Feature/Interview

Canada Calling (1): vocalists Heather Bambrick, Alex Samaras & Mingjia Chen

Canada Calling is new occasional series from vocalist and composer Nicky Schrire. London-born and South African-bred, Schrire recently moved to Toronto, Canada, where she has been learning both how to pronounce “Toronto” properly (“Tronno”) and how to navigate foreign musical lands.

Part of the joy of this new adventure has been discovering Canadian musicians and the music they’re creating. At risk of being crippled by choice and quitting before she’s begun, Nicky is kicking things off with an opinion piece about an instrument she knows all too well….the vocalist. Here are three Canadian singers whose voices and stylings have begged repeat listening.

Heather Bambrick:

Heather Bambrick. Publicity photo

Heather Bambrick is a Canadian treasure. I feel confident opening with this statement because her reputation precedes her. She is loved and revered by musicians and music-lovers alike. A proud Newfoundlander, Bambrick prides herself on being an entertainer and I can vouch for her ability to seamlessly transition from banter to song with wit and verve. She is as skilled as they come, a consummate professional and performer.

I was thrilled to learn that her musicianship is on par with her presentation. She sings with a warmth and clarity that results in an undeniable modernity while her feel for swinging and grooving is yet another sign of her immeasurable talent. A class act through and through.

LINK: Heather Bambrick’s website

Alex Samaras:

Alex Samaras. Publicity photo

Alex Samaras intimidates me. He intimidates me in the way that Kurt Elling intimidates me. It’s not him as much as it is his immense talent and fearlessness. Alex is bold. And I am in awe of this boldness as well as his vocal prowess. Like Elling, he possesses a tone that is so intentional and clear, it cuts straight to your heart, and the heart of the song.

His repertoire choices run the gamut from Sondheim to Meredith Monk to David Bowie to Lerner and Loewe. Whatever he is singing, his self-assurance, focus and clear adoration for performing and story-telling carry force and flair. Where Samaras departs from Elling, is in the roundness and softness of his edges. He is very much his own brand of male jazz vocalist. He has a vulnerability balanced with his confidence and this is where he carves out his own path. He is enchanting.

Mingjia Chen:

Mingjia Chen. Photo: Joyce Li

I was introduced to Mingjia Chen’s singing by my friend and pianist, Chris Donnelly. Her duo work with American pianist James Fernando immediately caught my attention. The music lies somewhere between art song and the piano/voice duo tradition spearheaded by Norma Winstone and John Taylor.

However, that’s not to say Mingjia sings in the style of Norma or other British or European vocalists. Her approach is all her own and suitably contemporary for her age, with the odd pop inflection colouring her singing of certain words. Her voice is wonderfully malleable with sponge-like bounce that really comes to life when she’s singing at speed or threading melismas throughout her improvisatory phrases. The result is so contemporary and fresh.

As well as her duo with Fernando, she leads Mingjia & The Tortoise Orchestra, a 13-piece chamber ensemble that “marries courageous songwriting with curious, colourful orchestration and improvisation.” I urge you to listen to music from their EP, a delightful offering of Jon Brion-esque sonic treats for your listening pleasure.

LINKS: Mingjia Chen’s website

And her album on Bandcamp

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