Peter Skinner Gets Around

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Like some other blues and jazz singers, Peter Skinner, is both a ‘wild boy’ and a ‘tender crooner’.  A bad boy who is really good, a good boy who can be bad, in a jazz key.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  Either way, it’s a new epoch in his musical life.  After a long and flourishing career in schools education, matched by a night life as a gigging vocalist, Peter is now hanging up his amateur credentials and undertaking the experience of professional training in music theory and performance at the Institute of Contemporary Music and Performance.

 

Over the past three years I have heard him make a jazz crowd at the Limehouse White Swan dance to his hootchie-kootchie man, and I admit that I have teared-up while listening to him sing jazz standards of broken hearts, aging hearts, and sweet hearts. His voice is sort of raddled, but the yearnings are heartfelt.

 

I met him for coffee and a chat a few weeks ago at the Euphorium Bakery in Belsize Park, where he greeted me suffused with the spirited air of a man going somewhere.  Smiling and enthusiastic, Peter explained how he is taking to his gratifying, fast paced, hard-working, and physically exerting life of what he calls ‘synoptic’ musicianship.

 

What he means by that term is that the Higher National Diploma course he is on offers a comprehensive view of many areas of musicianship, including vocal and performance technique, working with and leading a band, arranging tunes, and more. Best of all, as he says, this vocational course will prepare him for work in professional environments and/or for doing an Honours degree in vocal performance.

 

While he described, with an unmistakable hint of pride in such lazing about, his usual practice schedule as “very poor, irregular, and amateurish”, with feedback from all his teachers mentioning “poor support and inconsistency,” he is now working a strong programme of ‘hard, hard’ practice and collaborative jams with his often younger colleagues.  His humility is a bit at odds, however, with his musical history.  He began playing piano as a twelve-year old, learning in parallel to the graded courses.  He then became a folkie, and played guitar for vocalists and folk groups. He moved to playing blues and jazz in the mid-1970s.

When I asked him how he came to play and sing, he told me,

I have always been interested in blues and jazz. The critical moment came when a friend died suddenly of CJD. He led a rock and roll band called Route 66. His son decided to curate a memorial concert in aid of CJD charities and when we gathered at a studio in Beckenham, I was deputed to sing at the concert as there was no-one else. My first blues utterance was Hootchie Coochie Man. I just decided to carry on.”

The band with a much-changed line-up is still playing at functions and open mikes as “Blue Turning Grey.”And like others who mostly ‘stay outside the law’, Peter remains a supple choral vocalist, and singing for the last 8 years in classical choir societies has widened Peter’s vocal range and interests.

Peter modesty describes “my musical knowledge as an incomplete jig-saw with many pieces missing,” which sounds just the right state to be in – ready to absorb and learn new things, and importantly, to think beyond the conventions of his trade.

As he leaves the café to return to Kilburn, the Parnassus of Vocal Performance, he adds “I just thought that what I really want to do is to write whole band arrangements”. What’s more synoptic than that?

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JANET MCCUNN AN IMPRESSIVE IMPRESSARIA

McCunn at a Belsize Park cafe, and while we drank coffee and marvelled at the stunning London summer, we talked about how she has become the beating heart of many of venues and ventures of the South West London’s jazz  and open-mic scene .  Petite and with gleaming eyes,  Janet has been cheerfully active in promoting jazz  for over 15 years now: singing, organising open-mic gigs and Jazz Festivals, and generously helping new and young Jazz singers find their way in this creative, improvisational art of music.  A participant as well as an observer, Janet is an accomplished  jazz singer herself, which has given her both performance and organising opportunities.  I asked her how she came to Jazz singing:

“I was introduced to the Richmond Jazz School by a friend back in 2003, when I went to see her in a lunchtime concert there and decided to have a go myself. I signed up for the beginners’ class and started in 2004. I first sang in an open mic at a pub near Richmond Bridge called ‘The Rising Sun,’ where I made many friends. This event later turned into a jam session for musicians and singers, and I took over its organisation when the previous organiser left –that regular gig ran for a few  years, until that pub changed hands and we moved to a different venue, where  I found myself running the weekly jam session for about three more years in a pub/restaurant near Kingston Bridge called ‘The Swan.’

