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 Wednesday, 25 November 2015
Hers Is a “Sweet Happy Life” – Connie Evingson’s New CD and Celebration on June 10th PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Tuesday, 05 June 2012

Sweet Happy Life

"I’m flattered, thrilled and grateful for such a tasteful compilation of my songs. Connie Evingson is a wonderful singer and has given bossa nova and me a marvelous gift.” –Normal Gimbel


If you thought that Twin Cities vocalist Connie Evingson had thoroughly mined the varied songbooks of American jazz with her wide-ranging eight recordings, think (and listen) again. At the Jungle Theater on Sunday, June 10th, Connie celebrates the release of Sweet Happy Life, saluting the works of lyricist Norman Gimbel. Norman who? Gimbel might be the most famous lyricist you never heard of, the pen behind such hits as “Girl From Ipanema,” “Sway,” “Bluesette,” and “I Will Wait for You,” and collaborator with such better known artists as Michel Legrand, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Toots Thielmans. On stage for the CD release shows (at 4:30 and 7 pm) will be many of Connie’s CD cohorts: Laura Caviani (piano); Joan Griffith (guitar); Danny Embrey (guitar); David Schmalenberger (drums); and Dave Karr (saxophone), along with first-call bassist Chris Bates.

Connie Evingson

Connie Evingson©Andrea Canter
Nominated as Jazz Vocalist of the Year in 2005 by Jazz Week, Connie Evingson’s Midwest roots belie her more worldly talents. With acclaimed recordings that cover such diverse material as Duke Ellington, Peggy Lee, the Beatles, Dave Frishberg and Django Reinhardt, Connie has proven that her distinctive voice and creative interpretation know no boundaries. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Speech/Communications, the Hibbing native sang around town in clubs and did a brief stint with the Minnesota Vocal Jazz Ensemble before joining the popular vocal quartet, Moore By Four, in 1986. Connie also launched a solo career that has taken her around the world, into the radio studio for commercials and as cohost of “Singers and Standards” with Arne Fogel on KBEM, to the 1998 Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition where she was among the top 15 contestants, on stages throughout the Twin Cities (Dakota, Artists Quarter, Jungle Theater) and beyond (Blues Alley in Washington, DC; Jazz Alley in Seattle; festivals and stages from Tokyo to Stockholm). Connie has also frequently found herself in the recording studio, making 8 chart-topping releases on Minnehaha Music, including two devoted to the gypsy jazz style of Django (Gypsy in My Soul, Stockholm Sweetnin’) and her 2008 exploration of the songs of Dave Frishberg (Little Did I Dream). Now, Sweet Happy Life follows three years of researching, cross-country interviews and tapings, and stage-testing of the songs of Norman Gimbel.


Connie and Norman Gimbel

Oscar and Grammy Award winner Norman Gimbel is best known as a writer of English language lyrics to popular Brazilian songs, as well as a raft of other songs written for a long list of composers and for film and television. He’s given such songs as "Girl from Ipanema", "Samba de Orfeu", "Summer Samba," “Meditation,” and “How Insensitve” their well-known English lyrics; he’s added words to Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” and “I Will Wait for You,” to pop hits made famous by Roberta Flack (“Killing Me Softly With His Song”) and Jim Croce (“I’ve Got a Name”), and to jazz standards like “Bluesette” and “Canadian Sunset.” He also wrote for TV themes, including Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Wonder Woman.

Having covered Peggy Lee, the Beatles, Django Reinhardt, Dave Frishberg and more, what led Connie to Norman Gimbel? After hearing several of his songs over a short time span (“Sway,” “So Nice” and “Sweet Happy Life”), she notes that “I wasn’t aware that the lyrics for all three songs were written by Gimbel. When I looked further into his catalog, I was struck by the number of great songs for which he’d written lyrics—it was like discovering gold!... I became curious about this Oscar, Grammy and Emmy-winning lyricist with the relatively low profile.” Ultimately Connie met Gimbel and learned the stories behind the songs. And Gimbel gave her a gift—the lyrics for a Jobin tune that had never been recorded,“Adventure,” which Connie premieres on Sweet Happy Life.


Sweet Happy Life (2012, Minnehaha Music)

For her ninth recording, Connie gathered a treasure chest of musicians, mostly from the Twin Cities, with Laura Caviani, guitarist Joan Griffith, drummer Dave Schmalenberger, and multi-reed veteran Dave Karr joining forces with Kansas City bassist Bob Bowman and (yes, a second) guitarist Danny Embrey as the ensemble on nine tracks, along with the very swinging Twin Cities crew of pianist Tanner Taylor, bassist Gordon Johnson, and drummer Joe Pulice on three more, and a few more musicians in various configurations, including guitarist Andreas Oberg, drummers Phil Hey and Rob Perkins, and additional percussion from Josh Alvaro and engineer Miles Hanson; Christa Saeger (cello) and Randy Sabien (violin) augment one track each; and Lucia Newell and Gordon Johnson provide some backup vocals on one track. Most tracks find Connie backed by four-six musicians. Steve Wiese and his crew at Creation Audio in Minneapolis managed recording, mixing and mastering, with Wiese and Connie serving as co-producers, and Embrey serving as arranger for most tracks as well as Assistant Producer.

