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The gorgeous jazz sounds of Elizabeth Shepherd

By Alejandro Bustos on February 11, 2015

Montreal-based musician Elizabeth Shepherd is a delight to listen to.

With a gorgeous jazz sound that combines several other influences, her music is a truly inventive audio blend.  Local music lovers can see her musical talent first-hand this Friday when she performs at the Dominion-Chalmers Church (355 Cooper St.) at 7:30 pm as part of Ottawa’s Winter Jazz Festival.

(If you’re not familiar with her work surf over to this YouTube page).

With an impressive discography that includes five albums and one release of remixes, it is no surprise that her latest recent The Signal was recently nominated for a Juno as best jazz vocal album.  Some critics have also named it as the best or among the best jazz records of 2014.

For Shepherd, however, the special significance of The Signal comes not from the critical acclaim it has received but rather from a very personal moment in her life.

“The whole album is dedicated to (my daughter) and her coming into my life,” she tells Apartment613 in a phone interview.

Since becoming a mother for the first time three years ago, Shepherd has come to think deeply about her role as an artist.  While always being politically conscious, she says that becoming a parent has given her a new perspective on fostering social change.

The Signal clearly shows this political side, as she tackles such themes as forced marriages and rape in Africa (“Lion’s Den”), the murder of Trayvon Martin in the United States (“Another Day”) and environmental harm in India as a result of cotton farming (“BT Cotton”).

Her ability to discuss these and other politically-charged issues are made possible by her impressive skills as a composer.  For instance, at the end of Lion’s Den, there is a deeply moving trumpet solo that is both unsettling and powerful, reminding me of the feelings I had when I first heard Miles Davis classic album Bitches Brew.

Shepherd says she chose the solo because the sound of the trumpet can foster sounds similar to human screams.  This willingness to tackle horrible themes straight-on, however, is based on a positive hope for the future.

“I don’t want to shy away from anything,” says Shepherd.  “Rape is a lot more common than people think, so let’s go ahead and talk about it  . . . . I also wanted to get to the complexity, because people do survive and move on.”

Her ability to tackle complexity is not limited to political observations.  One of my favourite songs is the title-track The Signal, which opens with a wonderful passage from CBC radio host Laura Brown’s show The Signal.  (Album, song, radio show with the same name – some lovely meta work at play here).

Shepherd’s song The Signal feels like you are sharing an intimate conversation with someone in a candlelit bar, with the music providing a haunting soundtrack to a captivating story.  Perhaps this image offers a hint on what we can expect for her upcoming performance in Ottawa.

Elizabeth Shepherd plays at the Dominion-Chalmers Church (355 Cooper St.) on Friday, February 13 at 7:30 pm.  Tickets are $30.