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Doing The Jazz Nasty

The Globe and Mail, January 2004
Mark Miller


Karin Plato describes herself as "a farmer's daughter" from Alsask, "a little eye blink on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border." If those seem unlikely points of origin for a very good jazz singer - no offence intended either to farmer's daughters or eye blinks - then it's worth adding that it wasn't until she left the farm to study classical music at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon that she encountered the sounds of swing for the first time.

Plato, who joins fellow Canadian jazz singer Susie Arioli, Bonnie Brett and Denzal Sinclaire in the inaugural concert of CBC Radio's new vocal-jazz series at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto tonight, was a voice major in university. A soprano, in fact - one register up from her natural speaking voice, which is also now her natural singing voice.

She came to jazz at The Bassment in Saskatoon and through other classical-music students who were moonlighting in the University of Saskatchewan's jazz ensemble. And even then, she remembers, it was not a case of love at first sight. "Some people will say, 'Ohm the first time I heard jazz, I just had to get into it." I don't think it affected me that way. It took a while for me to understand that when jazz musicians were playing - I'm talking about instrumentalists - t wasn't a disorganized mess, which is what I thought at first. I wondered, "How do they even know what they're doing? There's no structure, there's no form...'Which of course isn't true."

Plato is speaking from Vancouver, her home since 1985, and the city in which her jazz career began to blossom in the 1990's. This farmer's daughter is also, by her own admission, a "chatterbox"¾not quite effusive but certainly voluable, in a warm, unabashed way.

Her initial reaction to jazz is not unusual among the longhairs of the musical world, for whom order is all. Now, however, she refers to herself as a "jazz fanatic" - and not just for the mainstream jazz that I seem to be in right now, but also for the more adventurous music within the umbrella of whatever jazz is."

Naturally there have been adjustments to make her move from the classics to jazz, and also advantages to take. "My belief," she says, "is that if you're a classical singer, your voice has to be so clean, so pure, but in jazz, most of my favorite singers, don't necessarily have beautiful-sounding instruments. It's what they do with them that's important. You can get away with certain things as a jazz singer, and I'm not saying that I'm trying to get away with anything, but i like the fact that you can use purity and you can also use a bit more nastiness, depending on the type of piece you are exploring."

Nastiness? Surely not Plato. Hers is a sunny voice, and it comes with a disposition to match. Just consider the title of her fifth CD, The State Of Bliss. Or read her monthly blogs at www.karin, which are the writings of someone who obviously likes her life.

Of course these are happy times for vocalists in and around jazz. Everywhere you look, there's another one new to the scene. "We're just coming out of the woodwork," Plato laughs, agreeing that the success of Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Jane Monheit has put stars in the eyes of many a singer.

"But I see my career as being a little different," she cautions. "There's no way I'm ever going to be rich and famous. And I don't care. I'm 43, I'm not young and beautiful, but luckily I do enough different things in music that I'll be able to use it to make my living. I'm fully aware that 3 percent or less of the audience really cares about jazz, so I don't know how intelligent it is to decide to be a jazz musician, but I suppose you find your way of doing it.

In that respect, Plato's classical training has come back into play, allowing her to teach voice, piano and theory from a studio in her East Vancouver home. She remembers the advice of the veteran American singer Sheila Jordan, with whom she once studied at the Banff Jazz Workshop: "Don't be crazy and give up your day job. Singing is something you do because you love it. You don't do this because you think you're going to gain anything from it other that the joy of performing with your fellow musicians."

Speaking of whom, there's a cast of 15 on The State Of Bliss, organized in twos, threes, fours and fives, among them such Vancouver luminaries as Sinclaire, trumpeter Brad Turner and alto saxophonist Campbell Ryga. the concept was suggested by the CD's producer, Torben Oxbol, but Plato seems to like the challenge of singing with new and different musicians. It's something she has been doing during weekend jaunts to Seattle, where she has developed a following, and it's something she'll be doing on this quick trip east - first with pianist Mark Eisenmann's quintet at the Glenn Gould Studio on Saturday and then with pianist Phil Dwyer, bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Terry Clarke at The Top O' The Senator on Sunday.     "I do have an issue with nerves," she admits, as she considers the latter prospect. "However, I like the fear factor of going into the Senator and (singing with) three musicians I've never met before. I don't want to know what we're going to do. I have my charts, but I'm glad we won't have a rehearsal, because for me it's like having a brand new love¾there's this excitement about what will happen.  They don't know who I am, or how I might do, and I sure don't know what they'll do. So, a fear factor, but also a fun factor."

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