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Jazz singer’s tribute to Nat King Cole

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Toronto jazz singer Ori Dagan will be performing at the South by Southwest Music Conference. JUAN PALACIO PHOTO

With his award-winning visual album, Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, playing on YouTube, Toronto jazz singer Ori Dagan is making inroads into the U.S. music scene.

“It’s gotten a great response in the United States,” said Dagan about the album, which includes 12 videos featuring songs Cole made famous, a couple of his lesser-know tunes and some of Dagan’s original compositions.

Dagan will be performing at the 2018 South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, in March, one of only 12 jazz artists out of SXSW’s lineup of 600 musical acts, and the only Canadian jazz artist on the bill.

“Very few jazz artists make it on the bill of that festival. I believe that this visual album had a lot to do with it,” Dagan said. “South by Southwest is known for presenting artistry that’s very current and edgy. I was thrilled and honoured. It’s a really exciting engagement.”

Other visual albums have been released recently – among them, Beyonce’s Lemonade, – but Dagan’s tribute to Cole is a first for a jazz artist.

Without the videos, the music wouldn’t have received as much attention, something Dagan learned after the release of his 2015 video, Clap on the 2 and the 4. It was screened at 15 film festivals.

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A music video can be an extension of a song and a work of art on its own, Dagan said. “A lot of music videos are just the band lip-synching and there’s no plot, and there’s nothing interesting about it. I’ve never liked those kind of music videos.”

After recording the Cole album, Dagan and his producer, Leonardo Dell-Anno, embarked on the formidable task of making the 12 videos in six months. They raised money by crowd-funding and used seven directors, who created mini documentaries and whimsical videos using stop-motion animation. One of the videos features an enchanting dance sequence inspired by the movie La La Land.

Nathaniel, launched last October, won the Global Music Awards’ silver medal for best album. Individual videos have been recognized at film festivals around the world, including India’s Arthouse Asia film festival,.

Dagan said he’d always resisted doing a tribute album until he began researching Cole in 2005.

“Sometimes artists will just copy the arrangements of other people and I’ve never been interested in doing that,” Dagan said. “I was finding out a lot about Nat King Cole. When people like Nat King Cole make things sound so easy and effortless, the genius gets swept under the rug. I was inspired to pay tribute to him because more people need to know what an amazing artist he was.”

Dagan recorded uptempo versions of Cole’s Unforgettable and Nature Boy with pianist Mark Kieswetter, guitarist Nathan Hiltz and bassist Ross MacIntyre.

Dagan’s voice, a smooth baritone, contrasts with Cole’s, which has been described as a velvet rasp. “When I worked on Nature Boy and Unforgettable, I really wanted to add something new to them because they are already so well-known. I wanted to honour him by including those songs and give them a new perspective,” Dagan said.

Two of Cole’s popular tunes were recorded as duets on the album. Dagan and Toronto vocalist Alex Pangman sing the dreamy tune Pretend, while he partners with the legendary American jazz singer Sheila Jordan on Straighten Up and Fly Right. Both known for their ability to improvise, Dagan and Jordan scat up a storm on this track.

The five songs Dagan and his co-writer, Hiltz, wrote for the album sound as if they could be part of Cole’s repertoire. One original, Complexion, recalls an episode in 1956 when Cole was assaulted on stage by three members of the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, Ala. “It was really challenging to find the lyrics because it was so dark,” Dagan said.

Moving jazz forward and engaging young people was a “big part of what inspired the visual album,” Dagan said, adding young people may not even be aware the music exists because it’s outside the mainstream.