Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: Interview With “Canada’s Next Top Crooner” Ori Dagan

Shalom Life speaks with Dagan in advance of the Toronto Jazz Festival

By: Ashley Baylen

Published: June 5th, 2014 in Culture » Music » Interviews

Classically trained pianist turned jazz vocalist, Ori Dagan, is gearing up for four shows at this year’s Toronto Jazz Festival.
Recently voted NOW Magazine 2013’s “Best Male Vocalist” and winner of a CBC Radio 1 competition that named him “Canada’s Next Top Crooner”, Dagan brings a youthful and modern vitality to traditional jazz classics.

Before releasing his debut album “S’Cat Got My Tongue” in 2009, Dagan spent a decade studying jazz music privately, at York University and at Humber College. The release received international accolades, including JazzTimes calling him “a budding Kurt Elling” and The Los Angeles Jazz Scene proclaiming that his album “is a major step forward for Ori Dagan, who in a few years will likely be very well known in the jazz world.”

Dagan’s second album entitled “Less Than Three” sees the vocalist exploring new territory, including reimagined classics by Elton John and Elvis Presley, a scat roller coaster on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, the original ode to search engines “Googleable”, as well as selections featuring his native Hebrew tongue.

In addition to recording and performing regularly, Dagan writes a monthly column for “The WholeNote” called “Jazz in the Clubs”.
We have a chance to speak with Dagan in advance of his Toronto Jazz festival shows about his rich musical background, his influences, and what audiences can expect from his upcoming concerts.

ASHLEY BAYLEN (AB): You studied at University of Toronto, York University and Humber College. Why did you choose to take the academic route for your music career when so many other musicians have chosen otherwise?

ORI DAGAN (OD): It’s true! I spent a total of 9 years at these schools, and I treasure my time at all three, for they taught me countless lessons and introduced me to wonderful people. At U of T I formed my passion for singing jazz by accident, while studying English literature. In my second year there, I appeared in Stage Blue’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” which was a godsend in the sense of getting me singing on a stage. I’m very thankful that I went with my gut and dropped out of U of T to pursue a musical education at York, where after 5 years I earned a BFA, studying jazz vocals at first and later classical voice, when one of my professors said, “Ori, I think it’s great that you are so passionate about jazz music, but if you are serious about singing, you need to learn the foundations, so I suggest you start with 17th century baroque arias.” He was so right! When I graduated from York I still felt like I had a lot to learn about singing, so I enrolled at Humber College for 2 years to focus on improvisation, songwriting and performance. Will I ever go back to school? It’s entirely possible, but not for another decade or so…I think when one is a performer, the ultimate school is the stage, and I hope to focus the next few years on performing on different stages around the world.

AB: In addition to singing, you also write a column for The Whole Note. Do you think writing about jazz gives you a different perspective?

OD: For sure! There’s so much to learn by listening to the music of others, and even more to learn from live music as one is not only listening but also watching. Furthermore, there is the human element in between the songs, which you hardly ever have in a recoding (an exception is the recording that inspired me to sing, Ella Fitzgerald’s “Mack the Knife: Live in Berlin”). Jazz journalism is something I have been doing for almost 10 years, since I started out at York U’s Excalibur, later at Epoch Times and since 2008 for The WholeNote. When it comes to writing about music, I try to focus on promoting the talents of musicians that I enjoy, as opposed to criticizing ones I don’t enjoy. My hope it to bring new audiences to jazz performances, and to live music in general.

AB: What advice can you give to vocalists and musicians that are just starting out?

OD: Study your craft, not only in school but out there in the real world! Truth be told, an education is invaluable, but there is no better school than the stage. A lot of students – especially vocalists – stay in the practice rooms and go over the same things but because they are afraid of making mistakes on stage. I suffered tremendously from stage fright from years, but I never gave up and just kept trying, even enrolling in Micah Barnes’ “Singers Playground” workshop (www.singersplayground.com) which was immensely helpful. Most of all, I owe a great deal to Lisa Particelli’s jam session “GNO” – “Girls Night Out (where Gentlemen are welcome too),” a vocalist-friendly jam session where I went very regularly for many years, and which is an amazing resource to jazz singers every Wednesday night at Chalkers Pub (www.gnojazz.com).

AB: For those unfamiliar with your music, how would you describe your sound?

OD: The short answer might be somewhere between Al Jolson and Bobby McFerrin. The longer answer: I would say my sound depends on the song which I’m singing – this comes from my main inspiration for jazz, Ella Fitzgerald. If you listened to her versions of “How High the Moon” and “Angel Eyes,” you might not guess that it was the same singer. When I started singing jazz I only wanted to scat, so after Ella I studied Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Betty Carter and Charlie Parker. Later I became influenced by story tellers: Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland and my very favourite on the Toronto scene, Laura Hubert. They all taught me to sing ballads. Scat singing is a fun special effect, but I believe there is no greater goal for a performer than to move an audience with a story, and out of all the musicians in jazz, only the vocalists have the gift of using lyrics to convey a message.

AB: Who are your greatest influences, musically and otherwise?

OD: One of my greatest inspirations in life and music is Sheila Jordan, a bebop singer, educator and jazz ambassador. She has been singing this music since her teens and never compromised her style. It took audiences many years to catch on to her style and now she is busy touring the world, teaching hundreds of students every year. I hope greatly to be doing what she’s doing if I ever make it to that age!

Find out more about Ori Dagan in the second part of our interview on the next page!

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