Janet’s work in organising these jazz sessions led her to become a regular singer at jazz venues. She had a five-year residency, beginning in 2010, at ‘The Tea Box’ in Richmond: it met monthly, and Janet introduced two guest singers each month, who each shared a set with her. This has proven to be a reliable pattern for Janet’s jazz singing. ‘The Tea Box’ gig was also to lead on to Janet’s on-going collaborative musical partnership with pianist Terence Collie, (Mood Indigo Events),  starting with their first joint project, a three and a half year residency at ‘Retro Bistro’, a French restaurant in Teddington. This jazz night, led by Collie’s quartet, featured top-line guest artists. Janet hosted and sang two songs in the second set each time

I asked Janet a question that we always like to hear about: practice! “What sort of practice schedule do you follow?”    I don’t have a schedule as such. In the past I went to weekly classes at the Richmond Jazz School and also had private lessons. Now I practise at home, and perform live at our Jazz Cafe Posk gig every month, as well as going to the odd jam session. I’ve also been on a number of workshops over the years, both abroad (summer schools) and at home.

And from my own long struggle with organizing my songs, keys, and charts into some sort of order, I asked her how she organises her repertoire. “I used to have a file with charts in alphabetical order, but it became  very heavy, but I now have everything on my iPad in Ireal. I use that when I go to jam sessions as most musicians use Ireal Pro and find the songs quickly on their phones or iPads. For jam sessions I just choose a song in the moment, but for gigs, I plan ahead and make a play list which I  email in advance to the instrumentalists. I like to say a few words about each song, and sometimes I will sing numbers which illustrate a common theme.

One of the chief wonders of Janet’s portfolio of jazz events is the TW12 Jazz Festival, which Terence and Janet have produced and organised annually since 2013. “This year was the fifth TW12 Jazz Festival we’ve run. We started it as a one-day event in 2013 and extended it over the years. This year it was a three-day event in three different venues, all with the TW postcode. We book top-line musicians as well as local students and some student bands. This year our headline artist, flown in from the US, was Geoffrey Keezer, one of the world’s top jazz pianists, with Canadian vocalist Gillian Margot. Other headline artists have been Jason Rebello, Gwilym Simcock, Kyle Eastwood (Clint’s son), Femi Temowo and the Engines Orchestra.   We spend weeks planning, organising and promoting without funding, so it’s a challenging and full-on job! We rely largely on volunteer helpers during the festival though do employ a top rate sound engineer.”

Janet’s favourite singers include the cream of the crop — Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, and Dinah Washington — and among contemporary vocalists — Georgia Mancio, Anita Wardell, and Jo Harrop. “When I have heard Kurt Elling at the Barbican next month, maybe I will add him!”

I asked Janet to muse on the best piece advice she has been given over the years: “To sing from the heart and not compare myself with others or try to sound like others. Also never to let ego get in the way.  I have been told that I sing with sincerity and that means a lot to me.

So, what’s next for you? ” We’re on a summer break at the moment but we start back at Jazz Cafe Posk in September with our ‘Janet’s Jazz Night’ (not my idea to call it that!). This is a gig in three sets, the first one being instrumental with Terence Collie Trio plus a special guest instrumentalist, the second being a vocal set with myself and a guest vocalist and the third one (which starts late) being a jam session open to singers and musicians. Our next Posk night on 15th September will feature Mornington Lockett as guest on sax.

“We also run a monthly jazz concert at the Riverside Arts Centre in Sunbury on Thames called Riverside Arts Jazz. We’ve had some excellent guests there joining Terence’s trio including John Etheridge on guitar and we had Jason Rebello doing a sold-out solo piano concert last year. We regularly do tribute gigs to famous musicians/composers such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Michael Brecker, Stan Getz plus more, which seem to go down well with our Sunbury audience. On 1st October we have Anita Wardell doing a Betty Carter tribute. I don’t sing at these but I host them and take joint responsibility for promoting and running them.”

 

Wow!  I am worn out from the intensity and drive and accomplishments of  Janet’s jazz world.  The interview convinced me that Janet’s  experience offers an excellent demonstration of how off-stage work can bring about more time on-stage performing. Why not look around your neighborhood for cages and restaurants, and ask if they want to try a monthly jazz night — and offer to arrange one evening as a trial?    And when you find a pianist who really suits you and your voice, why not ask that person to be your ‘first choice’ for gigs?

And we hope to see Janet McCunn at Sunday Jazz at the Windsor Castle before too long — if she can find the time!

