“I’ve always been drawn to lyrics and the timeless human story of life, love and loss that they tell.” ~ Deb Rasmussen
Deb Rasmussen is a jazz singer and songwriter living in Calgary, Canada. Deb’s long-time collaboration with the late jazz guitarist Keith Smith is highlighted in her first album – Heart Wide Open (2011). On Northern Lights – Altai Khangai, she adds her vocals to a unique mix of jazz and Mongolian traditional music.
Her new release, Unspoken, takes you on a musical and emotional journey through the parts and types of love we often leave unspoken. It features new compositions and her partnership with Calgary jazz pianist Jon Day. They are joined by bassist Jeremy Coates, and drummer Robin Tufts. The album was developed through a remote collaboration in 2020 and 2021 and recorded at Studio D in Calgary in January 2022.
Deb grew up on a farm in the Danish community of Dalum, Alberta in western Canada. She studied music as a child, but as an adult, developed an international career as an agriculture economist, working on community development, poverty alleviation projects, food security and climate smart agriculture projects in Asia, Africa and South America.
In 1998, she rekindled her music and began to seriously pursue her love of jazz vocals.
Debra’s warm, intimate vocals tell story through song. Her material includes jazz standards and her own original material.
Deb’s journey with jazz vocals began in 1998 when she took a jazz vocal workshop with Vivianne Cardinal in Calgary. In 2000 and 2001, she studied vocal jazz at the Banff Centre for the Fine Arts with vocalists Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton. She continued her studies with Cheryl Fisher in Calgary and Dee Daniels in Vancouver. She has also studied with Nancy King and Roberta Gamberini at the Centrum jazz workshop in Port Townsend, Washington. In 2012, she participated in Bobby McFerrin’s Circle Song workshop at the Omega Centre in upstate New York. In 2019, she began a mentorship program with Madeline Eastman which led to the creation of her new album, Unspoken.
She has performed at the Calgary Jazz Festival “Party in the Plaza” and the Sylvan Lake “Jazz at the Lake” Festival along with the Keith Smith Trio. In Calgary, she has been featured at the Cliff Bungalow Jazz Series and has headlined at the BeatNiq Jazz and Social Club, the PiqNiq Café, Niko’s, the Bears Den, Lolita’s Just Jazz Friday, Coffee Cats Café, Hotel Blackfoot and the Asylum for Art.
Debra performed at the 2006 Giant Steppes Jazz Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia with the Northern Lights Quartet (NLQ) of Calgary. In 2008, NLQ returned to Mongolia for the Giant Steppes Festival to initiate a collaborative project with the traditional Mongolian ensemble, Altai Khangai, followed by performances in Beijing, China at the prestigious Peking University as part of the Time Arts Jazz Series. In August, 2009, she toured Canada with the Canadian-Mongolian jazz fusion project Northern Lights – Altai Khangai, performing in Calgary, Red Deer, High River, Victoria, Vancouver, Saskatoon and Ottawa. The project was captured on the CD Northern Lights – Altai Khangai.
She is also a member of the informal circle of singers, “Calgary Women in Jazz”. On March 8th each year, they present an International Women’s Day concert to celebrate the strength and creative force of women. Proceeds of the concerts support women and girls programs in Calgary. The group also performs a Christmas benefit concert, “Six Babes a Singin’ ”. Their summer concert, “Favourite Females of Jazz” has each member of the group feature a favourite jazz vocalist through song and stories.
In 2011, Deb and Keith Smith released their duo CD,Heart Wide Open, featuring intimate interpretations of jazz standards and several of Deb’s original songs.
Her new release, Unspoken (2022), takes you on a musical and emotional journey through the parts and types of love we often leave unspoken. It features new compositions and her partnership with Calgary jazz pianist Jon Day. They are joined by bassist Jeremy Coates, and drummer Robin Tufts. The album was developed through a remote collaboration in 2020 and 2021 and recorded at Studio D in Calgary in January 2022.
