Hey, You’re Cool! Jazz Musician Ori Dagan
"Following Beyoncé's 'Lemonade,' pop artists started putting out visual albums... I thought as crazy as it is, maybe it can be done."
Ori Dagan may be the world’s most eclectic jazz-man. At the very least, he’s one of the most ambitious. The Toronto artist composed the very first visual jazz album, Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, bringing to the project a two-decade long love of music videos and Björk as one of his main inspirations. The album’s visuals unsurprisingly span several mediums: claymation, documentary, and stop motion puppetry.
Nathaniel includes several original songs, some that capture the whimsy of jazz and others that delve into the dark history of police brutality and black art. Of the originals, Dagan tells MASS APPEAL of a few: “‘Sweetheart,’ which is a love song we wrote for [Cole’s] voice, ‘Keep it Simple,’ which is a testament to his style, [and] ‘Bibimbap,’ which is a fun food novelty song in answer to ‘The Frim Fram Sauce.’”
For Dagan, jazz is freedom of expression. Though he admits that jazz is often cast under the umbrella of nostalgic music, he speaks optimistically about its possibilities. “In my mind, there is no limit to where jazz can go,” he says, “as it is by nature a fusion of music styles.”
Ori Dagan spoke with MASS APPEAL about his early foray into jazz, his inspiration and the process behind the making of Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, jazz’ influence on hip hop and its role in music’s past, present, and future.
How did you get your start in jazz?
I grew up playing classical piano, and began listening to jazz around the turn of the century. The album that did it for me was Mack the Knife: Ella Fitzgerald Live in Berlin (1960). The two songs in particular that knocked me out: the title track, where she forgets the original lyrics and makes up on her own on the spot, and “How High the Moon,” which features a seven-minute scat solo that is a masterpiece. Before long I was completely hooked on Ella Fitzgerald and started out singing along to her improvisations, then performing at parties, and then going to jazz jams and open stages.
After Ella, I studied other jazz singers like Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert, and saxophone masters Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, and so on. It took me awhile to get into actually singing lyrics, as scat singing was my first love. Singing a ballad to me has always been more challenging and once I got into the work of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, I became very inspired to do that. I studied this music formally both post-secondary at York University and Humber College, and privately with many teachers, including a handful of workshops with my mentor Sheila Jordan—88 years young—who appears on this album in a duet on Nat King Cole’s first big hit, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”
This is the first jazz visual album, which is a feat in itself. Why did you chose to do a visual album?
There are a few reasons. First of all, our world has changed so much in terms of the way music is valued and consumed, and I don’t believe you can go very far without good video content, even if you are a brilliant musician. Stories of success in the music business almost always involve a video going viral. Leading up to this album, I have put out a few music videos which have been very successful, especially “Clap on the 2 and the 4” (2016), which won seven international awards and was screened at 15 film festivals around the world. I realized that following Beyoncé’s Lemonade, pop artists were starting to put out visual albums, but that no one in jazz has done this yet, so I thought as crazy as it is, maybe it can be done. My amazing supporters on PledgeMusic—over 200 contributors from around the world—really made this dream come true for me.
The album is inspired, in part, by Nat King Cole. What is your relationship to Cole and his music?
In June 2015, my co-writer and co-producer Nathan Hiltz introduced me to some of Nat King Cole’s early music from the 1940s, including “Lillette,” which leads off the album. Until that point, I had only really known Nat King Cole as a beautiful voice and since I’ve always been more drawn to daring improvisers in jazz, I respected Cole from a distance, but wasn’t a true fan. Being exposed to his early music, I soon fell in love with his art, and the more I researched his life and body of work, the more inspired I became. Watching those videos of him playing and singing at the piano, it is truly astonishing how natural and easy he made it all look.
He loved his audiences, even recording songs in Japanese, French, Italian and Spanish to great acclaim. I did not want this to be a derivative tribute album, which I have always avoided, so in addition to seven new arrangements of songs from the Cole catalogue, Nathan and I wrote five originals: “Sting of the Cactus” about the musical discipline he embodied; “Sweetheart,” which is a love song we wrote for his voice; “Keep it Simple,” which is a testament to his style; “Bibimbap,” which is a fun food novelty song in answer to “The Frim Fram Sauce”; and finally, “Complexion,” which was the most difficult song to write, a protest song against racism inspired by a disturbing incident in Cole’s life.
