They Got Rhythm, all right. But they’ve “got it” with intricate jazz harmonies and no accompaniment whatsoever.  

Cuppa Joe, an Ottawa vocal jazz quartet, is more than four great singers. They have the intricate skill of harmonization along with a kind of synergy that makes them shine with charm and personality. 

“You have to have a feel for it,” says John Wilson, tenor (and a client of Lagois Design·Build·Renovate), who formed the group in 2008. He used to think it was just natural, that anyone who could sing, could sing in harmony. 

But he’s discovered that it’s a different skill than solo singing.  There are “marvellous vocalists with wonderful voices and stage presence”, who find part-singing difficult.

Cuppa Joe’s other vocalists are Cathy Thompson, soprano; Mary Moore, alto; and Peter Feldman, baritone. They have played at many venues in the Ottawa area, including the National Art Centre’s Fourth Stage, the Buckingham Jazz Festival and Gigspace. They also sing for private events such as birthdays, anniversaries, and retirement parties, and have a fairly full calendar performing at retirement residences.

“We all love what we do,” John says. And they’re friends. In this group, three knew each other from other circles before they joined Cuppa Joe.

They have been inspired by groups such as Manhattan Transfer (“the epitome of this style of acapella jazz”), and New York Voices. And they have taken on one of the most difficult arrangements to do in this style: The Manhattan Transfer’s version of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. In fact, they were advised not to do it at all. “But that just made us redouble our efforts,” John says. “We still love to sing it.”

The group uses professionally composed harmonies but adjusts them according to what seems to suit their style. “Sometimes we just interpret the way we sing it,” says John. It could be a matter of tempo, as it is in their rendition of I Got Rhythm.

He explains that although jazz is largely improvisational, when you’re singing with close acapella harmony, you can’t do that. You can only interpret and modify… carefully. The result is an individual sound and style that is theirs alone.

John has been singing since childhood, and his professional background is impressive. Originally from New Brunswick, he is a retired software engineer who worked for Bell Northern Research in Ottawa (which became Nortel) and Bell Canada, and then as part of Canadian Government IT strategy. 

In 1997, he met Herb Lagois, founder of Lagois Design-Build-Renovate. He was at a home show, looking for kitchen renovation contractors.

“I contacted a few, but I wasn’t happy with them,” he says. “They had a bit of a fly-by-night feel to them.” Finally he found a kitchen designer he thought might be a possibility. John and his wife, Linda, set up a meeting. The designer suggested that they invite Herb Lagois for his expertise in holistic design.

But when John and Linda left that first meeting, they felt uncomfortable with the kitchen designer. “She had her own way of wanting to design our kitchen that just didn’t appeal to us,” he explains. “She was not listening to us.”

Meanwhile, Herb sat quietly in the room, taking notes and making sketches. 

Later, John and Linda spoke to him.

“We had an immediate rapport,” he says. “He really listened and didn’t try to push his own ideas. He was interested in us, in what we wanted to do.”

They worked together on a design for about a year and a half. They were in no rush. Herb kept revising any new ideas they had. Finally, Herb presented them with the blueprints, what they all thought was the final design. John and Linda showed them to John’s sister, and it was while they were discussing the plans that they realized they had yet another idea. Could they integrate the dining room into the kitchen plan?

“We went back and talked to Herb,” John recalls. “And he said, ‘Sure! Let’s do it.’ Just like that.”

It would be tricky, Herb told them, because of its hexagonal shape. But, he said, “We’ll figure it out.” And he did.

“He was great to work with,” says John, “and one of the nicest guys you’ll meet.”

Lagois did three projects for John and Linda: one in 1999 (sunroom and new kitchen), and one in 2000. The inspiration for that project was all the beautiful porches of the kind they had remembered from their time growing up in the Maritimes. On a trip back home, they took pictures of several of them and showed them to Herb.

“And he built us one,” says John. Again, in 2015, Herb created another design piece for their home. 

John recognizes success when he sees it. He says attitude is a big part of it. 

“You have to enjoy what you’re doing, know what you’re doing, and just want to dive in.” He has observed that with the Lagois team, and it’s what he likes about his own Cuppa Joe team. When he was putting the group together, he looked carefully at who would stay with it, who would be fun to work with.

“The team is so important,” he says. “We have differences of opinions about things, but that’s a good thing.”

See and hear Cuppa Joe in person on Saturday, April 27, from 8 pm to 10:30 pm at Montgomery Scotch Lounge, 750 Gladstone Avenue, Ottawa. Cover charge is $15. For more information or to reserve a spot: