Jeannette Lambert

jazz vocals, poetry etc.

April 6, 2017
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Words or music; chicken or egg?

Northern Lights Festival Boréal, back in the 70s

It’s like the chicken or the egg question: which comes first, the music or the words?

I’m happy to write songs in either order, words first or music first. When the words come first I like to tease out a melody, stretching it, bending it, looking for the music in the natural rhythm of the syntax, the flow of the syllables. I was a teen when I started writing shy, short texts like “are you paranoid? are you perpendicular to the wall? are you parallel to the ground? are you paranoid?”. Next I would pull out a big four track tape machine, the Fostex, that my gadget-happy brother Reg offered me. In the privacy of my room, I would sing different overlapping tracks until I arrived at the melody that really struck me as being how it goes. An example of how that sounds can be found in the song Anchor which features vocal overdubs and a more developed sort of paranoid lyric.

Or if you flip it all around and start on the opposite end, one can listen to a melody and tease out the words instead. It’s like deciphering a mystery or untangling a lost story. I don’t generally compose with melodies first so I’m more likely to collaborate and write lyrics for someone else. When we were kids and my brother wanted to learn every song under the sun, he would appear with fake books full of tunes and settle in with his guitar. We spent a lot of time learning jazz standards, picking and choosing our favourites. What else can you do when there’s no colour t.v., no internet, no computers? Ah, the good old days. The fake books were big and fat but even that source of inspiration wasn’t infinite so it was only a matter of time before Reg had to start writing his own tunes. And I had it in my head that I wanted to be Stevie Wonder but as a little blonde girl in Northern Ontario, I was pretty sure I’d have to go to some lengths to accomplish that. The best I could come up with was that I should probably start by writing my own songs like he did. So I was motivated to take Reg’s melodies and sit with my eyes closed, pen and paper at hand, and try to hear the words inside the guitar lines. Sometimes it would jump out me and I’d just trust that those first words that popped into my head would take me somewhere by the end.

Last year, when he told me he was working on a new album featuring a collection of many songs he’s written for vocalists, I was happy to join in and resurrect a few of the songs we’d written years ago. And I asked him to send me some new tunes so we could add some fresh songs to the mix. It seemed right to celebrate his song collection with even more songs.

He sent me a batch of guitar melodies titled things like song #8, Untitled #6, so no hints at all. I went through them, listening closely for songs that felt as though they are speaking to me. Then the scribbling began, the fast forwarding and rewinding, testing the words and discovering a small story. Sometimes it is very visual, other times it has more to do with a mood. And once in awhile there’s just a lot of guitar and I move along to the next one.

One of the first melodies I picked in this recent batch made me feel like I was gliding along somewhere in nature. As I listened I had an impression of being on a bicycle and thought of my cousin Marianne and all her cycling adventures in Provence in France. Imagining how she must feel when she returns there every couple of years, I started writing about the fields of lavender. This left me with the dilemma of singing the word purple several times in a row, not an obvious word to hang on to in a flowing melody but I persisted nevertheless. It is fitting that Reg invited our old friend, the great saxophonist Perry White, to play on this piece as he too is an avid cyclist.

The last song on the album is from a different landscape altogether, a dreamy place that is yet haunted by cold winds and unpredictable weather, and populated with a myriad assortment of birds. This song, which Reg titled Crow’s Call, has a mystical air to it so the story here is not really narrative but more about brush strokes of of imagery, much like the artwork on the cover of the Songbook cd.

That artwork was created by our mother Agatha Schwager for her last exhibition here in Montreal, The Shadows of My Hand.  She studied Chinese ink brush painting before producing this last series of artwork and her goal was to express the energy of her ideas in her swift, strong brushstrokes. She told me that after she showed these abstract paintings to her Chinese brush painting teacher and one of his friends, the two men stood together for a long time in silence, contemplating the work. Finally they turned and asked her, “did you study the crows for a long time before you painted them?”. That made her laugh, surprised that they saw crows where she had seen abstraction.

Brodie West’s contribution on this song fits the ornithological theme well. His inventive sounds reminded me of a cardinal so I included a photo of one of my backyard red cardinals on the album artwork to honour this bird’s input, as he is overlooked in the lyrics.

Two other vocalist/lyricists, Luanda Jones and John Alcorn, contributed to Reg’s oeuvre and it is fascinating to hear their lyrics alongside Reg’s compositions. All the songs are consistent and the lyrics are always perfectly in step with the melodies. It’s proof, I think, that the melodies contained the lyrics all along, and we are just the detectives who have peeled away the layers to reveal them.