On April 10, 1956, while he was performing a concert in Alabama, he was viciously attacked by three white supremacists who were planning to kidnap him. Thankfully, there was a police presence and he walked away only shocked and slightly injured. Cole went on to be the first African American to host his own television special, which despite critical acclaim was not able to land a national sponsor because of the racism in the southern United States. We called this album Nathaniel to pay tribute to the man, the music, [and] the legacy of Nat King Cole.
Did you go into the project with the visuals in mind, or did the idea come later?
The visual idea came later. Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole began as a CD project in June 2015. Ultimately, I realized that the idea to create a visual album, as crazy as it seemed at first, fit well with the innovative, groundbreaking spirit that Nat King Cole embodied both musically and as a cultural icon.
How do you see jazz as a genre influencing your music and videos?
For me, the true essence of jazz happens on the stage, because it is always in the moment and different from night to night, relying on the element of surprise that depends on everything from the venue, the audience [and] how the musicians feel in that particular moment. That being said, I love recording and I greatly enjoyed creating these videos as well. As an artist I strive to be creative and not to rehash what is already out there, and I believe jazz is a great vehicle for being original because it is all about reinventing the familiar. I take this music very seriously, but I try not to take myself too seriously, and another important element for me is just to have fun and inject this music with some humor, because I think a smile goes a long way.
There’s so much whimsy and freedom, going through different mediums of art across the videos, how did you land on these specific styles?
My love for music videos dates back about 20 years, when I used to be obsessed with Björk, who is one of my very favorite artists in the world. She has influenced me a lot to think outside the box, and in particular I’ve always loved the intensity of her creativity, which knows no bounds. Watching music videos such as “Human Behaviour,” “Joga,” “Isobel,” “Hunter” and “All If Full of Love,” I learned that a music video is an opportunity to create a work of art that can be as memorable as a song itself, sometimes more. So she was a huge influence on this project.
The project’s producer Leonardo Dell’Anno and I sought out directors whose work we admired and gave them a great deal of creative freedom, often collaborating on the concept and visual style. We were lucky to have some great talent on this team including, Carlos Coronado who directed four videos: “Pretend,” “Sweetheart,” “Complexion” and “Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup,” with the latter of these being a documentary-style account of three couples getting matching tattoos on camera. Corey Winfield, from Toronto’s Orange Lounge, directed three, including “Lillette” for which we hired jazz choreographer Natasha Powell. She brought along two dancers, going for a La La Land-inspired love story, which fit the song so well. Bekky O’Neil spent months creating puppets and animation for the stop-motion “Sting of the Cactus,” which caught the attention of Huffington Post and is so far our most viewed video. There were a total of seven indie film directors involved including one we have yet to meet face to face, Heather Colbert (“Bibimbap”) who lives in Bristol, United Kingdom.
What role do you think jazz plays in music in 2017?
It is an interesting time for jazz music, which has now been around for a century. What I find so interesting is how most of the time jazz falls under the umbrella of nostalgia these days, reminding people of an older time, sometimes seen as a simpler time. One of the most successful current acts in jazz is Scott Bradlee’s PostModernJukebox. They have truly adapted to the digital age and their concept is to cover modern pops songs in the style of old jazz. Some pundits in conservative jazz circles may not accept what they are doing as it is not Cole Porter or Gershwin, but in my mind what they do is exactly right, because the Tin Pan Alley songs were pop music in their day. The smash success of PostModernJukebox is exciting and inspiring to me.
Jazz is a staple, of course, in hip hop production and sampling, but do you see it actively influencing other genres of music?
Jazz is a huge influence on hip hop. Back in the 1930s and ’40s there was far less freedom of speech, and there this music gave a voice to freedom—look no further than the music of Nina Simone. My hope when it comes to all of these great new remix albums and hip hop samples is that young people seek out the original music, too. In my mind, there is no limit to where jazz can go, as it is by nature a fusion of music styles which started out by melding blues and creole sounds with classical music and Tin Pan Alley.
Where is the next place you see jazz taking you in 2018 and beyond?
I’ve got my eyes set on the world stage next year, particularly in markets where jazz is popular: Europe, Japan and of course the United States, which gave birth to this beautiful music.