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20 Questions With Ori Dagan

The jazz crooner on his musical heroes, perfectionist ways & voiceover ambitions.

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Photo by Peter Nguyen.

My Canada Day celebration of homegrown talent carries on with jazz crooner Ori Dagan. You might already know him from his video for Non Dimenticar, which he premiered HERE, or from his themed livestream concerts, which he showcased HERE. Now get to know more about him as he takes a swing at my lame questions.

 


 

Introduce yourself: Name, age (feel free to lie), home base and other details you’d like to share — height / weight / identifying marks / astrology sign / your choice.
Ori Dagan, 39, Toronto, Canada.

What is your musical origin story?
Music has been a part of my life literally since before I was born! According to my Mother, I kicked to the rhythm of The Bee Gees’ song Stayin’ Alive in the womb. When I was four years old, I asked my parents to play an instrument. There were no musicians in my family; my dad is tone-deaf and my mother has great ears but is too shy to sing a note. Her grandfather, whom I never met, was a cantor; otherwise I know of no one else who could sing. Growing up I played classical piano — Chopin was my favourite — and had no idea that I would end up singing, as I was too shy to even speak. I was first inspired to sing when I heard Ella Fitzgerald and began singing along. I was 18 then and have been doing this every day since then, for over 20 years now.

What’s your latest project? Tell us everything we need to know.
My last major project was Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole which came out in 2017. A collection of one dozen tunes — seven covers and five originals inspired by the life, legacy and music of Cole — it was my third full-length recording. Every track featuring three of the greatest musicians I have ever met: American pianist Mark Kieswetter, bassist Ross MacIntyre, and guitarist Nathan Hiltz who co-wrote the original songs with me and exposed me to Nat King Cole’s music in the first place. Three of my very favourite musicians in the world were musical guests: Be-bop legend Sheila Jordan (87 at the time of the recording), five-time Juno winner and three-time Grammy nominee Jane Bunnett, and “Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing” Alex Pangman. When the music for the CD was done, In the spirit of Cole’s revolutionary music, I wanted to do something different … something risky … something out of the box! So with the help of an amazing team led by my partner, producer Leonardo Dell’Anno, seven directors and over 200 PledgeMusic supporters, we created the first ever “visual album” in the jazz genre! All 12 music videos can be viewed on YouTube, collected on my website HERE. The music videos ranged from animation to documentary, narrative to dance; they screened at over 50 film festivals around the world and won awards, especially the animated Sting of the Cactus, directed and animated by Bekky O’Neil, which sits at 142,000 views on YouTube. Thanks no doubt to the music videos which helped us get the music out there, Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole resulted in some international bookings, including an official showcase at SXSW, a headline spot at the Tanjazz Festival in Tangier, Morocco and two performances in Seoul at South Korea’s first Public Diplomacy Week.

What truly sets you apart from other artists?
I love to take creative risks, step outside of the box, and always try to have fun with it all. After all, the great thing about being an artist is that when we screw up, nobody dies. The artists who inspired me the most are those who took the greatest creative risks and were innovators in their time — Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Elton John and more recently, Bjork. So I work really hard and I never give up — always pushing myself to get better at my craft and find new ways of expressing myself through singing, improvising and songwriting. I take the music very seriously, but not myself.

What will I learn or how will my life improve by listening to your music?
My hope is that you’ll smile, snap your fingers or tap your feet to the swingin’ jazz beat.

What album / song / artist / show changed your life?
Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin, recorded February 13, 1960. I was eighteen when I heard this album, and funnily enough it was one of the first jazz album I got into. The entire album is magnificent but the last two songs really changed my life: Mack the Knife and How High the Moon. I listened to that album every day for over a year on my Discman until it was scratched and would sing along to every syllable of those scat solos. Thanks to this album Ella became my first great inspiration in jazz; in many ways she remains my greatest inspiration. What I admire the most about Ella is her versatility — from ballad to be-bop, she could do it all, and always effortlessly.

Tell us about the first song you wrote and / or the first gig you played and what you got paid.
I wrote the song S’Cat Got My Tongue about my love for scat singing, and it was the title track on my first album (out of print now but you can stream it). It was a fun challenge to put to words my desire not to sing words, and ultimately I said: “I’d give up email, fax or phone if I could only play a saxophone / but till I learn to blow on a horn, I suppose that I should warn you… When I don’t know what to say, I just say, “Shaba-doo-way,” that’s because scat has got my tongue.”

