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Best of 2012: It’s legendary

February 3rd, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

belle-plaine-cover1Standards are the bread and butter of the jazz world. Generally defined as compositions that are “held in continuing esteem and commonly used as the basis of jazz arrangements and improvisations,” tracks like “Bewitched,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” are instantly recognizable. But they’re also malleable, a familiar canvas that every artist can transform just enough to plant their own signature on them, almost giving the listener a baseline expectation by which to gauge someone they’re hearing for the first time.

You know you’ve found a singer that’s truly special when they’re capable of absolutely murdering a standard but they don’t need them to get your attention.

Melanie Hankewich is one of those singers. She’s been making a name for herself in Regina the last couple of years, performing under the moniker of Belle Plaine. You can expect her profile to grow by leaps and bounds in 2012 on the back of her stunning first full-length album. Notes From A Waitress was released last Friday with a very special show at the beautiful Artesian on 13th Avenue. AND I WAS THERE, YOU GUYS.

From the moment she stepped on the stage with a special backing band that, at times, numbered as many as half a dozen (including trumpet player Cheney “Thunderclap” Lambert from the Pile O’ Bones Brass Band and vocalist Anna Rose) Plaine had a firm grasp on the sold-out and packed-in audience. Wearing the black and white polka dot dress seen on the cover of the album, she took some time to welcome the crowd before launching into a set of mostly-original material.

Most of Hankewich’s press tends to focus on her voice, and rightly so; she took classical voice lessons as a kid and studied jazz at the well-regarded Grant McEwan University in Edmonton. Her voice sounds timeless, somehow equally sultry, seductive, fragile, and dusky while still capable of room-filling bombast when the moment calls for it. One gets the sense that she could sing anything and she proved it last Friday by effortlessly switching from the jazz-pop numbers on Waitress to the folk-based songs on her preceding EP. It’s not so much that her voice changes in any way to suit those styles, more that she has the strength, control, and natural tone to make it almost universal in its application. To borrow an old cliche: she could sing the phone book and The Artesian would still be standing-room only.

But Hankewich doesn’t need to. She and co-writer/pianist Jeremy Sauer collaborated on much of the songs on the new record, if not all of them, crafting unique takes on timeless jazz and sepia-toned lullabies about far-away lands. In fact many of the songs on the record are directly inspired by locales of varying degrees of exoticness from around the world (the mid-record trio of “Port Angeles,” “Vegas,” and “Waikiki” being the most overt examples). During the release show Hankewich also provided some excellent background information on their lyrical origins, like how she found a scrap of paper in Las Vegas with a few lines of poetry scrawled on them and incorporated them into a forlorn remembrance of how bleak reality can turn expectation on its head in Sin City. Or how her time spent in Victoria informed the dourly-beautiful “Port Angeles,” a song that’s roughly as beautiful as anything you’ve heard before. But as well-crafted as her lyrics may be it’s when she sings on the latter that “There’s some things you see approaching but life just doesn’t always turn out the way you wanted it to,” that you get a sense of how far her voice can take you. Her wounded, emotive performance explains exactly how the relationship between the song’s undefined subject and a blind cook’s son from the east coast ended, even though her words don’t. Sauer picks apart the song’s minor chords and creates an upper-range piano melody that is as patient as it is heartbreaking, the individual notes twinkling as brightly as the lights flickering on the water’s edge in Hankewich’s memory and/or imagination.

The closing trio of songs also provide an unexpected but endlessly-pleasant surprise for me personally. The songs were written by Hankewich and Sauer when they put together a show for Regina’s Globe Theatre called The Unforseen Journey Of Nathaniel Dunbar And Other Tales Of Whimsical Sadness. One of the most unique and engaging performances I’ve seen at the Globe in my time, the cabaret-style concert performance accompanied a combination of animation, slide show, and video that told Dunbar’s tragic tale while the band waltzed it’s way into my heart. I can’t even describe what it was like but I’m absolutely thrilled that the two decided to include a few songs from that show on the album, especially the wistful rainy-day ballad “Legendary.” As reminiscent of Patsy Cline’s tear-jerkers as it is any jazz number, the ukulele helps a painful romantic memory seem a little sweeter. It’s a true classic and, along with any number of songs on the new CD, a serious contender to become a new standard.

Which brings me back to standards. Oh, those standards. None of the classics appear on Waitress but there are some that have been made staples of a Belle Plaine set. The most memorable one from Friday’s show is a captivating take on “Fever” (originally performed by Little Willie John but made famous by Peggy Lee) which features only Hankewich’s sultry singing and Elizabeth Curry’s lithe bass. The two have been playing together for years and their timing is perfect, their performances seamlessly intertwined, Curry watching Hakewich intently to get the timing just right as she plunks out a deft and dynamic solo that leaves the crowd clamoring for more. A fantastic rendering of “My Funny Valentine” also popped up, though Hankewich wasn’t really a part of it. She introduced the number and let Sauer and Lambert take over, the piano providing the backbone while Cheney layered on some brassy bombast.

That moment was essentially a space-filler, giving Hankewich some time to run backstage for a costume change. But it’s also evidence of how smart she is in her efforts to make a go of a music career. Both in the studio and on the stage she makes sure that she’s surrounded by collaborators that have an innate understanding of what her songs need. Curry’s bassline is an essential part of a song like “Swamp Lullaby,” such an integral part of the composition it simply couldn’t be the same without it; Sauer has enough chops for a five-star kitchen and has clearly played a huge part in forming Hankewich’s sound. She’s also recorded and toured with Regina’s hidden gems, The Lazy MKs, the group that helped realize the folk-country sound of her previous EP. She seems to be less a solo artist than she is a ringmaster, someone who recognizes the talent of those around her and ensures they also get to stand in the spotlight even as they help make hers burn brighter.

Hankewich gave herself until this spring to try and make it as a musician. With 3,000 copies of Notes From A Waitress to get rid of I doubt she’ll be calling it quits any time soon. Here’s hoping she doesn’t; this gal is possessed of a truly world-class voice and she knows how to use it. She has a specific musical vision that truly stands out in the modern music industry and a stable of friends and collaborators to make it a reality. If Belle Plaine doesn’t put Regina on the map I don’t know what will.

You can buy Belle Plaine’s music from Bandcamp, both physical and digital, because she’ll make more money that way. Her site also offers a few other choices.

Here are the tour dates. You can find more show details at Belle Plaine’s web site.
February 3 Biggar, SK
February 4 Saskatoon, SK
February 11 Regina, SK
February 23 Regina, SK
June 8 Sudbury, ON
June 16 Montreal, QC