While our gay and straight worlds have much in common on the surface, there are still cultural ambiguities that crop up in the most unexpected areas. For instance, when attending a book launch for the latest collection of essays on jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, it is perfectly acceptable to ask the person next to you if they enjoy scat. Transpose this exchange into a gay cocktail setting and you can be assured of a very different sort of conversation, largely involving digestive bodily functions and a really good hand sanitizer.
For the sake of brevity, we shall today be focusing on the first meaning of scat: a jazz singing technique. Fitzgerald is probably the most prominent scat singer and has inspired countless others with her effortless vocal improvisations and her perfect timing.
Ori Dagan is one of those devotees. The Israeli-born Torontonian became an instant fan of Fitzgerald upon hearing her Live in Berlin album during his first year at university.
“It was really funny,” says Dagan. “My brother got my dad that CD, and I was at that age where anything my dad thinks is cool is not cool. I tried to resist it, but that section where she makes up the lyrics to “Mack the Knife”… it just got me.”
This new fascination led to a two-year stint in Humber College’s vocal jazz program, where he studied with Rita di Ghent, herself an accomplished artist. Dagan began to explore scat singing, learning how to improvise wordlessly over instrumental music. For the uninitiated, scat is kind of like a voice impersonating a sax or a trumpet, using made-up sounds like “shoobie” or “badu-bap” instead of words.
It has to be said that scat isn’t for everyone; there’s a Vegas-lounge-lizard quotient that can be a turn-off for jazz and non-jazz fans alike, but the technique and dexterity are undeniably impressive when it’s done right.
To my ear, Dagan’s style is an eclectic blend of traditional and avant-garde; he’s clearly at home using the scat vernacular of greats like Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, but he also has fun with all sorts of goofy noises that make the sound fresh and unexpected, as evidenced on the album’s title track.
“I learned to scat, essentially, by lifting every note from Ella, Sarah Vaughan and Anita O’Day,” Dagan confesses. “Then I began to build my own style.”
As Dagan honed his craft through studying and local jam sessions, he began to plan his first album. S’Cat Got My Tongue is a collection of jazz standards, with two original pieces penned by Dagan. He’s wisely surrounded himself with some of Toronto’s best musicians for his debut, including bass wunderkind Brandi Disterheft, pianist Bernie Senensky and drummer Norman Marshall Villeneuve. Other tracks feature Jordon O’Connor on double bass, drummer Sly Juhas and genius pianist Mark Kieswetter, who also produced the disc.
The music is impeccable. These guys have been on the scene for years, but their outstanding proficiency and energy still sound fresh and new. Kieswetter’s clean, intelligent arrangements complement Dagan’s resonant baritone, while four duets with some of Toronto’s leading jazz gals add spice to the vocal side of things.
There may occasionally be a little too much lounge lizard for some tastes; I can’t quite tell if Dagan’s parodying the oeuvre or aspiring to leisure-suit greatness, but it does add to the camp aspect that keeps the album light and carefree.
“Here’s That Rainy Day” is a great tune for Dagan. It neatly avoids the Sammy Davis Jr drawl that Dagan can occasionally dip into and showcases a warm, intimate side of his voice. “I Wish I Were in Love Again” is a standout, with Terra Hazelton’s pristine voice and coy delivery curling around Dagan’s in a perfect match of soprano and baritone.
Local jazz diva Julie Michels chimes in on a charming version of “Old Mother Hubbard,” sassy and dazzling in an all-too-brief scat solo that proves mama has plenty to teach the young’uns. Rounding out the duets is the smoky perfection of Sophia Perlman on the original scat tune “S’Qua Badu Bop,” and the effortless, soaring voice of Jazz FM’s Heather Bambrick on “Swing’s the Thing.”
Dagan’s been playing around town quite a bit lately, with theme gigs that have included tributes to queen-friendly favourites like Judy Garland and Anita O’Day. You can catch his next gig, a tribute to Louis Armstrong, at Ten Feet Tall on Aug 28. Leisure suit optional, but fun guaranteed.