From jazz fan to jazz singer

(The Gaby Warren interview)

by Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen

May 17, 2013


Here’s the full interview with Ottawa uber-jazz fan turned vocalist Gaby Warren that I distilled into an article that will appear in Saturday’s Citizen:


A dozen years ago, when he was relatively new at the jazz-singing game, Gaby Warren mused that he would put out a CD when he was “fairly happy” with his voice.


That day has arrived. Warren, a 76-year-old Ottawan, launches his CD Reflections of a Jazz Fanatic next Tuesday at the NAC Fourth Stage. He brings his music to the Rex Jazz and Blues Bar in Toronto on June 3.


For much of his working life,  Warren was a Canadian foreign service officer and federal public servant (he worked in international relations at Department of Communications until 1991). Upon retiring, he took up singing with striking zeal and seriousness, studying with Rob Frayne and Jennifer Giles, Ottawa musicians whom he also counts as friends.


So serious is Warren that he will be accompanied on his launch gig Tuesday by the top-flight Canadian jazz musicians Kirk MacDonald on saxophone, pianist Nancy Walker, bassist John Geggie and drummer Nick Fraser. They also play on his disc.


For Warren’s self-financed, independently released album, the musicians last year recorded a mix of Warren’s originals and jazz standards during two days in the studio at Venturing Hills Farm in Luskville, QC.


On the resulting CD, there is often no small gap between Warren’s late-blooming abilities and the playing of his seasoned professional group (Warren calls them “world-class”). Still, the CD is  a very personal musical memoir, a well-planned and, some might say,  even courageous demonstration of Warren’s artistic ambitions and consuming passion for jazz.


One example of Warren’s original and even personal material: his three-part Cuban Fantasy, which draws upon his time spent posted at the Canadian Embassy in Havana, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The most touching track, the tender ballad Life Without You, turns the limitations and vulnerability of Warren’s voice into a strength.


Below, Warren shares some of the back story behind his most recent musical effort:


1. Why do you describe yourself as a jazz fanatic?


I am obviously making fun of myself. Since my early teens, however, jazz tunes and classical music compositions have been constantly swirling in my head, even when I was supposed to be concentrating on my career in international relations. I still walk around bopping variations on tunes. At what point does passion turn into fanaticism?


2. How would you describe your singing?

I would say that my voice is in relatively good shape for an “old man.” My voice has actually grown stronger with practice and in the past few years I have attached growing importance to voice quality and hitting notes dead-on.


3. What are your strengths and weaknesses?

One strength is that I have always been blessed with a good ear. I remember tunes instantaneously and have always been able to sing on key. Another strength, facilitated by longevity, is that I know the jazz repertoire – the most “in” jazz originals and the most distinctive and least hackneyed standards.


One weakness, the inverse of my strength, is that my voice is an aging instrument. I am never going to be an ingénue singer with a fresh voice! Perhaps I try to mask this deficiency with hipness.


Another weakness is that I do not place a high priority on polishing what I do. For example, I do not rehearse my improvisations. I like to react to the moment and to musical ideas emanating from the musicians. Since I do not do many gigs and cannot ask professional musicians to spend much time with me in advance, I have always been operating in a jam-session type of environment.


4. What progress have you made as a musician/composer over the last 12 years?


Twelve years ago I was accepted by good musicians because of my knowledge of jazz and repertoire. I sang intuitively. Thanks to working with Rob Frayne and eight years of music theory lessons with Jennifer Giles, I can now do my own charts and can have a dialogue with musicians on a more technical level. Jennifer has also helped me to improve my voice quality and rhythmic precision.


As a composer and longtime jazz fan, I place a high priority on writing distinctive melodies that are not overly derivative of well-known tunes. I always throw back into the water melodies that, upon reflection, I decide remind me too much of existing tunes. As my next leap forward, I plan to write more complex arrangements for new compositions.


5. You hired Kirk MacDonald, Nancy Walker, John Geggie and Nick Fraser to support you on your CD. What was your thinking with respect to the sidemen you hired? Did the calibre of these players intimidate you?


