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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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Top jazz singer 'loves being himself'

Tags: Arts CBC Ori Dagan Toronto Jazz Festival
Ori Dagan

Jazz singer Ori Dagan says he never thought of himself as a crooner until he won a CBC Radio 1 competition that named him “Canada’s Next Top Crooner.” 

He was surprised when he won the 2010 competition in which contestants were asked to take an ‘80s pop tune and make it a crooner song.  Dagan chose to sing Madonna’s Like A Virgin for the competition because it’s “hilarious,” he said.“I wasn’t trying to win. I was being myself.” 

Being himself means being musically adventurous, a trait that’s evident on his latest, and sophomore, recording, Less Than Three. On it, he covers songs by Elvis Presley, Elton John and Lady Gaga. “I wanted to challenge myself,” Dagan said.   

Dagan is more than a crooner. He’s known for his scatting ability, and his repertoire includes rock ’n’ roll and Hebrew songs. “I consider myself a jazz singer, but I draw from a wide range of influences,” said Dagan, who was born in Haifa and raised in Toronto.   

Voted NOW Magazine’s 2013 best male vocalist, Dagan has come a long way. As a child he was afraid to speak in class, never mind to sing in public. But he always gravitated to music, he said, as had his musical ancestor, his mother’s grandfather, who was a cantor.  When Dagan was four years old, he started taking classical piano lessons and he stuck with the piano, unhappily, for some 12 years. 

“I showed promise, but I wasn’t passionate about classical music,” he said. At 18, he enrolled in the English program at the University of Toronto and writing poetry became his creative outlet. It was around that time he was blown away by Ella Fitzgerald’s version of How High the Moon, which includes a seven-minute scat performance. “When I first heard it, I said, ‘I have to sing along with it.’ I literally listened to it 10,000 times,” said Dagan, describing how he taught himself the basics of scatting. 

Immersing himself in jazz, he found the freedom intoxicating, he said. Just the idea of improvising thrilled him. “What bothered me about classical music is that it was always the same,” Dagan said. “Ella would do a song differently from night to night and recording to recording. I found that cool.”   

Dagan enrolled in the jazz program at York University, but a professor told him he needed to do some extra work on his voice. The prof suggested that Dagan – a bass-baritone, a rare type of classical voice – transfer to a baroque music program to improve his singing. So Dagan took a detour back to classical music. Then he returned to the music he loved, enrolling in the jazz program at Humber College. 

It was between York U. and Humber, in 2009, that he released his debut recording of jazz standards, S’cat Got My Tongue. Three years later, with the release of the edgier Less Than Three, the critics declared Dagan had hit a home run. 

It includes the Hebrew songs, Eretz Zavat Chalav, by Eliyahu Gamliel, and Dagan’s self-penned prayer to peace, a blues song called Nu Az Ma?. He said he was thinking about the situation in the Mideast when he wrote the song, but it also applies generally. 

He added that when he began experimenting with singing in Hebrew, he “felt strongly connected to it,” although he doesn’t come from a religious home. Recently, Dagan learned some of Arieh (Arik) Einstein’s songs for a tribute to Einstein – a pioneer of Israeli rock music – during Jewish Music Week. 

Dagan said that “as a singer you have to be naked and vulnerable, and even more so when you’re singing your own song.” 

He enjoys recording, but he said that his favourite thing is to perform for an audience. “My hope with an audience is to give them something they’ve never heard before.” 

Dagan performs at the upcoming TD Toronto Jazz Festival and in late June he leaves for a tour of Israel. For more information about Dagan and the tour, visitoridagan.com. 


Ori Dagan plays at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival on several days:

 • A tribute to Cole Porter, featuring the Ori Dagan Quintet with trumpet player Brownman, at the May Cafe, June 20 at 9 p.m. • With bassist Dave Young at Pauper’s Pub, June 26, at 7 p.m. • With guitarist Eric St-Laurent at Habits Gastropub, June 27, at 9 p.m. • A trio with pianist Scott Metcalf and special guests at La Revolucion, June 28, at 9 p.m. 

For more information, visit http://torontojazz.com

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