“I’ve always had a way that I like to sing. I wanted to sing the melody without being drowned out by the music. When I realized that, that’s when I decided to sing jazz.”

I’m in conversation with Susie Arioli, guitarist Jordan Officer, and bassist Bill Gossage in the Radio Canada cafeteria. Susie and her band mates are about to perform live on Radio Canada as part of La Grande Guignolée, the broadcaster’s special programming event to collect food and money for Montreal’s less fortunate.

After their performance at 3pm, the group still has to drive to Quebec City for a show that night. The Radio Canada program hosts are clearly impressed with Susie’s contribution to the broadcast – especially since the group will perform a few hours later in Quebec City. Radio Canada was one of the first radio stations to give solid airplay to Susie’s early recordings, and she remains grateful for their support early in her career.

Susie’s first public performance took play when she was in Grade 7, the only English-speaking child in the class. “I sang Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, and I was more of a curiosity than anything else,” she says with a chuckle. Susie’s singing now brings Juno nominations for her recordings, appearances at The Montreal International Jazz Festival, and travel to Paris, New York and beyond. A long way from a precocious little girl singing for her Grade 7 classmates.

In most fields of endeavour, success doesn’t just happen. Rather, it is the result of years of training and preparation to develop a talent, so that when the opportunity is presented, the artist, athlete or business person can meet the challenge and perform at their highest level. It even has a name: “The 10,000 Hour Theory”. The idea being that artists need to invest at least 10,000 hours before they master their instruments.

Susie’s ten thousand hours began when she started going to Jam Nights, a weekly open-house for blues musicians that was hosted by Stephen Barry. “I was so nervous that my heart was pounding.
But I felt a certain comfort zone because I knew some of the musicians. I learned how to sing in front of an audience, and I learned how to sing blues songs like those written by Billie Holiday.”

Jam Nights moved to a location in Susie’s neighbourhood, making it easier for her to participate.

“Stephen Barry and Michael Brown encouraged me to sing rather than strain my voice like so many rock and blues singers. They accepted my singing as it was.” Glancing towards Jordan and smiling she adds; “In addition to the new Jam Nights location being closer to home – there was this new guitarist. Jordan was this new guy in the group who could play empathetically. He played around my singing so that we complemented each other rather than competing for space.”

Jordan adds; “Suddenly Susie and I had something that people wanted to hire.” Susie and Jordan started playing as The Susie Arioli Swing Band with Susie singing in her intimate, smooth style while playing snare drum and Jordan accompanying on guitar. They brought in more musicians as necessary; and continued to develop their sophisticated style.

Susie is one of those singers who relates to each person in the audience. You are absolutely certain that she is singing for you. It’s a unique gift for a performer to be able connect with an audience in this manner. Perhaps it’s her understanding of herself as an artist that enables Susie to connect with people in an audience. Early in our conversation Susie stated; “Art is made for the audience, that the reaction of the audience is part of the performance.”

Interestingly, I’ve heard a similar statement from classical musician Denis Brott. “You can rehearse all you want – but a musician’s playing is incomplete without an audience. The audience is an integral part of the performance.”

Whatever ‘it’ is – it works for Susie.

The talent scouts for The Montreal International Jazz Festival hired Susie and Jordan to play at one of the festival’s smaller venues in 1998. Festival programmers were so impressed that they asked Susie to perform as the opening act for Ray Charles in Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, the Festival’s premiere indoor venue. “That Jazz Festival gig really opened a lot of doors for us,” notes Jordan. “We started getting more and better engagements.”

Susie and Jordan began working on their first recording, and released it in 2000. “By then, people were ready and waiting for us,” Jordan adds. Given their success and more than 250,000 recordings sold of their five albums, it’s hard to believe that Susie and Jordan had to produce their first cd It’s Wonderful by themselves.

“We received financial assistance through a government program called Factor, which is a loan repaid from the sales of a cd, at a rate of $1 per cd sold.”

Their second album, Pennies From Heaven was welcomed by the jazz community with impressive sales of over 48,000 copies. Changing pace in 2005, The Susie Arioli Band recorded Learn to Smile Again which featured several compositions by the legendary country music performer and writer, Roger Miller. In 2008 Susie released Night Lights, the first recording that she and Jordan produced for Spectra, the label owned by the same company that produces The Montreal International Jazz Festival.

“We used a full band in the studio and back up singers. It sounded great – but it was too expensive to take on the road. Jordan and Bill both sing –so we decided to do our own background vocals. We also learned that we could perform the songs on the recording without the full band. It’s the songs that are important, and we can modify the arrangements to suit whether we’re performing as a trio or with a full band.”

Jordan adds; “It’s more interesting to do the singing ourselves. We bring a level of commitment to the music that’s reflected in our performance. Singing together intensifies our playing together.”

This relationship has introduced Susie and Jordan to a more sophisticated management and booking arrangements. They now perform regularly in and around Paris to appreciative French audiences; and have used this exposure to build a reputation in other European centres.

“She’s a great artist,” states Caroline Johnson, Director of Programming for The Montreal International Jazz Festival. “Susie is a great jazz singer – she’s there to last.” Caroline adds; “She and Jordan are very creative, and present us with innovative proposals. In 2007 they suggested an outdoor concert with the world-famous I Musici Chamber Orchestra. It was a huge success. We need artists like Susie and Jordan who are constantly bringing new ideas to us. That’s why we keep having them back and have decided to be actively involved in their careers.”

We conclude our conversation where we began – with Susie’s belief about her music. “Every song is unique – what we’re doing is art by being true to the songs, the audience and ourselves.”

Christmas Dreaming

In November Susie released a new recording titled Christmas Dreaming. Produced by Jordan and Susie, it’s one of the finest Christmas albums I’ve heard. Sales indicate that it is rapidly becoming an instant classic. Susie’s singing is clear, intimate and even a little winsome when the occasion is right.

She and Jordan leave enough space so that as you listen, you have time to relive your own special memories of Christmas. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Judy Garland, Winter Wonderland, Blue Christmas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Old Toy Trains (there’s Roger Miller again!), the title song Christmas Dreaming and one of the purist versions of When You Wish Upon A Star that you’ll ever hear. The closing rendition of Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria is stunning in its simplicity and sincerity.

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