Mood Indigo Events website: www.moodindigoevents.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elaine Crighton: Scottish Skylark and Be-bop Sister

 

 

Elaine Crighton.. Scottish Skylark and Bebop Sisterelaine

 

Elaine Crighton in Performance

Since I have lived in the UK for more than 25 years without travelling further north than Coventry, my trip to Cromarty, at the tiptop of Scotland, earlier this year, was not only a fascinating musical experience, but an astonishing geographical one as well.

 

When I got back to London, still yearning for Cromarty’s clear clean water and lovely snow-capped hills, and, most of all,  the musical company of those who were at the weekend workshop put on by Liane Carroll, Fiona Duncan, Brian Kellock, Sophie Bancroft, and Sara Colman, I was thrilled to learn that one of Scotland’s jazz singers, Elaine Crighton, would soon be down south and she agreed meet me in London for a chat and a  Barbican lunch.

Elaine has been singing from an early age, and her musicality, she believes, comes from her family:  as we tucked into our, may I say, ODD hot polenta cakes, she told me:

“I always sang standards along at the piano with my Uncle George when I was a little girl.  I am influenced strongly by my family’s love of jazz and I was brought up listening to Big Band music.  I guess I didn’t realize how deeply seated in me were the music and lyrics were until I began exploring more jazz music.”

But living in rural Aberdeenshire meant that Elaine needed to go further afield than her family for more exploration; first by working through the singing grades with a local teacher, and then attending a workshop in London with Anita Wardell.  By then, she was hooked. She also played cello and piano as a youth, but “After signing lessons and workshops with Anita and Sophie Bancroft for a few years, I decided that to satisfy my desire to sing more and better, I started on the 3 year Jazz Course at St Andrews University. I graduated from there in Summer 2017.  It was a total immersion in jazz music for the 3 years, and I loved every minute of it.”

Elaine’s precision as a jazz vocalist is obvious to anyone listening to her versatile singing of ballads and swing, and of Latin rhythms as well as in the traditions of gospel and bebop vocalizations.  But that is only part of what makes her such a favourite with an audience, for her performances are alive with her joyous personality and her lovely sense of humour. She has a natural ‘swing’ and is willing to let the audience see her pleasure in the tempos with which she engages.  Elaine says frankly that she practices something musical almost every day, “but seldom sing “songs” in my practice”.

“I have learned the hard way that the credibility of singing the song comes from the work that is done on learning the changes and the chord structures.  I am a slow learner and have had to work quite hard at it, so I sit at the piano a lot working out the chords and scales and I find that I have to write it all down.   I will then sing through the chords and look at where the melody fits in.  I am more careful about learning the melody from the chart than from a recording these days.  In the past I often learned a “version” from a recording that I liked but realized that I might pick up notes that don’t exist in the original music.  I am a bit of a perfectionist and now, instead of learning lots and lots of tunes, I pick a couple of new things to work on and really try to get inside the piece.  Of course, I also then load up heaps of versions on Spotify and listen to them in the car but I try not to get hung up on one particular artist and I add to the mix a couple of instrumental versions too on the playlist.” 

Elaine’s talents are proven by her full schedule of gigs – in recent months she has performed all around Scotland – at Rye and Soda, Aberdeen–  the Moray Jazz Club, and  Whigams Jazz Club in Edinburgh. And its instructive to hear her talk about how she prepares for and develops her gigging with a band:

It’s a rare thing to get practice time with the band for the gigs I have regularly.  I am organised with my repertoire and am happy to do my own practice and turn up on the gig and go for it.  I am lucky to gig with some of the guys with whom I went through my Uni course, and Iain the guitarist is always happy to run tunes and go over the charts I have prepared but I live in Aberdeen and he is in Edinburgh so it takes a bit of planning.  When we have a little run of 3 or 4 gigs, then we get the whole band together to work on the arrangements and to make sure that everything is tight. It’s hard work but so satisfying to get a good practice and run through.  As we build the repertoire together it gets easier and takes less time.”

This June Elaine and Iain have been invited to perform at the Leith Jazz and Blues Festival, which runs from the 1-3 June: more information, go to: Http// www.LEITHJAZZ.comThey will be performing at 4.30 on June 2, in Sofi’s Bar.

I asked Elaine how she has managed to keep a career in the beauty business going  as well as bringing up her children while leading a jazzer’s life:

I am working full time in my beauty job and I am a single mum of 2 boys, they are 17 and 20 now and both getting more independent so I am finding it easier to get away from home and have more freedom over the last year than I have ever had! It is exciting and I am so glad to have music as a way of connecting with people far and wide.  People often wonder how I can be bothered, or find the time, but I do love it and I am not the type of person who wants to sit at home watching telly, if I can fit it in – then I will.  Friends joke and say I have the worst case of FOMO (fear of missing out) ever.  I spent so many years wishing I could do something musical and every time I went to see a band I wanted to be part of it so I am not going to waste any more time!