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you gave?
On Sept. 23, 2018, I headlined the prestigious Tanjazz Festival in Tangier, Morocco. Performing in front of a huge palace in front of a sold-out crowd of 1,500 music lovers in a country I’ve never been to before was an unforgettable high.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you’ve seen another artist give?
In September of 2007 I saw Bjork perform on the Island at the Virgin Festival in Toronto. It was my fourth time seeing her live, and I was as always amazed at how far she pushed the envelope as a performer.

What do you want to be doing in 10 years?
Same thing I’m doing now except hopefully performing in places I have not been to yet, including Japan, Europe, the United States, to an audience that wants to hear some jazz!

What living or dead artists would you collaborate with if you could?
Anita O’Day — if only I could travel back in time and sing a duet with her in the 1950’s! Besides Ella, Anita is the jazz vocalist who has influenced me the most with her daredevil approach to improvisation, incredulously fast tempos and wild sense of musical humour. Besides Anita I’d probably want to jam with a great scat singer who influenced me named Babs Gonzales, and my favourite jazz musician of all time, tenor saxophonist Lester Young who worked extensively with Billie Holiday. For my money his sound was the best jazz ever produced.

What artist or style of music do you love that would surprise people?
When I was in high school I really identified with the female angst musical movement of the 1990s — besides Bjork, I loved Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries and Courtney Love of Hole, as well as PJ Harvey, Alanis Morrisette, Fiona Apple and Tori Amos. Still love all of their voices and songs from this time!

What are your favourite songs / albums / artists right now?
The latest album by Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, blew my mind!
Generally speaking in pop music I think Lady Gaga is one of the greatest songwriters working — songs like Shallow and Million Reasons are pure gold, so simple and perfect. I also recently got into Bad Guy by Billie Eilish — astonished by how brilliant that song is from such a young songwriting team. As for jazz there is no shortage of great singers out there who inspire me these days including Cecile McClorin-Salvant, Cyrille Aimee and Veronica Swift.

How about some other favourites? Authors / movies / painters / philanthropists / you name it.
Before singing I thought I was going to be a poet, and the artist who inspired me most was Margaret Atwood. I remember reading her collections, especially The Journals of Susanna Moodie and being so blown away by her way with words. My favourite movies include Dancer in the Dark, Little Voice and The Piano, all very different films which share a theme of how music can completely change our reality and that of those around us. My favourite TV show, oddly enough, is Veep starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I could watch each episode a hundred times, it is so hysterical! One of the best documentaries I have seen in a very long time is What Happened, Miss Simone, about the extraordinary genius that was Nina Simone.

Who would you be (or have you been) starstruck to meet?
Ella Fitzgerald. I probably would have fainted! I did meet Anita O’Day in 2003, when she was performing at the Blue Note in NYC. I’ll never forget my heart racing as I stood next to this tiny woman, then 84 years old. Nervously I muttered something along the lines of: “Anita. My name is Ori. I want to be the male Anita O’Day,” and she answered, “Well I think that’s wonderful!” and I almost died and had to run outside to have a cigarette (side note: happily I quit smoking in 2006!).

What superpower do you want and how would you use it?
Man, I wish I could just cure COVID-19!!!!! I miss live music!!!!!!! For a more conventional superpower I’d take flying — it sure would come in handy for when live music returns, for I would often love to be at two places at once as a live music enthusiast and supporter.

What skills — useful or useless — do you have outside of music?
I’m a fairly decent writer but to tell the truth it drives me crazy. Even answering an interview like this can keep me up at night, due to procrastination and perfectionism. There’s something about playing jazz that is so joyous to me, and I think it is because I have let go of being a perfectionist — I’m totally cool with being in the moment and going with it, whatever happens, from moment to moment. But with writing — most especially things that end up in print — I always want to get things *right* and it makes the process considerably less enjoyable for me. To quote Dorothy Parker, I hate writing but I enjoy having written.

What do you collect?
VINYL! I cannot go into a record store which has any decent jazz collection and not buy something. My collection is rich in Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Arnett Cobb and many others. I also have a few hundred CDs but I much prefer the vinyl … something magical about that sound.

If you could have any other job besides music, what would it be and why?
I sure would love to be doing voiceover work. I really enjoy the challenge of acting and the variety of ways one script can be read. It would be fun to be a cartoon character, maybe one who scat sings! Oops there I go back to music, haha!

What’s the best advice you were ever given?
“Keep the faith” and “don’t sweat the small stuff” were both golden nuggets given to me by my singing teacher at York University, Rita di Ghent.

Listen to Ori Dagan below, and keep up with him via his website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.