33z Are Back to Jazz Up the King of Pop

Was it “Billie Jean”? “Bad”? “Smooth Criminal”? While we may not all recall the first song we heard from the King of Pop, we probably have a memory or two about the impact Michael Jackson’s music made on our lives, especially those of us around to remember the ludicrous fever pitch it reached in the 1980s.

For me, it was being utterly terrified as a kid by Vincent Price’s maniacal laugh adding that chilling exclamation point to “Thriller”.

Ottawa soul-singer Jeff Rogers has a less frightening memory. He recalls sitting in the family car on drives to New Brunswick listening to Jackson’s first foray into stardom in the Jackson 5 when he was performing with his brothers.

“There was something so happy about their music,” says Rogers and most would agree. Who can listen to tunes like “ABC” and “I Want You Back” without a smidgen of a smile creeping in as you belt out the lyrics?

Debbieann Braham was also first affected by the younger version of Jackson without the glove, Pepsi commercials and Moonwalk.  As a child she remembers seeing the brothers on the television and, yeah, she picked him from the bunch…one glance was all it took. Michael was the best! Fellow singer Kellylee Evans agrees. The Jackson 5, she says, were the coolest things ever.

For Lisa-Gaye Pryce, however, it’s all 80’s MJ!

“The first time I heard Michael Jackson's music, or should I say paid attention, was when the album Thriller was released. I was very young but I could remember songs like "Billie Jean", "PYT" and of course "Beat It" would play on the radio in the house or in the car and I could remember that it made me feel so happy inside,” she says looking back on days where she would try to master the famed “Thriller” dance in her living room with her friends.

Rogers, Braham, Evans and Pryce are all part of tribute to the legendary artist taking place tonight at a sold-out performance for the TD Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival. 33z, a project put together by musicians Petr Cancura and Ed Lister to celebrate the music of various icons of the stage, wowed festival audiences last year with their stunning renditions of Prince hits. Though not one for cover bands, Cancura couldn’t resist getting local talent together to jazz up Paisley Park for the festival highlight concert last year.

“A lot of projects I do are heavily arranged or original music and those are my bread and butter, so to speak. I wanted to do something that featured some of the incredible singers in town backed up by a great house band,” Cancura told Ottawa Life last year.

While it’s no secret that rivals Prince and Jackson carried on a feud as both of their careers fired up in the 80s, for Cancura the next artist to get the 33z treatment was never in much doubt.  While the musician would go through his share of trials and tribulations, one cannot question the legacy of his music. It’s a fair bet that somewhere, right now, as you read this, there’s a radio station playing a Jackson hit. Probably a bunch of radio stations.

“Musically, you can’t deny his significance on music, especially in his earlier years through the 80s. And even after that, his music spoke to the entire world, and his impact on pop music as a whole can be felt today still,” says Rogers who will be performing “Man in the Mirror” this evening. He selected the song because of its timeless message of change, growth and hope something that, despite the negative aspects of Jackson's career, many feel the musician inspired. 

While Evans adds that she herself now finds it hard to reconcile the controversies in Jackson’s life with the music she loves, she has found that time traveling to the songs gives them a special meaning .

“I feel more today like I'm celebrating a time in my life when I go back to listen to his music,” Evans says. “There's certainly no denying his talent and the impact that he had on us all, if we were turned in to his sound.”

Evans will be perform a solo rendition “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”, a song Jackson originally performed as a duet with Siedah Garrett. She was drawn to the sadness in the song. It's a track that should be about the happiness one has in finding that special someone but Evans feels the mournful undertones.

“When I sing it, I don't find that I want to identify with the sadness of his love. Instead, I feel like I'm paying tribute to the sadness that he felt in his life, searching for love and that seems fitting for a show about Michael.”

Pryce’s take on “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” will bring the song into gospel territory. “I am a soprano by nature, grew up in the church so my vocals have definitely been inspired by gospel and soul music. You will definitely be hearing some gospel scales and periods of high notes on this song.”

Braham is keeping it close to the original when it comes to her performance of “Rock With You”. Initially, it was difficult for her to select a song from so many hits but when finally settling on an upbeat boogie classic she opted for the old mantra: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

“The fun of hearing a song from an artist that you love is being able to sing along with the person who’s performing it,” says Braham. “I’m sure I will end up tweaking a few notes to better fit my voice but otherwise I don’t really want to mess with perfection.”