Interview, Features

Ori Dagan: The Potential that Jam Sessions Unleash


Ori Dagan: The Potential that Jam Sessions Unleash

By Susan Frances

Ori Dagan: The Potential that Jam Sessions Unleash 1Vocalist, composer, and pianist Ori Dagan discovered, early on, the potential that jam sessions unleash. Such opportunities to promote spontaneity to play off of other musicians produce Dagan’s best material, often ending up on his recordings.

“I was always a musical kid,” he reveals, “but had no idea that I could sing and was too shy to even consider being on the microphone. I took piano lessons from age 6-16, but I didn’t just have the necessary discipline for Bach and Chopin.”


He recalls, “I started off singing jazz at jam sessions, and frankly, it was way harder than I expected, but I kept going and wouldn’t give up no matter how hard it was. People don’t always realize how devastating it can feel to have a disappointing performance on stage.”


“On the other hand,” he adds, “there is nothing quite as magical as the ability of a jam session to create friends out of strangers. It took me years of singing jazz to find freedom in the music, and that was an absolutely liberating moment.”


Growing up in Toronto, Canada, Dagan was exposed to a myriad of musical styles that each made an imprint on him. “Growing up,” he recollects, “I was not exposed to jazz music, only classical and some pop. In my late teens, I came across two recordings which were life-changing: Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin and Dinah Jams, both live performances which captured and inspired improvisation, musical mastery, and the palpable electricity of an engaged live audience. These are the things that still inspire me every day, and I believe that as much as recordings are essential, there is nothing like a moment shared between performer and audience.”


The bond that Dagan formed with audiences during live performances left no other choice for him but to be a solo artist as he asserts, “I was always a solo artist…and I love it! When going on tour, I usually go on my own and pick up a band, if possible. I do have a circle of musicians that I love working with locally, but I really enjoy the spontaneity that happens when working with different musicians.”


His debut recording S’Cat Got My Tongue allowed him to exercise his leanings to be spontaneous while tapping into his admiration for the jazz repertoire. “I was fresh out of school,” he remembers, “and super excited to get into the studio. On this album, I wanted to pay tribute to the artists who inspired me: ‘Four Brothers’ for Anita O’Day, ‘My Favorite Things’ for Betty Carter, ‘Star Eyes’ for Charlie Parker, and so on.”


“The biggest challenge,” he imparts, “was learning how to be a recording artist – working on perfecting each take and not having anori-dagan-6 audience to inspire me. Luckily, the musicians involved in the project were incredibly patient and encouraging. Over the years, I have grown to enjoy the experience of being in the studio, but I still feel far more natural on a stage than in a booth.”


His preference to perform live is a trait that Dagan shares with many of his musical influences. When speaking about artists who influenced him, he claims, “Jazz artists who inspire me the most include Lester Young, who made even the most complex phrase sound entirely conversational, and revolutionaries such as Bird (Charlie Parker) and Miles who changed the way the art form was perceived.”


“In terms of singers,” he regards, “there are too many to name, but if I had to single out one, besides the usual suspects. It would have to be Anita O’Day for her adventurous, sophisticated style. She is perhaps the only singer who was on stage in every decade from the 1930s to the early 2000s, and while her style evolved greatly, she was always firmly dedicated to the jazz idiom.”


Energized by these artists, he reflects, “I have always been inspired to push the envelope with this music, respecting the tradition but also trying to keep it relevant to the present moment.”


Straddling the line between respecting the traditions of vintage jazz and embracing the facets of modern jazz, Dagan’s endeavor “Googleable” discernibly pairs the two. He explains how the track came together, “I was traveling by train from Toronto to Montreal and desperately needed to write an email, but the internet signal was down, which made me furious. Before long, I realized the best thing I could do in that moment is try to write a song about the situation.”


ori-dagan-4“As I edited the song,” he recounts, “it became a much lighter and more fun ode to the search engine, Google, and the very notion of life in the internet age. I wrote the lyrics and had a bit of a melody in my head and brought it to a musician I was working with a lot in those days, Mark Kieswetter. And together, we came up with chord progression and polished the melody.”


He ascertains, “This song was a really pivotal moment for me – I had always wanted to write a jazz song about 21st-century life – this was my first.”


