Matt Dusk – The Swing Kid
I’m standing in the middle of what many women might call their “happy place”: a freshly unveiled, 30-foot Swarovski Christmas tree twinkles at my side in the shiny midst of Yorkdale Shopping Centre, and Matt Dusk, one of the most charming personalities on today’s jazz music scene, is grinning in front of me as he spills his (perhaps unorthodox) birthday plans.
“There’s this joke in my family,” he’s saying with a laugh, “that on every single birthday I have, I happen to be on the road.”This year, as the Juno-winning artist and self-proclaimed goofball turns the big 35, he’ll be on stage on the Harvard University campus, where, he claims, “the crowd tends to get rowdy — which is more than OK with me.”
So it appears. Minutes prior to the start of our interview, the star was in front of a similarly excited audience as he performed for the unveiling of Yorkdale’s Swarovski Crystal Wonderland in support of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. A few hundred fans, media members and curious shoppers gathered as Dusk reintroduced them to a handful of their holiday favourites in his smooth, Sinatra-like baritone. And despite the lack of elbow room, the Canadian crooner managed to sweep every audience member, big and small, effortlessly into the spirit of the season. “When I was asked to do this tree unveiling, of course I said yes,” says Dusk, a Toronto native. “Because for me, this time of year is for the children. And when I see a little kid dancing around in the audience and having fun, it’s inspiring, you know? I’m like, ‘I was your age once!’”
Though Dusk is on the brink of turning another year older, it doesn’t take long for me to discover that this world-beloved star is still one of those dancing kids at heart. When our chat is interrupted by some paper-and-pen-yielding fans, I step aside to watch him joke and chuckle with the breathless group, getting cheeky, giving hugs generously and never holding himself back in the way that adulthood typically trains us to. (Just ask his fellow jazz singer, Montreal’s Emilie-Claire Barlow, who sang a duet with Dusk on his latest album. “His energy level and enthusiasm is exhausting,” she tells me over email later on. “He’s the kind of person who will lick your face during a live duet performance — that’s the first time that’s ever happened to me!”)
Perhaps it’s his lengthy performing track record that has given Dusk his shamelessly youthful demeanour. A sucker for the stage from an early age, Dusk’s talent was first exposed when he was 17 and won the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Rising Star Talent Competition, winning against 107 competing acts. After later recording four independent albums, Dusk scored his first major record deal in 2003, and a year later his first studio-released album, Two Shots, was born.
Funnily enough, it only took one shot for Dusk to launch himself into international stardom. The debut album turned heads as it earned gold status in Canada before going on to land a spot in the top 10 of Billboard Magazine’s Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart.
Nine years — including a two-year stint in Las Vegas — and five albums later, here he stands, a veteran of the awards ceremony, the fangirl crush and the pestering journalist. He doesn’t seem to have tired of me yet, though, so when his fans have left, blushing and with autographed papers in hand, I do some more digging. “So, I hear you’re actually looking forward to going grey?” It’s true. Kid-like playfulness aside, Dusk assures me he welcomes every birthday warmly. “My heroes are still singing well into their 80s,” he says. “Not to say that someone in their 20s doesn’t know what they’re singing — but watching someone like Tony Bennett, I can kind of understand when people say that as you get older, you get wiser.”
Yes, even the most unlearned of listeners would recognize that in Dusk’s genre, music ripens with the age of the musician. The refinement of jazz demands a voice that has seen a few years and been seasoned by the spotlight, challenging the familiar fib that over time, style fizzles out and talent withers. Dusk, whose musical style continues to evolve over the span of his still-young career, stands as proof that it takes time and practice to fine-tune the rich romance of rhythm and blues. It’s this romance, I soon learn, that is another big part of why jazz fits Dusk so perfectly. Like a flawlessly tailored tux, the wooing notes and tantalizing vocal ups and downs of the genre suit his talent and personality to a tee. He’s a diehard romantic, and has been for as long as he can remember, having spent his childhood listening to the greats: Bob Fenton, Sarah Vaughan and Chet Baker, who served as a particularly outstanding inspiration. “When I was in my teens and early 20s, I was looking for romance,” he tells me. “I wanted to put on a beautiful album of music, open up a bottle of wine and connect with someone, and just let the wine and the music take us somewhere. Chet Baker’s music was a backdrop to most of my dates, and I could never remember what the third or fourth track was because I was too into who I was with.” He chuckles. “We’ll leave it at that.”
The product of his swooning, starry-eyed days as a youngster is his latest album, My Funny Valentine: The Chet Baker Songbook, which was released in February 2013. The album, which is Dusk’s third to be officially certified as “gold,” is a series of the singer’s own spin on some of Baker’s classic anthems — it’s a tribute to Baker as not only a hero of Dusk’s growing-up years, but also a hero of the 20th-century music scene as a whole. When he first came up with the concept of a Chet Baker cover album, Dusk dove deep into the troubled musician’s seemingly endless archive of brokenhearted ballads and spent six months hand-picking the pieces he wanted to reproduce in My Funny Valentine. It was a challenge for Dusk, who was itching to test his talents by slipping into Baker’s more rigorous vocal styling. And the end result? It’s a record that proposes an adventure of admiration and anguish; it’s a roller-coaster ride as much as it’s a slowly shifting dance floor, zapping listeners awake with one track and lulling them into a dream with the next.
“[My Funny Valentine] was intended for people to listen to my versions, get a feel for them, and then go back and listen to his original versions,” says Dusk, whose favourite track on the album is the dark, beautiful “Deep in a Dream.” “Don’t compare them — just understand where Chet Baker was, and is, in my life.”
Too soon, my allotted interview minutes have ticked out of sight, and my subject is tugged away for a photo shoot on his abandoned, sparkle-strewn stage. From up there, his laughter bounces off the walls as the camera clicks, and passersby stop to watch as if hoping they can catch whatever happy contagion he’s been struck with. As I fumble with my recorder and wait patiently to say my formal goodbyes, I remember a particularly fitting quote from jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson. “Jazz is restless,” the famous musician said in a 1988 interview. “It won’t stay put, and it never will.”
Glancing up at Dusk’s animated movements, I think I’ve found yet another reason why he and jazz were made for each other: the guy isn’t ever going to stay put, either. And this is when I realize I have one last question to ask him. I step tentatively forward. What’s his happiness secret? “It’s about keeping that youthful attitude and applying it to experience,” he says as he easily (and half-jokingly) romances the camera at the photographer’s request. “Once you achieve that, oh my God, life is just so much fun.”