A whirlwind of organization and precision, Elaine Crighton is a serious member of the Scottish jazz scene.   I am hoping she will also be back at Cromarty next year!

Annie Janowitz. © Anne Janowitz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Clare Gordon:Song Artist

Clare Gordon: Song Artist

 

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It makes a lot of sense to meet up with Clare Gordon in the Friends Coffee Room at the Royal Academy, for Clare is a working artist as well as an engaging jazz singer on the open-mic circuit. Wearing a vivid diamante fez and a scarf painted in Schiaparelli pink, Clare is always alive and energized when we catch up.  The organizer of the “Poem Bar Singers” and a member of “Bob’s Mob,” as well as a top soprano in the  long-lived “Take Twenty” jazz choir, Clare’s repertoire, like her voice, is both quirky and mellifluous, jazzy and moving, and always a pleasure to listen to.  So… “How did you come to sing jazz,”

 

“I‘m one of seven kids and our dad got us to sing together as a way of countering the chaos! I have always sung in choirs and done backing vocals for bands at college, but never had the courage to sing solo.  I was very, very shy as a child.  I discovered real jazz at art college, where I met D.J. Kulu, who opened the world of be-bop to me through his saxophone, and he was also an artist. We played in a free improvisational band, lead by a Scottish poet – Ian McKenzie.  In that group I played percussion and piano.  We supported the Pink Floyd in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It felt very exciting and very different to anything I had known before.

I haven’t had lessons, but I have attended lots of workshops.

Liane Carroll was the one who got me started: she took me under her arm, encouraged me and gently pushed me again and again to get that voice out! I thank Liane for supporting my jazz singing: she is my inspiration.

I did study piano and theory at school, and almost went to music school, but in those days, it was a very dry, classical training and I needed to expand my horizons/break out and then I discovered ART!”

 

How did you get on to singing at open-mics and workshops?

“My first jazz workshop was in France about 13 years ago; I thought I was going to have a holiday and listen to lots of jazz, and I didn’t realise that I was expected to participate! The next morning I was told I was the piano player in band x. Aghhh.. I had never even seen a jazz chart before. I was plunged into the deep end. It was terrifying but I was hooked.  It gave me the taste for playing jazz. I went on to take year 1 and 2 Jazz Studies (piano) at City Lit. I first started singing at open mics in about 2010.”

 

Having had the privilege of visiting Clare at home,  I can guarantee that it is filled with her paintings and ceramics and drawing.  When I asked her how she understands the relationship between her visual and her singing practices, she said, “They are quite separate practices but have similar themes, expressed in different ways. As I am a self-employed artist I can juggle my time.  Those themes – of love, life death, children, beauty, travel, energy, truth, courage – are the stuff of both song and art.   I like ambiguity in my painting, so the themes may begin one way, and then turning into something else.”

 

As for Jazz, I have a few set days and times for my jazz. I run a monthly evening at the Poem Bar and Grill for a group of 12 singers and sing in Bob Stuckey’s Jazz Mob in a pub in Kings Cross once a month and then there’s the “Take Twenty” jazz choir – I use that as my ‘vocal gym’ — and perhaps a masterclass or two. My art studio work is always on the go. I love that moment in choirs when you are all tuned in together and part of something larger than yourselves creating something beautiful. Its hard work to get there, but I love it. I use the Ireal app a lot – so I can sing the songs through again and again until I’ve really got it.

 

We began to talk about the vocal artists who Clare most admires, and not surprisingly, since she takes joy in all kinds of songs, including ones by Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits and others, she named a Olympus of singers, including

Ella, Liane Carrol, Abbey Lincoln, Andy Bey, Norma Winstone, Peggy Lee, Nina Simone, Tom Waits, Sarah Vaughn, Mark Murphy, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn, Melody Gardot, Chet Baker, Dusty Springfield, Leonard Cohen, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, Jon Hendricks, Eva Cassidy, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Scott, Dinah Washington. But right now she is having a Mark Murphy Moment – discovering aspects of his singing that she hadn’t heard before, and admiring him more and more.

