Introducing: Zoe Leger, one of the brightest emerging talents on the Canadian jazz scene. A composer, arranger, vocalist and pianist with a strong background in chamber music, choral singing and jazz, Zoe has taken on an ambitious musical challenge with her first album: The Girl From Yesterday which was nominated for the 2017 East Coast Music Award Jazz Recording of the Year.
The set of all original songs were written, arranged and performed in Zoe’s trademark synthesis of jazz, folk, singer-songwriter and pop styles. Think Norah Jones meeting Diana Krall with Bill Evans on piano and Joni Mitchell providing spiritual guidance.
Zoe grew up immersed in the vibrant musical scene in the Halifax area and being exposed as a young singer to both classical and choral music. She discovered jazz as a teenager and decided to pursue her studies in the jazz program at St. Francis Xavier University. Already an accomplished arranger of jazz standards for vocals and piano, Zoe discovered her compositional voice during her undergraduate years at St. F.X.
Inspired by modern European jazz artists, Zoe committed herself to songwriting by taking a Masters degree in jazz composition at the Birmingham (UK) Conservatoire, specializing in music for vocal ensembles, jazz orchestras and chamber ensembles. While in the UK, she was able to study with the late jazz great John Taylor and other top European artists.
The Girl From Yesterday is a distillation of all those influences, from Joni to Ella, to Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. “I like to think these influences are coming through me with brand new material that falls somewhere in the world of contemporary jazz, chamber and popular music,” Zoe says.
“Seeing as it's my debut album,” Zoe continues, “I'm hoping to not only put myself on the map of the Canadian jazz scene, but I'm also trying to contribute to the small community of Canadian female jazz composers.”
And while Zoe’s influences can be heard throughout the album, The Girl From Yesterday doesn’t fall readily into a single musical category. “The music is difficult to categorize only because even though the idea of fusing jazz with other styles is not a new concept, I'm trying to fuse it with folk, singer-songwriter and pop styles, which is less common.”
The record also features extensive use of three-part harmony singing, not something typically associated with jazz. But it’s there as a reflection of Zoe’s varied musical upbringing via classical, chamber and an vocal ensembles, including a season with the National Youth Choir of Canada and appearances at the TD Halifax Jazz Festival.
Also a bit unusual for jazz, the album maintains a narrative story line, which is in no small part autobiographical.
“If you listen to the album from start to finish, it tells the story of a young woman’s personal journey; chronicling the joys and triumphs, loves and losses and the challenge of trying to look ahead while never forgetting the steps that brought her to where she is today.”
Zoe’s warm, haunting vocals are at centre stage in this album and they reflect her influences clearly. Combined with her poetic, evocative lyrics, they create a rich soundscape that while clearly in the jazz genre, also betrays the influences of pop, classical chamber music and folk. It all comes together behind Zoe’s soaring vocals and syncopated piano parts, backed by driving bass lines from long-time collaborator Ron Hynes, tasty percussion from Damien Moynihan and virtuoso trumpet from East Coast legend Paul Tynan, one of Zoe’s mentor’s and frequent guest soloists. The album was recorded and mixed at Joel Plaskett’s New Scotland Yard studios in Dartmouth, N.S.
Reflecting on her music and what drives it, Zoe finds inspiration in our less-than-perfect world and in our struggles to be heard.
“I believe that everyone is born with a unique voice. Your voice may not always know what to say, or how to say it. Your voice may have days when you wake up and it can't even get words out, while other days it may speak poetry you didn't know you had in you,” she says. “But at the end of the day, your voice is your voice. And everyone, has something special to offer.”
The Girl From Yesterday tells a story and it paints a picture, but most importantly it's a voice, speaking up and speaking out, from the heart, admittedly imperfect but always in control, always evocative and placed solidly in the new wave of jazz-pop fusion.