Singing for her supper

It’s a little past 1 a.m. when she calls.

“Hi, this is Lucianne Evans. … Can we do the interview now?”

Like a lot of local musicians, Evans is apparently a night owl, a trait I’d normally share. But it’s a Monday night, and I’m still recovering from the previous day’s all-nighter.

Undeterred by my grogginess, she goes on to tell me about relocating with her now ex-husband to Asheville seven years ago — a New York- and Montreal-based singer coming to a town that offered a fledgling-at-best lounge scene.

Moving into a jazz scene was important to her: Evans had already been performing professionally for 15 years when she relocated here. In her teens, she studied at the Naropa Institute for Jazz Studies in Boulder, Colo. In 1988, while performing in Montreal, she won the Lowenbrau Jazz Search Award for best vocalist.

But, even without a vibrant jazz scene to recommend Asheville, Evans — like so many others — fell in love with the town, deciding to stay even if there wasn’t a place for her musically.

Coping with Coppola

“So,” I manage, “how’d you meet Tom Coppola?”

“It’s COPE-ola, not COPP-ola,” she corrects, going on to deliver a helpful verbal hint: “I can cope with Coppola.”

“Everybody mispronounces it,” she admits.

Their meeting, Evans adds, “was very fated.” She ends the sentence with a laugh, hinting at a further story.

“It was at a jam session at Barley’s,” Evans continues. “I saw this guy playing on piano, and I sat in. It swung like crazy.”

Coppola, among his other distinctions, is a former producer and arranger for Saturday Night Live (he left the show in 1990 to pursue a master’s degree in jazz studies). A gifted pianist who in the course of his career has played with the likes of Marvin Gaye, Herbie Mann and Peggy Lee, Coppola is the one often raved about in reviews of the duo.

And on that bygone night at Barley’s, he asked Evans to form a band with him.

She took a while to convince, but finally, in the summer of ’97, they became Evans & Coppola. “We were booked all over town immediately,” Evans remembers.

Since that time, the duo has become one of the area’s most ubiquitous lounge-jazz groups. And they’ve since seen the downtown-jazz setting change from a hidden part of Asheville’s musical gold mine to, well, a part considerably less hidden.

Along the way, however, they’ve gained a reputation as aggressive self-promoters, bringing a big-city publicity style to this typically laid-back mountain town.

“I hope I’m never considered pushy,” Evans protests. “I’m very ultra-sensitive. I worry about whether people like me or not. I’m concerned about being professional and being friendly.

“You have to put things in perspective,” she adds. “Everybody has to be very ambitious because there is a big world out there.”

Outside the songbook

It’s not that she and Coppola can’t back their drive with talent. The duo is increasingly gaining notice outside Asheville — their debut CD, Flamingo (E&C Records, 2002), was among the albums given “Top Vocals 2002″ honors by Dr. Herbert Wong, a critic with The International Association for Jazz Educators.

Thus endorsed, Evans & Coppola can now claim to be academically recognized jazz performers, particularly in the area of Evans’ specialty, scat singing.

She’s been referred to as a “rare find” and “quite captivating” by Atlanta International Jazz Society founder Robert J. Carmack. Not easy praise to come by.

Still, a tough issue lingers, and it’s an awkward one to raise — but if anyone on the local scene can answer it, it’s Evans.

Isn’t lounge jazz in danger of being dismissed as novelty music in a region that favors folk and roots rock? (Not to mention the fresh threat posed by young avant-jazz groups such as Taken Back Quartet.)

“I think what is really important is the interpretation of the music,” Evans — who recently headlined a sold-out tribute show to Nina Simone in the late jazz singer’s home of Tryon — says after several seconds’ pause. “I think people are beginning to see that as very viable,” she adds.

“We’re not young,” she goes on. “We’re not college kids. Yet, college kids like to hear us. We do get to do original tunes whenever we want. We’re not part of the mainstream music scene — we’re part of the jazz scene, which is not as common around here.

“Sometimes,” she admits, “we prefer standards over originals. We prefer the freedom that standards allow.”

She’s also a big fan of vocalese, a form of jazz singing based on writing lyrics to well-known solos. Evans has penned several, most notably on the duo’s reworking of Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When.”

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