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"I do what I want"
Jazz singer Caity Gyorgy just won two Junos in a row. You'll be hearing from her
If you’ve seen jazz played the way it’s often played — meekly, apologetically, more than a little approximately — then seeing Caity Gyorgy go about her work is a bit of a revelation.
The singer grew up in Calgary and lives in Montreal. But I caught up with her at the Old Firehall Arts Centre in Ancaster, a tidy suburb of Hamilton, ON. At 24 years old, she’s a marvel of panache, bantering easily with an audience of about 100, leading a quartet briskly through a mix of standards older than her grandparents (Shiny Stockings, September in the Rain, Darn That Dream) and her own clever originals. The latter are sometimes contemporary in theme, but they’re resolutely timeless in style. It’s not obvious which songs in a Gyorgy set are new and which are old. “I never used to smile at strangers,” one of the new ones goes. “I never once looked up from my shoes/ I never used to wonder why the world just seemed to pass me by/ I never used to care till I met you.”
Delivering lyrics or improvising scat solos between her guitarist and bassist, Gyorgy (it’s pronounced “George;” we’ll get to that) has a clear, light voice, a precise ear for rhythm and an effortless charm. She’s adept at writing vocalese — lyrics written to fit the intricate rhythms of a classic instrumental solo, a favourite technique of the 1950s novelty act Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
In short, she’s a talent. She’ll be playing for new audiences, and a growing fan base, on a 24-city Canadian and U.S. tour this summer that will start in Niagara-on-the-Lake this Sunday and stretch from Victoria to Halifax.
And though I was writing about jazz long before I moved to Ottawa, if you’re disinclined to take my word on this sort of thing, recent events have conspired to commend Caity Gyorgy to wider attention. In March she became only the second singer to win jazz vocal Junos in consecutive years. The first was Diana Krall.
I asked Laila Biali, herself a Juno-winning jazz singer and the host of the CBC Radio program Saturday Night Jazz, about Gyorgy. She wrote back: “To win one Juno on the first go is huge; but to then pull in a second just a year later — well, that elevates her to the ranks of Diana Krall and Michael Bublé, which is where she's headed. Mark my words.”
She sent a second email a few minutes later. “Also, I just adore her. She really is one of the most generous and sweet souls I've encountered in this biz.” The two singers have worked together. Here’s Biali and Gyorgy on Pennies From Heaven:
The Old Firehall Arts Centre is, as advertised, an old firehall that has been converted into an arts centre. I interviewed Gyorgy before her gig in the green room upstairs from the main-floor performance venue. She spoke quickly, a little less sure-footed than her stage persona, but still no shrinking violet.
Was she surprised to win Junos in Toronto and again in Edmonton, in 2022 and again in 2023? “To win twice and consecutively? Yes. To be honest, because I was nominated again after winning, I didn't think I was going to win. I didn't think I was going to win last year either. But last year I ended up winning. And this year I thought, ‘Well, I think my project's really strong, but I won last year.’ And also my category was really stacked. I love all of the albums that were nominated with me. So I was genuinely shocked. I'm like, ‘Oh my god.’ What was going through my head when I was walking up to the podium was, ‘Twice. Like, two in a row. Holy shit.’ I couldn't believe it.”
According to legend, the Juno award category for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year was created so Diana Krall could win more Junos. The Nanaimo-born singer was already a big name by the late ’90s, with crossover success well outside the jazz market. But her first four albums, competing against instrumental albums in catch-all jazz categories, didn’t win a single Juno in the 1990s. A new vocal-jazz category, beginning in the year 2000, fixed the problem. In the category’s first eight years, Krall won six times.
All it took to achieve this result was to create the category. I’ve been a Juno judge in instrumental categories. Judges aren’t even told who the other judges are. Collusion, or even just comparing notes, is impossible. It’s just that once the category existed, Krall in the busiest years of her career became a nearly automatic choice. In more recent years, the list of vocal-jazz winners has diversified nicely. Winners have included Holly Cole, Ranee Lee, Kellylee Evans, Laila Biali and Dominique Fils-Aimé.
So diversified has the country’s portfolio of prize-worthy jazz singers become, in fact, that after Krall’s early winning streak, no other singer had ever won the vocal-jazz Juno in two consecutive years. Until Gyorgy won her second in March.
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One measure of the speed with which things have started to happen for Gyorgy is that both of her winning albums were, in whole or in part, student projects. The 2022 winner, Now Pronouncing: Caity Gyorgy, was a five-song EP recorded as her final project for her Bachelor of Music degree at Humber College. The 2023 winner, Featuring, is a more ambitious affair, a baker’s dozen of songs with a different instrumental soloist on every track. Several were recorded at Humber before she moved to McGill University in 2020 for her Master’s degree.
The title of Now Pronouncing refers to one early career stumbling block: her name, which covers an impressive chunk of the alphabet in a short distance but which is pronounced “Katie George.” Her great-grandparents moved from Hungary in the early 1930s and settled at East Coulee, a mining town just outside Drumheller, AB. Gyorgy was born and raised in Calgary.
