“I’m thinking of dedicating something to Ella because truly if it wasn’t for her I don’t know if I’d be a singer,” confesses singer Ori Dagan when recalling his inspiration for getting into jazz. “It was hearing Ella Fitzgerald that changed my life. I started off just singing along to her scat solos, and then I started performing them at parties and then it became the best addiction I ever had,” he says with a laugh on how he was drawn into scat singing. “Thank you, Ella!”
Dagan has been steadily building a name for himself in the Toronto jazz community—as well as branching out with performances around Canada and even a few in Manhattan—as one of the most talented and unique voices on the scene. His booming baritone and proficiency at scat is setting him ahead of the pack and helping to expose the genre to new audiences both young and old. Not bad for a young man who noodled in classical piano before finding his voice in the classics.
“I was young and I just kind of stopped when I was about 16,” Dagan recalls of his first years in classical piano. “I never had the passion enough for it to practice, but I loved music.” It was hearing Ella scat that caught the young singer’s ear—and heart—and set him on a new trajectory that found him not only performing the great songbooks of jazz legends, but taking on the art of scat singing.
“There’s not a single scat singer who just becomes a scat singer without practice. It’s really all about the discipline.”
“I scat sing every single day and I’ve been doing that since about 2000,” Dagan explains as to how he’s developed his proficiency for the art. “But I have to say it took me about eight years of doing it every day until I actually felt comfortable and it’s very hard to do and requires a lot of discipline. The cool thing about it is that it’s all about freedom. It’s all about being able to improvise, so you start off just imitating. The way I did it is I just started studying everybody, every scat singer that I heard and then I really became better at it when I started to study instruments. Especially Lester Young and Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and just imitating them and then eventually I kind of found the freedom in it so that on stage I can just pull it out of my ear. It’s actually really liberating and fun.”
“It’s basically using your voice to imitate an instrument,” he continues, explaining the intricacies of scat. “When Ella started doing it, one of the first songs she did was called Flying Home, which was an instrumental piece by Illinois Jaquet, who was a saxophone player. She recorded an actual record where there was an orchestrated background and she started [Ori begins to scat the song], so it was just like an instrumental thing. You start off with just copying melodies and then you improvise. Here’s the interesting thing; a saxophone player, any jazz instrumentalist, they are the people who really scat because they’re able to express their ideas; they think like that. You have to be able to think like a saxophonist, and that’s really the challenge.”
Because Dagan is so fleet-tongued when it comes to scat other singers wanting tips on upping their own abilities often approach him. He has one single piece of advice for all: practice, practice, practice. “There’s not a single scat singer who just becomes a scat singer without practice. It’s really all about the discipline,” he says. “I think the hardest thing about it is having the guts to do it and falling flat on your face several times.”
“As the great instrumentalist Ornette Coleman said, ‘jazz is the only music where you can play the same not every night but play it differently’. I love that.”
Ori Dagan performing at Canadian Music Week 2013
While Dagan loves the timelessness of jazz and plumbs the catalogues of some of his favourite performers, he’s not planning on being a jazz jukebox. He has recorded two albums of standards—S’Cat Got My Tongue and 2012’s Less Than Three—that he has put his own spin on, plus a smattering of originals and some very clever and unexpected versions of some very well known pop songs by current artists. Instead of this being some sort of hook to increase audiences, he sees it as a natural expression of the heart of jazz: interpretation.
“I really think of myself as a traditional jazz artist even though I’m doing stuff like Lady Gaga and Madonna,” Dagan explains. “The reason I think of myself that way is because when jazz was in its heyday in the 1930s, that’s what everyone was doing, they would take Cole Porter songs and Broadway songs that everybody knew and reinvent them. To me that was a very natural idea and it’s actually interesting because if I was to do Gershwin or Cole Porter, which I love doing, I already know 50 versions of each of those songs. Whereas when I’m doing something like Lucky Star, I only know Madonna’s version so it’s easier to reinvent it, to make it a personal thing.”
“I guess one of the main singers who inspires me other than Ella is Anita O’Day,” he continues. “Anita did a lot; she would take a familiar song at the time; if you ever listen to her version of Sweet Georgia Brown for instance, or Honeysuckle Rose or Tea for Two, she completely changed them by making them a modern arrangement. It’s not just the sound of her voice that’s different; the whole song is completely transformed. I’ve always been really inspired by that. To me, if you’re going to sing covers, make it interesting and add something of your own. I love doing that, I love the challenge of taking a song and completely spinning it around so the audience goes, ‘what? Cool!’”