 

As the wintry winds starting blowing into the Friends Room, we turned to questions about the past and the future.  I asked what was the best piece of advice you have heard about singing. Clare answered:

“Probably to find songs that you love, touch you in some way. To learn the melody inside out, listen to lots of different versions, learn the lyrics, know what they mean to you, speak the truth. Go and hear live music, so you can embody it. Also think about your audience.”

 

Coffee cups empty now, my final question for Clare was, what’s next?

“Well, I want to improve my singing technique – to be singing fit — I would like to record some songs, for my grandchildren.  I want to go through the process, thinking which musicians?  what feel?  what am I trying to get across? Putting it together, all the detail. Seems like a big step up, but I like a challenge.”

©Anne Janowitz

 

A Musicians’ Musician : Sara Colman

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Spring is here and jazz is jumping up and down the country. I returned recently from a singing fest in Cromarty Scotland with another 18 jazz vocalists – all of us there to share music with each other and be taught by some of the best singers and instrumentalists in the UK:  Liane Carroll, Sara Colman, Sophie Bancroft, Fiona Duncan, Brian Kellock, &Tim Lyne.

Amid all the laughing and singing and teaching, Sara Colman, one of the most multi-talented musicians on the UK jazz scene, took some time out to chat with me about her life as performer, composer, songwriter, pianist and teacher.

When I say that Sara is a musicians’ musician, I mean that she is admired as a contemporary model by jazz singers who are interested in challenging conventions and by singer-songwriters who want to develop their own compositions in the growing areas of jazz based modern song:  an interplay of  original songs, jazz rock, and the work of 1970s performers like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and the Roches, which she weaves together with contemporary improvisation and vocal clarity. When I heard her sing the Roches’s “Hammond Song,” with Sophie Bancroft and Liane Carroll at the Tutors’ concert in Cromarty, their blended voices also reminded me of the overtone singing of the Balkan women singers.

And under all her practices: song-writing, singing, teaching, is her over a deep and powerful foundation as a pianist with a gift for both melody and lyrics.  Sara was raised by parents who encouraged their children to play instruments. She says that she always knew she wanted to be a singer, but had an instinctive sense that she didn’t want to over-train her voice. So she decided to focus on the piano, the instrument she had begun to play at 6, and by the age of 12  Sara was playing and singing in public;

“I starting teaching piano when I was about 16 to beginners; that was the start of seeing myself as a teacher. I gained qualifications for piano and singing teaching whilst I was at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and I think I really have learned most about teaching singing by teaching it, over the years. Its the kind of profession that you can fit around performing and you can turn the volume up or down on it depending on how else you are earning money!  I teach at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Guildhall School of Music now as well as doing a little bit of private teaching. Also, three or so times per year I work on residential workshops with Sophie Bancroft and Liane Carroll – I love those! We do it in Hastings and Cromarty – great fun and lovely students.”

One thing everyone agrees about Sara, is that she has a resonant multi-toned voice; sometimes it sounds like honey, and sometimes like sorrow, but its always pure and natural. Many of us try to ‘find our true voice,’ and Sara has found her’s: whatever she sings comes directly from her intelligent and clear voice, whether she is lifting us skyward in her high registers, or taking us down to those intimate and confidential tones that ask us to share the mood of her song. She never sounds as if she has had to un-teach herself the fixes and tricks that can cut across the directness of natural singing. I suggest listening to some of the songs from her first album, READY, to experience her sound: in particular, ‘Book Of Liars’ and ‘Rock’. A beautiful jazz singer, Sara took on the practical rigours of “singing on the stand” with a college jazz band, preserving her voice while learning the grooves.

After graduation from the Birmingham Conservatoire, Sara found a new kind of  song  to write — songs about life in the daily world and the dramas of finding oneself as an adult with work to find, marriage to enter and leave, and the quieter identity to to a new kind of song-writing — and she was woken up to this new way of writing by the music of Rickie Lee Jones.  She says that she felt that the singing and teaching she was doing around the time of her second album were all focussed on ‘standard’ jazz standards.

Last October, I heard Sara perform at the Green Note in Camden Town, London, with her band of instrumentalists and singers, using jazz traditions in combination with jazz improvisation and with a vocal intensity of analogue rather than digital – flows of more or less superimposed on the articulated patterns of the melody. I felt that we were hearing something very modern, very global, and very beautiful. And it reminded me of the project of McCoy Tyner’s panoramic , “Fly with the Wind,” even though he had written 40 years earlier.