Songbook on CDBaby

March 20, 2017
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Singing about storms and embroidery

This past weekend we had a wonderful evening making music at Resonance Café here in Montréal. Michel and I invited our nephew, accomplished and versatile guitarist Gabriel Lambert, to join us. We also invited bassist Guillaume Bouchard, who has been so dedicated to Michel’s Journal des Episodes project. Guillaume is emerging from intense treatment for lyme disease, something that had left him bed-ridden for far too long so we were very grateful he was able to return to the stage and his music.

Our sons (more Lamberts!) and some of their friends joined us for the evening as roadies, videographers and ticket sellers. And we were greeted by an enthusiastic and encouraging audience of friends and others who followed us along for an inspiring evening.

Resonance Café is a great venue, with good sound, thoughtful vegan food and a welcoming, all ages atmosphere that allows for creative freedom. What more could you want?

In the spirit of free jazz and my beatnik ways, our music was very loosely structured around poetry I have written or collected, and these texts were the jumping off point for our improvised music. Earlier in the week I selected some poetry that felt right for this moment in time and shared them with the musicians. Perhaps the recent epic snowstorm made an impact, or my newfound interest in knitting. I sang about nuns embroidering (Federico Garcia Lorca), Catalan poetry in translation (JV Foix), stormy forests (Anne Bronte) as well as my own poems about storms, dangers in forests, dream haiku and newborn children.  Here are some clips.

January 27, 2017
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Why I keep a dream journal

Paris, 1996

When I tell people I’ve been doing dreamwork for decades, they sometimes ask why I keep a dream journal. Here’s one small story that illustrates what I love about it. I’ve been keeping a dream journal since the early 1990s when a series of mysterious dreams and events led to me to start gathering evidence for my mystic detective work. At that time, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the dreams I collected.

I’ve kept dreams scribbled in notebooks, binders, and more recently on my computer. While tidying my office this past week, I stopped to check if a notebook was blank or full. I flipped it open and discovered it was a travel journal I had kept during a family vacation to Santiago de Cuba. The date was March 11, 2009. My children were young and it was March break. We wanted a beach getaway to a place that would have good music nearby.

Feeling a bit nostalgic now, I randomly reached up for one of the dream journals I’d just placed on a high shelf. I landed on a dream journal entry from February 11, 1996. Michel and I were living in Paris and pondering our future a lot, the possibility of starting a family, those kinds of things. The journal entry reads “yesterday in my dream I was made to remember the words “chang chang”.

Was it exactly that, chang chang? Or was it chan chan? What did I make of those instructions? Did I find it sinister or random, a name or phrase from another language? At that point I hadn’t learned how to work with my dreams creatively so it was noted as an instruction and nothing more. Remember this.

And, speaking of remembering, with these two journal entries juxtaposed against one another in this current moment, a song popped into my head. I remembered that in March 2009, during our trip to Santiago de Cuba, the soundtrack of our trip, the song we requested the most, was the great Cuban song by Compay de Segundo entitled … Chan Chan!

Don’t I have video of my children singing along with this song? Ah yes, found it easily, two happy boys on my parents’ laps, singing Chan Chan! triumphantly, fourteen years after I was told to remember the title (Chan Chan starts at 1:31). My younger self, questioning the future in Paris, would have been comforted to know I’d be singing and dancing with our two children soon enough.

And here I am, about eight years after we all sang it together, finally putting two and two together. I’m not entirely sure why the puzzle pieces have fallen into place right at this moment. Perhaps it is because I was thinking of a question my dreaming friend Maureen asked me earlier this week. She asked how we feel about those voices that tell us things as we wake or all asleep. This synchronicity between journal entries seems to reply, look, it’s fine, it was intended to be helpful even if it took a few decades for her to get the message.

What kinds of folds of time are we dancing in? Such is the magic of dreaming and dream journaling, breathing poetry into our lives everyday. To cap it off, another dreaming friend, Barbara, pointed out to me that the song Chan Chan is also from a dream. Wiki quotes Compay Segundo as saying “I didn’t compose Chan Chan, I dreamt it. I dream of music. I sometimes wake up with a melody in my head, I hear the instruments, all very clear.” All the more reason to take our dreams, full of song and music, story and poetry, and bring them with us into waking life.

October 21, 2016
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It Goes Like This: a collection of jazz songs pt.3

Continuing along with the freeing of a weekly jazz standard (part 3), here is a song I recorded with Reg in the spring of this year, Willow Weep for Me. It’s a short version as construction next door interfered with our ability to record without the sound of drills and jack hammers but we managed to run through it once before throwing in the towel. It’s a lovely lyric, a song for a tree and its empathy.