To that end, Dagan has recorded a very unique reimaging of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. It’s clever, employs his talents as a scat singer and is a reworking of the thunderous dance tune that has caught people’s attention mainly because of the element of surprise when one listens to his version. “We did make a music video for Bad Romance and we’ve tweeted it to her. A lot of her fans liked it, actually. We haven’t heard back from her yet,” says Dagan of the song and the inspiration behind his version. “As the great instrumentalist Ornette Coleman said, ‘jazz is the only music where you can play the same note every night but play it differently’. I love that.”
Of course, making music that is compelling and pleasing to fans is only part of the challenge of being a musician. There is getting an audience to come see you in a live venue. While Toronto once had a rich history of jazz and blues clubs in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, many have vanished with changing times and tastes. However, Dagan sees resurgence in live music venues and the hunger for performance from fans of all types of music. “Toronto is such a rich place for musical talent of all sorts and part of the whole issue is that there is so much brilliance and there just aren’t many places to show that brilliance,” Dagan observes. “There are some very cool places and I really encourage people to check out those places because these artists really need support.”
“Seeing a live band is a completely different experience from watching them on Youtube,” he continues. “The vibrations that you experience from live music are very special. I’ve seen in my career so far, so many people who’ve come out to hear someone for the first time and they were like, ‘I didn’t even know this place existed’. They come back and come back and come back. It’s important. If you’re having a birthday party, go out and see some live music. Not just jazz, there’s lots of cabaret, like the Flying Beaver Pubaret, the Jazz Bistro, the Rex, Gate 403, the Old Mill. There are lots of great places and to keep this music alive you really have to support those places.”
“Bjork…she’s really inspired me to be an artist and to be myself and be daring and to not follow the mainstream and to be original.”
While being a star performer in his own right, Dagan is also a bit of a jazz ambassador when it comes to not only keeping the genre current and vital, but supporting and putting the spotlight on other talent—of which he sees plenty. “There’s this young lady named Barbra Lica. She is absolutely incredible and very precocious. She’s in her 20s and sounds lush and beautiful,” Dagan says while ebulliently naming some of his local favourites. “There’s Sophia Perlman who I did a duet with on my first album. She’s an incredible scat singer who I learned a lot from. She’s also a great blues singer. There’s Alex Samaras. He’s very popular as a sideman and he’s doing a Sondheim jazz project with a saxophone player named Bobby Hsu. Terra Hazelton is wonderful and is a crazy-good blues singer who used to work with Jeff Healey.”
Another local performer who is an inspiration for Dagan is former Leslie Spit Trio singer Laura Hubert, whom he not only raves about, but is learning from. “I have been studying every vocal move by Laura Hubert,” he says. “I think she is a very underappreciated artist. You can find her playing around Toronto. There’s something about the way she sings that I am absolutely addicted to. It’s kind of like a Billie Holiday quality. She’s not a scat singer; she’s a storyteller. Every word you feel. She does this amazing version of Angel from Montgomery, which is one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century. She’s a huge influence.
As an accomplished jazz singer, scat cat and piano player you’d think that Dagan’s fantasy collaboration would be with one of the legends of the genre. You’d be wrong. When asked who his dream duet partner would be, without hesitation he blurts, “Bjork!” Surprised? Don’t be. Considering the aforementioned characteristics of jazz playing and singing, Bjork’s musical style is probably closer to jazz than pop. And that is part of what captured Dagan about the unique singer. “Bjork is my favourite artist of all time who isn’t a jazz artist,” he says emphatically. “She’s really inspired me to be an artist and to be myself and be daring and to not follow the mainstream and to be original. I think she’s astounding. I’ve always loved her and I’d love to work with her one day.”
“I’ve always loved what she does,” he continues. “I’ve always been so blown away with her writing. I’ve been working on my songwriting the past couple of years, putting out a few songs here and there. I’d love to do an album of originals in the future and she’s someone who I’ve always looked at as a genius of songwriting. The thing about songwriting is economy and simplicity and I’m blown away by the way she approaches writing.”
Ori Dagan is a young musical maverick who has one foot firmly planted in the tradition of jazz and the other in the future of the genre. He is not afraid to take chances and challenge the precepts and constructs because he knows that what keeps jazz vital is keeping it moving. Whether it’s taking inspiration from Bjork’s songwriting or Ella’s timeless voice, Dagan is building a musical bridge and bringing jazz into the new millennium.
Andrew Vail’s writing career began in Halifax when he was but a child. In Grade 4, he wrote and produced his own series of comic books entitled “Freaky The Frog”, the on-going tale of a little misfit frog and his pals of the pond. Marvel Comics never came knocking but Andrew knew he loved to create and tell stories. Since then, Andrew has worked in advertising, PR and publicity; has interviewed politicians, rock stars and very interesting yet not-so-famous movers and shakers. He has published articles in a variety of local and national magazines and websites.