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Victoria jazz singer Joe Coughlin returns, with a passion project 15 years in the making

Pandemic delayed what performer had hoped would be a breakout year
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Victoria singer Joe Coughlin is back on stage Saturday at the Dave Dunnet Community Theatre. ASLAM HUSAIN

JOE COUGHLIN QUARTET

Where: Dave Dunnet Community Theatre (in Oak Bay high school), 2121 Cadboro Bay Rd.

When: Saturday, Oct. 8, 7:30 p.m. (doors at 6:30)

Tickets: $49.50 from the Royal McPherson box office (250-386-6121) or rmts.bc.ca

After retiring from his job with the provincial government in 2019, jazz singer Joe Coughlin figured 2020 was going to be his “breakout year,” with a number of recording projects and concerts on his calendar. The activity would have marked his 42nd year as a professional performer.

However, due to the pandemic, “they all got shelved,” Coughlin said. He was forced to put everything music-related on pause until last year, when a long-gestating recording project made its way back to the frontburner. Dedicated to You, released last month by the Vancouver-based Cellar Music Group, collects 12 songs recorded at Vancouver’s Warehouse Studios, each one played effortlessly by an experienced group and sung expressively by the man with the golden voice.

“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do since the late 2000s,” Coughlin said.

The genesis of the project dates back to 2007, when he discussed with Chicago crooner Kurt Elling, who was in Victoria for a performance and workshop, the idea of an album paying tribute to a 1963 recording from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Coughlin thought that his idea, somewhat unique at the time, could use some feedback from Elling, who is regarded as an exceptional singer.

“But he took that idea and did it the next year, and won the Grammy Award [for best jazz vocal album],” Coughlin said with a laugh. “I learned my lesson: Never tell another male jazz singer what you’re up to.”

His fascination with the music of Hartman, a legendary balladeer, goes back to Coughlin’s youth in Wallaceburg, Ontario, where he played drums in a number of local rock bands, one of which put a record out in 1977. He made the switch to jazz in 1979, and released his first recording in 1981, while he was living in Toronto. Hartman was one of the first jazz icons whose catalogue Coughlin came to know intimately, he said.

Coughlin eventually moved to Victoria in 1995, where he has remained ever since. His career as a jazz singer blossomed once he arrived on Vancouver Island, with 25 years of acclaim for his recordings and performances centred around jazz from the Great American Songbook, an early-20th-century amalgam of jazz standards and show tunes by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, among others.

“It’s a very deep catalogue. What appeals to me most is stuff that has a witty, clever lyric and terrific melody. I’ve also tried to pull a lot of the original verses that are on the sheet music, but were very rarely done by most singers.”

Coughlin’s album-release concert will be held Saturday at the Dave Dunnet Community Theatre, where he has performed several times in the past; a memorable one was his 2015 concert feting Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday, backed by an 18-piece big band led by Phil Dwyer. He’ll be joined by pianist Tony Genge, tenor saxophonist Cory Weeds, drummer Hans Verhoeven, and bassist Ken Lister at the Saturday event, which doubles as a fundraiser for an Oak Bay Rotary Foundation scholarship.

The annual Sno’uyutth Legacy Scholarship provides funding to offset some of the post-secondary costs (such as tuition and books) for an Indigenous student graduating from Oak Bay high school. It’s a cause Coughlin is passionate about promoting, as he received financial help during his time in university from a fund attached to the Vocational Rehabilitation Services act, due to a spinal cord injury at birth that now requires him to use a wheelchair for mobility.

Coughlin’s job with the provincial government was focused on education and employment policies, especially those pertaining to persons with disabilities. He knows the value of each dollar raised for the Sno’uyutth Legacy Scholarship. “It’s not a full scholarship, but it’s a nice little chunk of cash to defray some of the costs of first-year university or college.”

Unlike some of his other fundraising concerts, Coughlin will have new music to promote on Saturday. Dedicated to You is the singer’s tip of the hat to the studio output of Hartman, who remains and inspiration and major influence, and Sinatra, whose rendition of They Say It’s Wonderful prompted Coughlin to do a version of his own for the album.

When it comes to his live performances, Coughlin said he uses only Sinatra as a reference. “The guy was the consummate entertainer. I always say to the guys in my band, if I can be 10 per cent as hip as Sinatra on stage, I’ll be a happy camper.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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