I have been a serious jazz fan for 64 years, decided to be a jazz vocalist about 16 years ago, and have been studying music theory for about nine years.  No, I was not intimidated by the calibre of the musicians I chose to record with.  I was energized by the experience of working with them.  I selected world-class musicians whose work I admire and whom I regard as friends. I looked forward to the insights they would bring to my five original compositions and to my selection and arrangements of other tunes.  I knew that they would be stimulated by the not-run-of-the-mill contents.


6. Tell me about the process of preparing for the recording. What work was involved in choosing the tunes, making the arrangements?


The only challenge in choosing the tunes was in deciding which of the great number of tunes I love were important enough to me to be recorded.  My general theme, as I had been saying for some time to anyone who would listen, would be Reflections of a Jazz Fanatic.  This meant that my title tune would be Thelonious Monk’s Reflections (called Looking Back in Jon Hendrick’s lyrics).  After 64 years as a jazz fan, what tunes have stood the test of my time? As part of the whittling-down process, I wanted to establish a distinctive mix of originals, jazz standards and Song Book standards that are not being sung by many other jazz singers.


I produced a number of the musical charts as part of my study of music theory with Jennifer Giles.  In working on individual charts, Jennifer would make suggestions on how to improve my choices.  Some of the charts derive from an earlier period when I relied completely on Rob Frayne to put my ideas into musical form.  Prior to the recording session, in fact, Rob put the finishing touches on all the charts. He and I have always seen eye-to-eye on artistic choices.


Well in advance of the recording session, I distributed to the musicians the charts plus a CD with preferred recorded versions of some of the tunes.


7. What was your mental state at the beginning of the recording session? How did the session progress for you? What was it like working with the pros (the players and engineer Ross Murray and Rob)?


Going into the recording session, my adrenalin was flowing but in a positive way.  I was concerned, however, that it might not be possible to record all the tunes in the allotted time of Sunday evening, Monday all day, and Tuesday until early afternoon.  At the outset, we decided to start right in to record the tunes one by one. Since this worked the first evening, this was our modus operandi for the other two days.  No tune took more than two takes.  The longest piece, Middle East Blues, was recorded in one take. Once I experienced how the first tune was going, I lost any anxiety and began to enjoy the experience of singing under perfect conditions.


In theory I had been concerned that I might not be in strong voice for the full course of the recording.  I knew, however, that I could, if need be, re-record portions subsequently.  I was delighted that my voice actually lasted.

Throughout the recording sessions, it was an exhilarating experience to be supported by what I regarded as kindred spirits – the four world-class musicians, my longtime collaborator Rob Frayne, and the best recording engineer in the region, Ross Murray.  This creative spirit continued throughout the mixing process with Ross and Rob.  I also enjoyed the creative process of designing the CD package with Michael Zavacky and photographer Darren Holmes.


8. How do you hope that the disc will be received?


I am distributing the CD widely.  I hope that perceptive listeners will consider the disc to be a quality example of what is possible when one combines a serious and knowledgeable vocalist-composer with superb musicians.  I want the CD to be judged by universal, not just local, standards.



9.What will you do for an encore?


I shall decide this after taking stock of the critical reaction to this CD. Outside of launching it at the NAC Fourth Stage and Toronto’s The Rex, I certainly do not plan to go on tour. On the cusp of turning 77, I am not trying to make a career out of this!



In 2001,  Warren was profiled in the Ottawa Citizen by Mary Gordon. Here’s her fine story:

Ottawa’s biggest jazz fan reaches for the microphone

He’s retired and now he wants to sing
The Ottawa Citizen
June 9, 2001

Gaby Warren says the music goes through him non-stop.


“When I’m walking through the market, I’m bopping. I may run into somebody and I’m mid-solo,” he says.


“I’m practising,” he says.


He’s practising for his gig at Maxwell’s tomorrow night, where he’ll be singing with some of Ottawa’s best jazz musicians — even though he’s not one himself.


Warren, 64, may be Ottawa’s biggest jazz fanatic. His music collection is massive. He helps organize monthly jam sessions at Cafe Paradiso. He has helped organize the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and is known for his enthusiasm in support of Ottawa musicians.


“Gaby’s as good a friend as anyone would want to have as a performing artist,” says bassist John Geggie, adding Warren often comes to his shows with stacks of jazz for him to listen to, “stuff he thinks I might like.”