Those of us who live below the Scottish Highlands will have the chance to hear Sara Colman in concert in London, when she launches her new album, What We Are Made of at King’s Place, King’s Cross, on 11 May, 2018, accompanied by her new band: Rebecca Nash (piano), Steve Banks (guitar), Ben Markland (bass), Jonathan Silk (drums),plus a string quartet! This gave me a chance to find out how she prepares for a new venture of this kind:

“Well I’ve been intending to write my upcoming album for about 4 years and things haven’t transpired that way. A deadline from the record label I am working with helped! There are key times to release an album – probably between March and November and not in July or August so that kind of narrow things down.
I have to work with people who share music taste with me and who’s playing moves me, thrills me and challenges me! Also people I get on with and consider to be friends.
I usual produce my own stuff and I’ve had a lot of help from my friend and talented musician Ben Markland over the years.”

for more info on tickets for the album launch: copy and paste the link below

https://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on/jazz/stoney-lane-records-presents-sara-colman/

Hope to see you there.   Annie Janowitz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A LONDON BROADWAY BABY: Clair Chapwell

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I met with Clair Chapwell, a most versatile Windsor Castle Sunday Jazz SInger, on one of those cold days in early March when it seemed that Spring would never come (oh dear..it seems that way again today). We settled in to my local café, DOSE, to talk about her work as  playwright, songwriter, educator, actor, jazz and musical theatre singer, and general treasure of the progressive, alternative arts movement.   She was born in Minnesota, and moved with her family Ohio, and settled in London in the 1970s, as she wryly said, “As one did…” – it was indeed a time when young people radicalised through the anti-war movement  found London to be something of a utopian sanctuary.  Clair’s favourite singer, Nina Simone, reflects her human rights interests: “You gotta love a fighter. Mississippi Goddam! Imagine the bravery”!

But before then, Clair knew that she was a ‘broadway baby.’ Even as a 9 year-old, she ached to be a star in New York musical shows:  “I loved all those old musicals, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Carousel and I grew up with Gershwin playing in the house.” And these days, when she sings “The Ladies who Lunch,” you can hear in her voice the swank of a Sondheim comic  song, and the power of a sardonic grown-up woman in “I’m Still Here.”

I asked her if she had ever had singing lessons in her youth, but she said, “Like we could afford that! That would be a no. However, I am very comfortable onstage as I have been a performer for so many years. So I love to make an audience laugh. I often think, especially with jazz and blues – it’s such sad stuff – let’s give em a laugh.”

Clair has made a life of song and playwriting; working professionally and  seriously.  She has run a theatre group, and a singers’ chorus: “I started a musical theatre company called SPARE TYRE in 1979 based on Susie Orbach’s book FAT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE where I initially wrote songs (very musical-style) about compulsive eating and self image.  Here’s one: “Why is it/Every time my mother rings me on the phone/I want a Mars Bar?/Is this the thing that Pavlov did with those dogs? (Written for a Jewish New Yorker who was in the show – the climax went: ‘Oi vei, Mom!)’

 I left Spare Tyre and did other things. By this time my issue was no longer compulsive eating and self image, I was working with a lot of older people and I started a group, Bolder Voices, and started writing a lot of songs about issues affecting them – and increasingly me: TOUCH ME (about life in a care home) LOVE THAT FREEDOM PASS (self explanatory).”

 It is clear that feminism and the politics of aging inform both her play- and song-writing. A few years ago at Christmas time, I was walking through Marylebone Station and came across Clair and a diverse group of singers at a piano, singing winter carols. It was both startling and moving to see the pleasure in all of the singers’ and listeners’ faces.

Clair is a member of the jazz choir, Take Twenty, which is how she came to the Sunday Jazz events at the Windsor Castle. The network of open mike singers is always growing, and when Tina Learmonth, who is the beating heart of the event, invited her along, it was Clair’s first open-mic experience. She has entered it with gusto, and has gathered the admiration of others who like her challenging and often humorous songs.

When I asked her about her practice schedule she laughed the laugh of the talented singer: “Ha …I don’t really practice. I walk the dog and sing and people think “who is the crazy lady with the dog walking along and singing?”

She does credit Ben Cox, who is the director of the Take Twenty Choir, with helping her develop her technique through his monthly ‘solo singing’ workshops: “I go to Ben’s class on a Tuesday night. That has actually made me focus a little better. I used to wing it a lot more. Now I’m a lot less slapdash. Working with Ben has been great. Almost every session I learn something. How elastic music is, and especially jazz – how you can bend and twist it and mess around with it. Also getting the right key. I always thought you were stuck with whatever key the song was written in (!)”