Joan Griffith©Andrea Canter
Sixteen of Gimbel’s songs make up the playlist, with five from the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, two from Michel Legrand, and the rest from mostly Brazilian and American composers. But even a song as commonplace as “The Girl From Ipanema” gets a new (sweet and happy!) life thanks to Embrey’s deft arrangements and Connie’s own flair for finding and telling a story as if for the first time. Backed by Tanner Taylor et al, Connie takes the song that started the American bossa nova craze at a seductively slow pace, playing up the unrequited love theme; Dave Karr’s tenor sax solo is a highlight. Other Jobim works are given similarly personal treatment. The set opens with a popular pair: The prowess of the band shines immediately from the first verse of “Agua de Beber,” Connie apparently harmonizing with her overdubbed self and interspersing Portuguese with English lyrics. Dave Karr’s sunny flute and the interplay of two guitars make for an upbeat beginning. “Meditation” swings mightily with two guitars and bassist Bowman. Connie gives the melody some small twists, putting her own print on the song—and that heart of hers does sing as she projects more a satisfaction with her own reverie than resignation.

 The other Jobim tracks glow with the intimacy of pared-down instrumentation. “How Insensitive” is arranged by Joan Griffith with just guitar and clarinet backing Connie, capturing the loneliness of loss of love. Karr’s clarinet is an interesting choice over the more obvious option of flute, but the clarinet here serves as a second vocalist. The never-before-recorded “Adventure” is the darkest tune of the set, arranged for voice, guitar and cello.


Two beloved compositions from Michel Legrand include “Watch What Happens,” the double guitar ensemble swinging gently under Laura Caviani’s elegant touch, Connie and the band imparting a laid-back, dreamy feel. Gentle elegance also describes “I Will Wait for You,” Connie and the band as patient as the lyrics, Karr again adding his regal spin on tenor sax. My first encounter with Eddie Heywood’s “Canadian Sunset” was Carole Martin’s version on her Songs From My Heart. Both Carole and Connie are skilled storytellers, Connie more upbeat and sultry, Carole more wistful and nostalgic. Both approaches work in selling Heywood’s melody with Gimbel’s transforming lyric. Here, Tanner Taylor’s trademark swing nearly lifts the keys out of their moorings, aided and abetted by swing-heavy Joe Pulice on drums, Gordon Johnson on bass, and Dave Karr again on tenor.


Mancini’s “Slow Hot Wind” was originally composed for the '50's TV series Mr. Lucky and later included in the soundtracks for the films The Big Lebowski, Sexy Beast, and Two Lovers. On this album, the Twin Cities/Kansas City ensemble makes it a swaying, simmering ballad, Connie with “slow fire” in her voice. Luis Bonfa’s title track (with the double guitar configuration) really shows off Connie’s flowing, clear articulation on up-tempo tunes, as well as her affinity for Brazilian swing, and this one really encourages dancing in the aisles. She throws in a nod to Jobim’s “So Danço Samba,” and Dave Schmalenberger takes an assertive drum break. It might be a bold move to include Roberta Flack’s signature tune, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (Charles Fox), and particularly with just Phil Aaron, Gordy Johnson and Phil Hey. The stripped-down instrumental backing puts the focus on the melody and lyrics; Phil’s comping is minimalist, leaving Connie to carry the melody and tell the story. Perhaps better than any other, this track highlights Connie’s musicality and total control of her instrument.

Dave Karr©Andrea Canter
The remaining tracks include “Sway” (Pablo Beltran Ruiz), Connie “like a flower bending in the breeze,” adding Randy Sabien’s violin to the Taylor swing gang, the light tango hinting at Connie’s gypsy jazz projects; Toots Thieleman’s “Bluesette” where the only thing missing from the herky jerky waltz is Toots himself; Carlos Lyra’s “Take Me to Aruanda,” the one track with Connie’s past collaborator Andreas Oberg (Hot Club of Sweden) on guitar; and Marcos Valle’s familiar “So Nice” which is… well, so nice!

Connie closes the set with “Tristeza” (Haroldo Lobo) and the TC/KC ensemble, with Karr on flute, Josh Alvaro on percussion, and backup vocals from Gordy Johnson and Lucia Newell. The additional voices and percussion move the track into carnival mode, yet majestic as if celebrating the completion of this project. One easily imagines Connie surrounded by musicians and friends dancing through the streets of Rio. Here the flute is the perfect choice for Dave Karr, surely the Pied Piper of Carnival.

I do feel a bit silly sitting here at my computer with my feet tapping, not an uncommon position for me when listening to Connie Evingson. For the past hour, it's been my sweet happy life.

 Tickets for Connie Evingson’s CD Release Party at the Jungle Theater are available in advance at; CDs available at the show. Tickets $25 for 4:30 and 7:30 pm shows. The Jungle Theater is located at 2951 Lyndale Ave South, Minneapolis.


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