Giant Steppes of Jazz
Deb has worked closely with the Arts Council of Mongolia and local musicians there to support the development of jazz. Through conversations with local musicians, she learned how difficult it was for aspiring jazz players to get access to recorded and written music. With the help of her friend Ganbat, a local jazz piano player, and the Arts Council of Mongolia, the Mongolian Jazz Listening Library was established in 2002, bringing a significant body of jazz recordings and charts to Mongolian musicians. In 2004, Deb was involved in the successful launch of the Giant Steppes International Jazz Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. In 2006, the Giant Steppes of Jazz NGO was formed and Debra serves on the Board of Directors as the International Artist Liaison.
Debra has been involved in the organizational side of jazz in Calgary since August 2010, when she joined a jazz stakeholder committee formed by the Calgary Arts Development Authority (CADA). She was a member of the volunteer team that carried out surveys of audience and musician opinions, a study of best practice and the Calgary Jazz Summit held September 10, 2011. Subsequently, she was a member of the Working Committee that developed an Action Plan to turn the Summit’s vision for the future into reality. She now serves on the Board of Directors of JazzYYC (The Jazz Is Society of Alberta), the organization that has taken on the mandate to promote, present and nurture and vibrant year-round jazz scene in Calgary. She served as Secretary in 2012 and accepted the role of President in 2013. In 2019, Deb stepped into the role of Past-President so she could focus more time on her own music.
Debra is also a member of the Calgary Musicians Association and SOCAN.
Growing up on a farm, Deb always loved agriculture and rural life. She took her first agricultural economics class at the University of Calgary with Dr. Bill Kerr and decided to move to Guelph, Ontario where she earned her B.Sc. and M.Sc. in the field. Along the way, she toured south-east Asia with the Explorers Club of Calgary and the U of C Geography faculty (1981) and traveled to Zimbabwe (1983) with Lutheran World Federation/Lutheran World Relief.
Deb returned to Calgary in 1988 and began to work with Agriteam, a young start-up company in the international development field, in 1991. She has been with Agriteam (now called Alinea International) ever since, working on dozens of agriculture, rural development and capacity building projects around the world for Global Affairs Canada (formerly CIDA), the World Bank, the ADB and others. At the heart of this work is community engagement. Deb bases her work on participatory and appreciative methods that puts project beneficiaries, especially the poor, women and ethnic minorities, in the center of project design, implementation and monitoring. Her international work has taken her to Bangladesh, China, Ghana, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Korea, Krygzstan, Malaysia, Mali, Mongolia, the Philippines, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Tibet, Vietnam, Uruguay and Zimbabwe.
I’ve always been amazed by the generosity of spirit that musicians from Calgary and around the world have shown to me and to others loving and wanting to learn about jazz. Thanks to all of you. The world needs more of your spirit.
Thanks to Murray Little who put this website together for me. There’s that generous spirit again. Thanks from me and all the others you’ve done this for.
I performed with Keith Smith starting from my first gig in 2003, sometimes in the Northern Lights Quartet, but mostly as a duo, until Keith, sadly, left this realm in 2016. Keith was a wonderful friend and mentor, patiently and gently guiding my learning. Thanks, Keith. Although you’re no longer with us, you’ve never left our hearts.
To all the members of Northern Lights, thank you. Keith Smith, John Hyde, Robin Tufts, Simon Fisk, Kai Poscente and Bruce Petherick – thank you for teaching, guiding and being a part of the adventure. I hope that there are many more chances for us to explore together.
Thanks to the wonderful vocalists who have taught me so much and shared their friendship, especially Cheryl Fisher, Dee Daniels,Viviane Martin and Madeline Eastman. You are an inspiration for what you do and how you share it. I hope you know how much joy you have created.
With the release of Unspoken, my deepest gratitude goes to Jon Day for his support and partnership in arranging the material. It’s a special musical gift to work with someone who truly gets what you’re doing. Thanks to Jeremy Coates and Robin Tufts for being part of this project and bringing their exceptional skill and sensitivity to it.
A very special thanks goes to Simon, for loving me and supporting my musical journey.
And always, thank you to my Mom and Dad. You couldn’t have imagined where life would take me, but you gave me everything I needed to make the journey. Thanks for all the love and lessons.