But her light answer belies her serious commitment to writing plays and composing music..

“My favourite way of writing a play is with a group – and I think also that is true of writing songs. I’m basically a collective person. Bolder Voices has just finished a lovely project called STORIES BY THE RIVER in Riverview Care Home in North Brent. We went in one day a week, myself, two musicians and 9 Bolder Voices. In the morning we’d speak to residents one to one on a given subject (say: what did you used to do at weekends?). We’d meet up at lunchtime and exchange all the stories and have a singsong in the afternoon. During the week I’d write a song from some of the stories. So the song I wrote on that topic was called “We Went Dancing” and it was stories about Irish girls who had to lie to get away from their dads who thought they’d get pregnant if they went dancing, but how it was a way of life, hours and hours of non stop jive, foxtrot, quick step. Amazing stories. And the tune just flowed together with the words. And the next week we’d come back and say “remember last week when we were talking about what you did at the weekend?…. well……”.

Clair had to interrupt our conversation to point out that the café was closing, and we were about to be swept out the door by the devoted baristas of DOSE.  There was time only for the question of “what’s next for you?”: A song about London with lots of different groups. Everyone has the same chorus, each group writes their own verse. Excited!”   So are we!

 

 

 

 

Chatelaine et Chanteuse: GIlly Johnson in Hastings and France

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I had a lively conversation a few weeks ago with Gilly Johnson in London. We were all excited that Gilly was coming up from Hastings to sing at Tina Learmonth’s Sunday Jazz at the Windsor Castle, and particularly since some of the regulars at the Windsor Castle hadn’t yet heard her.   Gilly is a singer, an educator, and a woman who has been organising summer jazz workshops first in Portugal and later in France for some years now.  She works with the wonderful team of Sophie Bancroft, Sara Colman, and Liane Carroll, with whom she has been friends since she and Liane were 16 years old.  She says:

“I started singing lessons when I was around 8 years old. My parents wanted me to be a classical singer, but I rebelled at 11, persuaded my uncle to buy me a guitar, stopped the singing lessons, which I found a torture… and I started singing folk music.”

Once we had settled down to our chicken burgers, I asked Gilly how it came to be that she was taking singing lessons at the early age of 8.  She told me that her strong and mature voice had been heard by teachers at school, and her parents thought it would be lovely if she could get some training.  Her family was, it should be known, a very musical family with siblings today working in bands, opera, and instrumentalists: “I was drawn to singers like Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, John Martyn and Sandy Denny. I loved Fairport Convention and Pentangle (Danny Thompson is still one of my favourite bass players), Steely Dan and of course music from Motown and Stax records.It wasn’t until my brother came back to live with us again that I started listening to jazz; Miles, Trane, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald and Sara Vaughan were my first (and lasting) loves, with many more to come later.”

“From 16 onwards I sang in bands, both a capella and not. When I moved to Hastings there was a lively folk scene and plenty of opportunities to sing, so that’s what I did. In Hastings the only open-mics were folk ones and I did those pretty regularly. I did gig regularly with a great jazz band in my twenties and 30s, though interestingly, we didn’t do many ‘standards’, I now realise.

Gilly, like most amateur singers, also has a day-time job: she is a Deputy Head of Buckswood school in Hastings,  and when we met she told me that her school had just been through an OFSTED ‘visitation,’ which includes an enormous amount of paperwork, and a great many days. It was nice, I hope, for her to get a break and come up to London for a sing.  When I asked her how her singing fits in with the rest of her life, her reply was: “Good Question” – I felt as if I had got a solid ‘b’ for that one :

“Good question. It doesn’t fit in very well, because I let work take over. If there was a jazz open-mic evening once a week or once a fortnight in our area, I know I would make time to go. Hah! That’s another thing I can organise”.

When we went upstairs to the room where the Sunday Jazz Events are held, Gilly was greeted by many of her friends from workshops held by Sophie Bancroft, Sara Coleman, and Liane Carroll, and Gilly was the first on the programme for singing with pianist Jenny Carr, and bass player, Julie Walkington.

