Vocalist Patrice Jégou’s career has been defined by the leaps she’s taken. That’s only partly a metaphor. Before turning to music professionally in the 1990s, Jégou, a native of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, was a professional figure skater at the top of her game, touring with an ice show in Mexico after years of coaching figure skating in New Zealand.
Though she recently released her sophomore album as a jazz singer — the phenomenal If It Ain’t Love — she would have probably continued down the path of figure skating if not for a passing comment made by a cast mate in her ice show, who happened to catch Jegou singing a few bars between rehearsals. The friend suggested Jégou take some singing lessons when she returned to Canada, and, with nothing to lose, that’s exactly what she did.
At Red Deer Community College, where she had enrolled as a general education student, Jégou proved a fast learner. When she auditioned for the jazz choir, she was shocked to learn that she had been accepted. “I was the only one in the choir that wasn’t a music major,” she said.
Not that her lack of formal musical training should have stopped her. Jégou grew up in a musical family, with a mother that cherished music and did everything she could to encourage her daughter’s musical interests, despite financial hardships. And though skating would ultimately win out as the guiding force in Jégou’s early life, singing had always brought her a sense of fulfillment.
She had always entertained the idea of pursuing music professionally, but her experience in the jazz choir was a fork in the road. On one side was the safety of her figure skating career; on the other, her new life as a professional singer. “I remember it clearly,” she said. “It was New Year’s Day 1992 or ‘93, I and I said to myself, ‘If I don’t take the leap now, I never will.’”
Leap she did. Despite a relatively late start — she was in her 20s at the time — Jégou returned to college for degrees in classical voice at the University of Calgary and Belmont University in Nashville. She also resumed lessons in piano (she had taken organ lessons as a kid). That process was an exercise in humility. “Once, when I went for one of my exams, there were all these kids ready to take their piano exams. One of the educators came out and asked if I was there to pick up one of the kids, and I was like, ‘No, I am one of the kids!’”
Difficult as Jégou’s journey sometimes was, her background as an athlete helped carry her through periods of doubt or second-guessing. “Once you’re about to do a double lutz, there’s no turning back,” she said. “You’re skating 100 miles an hour, you get an outside edge and you have to go for it. You can’t be afraid, or else you totally wipe out. There’s something similar in my approach to singing. It was do or die. Are you going to commit to it, or are you not?”
Jégou’s commitment was unshakeable, and the former figure skater would end up pursuing music to the highest level, earning a doctorate in classical voice at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She even recorded a few albums of classical repertoire, including a program of Shostakovich and Ernani Braga. And then, when her career was yet again settling into a state of stability, she decided to make another leap — this time from classical to jazz.
Jégou had always harbored an interest in popular music — attracted particularly to the nuance of jazz and pop lyrics — but the idea of pursuing those genres professionally seemed always out of reach. With the support of her vocal coach, and husband, Yinka Oyelese, she decided to jump head first into her new passion by recording a jazz album. She worked with a New York-based vocal coach, Justin Stoney, to acquire the technical skills of a jazz vocalist.
“That leap presented a lot of technical challenges,” said Jégou. “I was trained in the bel canto Italian tradition of classical singing, so that was a big transition.” With Stoney, she worked on shifting her primary range from her head voice to her chest voice. She smoothed out some of the vibrato from her phrasing and learned to embrace the musical blurred edges that make jazz singing so intimate and human.
For guidance and inspiration, she dove deep into the jazz vocal canon, focusing specifically on singers who bridged the jazz-pop divide. She studied masters like Diane Schuur, Shirley Bassey and Sarah Vaughan, striving to replicate their nuanced timbres and stylistic flair. Then, she hit the studio. Her debut pop album, 2014’s Speak Low, was a 15-track exploration of the Great American Songbook that cast the budding jazz vocalist in a brilliant new light. Her career path, long and winding as it was, had delivered her to where she was supposed to be.
It has since guided her to new and exciting places. Years in the making, Jégou’s most recent album takes an even broader view of the Great American Songbook, comprising tunes from Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Lover Come Back to Me” to the Pointer Sisters-associated “Yes We Can, Can.”
The idea was to create a program that would feel both familiar and fresh. “We wanted to avoid tunes that everyone and their dog recorded,” said Jégou. “That’s especially hard to do with standards, so my husband and I were literally on iTunes counting the number of times a song has been recorded.” One example: Jégou’s version of the 1940s big band staple “Jersey Bounce.” The tune is rarely covered by jazz singers. But a unique take on the tune by jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald proved to be just what Jégou was looking for. Jégou’s version taps into Ella’s timeless swing feel, while adding a polish of emotional clarity and buoyant energy that feels entirely contemporary.
It’s no wonder, then, that Jégou’s fully blossomed talent has attracted an even wider circle of collaborators. While her solo versions of tunes like Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s “Where Do You Start?” are clear highlights, it’s a thrill to hear her voice in the company of The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (as on the title track and “Just Squeeze Me”), guitarist Larry Koonse (“Estate”) and vocal ensemble Take 6 (“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”).
Sophomore albums represent an opportunity to measure growth in an artist’s development, and Jégou certainly views If It Ain’t Love as a symbol of evolution. Some changes were fundamental. “I’m singing in keys that are lower this time around,” said Jégou. “That seems basic, but think about that. You don’t get to change the key of a Mozart aria!”
Other changes were more personal. “On my previous record, I was still doing my doctorate at the time,” she said. “I was singing a ton of classical repertoire. The adjustment was challenging, and I felt more cautious on that record.” This time around, she says, she has finally found herself. And she sounds it — confident, poised and willing to take creative risks.
Jégou hasn’t had much time to think about the future of her musical career. She’s currently putting all of her energy into getting her album out to the world. But that doesn’t stop her from dreaming about her next project — or taking even bigger, more ambitious leaps. She’s captivated by contemporary singers she hears on the radio, making a mental note of vocalists who inspire her. “In the back of my mind — and on the desktop of my laptop — I’ve got a file called Songs to Consider for Next Record.”
All photos courtesy the artist. To learn more about Patrice Jégou, or to order a copy of her new album, visit her website.