In the past few years, a coterie of musicians, many, if not all, graduates of the University of Manitoba’s School of Music’s Jazz Studies program, have been transforming the music scene in Winnipeg.
Amber Epp, the talented singer from Steinbach via Rio de Janeiro, Havana and Lima (at least in attitude), is the only female in that coterie but is rapidly becoming one of the major forces for change — something she amply demonstrated at the Park Theatre on Sept. 10, 2009.
Having woodshed-ed for four or five years beginning at Steve Kirby’s Monday Night Hang, then performing at the Academy on Stradbrook with Marco Costillo and serving as either backup or featured singer in a number of groups, she has finally emerged as leader of her own — Amber Epp In Rhythm.
Not to say she hasn’t brought this coterie along with her. She has. The group Thursday evening consisted of her on keyboards and vocals, Keith Price guitar, Julian Bradford bass, Scott Senior percussion and Curtis Nowosad drums.
This is a powerhouse combo with each the best at what they do. To have Nowosad and Senior as your percussion section is any musician’s dream; having Bradford add the bottom and Price the top is just an added bonus. That’s what musicians’ wet dreams consist of.
The evening opened with the jazz standard “My Foolish Heart.” Epp began the piece in the manner associated with sultry nightclub singers — something she is well-suited for. But then the band kicked it up-tempo, announcing to the appreciative audience what would be in store for the rest of the evening.
Songs were drawn from a wide variety of sources. The second, “All I Want,” was part of the Joni Mitchell songbook. Mitchell would have been proud of this rendition.
Epp added lyrics to well-known composers works — Hank Mobley’s “Dig Dis” and Stanley Cowell’s “Equipoise.” In the latter, the band was allowed to stretch out, demonstrating just how talented these musicians are.
Several samba tunes were heard that evening — Gilberto Gil’s “Ladiera de Preguica,” Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la vida” and Djavan’s “Flor de Lis.” It certainly didn’t hurt to have Scott Senior, who is intending to start his own samba school in Winnipeg, as percussionist on these numbers. Surrounded by an amazing array of instruments including conga and bongos, he selected to perform on the pandeira, the Brazilian national instrument, for these pieces. Essentially a tambourine, in the hands of Senior it becomes an instrument capable of playing the most complex and subtle of rhythms.
Rounding out this performance were two pieces written by Winnipeg guitarists — “Warmth” by Keith Price and “Three Trees” by Aaron Shorr — and several by Epp herself. Not only is Epp one of the best singers Winnipeg has seen in a long time, ranking up there with the New York transplant, Anna-Lisa Kirby, she is also a fine lyricist.
With this much talent on display, the crowd could not help but give them a standing ovation. Normally, following such an ovation, the band would return to the stage to perform one more piece. This didn’t happen.
Instead, only Epp and Senior returned, the rest of the band standing off to the wing to watch what was about to take place. Epp began a cappella to sing Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Only after the song was established did Senior enter with his pandeira. The crowd watched while Senior gyrated and played to Epp’s voice. Judging by the grin on his face, Senior had as much fun with this unexpected performance as did the crowd.
What a fitting way to end a five-star performance.