Remember the first time you heard Streisand or Renée Fleming, Celine Dion or Adele? Yes, the voice was arrestingly beautiful, but there was more: a distinctiveness that made that moment of discovery uniquely thrilling. Each is blessed with “that little something extra,” as James Mason so aptly described it to Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, that signifies true star quality.
Hit “play” on track one of Speak Low, the debut release from classically-trained mezzo-soprano Patrice Jégou, and you immediately feel that same effect; that ineffable je ne sais quoi that separates the great from the merely good. Across 15 wide-ranging tracks, spanning Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, Nashville and beyond, and blurring jazz, pop, classical, country and gospel, Jégou is assisted by an all-star assortment of musicians, including 10-time Grammy winning vocal jazz group Take 6, gospel superstar Andraé Crouch and the Andraé Crouch Singers, saxophonist extraordinaire Kirk Whalum, bass legend Victor Wooten, guitar luminary Paul Jackson Jr., Grammy-winning trombonist Conrad Herwig, and a host of others. Production credits include Mark Kibble of Take 6 and Cheryl Bentyne from The Manhattan Transfer.
The story of Jégou’s serpentine career path, including the evolution of Speak Low, is as compelling as the album itself. Born in Canada, Jégou grew up in a house filled with music—her mother was an accomplished guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist. At her parents’ insistence, she begrudgingly took piano lessons, but was much more interested in sports. A natural athlete, she excelled at baseball, volleyball and particularly figure skating.
Eager to expand her horizons, Jégou began skating professionally, coaching in New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, and touring Mexico with an ice show. But at age 23 she decided to hang up her skates. The show she was appearing in had reached Monterrey, Mexico and there was a cast change. Among the newcomers was a fellow from Vancouver with an impressive background in musical theater. One day, while the cast was fooling around during intermission, singing various tunes, he took special note of Jégou’s beautiful voice and urged her to take singing lessons.
Intrigued, Jégou returned to Canada and sought out a prominent local voice teacher and also enrolled at Red Deer College, where she joined the jazz choir. From there, she progressed to the music program at the University of Calgary. Perhaps the first confirmation of Jégou’s extraordinary vocal talent came two years into her studies, when she auditioned for a soloist role with the Calgary Philharmonic under the direction of Maestro Hans Graf. Midway through her audition, Graf stood up, dashed down the aisle, ran up on stage and said, “You’re so good! Sing it again!”
A short time later Jégou moved to Nashville for graduate studies at Belmont University, acquiring her Master of Music degree in classical vocal performance. She continued her studies at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University where, in 2011, she obtained her Doctor of Musical Arts degree in classical vocal performance.
In the summer of 2005, prior to relocating to New Jersey to attend Rutgers University, Jégou entered and won a prestigious international singing competition in Peru. Settled in New Jersey, now studying for her doctorate, she met and married Yinka Oyelese, an accomplished physician, whose own musical background includes membership in an immensely popular a cappella vocal group in his native Nigeria. The spark for what would eventually become Speak Low, executive produced by Oyelese, was ignited not long after their wedding, when, in 2008, Jégou returned to the Peru competition to serve as an adjudicator. While there, she was asked to give a master class and a recital. Working alongside a Costa Rican pianist, she remembers singing “a Schubert set, a Debussy set and a Swedish song. But I thought I should also include something a little more popular, so I prepared ‘Till There Was You’ from The Music Man, and did it as an encore. Well, the audience applause was so enthusiastic that the pianist leaned over and whispered to me, ‘Do you have another song?’ I whispered back, ‘no,” and he said, ‘well you’ll have to sing it again,’ which I did!”
A short while later, a retirement party was being planned for Jégou and Oyelese’s church minister and she was asked to sing. Again she chose “Till There Was You,” and again the reaction was extraordinary. “People were cheering and crying and were so excited by the song,” she recalls, “that Yinka turned to me and said, ‘you know, honey, I think you should record a non-classical album.’” And so, Speak Low was conceptualized.
With nostalgic arrangements reminiscent of a bygone era, Speak Low features lush orchestral accompaniments, a sizzling Big Band, the harmonic virtuosity of Take 6, latin guitar, and an amazing gospel choir. Jégou is one of a very few that can masterfully handle jazz, blues, gospel, folk songs, and classical music with equal skill and virtuosity. Her epic vocals, outstanding musicianship, and stylish song interpretations have been compared to great vocalists like Diana Krall, kd lang, Barbra Streisand, and Dianne Schuur.