Who wants to be a jazz singer in this day and age, anyway? How ever did she get into it?
“I started dating a jazz drummer,” she said matter-of-factly. This was in high school. “I was super into a lot of Motown music, soul music. I was listening to a lot of Otis Redding, Martha Reeves, the Supremes, Etta James…. But I started seeing this boy and he was really into jazz. I thought, well if we're going to have something to talk about on our dates, I should probably listen to some of the music that he's listening to.”
This sounded easy in the abstract but proved daunting in reality. On one of their first dates, they went to Turn It Up Records, which hadn’t yet closed in Calgary’s Marda Loop neighbourhood. The boy recommended a very early Miles Davis record, Birth of the Cool, recorded in 1949 and 1950. “It was one of the reissues, still in plastic. So it was like 40 bucks. That was an expensive record. I was working part time. Like, it was a lot.” She paid up, took the record home, found it mystifying, much as I had many years earlier when I heard my first Miles Davis record.
“Finally, I ended up listening to a bunch of singers because my dad got me a compilation album of jazz singers from Starbucks. Then I heard Ella [Fitzgerald] and Sarah [Vaughan], Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae. That was the best introduction for me.”
The drummer was Jacob Wutzke. Today they’re engaged. He is often her drummer, and he has become a regular performer in jazz clubs in Montreal. They went to Humber together, a year apart, and then to McGill. At the Old Firehall he provided crisp accompaniment. On one tune, he played a solo introduction that reflected close study of the drumming style of Art Blakey, a contemporary of Miles Davis’s.
Do instrumentalists look down their noses at singers? “Of course. There's sort of an attitude towards singers, and towards women in general… that we are guilty until proven innocent. So we have to prove that we can improvise. We have to prove that we can sing a melody and not get lost in the form. We have to prove that we can lead a band. When we do that, it's typically fine. But I’ve found that I’ve been constantly needing to prove myself. It gets exhausting.”
The effort does seem to be paying off, including in the esteem of her elders. “I am so proud to call her my friend and former student at McGill,” says saxophonist and composer Christine Jensen, who is a guest soloist on Featuring and who left McGill last year to teach at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in upstate New York. “We worked a lot on process with her repertoire, and about taking risks and really going for it as a player, musician and vocalist. I love that she somehow is presenting retro form with poignant lyrics that are current, thought provoking and full of humour. She delivers and tells a story that captivates me.”
For audiences that aren’t used to it, scat singing — strings of nonsense syllables that let a singer improvise like an instrumentalist — and vocalese can sound off-putting. Is she tempted to cut down the vocal gymnastics? “I just do what I want, to be honest,” Gyorgy said. “I really like doing it. I find it super fun. I think it's a part of the music. If I can use my voice as an instrument, why not? And then i'm not just standing there for five minutes in between everyone else’s solos.”
Not too long ago, a young musician with a solid reputation among peers, on a rare Juno winning streak, would be getting some media attention by now. The Montreal papers would be on to her first, and then maybe the Globe. A wire-service story would pop up in the local paper ahead of half the stops on her tour. That world has essentially gone away. Gyorgy makes her splash where one can these days, in the weird mayfly world of social media. She has over 113,000 followers on TikTok; individual videos sometimes get over 1 million views, including this one, with studio footage of Gyorgy recording her original song My Cardiologist.
It was through TikTok that she was contacted by Postmodern Jukebox, a U.S. collective that records retro versions of current pop hits. Every week they post a YouTube video of a song by the White Stripes or Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, performed in the style of Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. Gyorgy’s 1940s-style version of Taylor Swift’s song Love Story with Postmodern Jukebox is closing on 800,000 views…
…and she toured with them for weeks in November and December. Vegas, Texas, up to New York City, sleeping on a rolling bus, playing plush-seat venues filled with thousands of fans who couldn’t have named anybody in the band. “I had costume changes, hair changes, sometimes makeup changes, like if I wanted to change lip color, and it was just such a production. I've never done that before. Everything was very, very meticulous. Which is cool. It's not what I do. I love improvising, adding sections, engaging with the group in a way that's spontaneous.”
Even if she wasn’t the tour’s raison d’être, it was a taste of a kind of big time. Such glimpses are coming more quickly now. Between the Old Firehall gig and the publication of this article, Gyorgy went on a two-week tour of Japan. She is already releasing singles from her next album, a set of duets with Calgary pianist Mark Limacher. She has plans for the one after that. One of her earliest albums, from before the Juno streak, contains a track that generates enough plays on Spotify to pay for a latte every day. Which, given the pittance Spotify pays in royalties, is a lot of plays. “So it’s my latte song.”
Caity Gyorgy will be performing at many of Canada’s jazz festivals this summer, including Victoria, Calgary, Saskatoon, Montreal and Rimouski. Details on her website. Her albums are for sale on Bandcamp; Now Pronouncing and Featuring are available on most streaming services.
As for portrait photographer Duane Cole, a portfolio of his work is on his website.