It’s sunny and warm, all is well on the domestic front, and it’s Thursday. So why does Kate Hammett-Vaughan have “Gloomy Sunday” running through her head? Maybe it’s because the singer and long-time Vancouver jazz presence is just about to remount her Art Songs for Improvisers program for the first time in 17 years. Rezsö Seress’s 1933 tune, immortalized by Billie Holiday in 1941, won’t be on the set list, but it’s an early prototype for what Hammett-Vaughan is up to: merging European chanson with modern jazz in a fresh and creative fashion.
Hammett-Vaughan first presented the program at the Western Front arts centre in 2000. Its return—this time with a brand-new five-piece band—is long overdue, she says, and was inspired by a show she caught at the 2017 Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
“I was thinking about what to do, and I was kind of inspired by [Swedish vocalist] Lina Nyberg’s project last year at the festival,” she tells the Straight, on the line from her East Van home. “It was on Canada Day, at Performance Works, and it was all her original material. It was very interesting, and she had a beautiful band. I loved the way the whole thing was presented, and it just went through my mind: ‘Well, I have a book of songs not unlike that that only maybe 30 people in the world have ever heard.’ ”
But that’s not the only reason it’s a good time to bring Art Songs for Improvisers back. When Hammett-Vaughan initially contacted the project’s roster of composers, their schedules were open enough that they unanimously jumped onboard. “In true Vancouver musicians’ world form, everybody said, ‘Yeah!’ ” she notes, laughing. “And nobody said ‘How much can you pay me?’ ”
Things might be different now. While Rodney Sharman, Mark Armanini, Ron Samworth, and François Houle—to mention just a few of Hammett-Vaughan’s collaborators—were not exactly emerging artists in 2000, their local and international status has only risen since then. And there’s also the fact that the art song, whether part of the lieder tradition or drawn from the Great American Songbook, has built-in protection from the planned obsolescence of disposable pop.
“The idea of art songs in general is that they should be kind of timeless,” Hammett-Vaughan argues. “They’re songs just written for the art of writing music, and not to fit into any particular stylistic block or time capsule—and all of this music still stands up.”
Art Songs for Improvisers is a free 5:30 p.m. concert at Performance Works on Canada Day (July 1), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.