Geggie, who teaches music at four universities, consulted Warren when Geggie was preparing a lecture on jazz and spirituality.


“He had stacks of CDs of what faith and spirituality meant to him,” he says.


“We whittled it down to a dozen, but he had prepared for it and had given it some serious thought. I knew he was really intent on what he was feeling in certain works.”


When tenor saxophonist and pianist Rob Frayne met Warren, he knew he was a true fan.


“He loves it as much as any player,” he says. “It’s like meeting a fellow drug addict. I can tell by the way he talks about it, the style.”


Then, one day, Gaby thought he might like to be a player too.


“All these years I’ve been bopping all these tunes,” Warren says.


“I guess being busy in one’s career and travelling and all that, I was always making time for jazz, but it never occurred to me to take up singing until I was in semi-retirement. It was sort of like a revelation five years ago, I said, `Why don’t I try singing?’ ”


His obsession started when his uncle gave him a jazz record when he was 13. He was lucky to have a friend whose stepfather ran the Colonial Hotel in Toronto, where jazz musicians came to play.


“We would sit at the front table and eat open-faced sandwiches and drink Shirley Temples. And over here would be Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, George Shearing …”


From 1962 to 1976, Warren’s job as a foreign service officer for the Department of External Affairs meant lots of opportunities to see jazz around the world. He did solos in his head, bopping from airport to airport.


He brought along his records, which numbered in the thousands, when he was posted to the Canadian Embassy in Havana in 1963. He befriended many Cuban musicians, and when he left in 1965, he left them his records.

“They were cut off. It would have been a crime to keep them.”


“Plus,” he adds, “I was in the process of switching from mono to stereo anyway.”


He worked in international relations at the Department of Communications until 1991. Then he became a consultant in international telecommunications, but retired early to make time for his own music. He took lessons from the jazz musicians he so admired, gradually preparing to take the stage. This time his solos would be out loud, backed by professionals, and at some of the best venues around.


In October 1999, the neophyte singer had two “milestone” gigs in one week. He recruited Frayne, Geggie, and drummer Mike Essoudry to back him up at the now-defunct After Eight club in Ottawa. Five days later, he sang at The Rex, one of Toronto’s main jazz haunts, this time with Frayne on tenor sax and piano, Jim Vivian on bass, Kim Ratcliffe on guitar, and Jean Martin on drums, all of them top Canadian musicians.


He says he wasn’t intimidated.


“Look, if you give me good musicians, I’m not going to be nervous.


“It was such a thrill for me,” he adds.


But he knew he had a lot to learn when he heard himself on tape.


“I realized I had to pay more attention to the key that I’m singing in, because before that, if I had a chart that I knew was a little high for me, I’d say `Oh, the hell with it, I’ll do a little falsetto.’


“And to me, internally, it sounded cool. But then I heard myself on tape and I realized it doesn’t sound cool.”


What is most astounding about Warren is his seeming lack of fear. He could teach many young artists who are crippled by self-doubt a thing or two about confidence.


He has studied with several teachers, most recently with Frayne, who likens Warren’s attempt at singing to an untrained actor suddenly leaping into Shakespeare.


“But it’s an actor who has grown up with Shakespeare his whole life,” he says.


“He hits some really great moments. But he’s totally doing his own thing. And that’s a very neat thing. And that is courageous.”


Geggie says Warren isn’t under any illusion about becoming a professional singer.


“He’s well aware of the fact of where he fits into the big scheme,” he says.


“But he takes it very seriously.”


Warren says in a year or two, when he is “fairly happy” with his voice, he may put out a CD.


He’s ready to wait a bit.


When asked what he thinks of his voice, he replies: “Did Louis Armstrong have a good voice?’



For those of you (like me) that missed Gaby`s launch of his jazz vocal CD – "Reflections of a Jazz Fanatic" – in Ottawa May 21 at the Fourth Stage of the National Arts Centre (NAC), here is a photo below of his second launch, in Toronto, Monday, June 3 at The Rex Jazz Bar, 194 Queen Street West. A great event !


John Gilbert

June 25, 2013


 Featured musicians were:

Kirk MacDonald (tenor and soprano sax)

Nancy Walker (piano)

Nick Fraser (drums)

Neil Swainson (bass)


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