ella in the car. I remember the first time I heard her do a scat solo. I was so mystified by it, I wanted to hear more and more, and got hooked on it. Later, it was all the pop divas…the Whitney Houstons and the Mariah Careys. And then I found K.D. Lang, who doesn’t fit into that category at all. Her voice is breathtaking. I thought it must be a real skill to be able to just sing the notes in the melody, without adding any decoration, and still affect people emotionally. So I decided I wanted to strive for that.”

Her first professional musical endeavour began with her grandfather’s jazz band, the John Noubarian Trio, based out of London, Ont. It was at a family outdoor gathering, when at the age of 16, Rebecca got up to sing with the band. Owner of Maggie’s Supper & Jazz Club, Ed Bloor was in the crowd and was impressed by what he heard. He suggested she join the trio, who were a weekend fixture at the club. For the next ten years, she would make the commute every few months to perform with the band, which would hone her skills as a jazz singer.

“I got up and sang “At Last”…it was the only thing I knew that was remotely close to jazz. I was beside myself when I was offered to sing at the club. My grandfather was sitting on the sidelines, watching this whole thing happen. So we got together about 18 songs to start and played 2 nights. That was my first paid music job. It was terrifying, and exhilarating.”

Her experience led to later find work at home in Ottawa. She took a step outside her jazz persona, and into the world of blues, when she auditioned as backup vocalist for David Gogo, who was about to do a European tour. That was only the beginning…

“I was 19 at the time. He took me under his wing and I had the opportunity to do these big shows with people like Johnny Winter, Bonnie Raitt, and ZZTop. I was suddenly thrown into this scene where I was starstruck by every person I met. I really got into singing the blues, and started my own project under the name Becky Abbott. It got pretty rock ’n roll, and I began to miss my roots…this jazz place that I had come from and those subtle intricacies that happen.”

Noelle took a step back from the Becky Abbott project and made a gradual re-entry back into the jazz world. In 2010, she auditioned for Ottawa’s avant garde group The PepTides, and has been enjoying the wild and successful ride ever since.

“I really needed to branch out and meet some new people. I heard of this band that had this musical theatre thing going on. I couldn’t put my finger on what they were, and it intrigued me that much more. So I decided to audition, meet them, and see if we’d be all on the same page. It was like meeting all of my long lost musical brothers and sisters.”

Other projects included a collection of standards recorded with her grandfather’s band on a CD entitled Rebecca Noelle: A Night At Maggie’s (2013), which became a sort of tribute to the club where she had started her musical career. Shortly after, she would join soul/funk/R&B artists, Delbert & The Commotions, and find a common ground with two of its musicians, David Gaw and Brian Asselin, with whom she would go on to form a songwriting trio.

Five musicians, complete with horns, keys, guitar, bass, drums, and backing vocals by Dale Waterman of The PepTides, will be added to this trio, when Noelle makes her Ottawa Jazz Festival appearance on Fri. Jun. 26 at 7:30pm on the Laurier Avenue Music Stage, Marion Dewar Plaza. The music will showcase her jazz roots, along with a fusion of all her favourites in pop/funk/soul, of which she has built the many beautiful colours of her voice.