Juno-nominated songstress captures east Scarborough

Transcending the confines of what is considered conventional jazz, singer/songwriter/pianist Elizabeth Shepherd, 32, manages to captivate many with her enthralling original tunes.

Jazz musician Elizabeth Shepherd performs at UTSC on Nov. 8.
Jazz musician Elizabeth Shepherd performs at UTSC on Nov. 8.

Playing with her trio of drummer Colin Kingsmore and bassist Devon Henderson on Nov. 8 at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, Shepherd put on a musically creative two-hour performance that left the audience demanding an encore.

“I grew up playing brass band music, and listening to hip hop, soul and classical,” says Shepherd, who studied music at Montreal’s McGill University.

“By trying to bring those influences in, I’m making music that’s honest, that doesn’t replicate what’s been done before, and that speaks to many people through its simplicity.”

Although her unconventional jazz sound has been criticized by some reviewers, Shepherd says her music “happens unconsciously.”

“I think it takes place very innocently because I’m relatively new to jazz, and if you’re steeped in a tradition, it’s hard to get away from it,” she says. “I’m doing mostly original tunes, so maybe that’s what’s considered unconventional.”

With steady fingers on the ivories, the Elizabeth Shepherd Trio grabbed the attention of jazz fanatic Benjamin Rosen, 56, of West Hill.

“I really enjoyed the trio’s performance. Elizabeth [Shepherd] has an incredible voice, and she manages to bring out so much emotion through every song,” Rosen says.

Her songs are “what real music is all about.”

“Her tunes are truly spectacular. I grew up listening to jazz, so it’s always been a huge part of me.”

The Elizabeth Shepherd Trio was formed almost four years ago when she moved to Toronto after her brother was involved in a car accident.

“He broke his neck and he was doing his rehab in Toronto. That was a real catalyst to get things to take stock and see what I wanted to do,” Shepherd says. “That’s when I decided I really wanted to perform and write my own material.”

And although Shepherd says the life of a musician is a difficult one, she has undoubtedly reaped a few rewards.

Her debut album Start to Move was nominated for a Juno award, and was also voted as one of the Top Three Jazz Albums of the Year by Gilles Peterson’s listeners on BBC Radio 1 U.K. in 2006. She has also performed internationally at Tokyo’s Cotton Club and at London’s Jazz CafŽ.

Her follow-up album Parkdale (Do Right! Music) was inspired by the west-end Toronto neighbourhood where she’s lived since moving to Toronto.

With idols such as Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Mozart, and Bach, Shepherd says she wishes to explore all beauty.

“Something beautiful is something that moves me, that can be challenging, and that will be part of my emotional makeup at some point.”

And what’s next on Shepherd’s plate?

“I’d like to explore the idea of freedom because that’s what drew me to jazz in the first place,” she says. “I feel like I want to go away from jazz a little so that I can come back to it later with a fresh perspective.”