His follow-up release Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, allowed him to study characteristics he admired about Nat King Cole. “In 2015,” he earmarks, “I started to write songs with Toronto-based guitarist Nathan Hiltz. At one of our early sessions, he asked me if I liked early Nat King. Until then, I didn’t really get the subtlety of his music – his smooth vocal style went right over my head. It wasn’t until I listened to his piano playing that I really fell in love with Cole’s music, and eventually with his heavenly voice.”


“The album Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole,” he provides, “featured 7 covers and 5 originals inspired by his music, life, and legacy.” He details, “The song ‘Keep It Simple’ was a testament to his subtle style; ‘Sting of the Cactus’ was inspired by his tremendous dedication; ‘Bibimbap,’ an answer to his 1946 novelty ‘Frim Fram Sauce.’ ‘Sweetheart,’ a love song written for his ideal voice; and ‘Complexion,’ a testament to the strength of his spirit fighting racism throughout his life.”


“I have to admit,” he maintains, “that I was resistant to doing a tribute album to any artist because I often find these kinds of recordings to be rather derivative. So we took some notable liberties with the cover tunes – for example, reimagining ‘Nature Boy’ as a samba and ‘Unforgettable’ in a bebop tempo.”


“When the recording was done, my team and I were inspired to make Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole the very first visual album in the history of jazz,” which he credits, “thanks to some brilliant collaborators and a successful crowdfunding campaign. So we released the CD, and three days later, 12 music videos on my YouTube channel, including animated, dance, documentary, and narrative music videos in the project. It was quite the adventure!”


One track on the tribute recording, “Straighten Up and Fly,” features Sheila Jordan on a duet with Dagan. “It was a dream come true,” he prides, “to record this tune with the legendary Sheila Jordan, who was 87 years old at the time of the recording.”


“She is so ageless,” he enthuses, “that I remember doing a radio interview with a local station who wasn’t aware of her work, and they guessed she was 35 years of age! I first saw Sheila live in 2001 and have been a huge fan of hers ever since, and had the privilege of attending her workshops over the years, here in Toronto, in New York City, and in Vermont.”


He describes, “She is a magical musician and a beautiful spirit who has taught me so much, so I am really glad I mustered the courage to ask her to record this duet together and that she happily agreed. In addition to the unforgettable recording session, we made a music video for this song in Coney Island – it was amazing to spend time with her and capture that memory on film.”


“Sheila is turning 93 years old this month (November),” he broaches, “and is still gracing stages around the world with her signatureori-dagan-5 style of sophisticated spontaneity. She likes to call herself a ‘jazz ambassador’ and has earned this title thanks to a lifetime of dedication to this music as an artist, educator, and inspiration.”


Another artist featured on his tribute offering to Nat King Cole is Alex Pangman, whom he claims, “Known as ‘Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing.’ Alex Pangman is a Toronto-based vocalist I have admired for a long time,” he vows. “I am a huge fan of her vintage style and her commitment to the music of the 1930s. I got to know her personally about a decade ago when I was working for The WholeNote magazine and was assigned a story about a Canadian musician. I chose her not only for her music but also for her powerful story.”


He shares her story, “Alex has Cystic Fibrosis and has had two double lung transplants. People are often stunned to learn this because she sings so sweetly and effortlessly. Naturally, I had wanted to record a duet with her for years when this opportunity came about.”


“Actually,” he muses, “I had Alex in mind for ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right,’ but she had no interest in that one – she is the kind of artist who would never perform, let alone record, a song she isn’t absolutely inspired by. When I pitched ‘Pretend’ – known to be one of Nat King Cole’s personal favorites – she said yes enthusiastically. I really enjoyed working with her, and we had the opportunity to perform this song a number of times, most memorably at Toronto’s Koerner Hall as part of a tribute to Nat presented by Jazz.FM91.”


While choosing which Nat King Cole songs to cover and which of his own original compositions inspired by Cole to record, he also had the task of selecting his accompaniment. Joining him is saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett who performed on his original work “Complexion” and his cover of Cole’s tune “El Bodeguero.”


“‘Complexion’ was the most difficult piece to write on that album,” he confides, “it was inspired by the April 10, 1956 incident whereby Nat King Cole was almost killed while performing in Alabama to what was then called a ‘mixed’ audience. I knew that Jane’s soprano would be perfect for this profound piece as I have witnessed her depth on several occasions, especially on that instrument.”


