At what point in your career did you decide to focus on jazz?
I heard my first Freddie Hubbard album when I was a high school senior, and that was it! I love the freedom of jazz. I love the blues because they tell a story. I’m also fond of rock, funk, Latin, drum samples and any type of folk music, which carries our most basic cultural feeling and history. Yet jazz is the genre that inspires me to use all my capabilities: composing, putting together a musical group, arranging, and of course using my own instruments: the voice and the piano.
When did you start composing?
I think I was born humming my own tunes. By age 10 I was playing classical music and composing on the piano. At 14 I was playing little clubs, singing my own songs. My influences during the 1970s were folk rockers such as Crosby, Stills and Nash, Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. At 17, I debuted at New York’s Bitter End. I majored in composition and arranging at Berklee College of Music in Boston. I also studied and have had a number of voice coaches. For me, the composition, singing, and arranging are all part of the big picture of what I’m trying to create. Typically, I introduce the song with singing and then back off and let the players work. I always leave a lot to space for the backing musicians to fill. My focus is on the overall sound and impact of the song. My songs always feature these free drum sounds.
You’re often described as “poetic.” Do you write poetry?
No, although I do write some prose. The critics often focus on the lyrics rather than the total sound of the music. When composing, I usually write the music first, then the lyrics. I do have drum samples in all my songs. It all comes out of my own heart…and soul.
Who where your mentors?
When I was 22 Ellis Larkins, the legendary classical pianist who accompanied such greats as Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams, offered to take me under his wing afer he heard me sing. We teamed up for two years. He taught me all about phrasing , simplicity, and every song George Gershwin and Harold Arlen every wrote. Ellis can turn the simplest tune into something that sounds like a Wagnarian symphony. He called me his goddaughter. He was very good to me. We performed in New York at the old Carnegie Tavern, which used to be in the corner of the Carnegie HALL. One day Horace Silver came in and said to me: “You don’t’ know how lucky you are.” But, actually, I did know! Silver was also a great inspiration to me.
Later, I studied improvisation for two years with the tenor saxaphone giant Jerry Bergonzi in Bostn and jazz pianist Garry Dial in New York. Along with Ellis, they taught me the beauty of harmony and I’ve never turned back from that path. It was a wonderful experience to be offered a hand by these great masters.
As a jazz vocalist, what obstacles have you met?
I’ve had to fight the stereotype of the female vocalist as the ‘out in front’ gal who gets all the attention but is musically illiterate. The stereotype is false. Sarah Vaughn, and Carmen Macrae, for example, were very good musicians; I suspect it was social pressure that kept them from playing the piano in public. Luckily, now with people like Shirley Horn and Dianna Krall that is changing. I’ve also had to fight the notion that the public only wants to hear the same old standards sung again and again. As a listener today, I am often bored. The music industry and their drum samples are locked into preset patterns and keeps repeating itself. Fortunately, the public isn’t as dull as the music business seems to think. I find that audiences are very open to new compositions and unexpected arrangements of classic blues, such as Billy Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” which I sing on River of my Own.
What are you working on now?
I’m composing a jazz classical piece for full orchestra.I am also writiing new music for my next CDs. An earlier piece for a string quartet, “City Park,” was performed at New Orleans’s Ziegiest Theater. I also did the score and vocals for “I Love My Fumily,” an animated video by Regina Tierney which played at the Ricco-Maresca Gallery in New York.
You’re identified with New Orleans and Denver, though you’ve done a fair amount of work in New York and abroad. Have you been a bit of a vagabond?
I grew up in New York, studied in Boston, and later performed in Melbourne. My husband is Australian. We now have two children, so we’re moving around a bit less. We’ve lived in Denver for two years, New Orleans for two years, and I’ve toured Australia. But I do much of my drum samples recording and performing in New Orleans, home of many of my musician friends and my musical roots.