I was hunting around for an appropriately starry painting to illustrate my version of the classic Stardust. I looked at a few paintings by Van Gogh and selected his Starry Night over the Rhone. I spent some time with it, tweaking the colours and reading about the painting in detail. I am really happy with how well it goes with the song, hints of purple etc. And then the next day I see the painting in my Twitter feed and click to read about a new exhibition at the AGO called Mystical Landscapes. So here I am busy with the song Stardust, recorded for my father who always requests it, and now the painting I’ve paired with it is on display at the gallery next to his home. Mystical indeed.

Where do you put your disappointment, when world events shift and alter the landscape before you so drastically? Here’s a love song that expresses a little bit of that.

September 2, 2016
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It Goes Like This: a collection of jazz songs pt.2

Further to the quest of freeing some of my music with a weekly Friday upload, here is another song from the album Born To Be Blue. It was my first time performing this classic and we did it in just one take because, after we finished, Reg and Neil agreed that it was just how they wanted it to be. Sometimes freshness and spontaneity are key. And being an agreeable leader who lets the guys in the band decide stuff (especially after starting the day weirdly out of tune for one tedious song I’d chosen) is worth more than attempting to attain some kind of musical goal. Or maybe the idea of being a leader is misplaced and really I’m younger than they are so whatever, move on to the next song now. In any case, it sounds pretty good. If I want to sing it more I can just sing along with this take.

Written by vegan eden ahbez in a cave near Palm Springs, famously recorded by Nat King Cole, here is a song I love for it’s mysterious and mystical lyric.

Apparently Johnny Mercer composed these lyrics while driving along in Palm Springs as he listened to an instrumental version on the radio. How else to come up with a line like “Your lips are like a red and ruby chalice?”.

I love all the songs on Frank Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours of the Morning Album, but none more than this one. What I’ve learned from him? How to be mournful while yet swinging:

Helen Merrill’s version of this is my favourite and some old friends from Sudbury were involved in the recent film with the same title.

August 26, 2016
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Thoughts on Being Female from Picnic Table Two

1-IMG_7809In a brief few seconds in my mother’s old office I came across this photo, from the summer we went to Parry Sound and made Dave Young play improvised music to poetry with us along the shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada. We might have done some standards too but I mainly remember the incongruity of it all, the wild verses and the savage scenery, all with Dave keeping his musical composure. Pretty sure it wasn’t my idea and it is too bad we don’t have on musical record of that event.

As Michel and Dave went on to play on the cruise ship that winds around the islands, I was left to my own devices during that week at the Festival of Sound. Having grown up on the shores of a lake in the north, I was eager to relive my childhood experiences of swimming whenever I wanted in pristine, cool water. The nearest small beach was a walk away along a winding path called the Wilderness Trail. It struck me, as I packed up my swimsuit and headed out, that I no longer had the sense of freedom and security I had had as a child when I went swimming in our backyard. Something about the whole excursion had me on high alert.

I’ve read many articles recently about women joggers going missing or being murdered and we have an epidemic of missing aboriginal women here in Canada. It reminded me of this poem I wrote and later recorded with Michel for our album Lone Jack Pine. Here is the song and the lyrics, for all those of us who have been startled to feel a sense of disquiet in the beauty and tranquility of nature, due to the insidious misogyny that permeates our culture. The lyrics are below and the music is below that.

 

picnictabletwo

Thoughts on Being Female, from Picnic Table Two

on the wilderness trail
rising from the beach
must remember to switch
my bikini for a dry bra

we’ll have no disks of damp!
as I start off alone on the wilderness trail
with salt on my lips that I must not lick away
someone is watching – I’m an angry cat, terrifying
works every time

what was it that her grandmother said?
nothing so shameful
as a woman walking and eating
or was it walking and smoking?
walking and eating or walking and smoking?

a boy from Hong Kong told me
you walk like a lumberjack
but what use is elegance
on the wilderness trail?

you get a false sense of security
on the wilderness trail
so blindly safe
like the unlocked doors of the widow’s house
are creatures lurking in the shadows?
monsters, and abductors of girls?

suspicious even now at picnic table two
with it’s etching
let’s do it on the table

lipstick from the city like a biker chick
hair bleached by the Muskoka sky
ah, asking for trouble, no doubt
asking for trouble
on the wilderness trail

June 10, 2016
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It Goes Like This: a collection of jazz songs pt. 1

MUKIDAH066

Long, long ago there was no internet and there were no computers. As a child I did things like compulsively reading books and swimming in the lake, or canoeing out to pick blueberries on some scruffy rocky island. Sometimes, lying on the dock or rolling in a beanbag chair, I imagined a world more like today, when I could answer questions with a few well-chosen words, or watch any film whenever I wanted where ever I was.