“An expert on Cuban music,” he purports about Bunnett, “she knew the flute and vocal parts to ‘El Bodeguero’ by heart and brought such a brilliant playfulness to that tune – really showing her range in these two tracks alone.”


“There is nobody quite like Jane Bunnett,” he raves, “besides being a world-class talent, she is one of the kindest musicians I have ever worked with, always pushing the envelope with every solo and giving 1000% percent dedication.”


Moving forward, Dagan followed up his tribute release with a duet, discovering vocalist Simone Denny, who performs with him on his remake of Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes, and Bruce Woolley’s pop hit “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The track is partnered with a music video.

Dagan furnishes, “I met Simone Denny at an event we both attended in 2019, and I was totally starstruck! I grew up watching her in music videos as she is one of Canada’s greatest Dance Music vocalists, a 4-time JUNO winner for her work with the group Love Inc. Because of her connection to music videos, she seemed like the ideal choice for ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ and I was so thrilled when she said yes to this collaboration.”


“I had no idea if she could swing a jazz tune,” he acknowledges, “as she is not known for this, but she totally killed it and was a lot of fun to play off of in the studio. The music video was animated by an NYC-based artist named Miguel Rueda, who came highly recommended for good reason! He came up with the concept and was a pleasure to work with, giving us a lot of back-and-forth previews as he created each character.”


Looking forward to 2022, when Dagan will release his latest offering Click Right Here, he endorses, “As a whole, this album isori-dagan-3 unlike anything I’ve ever released, and I am so excited about it! While it is my 4th full-length album, it represents several firsts for me, including a swinging 8-piece band on all tracks. This old-school sound is a deliberate contrast to the thematic thread that ties the album together.”


He illuminates, “Besides the bonus track ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ all the tracks are original songs inspired by life in the 21st century. Written and recorded during the pandemic, the songs about social media, online dating, viruses, and other 21st century blues, delivered with a lot of humor and fun. The other bonus track is an updated version of ‘Googleable’ at a brighter tempo, kind of a ‘Version 2.0’.”


“I was so lucky,” he considers, “to be able to record this during the pandemic at Canterbury Music Company where engineer Jeremy Darby made us feel safe and comfortable. Regionally, a lot of things were locked down, but recording studios were permitted to be open, and we lucked out. There was a limit of 10 people in the studio at a time due to social distancing, so we recorded the horns and rhythm section separately, which actually worked out well.”


“The charts were arranged by guitarist Nathan Hiltz,” he notes, “save for the two bonus tracks which were arranged by Rebecca Hennessy. In addition to Nathan on the guitar, all tracks featured Attila Fias on piano, Alex Bellegarde on bass, Ben Wittman on drums, Colleen Allen on tenor sax, Alison Young on alto sax, William Carn on trombone, and Andrew McAnsh on trumpet. I also invited special guest vocalist Donovan Locke and the great Jane Bunnett on two tracks.”


He holds, “This album was one of the pandemic projects which really saved my sanity, and I am so thrilled to share it with the world. Stay tuned for a few singles and music videos coming out in the near future and the album in the spring of 2022!”


Looking back, Dagan contemplates how he has grown as an artist, promulgating, “I definitely subscribe to Sheila Jordan’s motto that ‘Dedication is the key’ and am so grateful to be doing this for over 20 years now. I feel that I have grown a lot as a musician, and more recently, as a songwriter, perhaps the most important thing is that I love what I do.”


Ori Dagan: The Potential that Jam Sessions Unleash 2“Over the years,” he ponders, “I have had more than a handful of moments that were stressful, and I found myself asking, ‘what am I doing with my life?’ But the answer ALWAYS made itself clear when I found myself on stage. To be able to entertain an audience with this music I love so much, in the company of artists who inspire me is nothing short of a blessing.”


Having figuratively walked the same paths as many of his musical influences, performing with both friends and strangers, Ori Dagan discovered the potential that jam sessions unleash. His signature style to coalesce traditional and contemporary jazz elements provides him with a bottomless reservoir of new music. He puts forth to audiences to stay tuned.

About Susan Frances:

Ori Dagan: The Potential that Jam Sessions Unleash 3Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.

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