The Future is just Perfect for Ottawa’s Diane Nalini

Ottawa’s Diane Nalini is one of those amazing people in our city. She is an Oxford trained physicist, a teacher and she is a jazz singer who regularly appears with the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra as resident vocalist and has several recordings to her name.

She’s about to release her latest called Future Perfect at the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage on Dec. 21. It’s the first recording in a while so it seemed an appropriate topic for a chat.

There’s is always something in a name so why Future Perfect?

“In this case I had a tremendous number of songs I had written over the years and it came to me one day that I had to make a new album. I had too many songs to choose from so I just started whittling down my list.”

She asked herself what she wanted to record. That ended up being a response to what she was feeling in the moment.

The songs that ended up on the list of 13, she said, “all talked about the future either looking toward the future or wistfully reimagining a future.

Diane Nalini

“I thought it was kind of cute that Future Perfect was a verb tense but it was also a wish that we might have. Maybe there should be a question mark at the end of it because half songs are questioning if we are going to even make it as a society.”

Ten of the songs are originals by Nalini either in collaboration or by herself. Two are songs where the music existed first and she contributed the lyrics.

One is particularly interesting. It’s called L’Amour d’autrefois.

“It was a piece that the British composer Dick Walter had written the music for.”

Nalini was living in England in the early 2000s. She was at Oxford picking up her PhD

“He hired me as a singer for an album that he was putting together for film. Some of the tracks were big band tracks some were more intimate.

“For this particular track he sent me the music and he had envisioned it as a French tune.” Walter asked Nalini to write some French lyrics for that song. Did we tell you that she speaks English, French, Spanish and Portuguese?

“It was an interesting challenge. He sent the music a month before the recording session. I had time to listen and come up with some lyrics. And then he asked to also write some English lyrics.” That faced Nalini with a conundrum and a challenge. She had only conceived of it as a French song. But she did it.

“It’s funny, sometimes you have a bit of a buzz when you know you have hit on something that just clicked. I had that feeling in the studio. I felt like I had found the right voice for the piece.”

The song worked indeed. It became part of the soundtrack for the movie Charlotte Gray  starring Cate Blanchett. It was used in the British TV series Maigret and even in a Call of Duty game set during the Second World War.

“I didn’t know about that on until someone put it up on YouTube,” she said.

Walter had been hired by a label that specialized in provided music for film companies. The works get recorded in a particular style and the songs are reserved for first use by a film company or a video game apparently.

That meant Nalini couldn’t record it until it had been used.

So it’s included in this CD. “I wanted to put it on the album because it fits the theme of Future Perfect. It is sung from the perspective of someone who is no longer with a person they used to love and they wish they could do it over again and never let that person go.”

She says she hasn’t really sung it much in public because it’s one of those songs that people want to have and she couldn’t give them that.

“It’s nice it’s finally seeing the light of day.”

Another song on the CD seems to reflect her science side.

A couple of years ago the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra did an evening of original music inspired by Leonardo da Vinci. Nalini said one piece by OJO trumpet player Rick Rangno caught her fancy.

“It was inspired by one of da Vinci’s inventions of a robotic knight. A few years ago engineers got a hold of the plans and they built it. It worked. It raised its arms, stood and sat. it was all built with pulleys and levers.

Rango’s piece was in an unusual 5/4 measure giving the music an other worldliness, she said.

“I went home and started thinking about this.”

She eventually imagined a story for the knight who comes to life and falls in love with the person who made him and can’t get rid of him.

“The knight for me was a stand-in for technology. If you bring something to life, you might regret it. That’s what the song Mechanical Knight is.”

She wasn’t consciously drawing on the scientific side of her life but “it is there in everything I do.”

As a lyricist she tends to fit her text inside the constraints of the musical setting. If she’s setting a text to music she is writing she feels “I have to give the words their due. I have to respect the tone and mood created by them.

She doesn’t mind the constraints this thinking brings.

“I take the constraints of the music as a wonderful challenge to finish the song. I love working within a set of boundaries There are infinite possibilities within those boundaries. It’s a little different from a completely blank canvas. The boundaries give you a place to start.”

Another song is a setting of a poem by the Brazilian poet Álvares de Azevedo, who died very young at age 20 after falling off a horse. She wrote some bossa nova music for the poem, A donzela na janela (The maiden at the window).

It was important for Nalini to have a song in Portuguese on the new record.

And it was also important to have a song about another of her pursuits — teaching.

The Last Hurrah is the opening song of album. It’s another tune that was written a years ago. Nalini has taught at Oxford and at the University of Guelph and at Carleton.

“I was so struck by tension of the idealism of young people just on the edge of adulthood who want to change the world. They are so full of ideals and on the other hand you have parents telling them they have to be a doctor or a lawyer, make a living and settle down.”

This was also when the climate change crisis was emerging in a serious way. Both themes prompted the song.

“Then things changed and I was more optimistic about the world.” Now it has flipped back and the song has currency again.

“This song is about the tension between aspirations and technology and the fact of climate change.”

Working with the OJO has allowed Nalini to stretch her musical chops. She is doing a lot of arranging and composition along with singing.

In her day job she works at Natural Resources Canada on nuclear energy policy, something she believes will be part of the solution to climate change.

“I can’t live without music or science. I did take a year off to write music full time doing another project and I missed the intellectual challenge of the science. I missed the exposure to new ideas.

“I enjoy the sense of discovery. I’m voracious about learning new things.”

She occasionally gives lectures in Carleton University’s learning in retirement series and one recent one involved the physics of music. “That was the perfect marriage of my love of physics and of music and how the two are intimately connected. I can’t have one without the other.”

Diane Nalini launches Future Perfect
Where: NAC Fourth Stage
When: Dec. 21 at 4:30 p.m. and at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.