Meanwhile my brother Reg found his own personal voice in his guitar. So for fun, as something to do, we’d learn songs. We’d spin the vinyl of our parents’ jazz collection and I’d scribble the lyrics down and we’d practice. Or we’d leaf through big heavy fakebooks and pick and chose. We’d practice and practice and learn new songs every day.

Today I still have the binders of lyrics and notes on about 110 jazz songs I can sing at the drop of a hat, my memory for the lyrics still remarkably intact. Those are just the ones with Reg’s hand-written charts, as my brain likely contains a few hundred more.

So to honour this collection and just for the joy of sharing, we recorded a few recently. And I’ve also gathered up recordings we’ve done in the past that somehow got left in the dust of the ever-changing technology, songs released only on cassette just before compact discs took over, songs not uploaded for streaming before Spotify blotted out everything else. This is the place where I’ll upload a new one every now and then. The title of the collection is in answer to the eternal question, how does it go? And then one pauses and thinks and replies, before starting to sing, “it goes like this”.

Here’s the first one, recorded last month, a song I’ve always loved for it’s great, timeless lyrics. Also, we are excited to welcome a new family member to the Lambert clan whose middle name is Sonny which reminded me of this song, When Sunny Gets Blue. Because what more does a newborn want than to be held tightly when they are feeling blue?

 

And here is the second song in the collection, a song we don’t hear often, with great timeless lyrics.


Another great standard which has equally lovely French lyrics. Here’s the English version.

A lovely lyric with a soaring melody, Skylark.

And the fifth in the collection, If the Moon Turns Green, from our cassette release entitled Ballads II.

Here’s the playlist thus far with 5 tracks. Check back regularly as there are many more to come!

May 25, 2016
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Why I sing in English

Jeannette and Reg

Performing with Reg in the Netherlands in the year of the VW van

As a very young singer, travelling with my family in southern Spain, I developed a habit of listening to and singing along with flamenco music. To this day I still warm up my voice and practice by singing flamenco in Spanish or fado in Portugese very loudly. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t ever try performing these in public but as vocal exercises they are ideal for me as they combine strong emotion with acrobatic vocal techniques, beautiful melodies. And it gives me some privacy while practicing as everyone runs away.

I live in Montréal and believe me, there is a lot of social and economic pressure here to sing in French. And I can do it, as I speak French pretty well and am raising a couple of bilingual boys. Oh the French I’ve learned in school meetings! And even as I tick off “English mother tongue” on forms, my mother’s tongue was always Dutch. Despite all these languages in my life, my preference is to sing in English, even if that means singing great classics in translation. English is the language in which I’ve devoured big, complex novels. And when I choose to write endless scribbled notes, lyrics, poems and blog posts, I write in English.

That choice has to do with how I want to convey my energy and where I want to place my attention when I sing. While singing, I tend to let my mind travel to a place of imagination and rich imagery. I don’t want the music I’m creating to be about how I am enunciating or worrying about how to pronounce the next phrase. Can we hear that in a song? I think so and for that reason, I don’t want to be confined there, in that place of thinking first, expressing second. I want to be free to travel around within a song. And hopefully, this added focus will somehow get entangled with the sound and the music and carry the song’s story in a cinematic way in the listener. I once asked Michel and Reg if they do this too, try to send imagery while performing and they both looked at me very blankly. Perhaps this melding of the psychic and the musical in this particular way is my own thang or something from the lost languages of my ancestry. I don’t really know – I just know it is very important to me.

I’ve tried singing the Jacques Brel classic Ne me quitte pas in French and also sang along with the Flemish version which is excellent, btw, and worth seeking out. I love the poetry of the song and am not sure it is can be perfectly translated. But I found this translation which I enjoy a lot and so recorded it for my album Born to Be Blue.


cabrelconcert

At Francis Cabrel’s concert at Place des Arts

Recently I went to hear the great French singer/songwriter Francis Cabrel perform here in Montreal. It reminded me that I’d spent some time working on a translation of his wonderful song Octobre many years ago while living in France. I think Cabrel was probably working on translating Otis Redding around that time, back when Michel and I were dashing around the Riviera in our little Fiat, alternating between blasting both Cabrel and Otis Redding from the little car speakers. The Otis Redding cd was on sale at Auchan that year, practically free! Both of these artists are also great for vocal practice, actually. I floored my father-in-law by arriving in Québec from France able to mimic a Provencal accent pretty well as long as I was singing along with Cabrel.

