Shepherd mixes jazz and storytelling on her sixth album, a multi-textured, bilingual portrait of her hometown and the people who inhabit it.
Elizabeth Shepherd was living in Little Burgundy and studying classical piano at McGill, 20-some years ago, when she got turned onto jazz.
It started with her then live-in boyfriend, an avid hip-hop fan whose musical tastes pushed her to track down the old jazz samples favoured by so much rap music of the time. She soon found herself switching to McGill’s jazz program and getting a history lesson from a musician neighbour.
“(Wilkie Wilkinson) was a known jazz drummer, who had played with Charlie Parker,” she recounted recently. “He loaned me this book called Swinging In Paradise: The Story of Jazz In Montreal, by John Gilmore.
“So I was reading the history of jazz that had happened in these streets I walked every day, getting groceries and walking my dog. It added a whole layer of texture to this city — this sense that I was walking these streets inhabited by ghosts of people who shaped so much of the cultural scene in Montreal and North America, right down to me, here studying jazz because of these people.”
OKTwo decades later, Shepherd again finds herself mixing jazz, history and storytelling on her sixth album, Montréal, a multi-textured, bilingual portrait of her adoptive hometown and the people who inhabit it.
“I wanted to do a bit of an ode to the city, partly because I love Montreal — it’s a beautiful, intriguing city,” explained the four-time Juno nominee, who moved recently with her family to the Laurentians. “Despite growing up all over Canada and France, Montreal is where I can be me. It’s my spiritual home.”
Yet she admits to a slight imposter complex that may have fostered her desire to better understand the urban environment that beckoned her.
“I’ve always felt on the outside (in Montreal),” she said. “People would ask me where I’m really from. I wanted to find out more about the city and the people who live here, to see if they have a similarly complex relationship to the city, this strange sense of belonging and not belonging.”
She began with the architecture, using buildings she was drawn to as a starting point to seek out people willing to share their experiences. Along the way, she unearthed various histories of our city and its neighbourhoods, which she went about setting to music.
She spoke to Steven Wells, longtime manager of former gay bar Le Mystique, which was raided in 1977 along with the nearby Truxx, leading to 140 arrests and a landmark protest for gay rights in Montreal. Wells’s account of the event is sampled in the eminently groovy Suits and Ties, which Shepherd’s voice imbues with dreamy splendour.
Erene Anthony shared the history of the Union United Church, and of the organization’s involvement in the outcry following the police shooting of unarmed black youth Anthony Griffin in 1987. The incident is revisited in slinky jazz gem Good Lord’s Work.
And a conversation with actor and former boxer Deano Clavet about the history of Atwater Market, which once hosted wrestling and boxing matches, was the inspiration for the breakbeat-driven La Boxe.
Those and other stories are woven together with Shepherd’s singular mix of sinuous soul, rhythmic playfulness and melodic ingenuity.
Each song is accompanied by a music video, made with Montreal filmmaker Stefan Verna, that will be screened during performances. A book is due this spring.
As for the future, Shepherd is keeping all options open for her expanding creative endeavours.
“The fact that this project was so sprawling and had so many elements kept me interested,” she said. “I wanted to aim high. Now the prospect of coming back and recording a (straight-ahead) jazz album in the studio just doesn’t seem interesting to me.”
AT A GLANCE
Elizabeth Shepherd performs Montréal on Saturday at Le Ministère, 4521 St-Laurent Blvd. Tickets cost $23 in advance, $28 at the door, available at leministere.ca.
Cinema scope: An impressive number of quality Quebec films are showing on local screens at the moment.
Occasional Montrealer Robin McKenna’s generous documentary Gift explores gift economies around the world: from an Indigenous Canadian potlatch ceremony to bees at Burning Man, an interactive art piece by Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei and an Italian museum set up in a squatted building. Screening Friday at 7 p.m. (in the presence of the director and DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art curator Cheryl Sim), Tuesday at 7 p.m., and Monday at 5 p.m. at Cinéma du Musée.
Jennifer Alleyn’s Impetus is an existential immersion into/out of the inertia of heartache and writer’s block. Mixing elements of fiction and documentary, the film stars Quebec icon Pascale Bussières and the talented Emmanuel Schwartz on a journey from Montreal to New York via the depths of the inner self. Screens in French and English with English subtitles, Friday at noon and Sunday at 5 p.m. at Cinéma du Musée; and with French subtitles at Cinéma Beaubien and Cinémathèque québécoise.
Geneviève Dulude-Decelles’s debut fiction feature Une Colonie is a touching coming-of-age tale about a 12-year-old girl from the country entering secondary school in town. Screening daily with English subtitles at Cinéma du Musée, and Sunday and Monday at Cinéma Moderne.
Katherine Jerkovic won best Canadian first feature at the Toronto International Film Festival for her understated yet moving film Les routes en février (The Roads in February), about a young Montreal woman who visits her grandmother in a small village in Uruguay. Screening with English or French subtitles (be sure to check) at Cinéma du Parc, where Jerkovic will introduce the film on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.