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Singer Connie Evingson explores songwriters in new ‘Jazz at the Jungle’ series

If you haven’t heard Connie Evingson sing, you’ve missed a definitive Twin Cities jazz experience.

One of our most popular vocalists, Evingson has been a member of the vocal jazz ensemble Moore by Four since 1986. Based in Minneapolis, she has sung in clubs and concert halls across the United States, Europe and Japan. She has twice won the McKnight Fellowship Award for Performing Musicians. Her eight CDs have all charted in the Top 50 jazz releases in the U.S. and Canada.

On Sunday, Sept. 20, Evingson will launch a new concert series. “Jazz at the Jungle: The Songwriters Series” begins with “Happy With the Blues: Singer/Songwriter Peggy Lee” and continues in 2010 with music by Norman Gimbel and a program drawn from the Beatles songbook.

Who’s Norman Gimbel? In brief, he’s the Oscar and Grammy winner who wrote the English lyrics to “Girl From Ipanema” (“Tall and tan and young and lovely …”) and the lyrics to Roberta Flack’s huge hit “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” among many others.

MinnPost spoke with Evingson about her new series soon after she returned from a performance in Seattle.

MinnPost: You’ve done a stage show called “Fever: A Tribute to Peggy Lee” and made a CD by that name. Now comes “Happy with the Blues.” Tell us about your interest in Peggy Lee.

Connie Evingson: “Fever” came about because a number of people were comparing me to her. I found that interesting because she wasn’t one of my big influences growing up. Then I started listening to her and thought — we have a kind of similar approach. Scandinavian reserve, a little understatement. The more I listened to her, the more I fell in love with her.

I also found it interesting that she was writing music. She was the only female pop singer of that time who was writing her own songs. I was struck by her creative impulse, and also by her humble beginnings in North Dakota. … I think of Peggy Lee as a diva from the prairie.

MP: How will the new show be different from “Fever”?

CE: The new show focuses entirely on her songwriting. I’ll be singing nine songs I haven’t done before. Like “Johnny Guitar,” a song she wrote with Victor Young for the movie starring Joan Crawford. And a couple of tunes she wrote for the Disney film “Lady and the Tramp.”

MP: Why Norman Gimbel?

CE: Back when I was getting ready to record “Bluesette” on “Some Cats Know” [Minnehaha Music, 1999] I learned that someone named Norman Gimbel was the lyricist. Then I got a call to audition for a commercial using the song “Sway.” I looked up the song and Normal Gimbel was the lyricist. A little while later, another commercial used the actual Peggy Lee recording of a song called “Samba de Orfeo,” or “Sweet Happy Life” in English. I looked up the lyricist and it was Norman Gimbel.

So I thought, Who is this guy? I did some research into his canon and was mind-boggled. “Water of Life,” “Canadian Sunset,” TV themes for “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Wonder Woman.” And I decided — I want to do this show. No one else has done it.

I’ve spoken with Gimbel. He lives in Santa Barbara. I intend to go visit him and find out the stories behind these songs.

MP: Will your shows combine storytelling with singing?

CE: Yes, definitely. Part of what’s interesting about these subjects is the stories behind the songs.

MP: How did this series end up at the Jungle?

CE: I had been thinking about doing my own concert series, one where I could develop my own ideas. One night I did a private party at the Jungle. The room felt great. I thought — I’d like to come in here. They [the Jungle] were interested. We all liked the idea of the synergy — of bringing jazz audiences into the theater and letting them see what the Jungle is about. The mixing of audiences will be fun.

MP: Will your Beatles show have any relation to your “Let It Be … Jazz: Connie Evingson Sings the Beatles” CD and performance at the Illusion Theater in 1993?

CE: It will be a completely different show, exploring more Beatles tunes. When I finished the CD, there were another eight to 10 tunes I wanted to do but couldn’t get to.

MP: Back in the 1960s, when jazz artists were being pressured to perform and record Beatles songs, Lena Horne did a version of “Rocky Raccoon.” What is one Beatles song you will never, ever sing?

CE: “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”

“Happy With the Blues: Singer/Songwriter Peggy Lee,” Sunday, September 20, 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., The Jungle Theater ($25). 612-822-7083. With Tanner Taylor, piano; Terry Burns, bass; Dave Karr, saxophone; Reuben Ristrom, guitar; Joe Pulice, drums. The show returns on Sunday, Nov. 15. Gimbel and Beatles show dates TBA.

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