May 7, 2021 12:35 PM
Chicago Jazz, Blues Fests on Hiatus for 2021
The City of Chicago has announced that its annual jazz and blues festivals will not be held for 2021, according to a…
After being off the scene for nearly two years due to a concussion, Canada-based vocalist Kellylee Evans returned to the stage this summer with performances at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill in Montreal, Hugh’s Room Live in Toronto and the Burlington Performing Arts Centre in Burlington, Ontario. Her new album, Come On, was released on Oct. 27.
During a phone conversation from her Ottawa home, Evans explained that she took a careful approach to her return to the stage. “I need to work in a way that’s safe for me and safe for my body,” she said.
The 42-year-old Evans performed those summer shows with a small, drummer-less combo that included bassist Ross MacIntyre and pianist Michael Shand. The set lists touched on material from throughout her career, including tunes from Come On. “I decided to do a career retrospective of these past few years,” she said.
“We played music from Fight Or Flight?, The Good Girl, Nina and I Remember When,” she noted, referring to earlier albums in her discography.
The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Evans grew up singing in school assemblies. She earned two bachelor’s degrees, in English and law, from Carleton University, and was pursuing her master’s in law when she decided to leave the academic life to pursue music.
Evans competed at the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition and placed second to Gretchen Parlato. (Among the judges that year were Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling.)
Living in Ashton, just outside of Ottawa, Evans home-schooled her three children, recorded on her own label and performed mostly in North America and Europe.
Evans won a Juno award (in the category Vocal Jazz Album of the Year) for Nina, her 2011 tribute to the music of Nina Simone. She also sang on saxophonist Jane Bunnett’s Embracing Voices album and later signed with Universal France.
Evans’ ascent came to a halt in 2013, when she was struck by lightning that came through the plumbing in the floor of her kitchen. She spent five months in a wheelchair and continued to tour, performing seated. She turned to music has part of her healing process.
“My guitarist had taught me a little ukulele, and my bass player taught me how to play the bass,” she said. “Those two things—getting my fingers moving—delayed some of the slurring that I would get at night.”
She seemed to make a full recovery. But then, on Nov. 12, 2015, Evans suffered a major concussion after she fainted coming out of the bathtub. The slip happened one day before the original scheduled release date of Come On, Nov. 13, which turned out to be the day of the terrorist attacks in Paris, where some Universal France employees were killed.
“The last thing anyone wanted to do was to promote an album,” Evans recalled. “And me, I’m quietly dealing with my concussion. I had a show to do the next day. But I was out cold between sets, and my brother was getting married in Jamaica, and I pushed myself onto that plane.”
After the accident, Evans suffered from various bouts of fatigue, headaches and neck pain. There were also long stretches of bed rest.
A friend, vocalist Amanda Martinez, decided to help out. She provided Evans with a financial boost, launching a successful crowd-funding campaign that raised nearly $44,000.
“It’s very humbling to admit that you need help,” Evans said. “I’m [usually] the helper. … People started to respond. When the first $1,000 came in, I said, ‘That’s it. We’re good. We don’t need to ask for any more money’ [laughs]. But the money kept building and building. And people gave enough money for us to live on for a year. I couldn’t imagine people caring that much.”
Those friends helped Evans move from Ashton to a new home in Ottawa, where Carleton University invited her to teach in its School for Studies in Art and Culture as an artist-in-residence. At Carleton, she mentors students about the music business and hosts an interview series.
“Had the university not come to me about being a mentor, I don’t know if I’d be here as strong as I’m feeling right now,” Evans said. “They gave me a lot of latitude in how the program would work … and what I could offer the students. … That’s the biggest joy for me.”
Slowly but surely, Evans built up the confidence to perform again. A major milestone came in March when she sang the Canadian national anthem at the Juno Cup in Ottawa, and later when she performed a duet with Canadian singer-songwriter Jim Cuddy.
“It was scary, but I got through it,” she said. “I felt so at home and so welcome. So [I wanted to see] if I could start back my music. That day, people were asking, ‘Are you back?’ and I’m talking to booking agents, and the next day, I booked [my tour] dates.”
Although she still suffers from some side effects of the concussion—including occasional dizziness—Evans is determined to continue her career with moderation. “I learned a good lesson about how ready I am, and I think my brain needs more rest,” she said. “So, I’m trying to pace myself, and not say yes to every promo opportunity, and really be patient with myself.”
Evans will perform at Hugh’s Room Live in Toronto on Nov. 17, at Massey Hall in Toronto on Nov. 18 (as part of the 31st Annual Women’s Blues Revue) and at Carleton University in Ottawa on Nov. 25. For more info on Evans, visit her website. DB
May 7, 2021 12:35 PM
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