Working with this idea of conveying imagery and mood instead of creating an actual, literal translation, here is my interpretation of Octobre, recorded with Reg earlier this month.

My latest project, a work-in-progress, is a collection of songs in translation, most of them translated into English from Spanish or Catalan. Can we carry the imagery through and share it from one song to another, regardless of language? That’s something I’ve set out to find out!

March 30, 2016
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Why I sing my dreams

Very often, when listening to talented singers with lovely voices, I find myself asking, why is she singing that? Often the song choices are baffling to me.  I do understand that it springs from a sincere wish to make a living, all with the goal to singing more often, but one has to wonder about what is truly being expressed in the music. On the other hand, I can also be startled by the lyrics of some of the most commercially successful singers, seemingly random, dazed, personal thoughts of people so rich they don’t give a shit. Well, that’ll teach me to let my sons make me a rap playlist. There is something liberating in their freedom of expression, that’s for sure, at least in the tracks that were thoughtfully selected for me ie. no misogynist crap allowed.

half half

My cultural identity in a hairstyle

As a young child, lying on the orange shag rug by a big window in the sun, kicking back and gazing at the album art of Stevie Wonder records while it snowed on the lake outside my home in Northern Ontario, I couldn’t help thinking, he’s not singing anyone else’s songs, is he? So why should I? Later on, as I delved into flamenco and fado music, I would be jealous of people with strong cultural identities who could sing traditional music with their hearts full of ancestral power. What is a immigrant Eurasian child living in Canada supposed to sing, exactly?

Moving along a little further, I can be found at a jam session in the basement of our half-renovated house in Chinatown in Toronto, with innovators of the avant-garde telling me to just sing whatever comes into my head. Finally, something that makes sense! Don’t censor and make it up as you go along! What kind of trance-like state do we enter as we listen to the pulsing drums and bass and say anything? Soon I was singing stream of consciousness poetry and outside of the music sessions would also scribble thoughts into a notebook. Often those thoughts were memories of dreams I’d had the previous night. I’d polish them so they’d flow more easily as songs, sing layers of them into a four track Fostex machine and then bend and shape them again when performing with others. Many of these are recorded. Here is a song that I wrote in Lisbon, after dreaming of someone whistling the melody on a train. It is one of my more structured of dream songs.

Another, more impressionist one is here, Provocation, which I performed when provoked (encouraged!) by Paul Bley to play free piano for him. I sang a dream I’d had of him a few years before.

I’ve also been writing dream haiku, struggling to sing short, bright phrases à la Kerouac. Synthesizing the imagery this way is a fun challenge as well. In any case, whether I write a proper song, sing on a groove, or sputter some haiku, this is my creative process, digging deep into several dimensions at once. The songs may be puzzling but hopefully they strike a chord in the listener and inspire others to think about their stories and dreams that they could be singing. It’s an old tradition, nothing new at all really, and the energy generated by bringing dreaming life into a waking life is invigorating for me and also appears to carry its own kind of forward motion. I have lots of stories to tell about where my dream songs have taken me already so I do plan to share those one day as I continue explaining myself.

I could also explain how some cultures would use dream songs to heal their people, how songs have power, how dream songs have extraordinary power, how many artists and writers have used their dreams as the basis of inspiration for centuries. It’s definitely a topic worth researching and studying and I would encourage anyone who is interested to do the reading. But for now I prefer to sing and to encourage others to sing their songs.

With that aim in mind, I am very happy to announce that I’ll be giving a dream song workshop, with musical support from Michel, at the International Association for the Study of Dreams 33rd annual international conference in the Netherlands this summer. I’ll be telling my some of my stories there and leading a dream song jam session. May this be the beginning of a new musical adventures to come!

March 11, 2016
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Video of Bali Songs

Michel and I had great fun meeting and playing with the talented bassist Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic last night at an event at Casa Obscura organized by Samuel Blais. We performed improvised music around a series of my poems including Ogoh Ogoh (in honour of this past Wednesday’s Nyepi day of silence in Bali, so a little ironic as we were not silent), How Could You? (originally released on the Lonely Universe à la plage cd) and Bersiap, from my song cycle Bali Songs, along with some dream-inspired haiku.