Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


September/October 2009: George Colligan

Amber Epp

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If you’ve been out to jazz concerts in Winnipeg, no doubt you’ll have run into Amber Epp. She’s a force of nature on the stage, whether she’s doing jazz or blues or revamped standards with her regular band, or crooning in Portuguese or Spanish on one of her Latin gigs, or hopping up to jam with a band that didn’t exist a moment ago. She has a powerful voice, an infectious grin, and talent to burn. This past May, she graduated with a Bachelor of Jazz Studies from the U of Manitoba, winning the Gold Medal, the Faculty’s highest honor.

How did you get into singing jazz?

In my last year of high school, I started listening to some of the traditional jazz singers—Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra. Then for my 18th birthday, my parents took me to the Monday Night Hang at The Freehouse. Alvin Atkinson was there playing drums with his elbows, and Steve Kirby and Larry Roy and Will Bonness. I was hooked! After that, I was always phoning my friends in Steinbach or bugging my parents to drive me in.

Eventually I got up my nerve to get up on stage. I sang “Lullaby of Birdland”—and it was really, really terrible! But I knew I had to try it again. I’ve learned many times that The Hang is the best place to fall on your face. It’s better to work stuff out there than in a concert!

That fall, I entered the Jazz Studies program at the U of M—and now, four years later, I’m done! I was so excited the first time Steve invited me up to sing with the house band at The Hang. Now I find myself hosting The Hang and singing all over the place.

You’ve been schooled in the classroom and schooled on stage. How do they go together for you?

I can’t really see having one without the other. I didn’t grow up surrounded by this music (Steinbach is the Choral Capital not the Jazz Capital), so university helped me make up a lot of ground. You’re there to study, practice, take lessons, ask questions. It’s motivating to be surrounded by people with a similar mindset. (That person knows more tunes than me? Well, not for long!) Also, you meet people who’ll be part of your musical life for a long time.

At the same time, I’ve learned just as much from live performances as I have in school. Right from the start I have gone out to every single thing I could, and I sit in whenever I can. I have seen my mentors on stage, so I know that performing is their passion too—they’ve basically been coerced into teaching! Being out there is where the energy is. I try to put myself in as many different situations as possible, and then just go for it. I certainly don’t intend to stop learning now that I’ve got my degree!

Did that attitude get you hooked on Latin music?

I had met the Papa Mambo crew at The Hang in my first year, but I got the Latin bug a couple of years later when I heard the Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto on a Stan Getz recording. In an odd coincidence, I met Marco Castillo at practically the same time. After that, I literally started following these guys around, asking them to recommend songs. I got claves and shakers, and much to the annoyance of my roommates, practiced my güiro in the basement. Then I’d hop up and join them whenever they’d let me.

Now I do about as much Latin as straight-ahead jazz. I love the spirit of the music and the people—so much so that I’m going to spend three months this winter studying in Cuba. You’d be shocked to know how many different kinds of Latin rhythms come from there! Since I want to know everything I can about this music, I’m going right to the source…


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