Gilly sang “Here’s to Life,” a melancholic ballad sweetened by the long experience of living and its pleasures as well as troubles. When Shirley Horn recovered it as a ballad sung out of time, it became a  signature tune of her’s.  But the arrangement Gilly sang, written for her by Liane Carroll, took us back into time, and allowed the often neglected joy of it be heard.  It was beautiful and it was underpinned by a sureness of rhythm.  I asked her who her favourite singers are now:

“Sassy, Ella and Betty C are amazing. I love Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Lalah Hathaway, Cassandra Wilson, Claire Martin, George Benson, Etta James, Amy W, Natalie Cole, Aretha.. I could go on and on… but I think my favourite jazz singer; the one I find to be the most accessible (and not just because of geography) is Liane Carroll. Whatever she sings, she sings with such purity, openness, truth, huge love and absolute, total commitment. I’ve listened to her music in good times and some of my worst. Watching her is always a masterclass… Along with all of the above plus Carol King, Bonnie Raitt and Joni, Liane’s music is inextricably woven into the fabric of my adult life.”

Gilly’s repertoire is organised around her moods:  “I just have a list of songs that I love to sing, songs I call ‘cliff faces’ because they’re so difficult and a few ‘duvet songs’ that are easy and comforting to sing in situations where I might not feel so confident.” I think that is something we all might want to emulate, arranging the repertoire not only in relation to the balance of genre and key, but as well, to how comfortable we are with ‘duvets’ and how to work up to the ‘cliff faces.’

And the best piece of advice she has had from singers is:

“Be real, be honest and don’t over articulate the lyrics! As a language teacher, accurate pronunciation and diction as perfect as I can get it, are my daily necessities. It’s been a revelation to me that these very things can negatively affect how a song sounds to others. I’m not there yet. I still sometimes forget, but I’m working on it!”

As her friends whisked her away for a more intimate audience,  I made sure to take home with me the announcement of the July 2018 Workshop she is running this summer at her house in France…. Read on:

 Liane Carroll, Sophie Bancroft and Sara Colman will be coming to our lovely home in South West France to do a jazz vocals workshop. They are the heroines of the piece. I just do the booking, the cooking and a bit of singing! It will, I think, be the 10th year we’ve done this; firstly in Portugal and latterly in France. We work hard, sing all day and evening, we eat great food, laugh (SO much that my stomach muscles are always better toned by the time I go home), we sleep and then we get up and do it all over again!

Every year is different but the day goes something like this:

Sophie Bancroft keeps us balanced and grounded with her morning session of Qigong, then Sara limbers up our voices with her fabulous (and sometimes very

challenging) vocal warmups, Liane then teaches us as a ‘choir’ and makes us laugh so much it hurts. After a coffee, we then go into groups for a masterclass with one of the tutors. Each person sings and gets feedback from the rest of the group and the tutor. Then we usually have lunch and after that we can have a bit of time to practise, swim, go for a walk, or perhaps a little sleep in the sun. There will be a private lesson with one of the tutors for everyone, during the afternoon. (During the course we will all work with all the tutors, one to one) We eat around 7 and then we have a concert, where we can show what we’ve learned that day. After that, the course participants go back to their accommodation and get ready for the next day!

We ask people to bring at least 3 songs to work on, though they may bring more if they want to. The atmosphere is massively supportive, so people can feel safe to experiment, open up; whatever it is they need/want to work on.

 This year there will be a couple of concerts to see, as it will be the first year of Haimps’ Jazz festival. There are 2 evenings of music. Firstly, an evening with Jan Widger; an accomplished Irish singer, who lives in the village, then, on the Friday evening, a double bill with the Bancroft, Carroll and Colman Trio and after the break, Liane will sing with her own trio.  You can contact Gilly by going to her facebook page, or writing to her gillyj37@me.com for more information and booking.

Come on Jazzers, let’s get going!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marie Clarke: Changing the Landscape

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Marie Clarke

Marie Clarke, saloniere, guitar player, jazz & folk singer, and born-again pianist pushed her various instruments aside and met me for breakfast at Ottolenghi in Islington last week to talk about her musical experiences.

On just this topic of instruments, she says, “Well, you know I can play anything I can get a sound out of: spoons, tambourine, bean jar shaker….”: in brief, Marie is a sparkling magpie musician: no spoon too bent to be left out of the music she makes.

Marie has been a successful landscape designer for many years [ the sole exception was her attempt to sort out my Barbican plant boxes, ruined by my own lax and lazy attempts to garden, or even let flourish what she had sown.] She and her husband architect Allan Conisbee have recently finished work on their house in Norfolk, the county where she sings when she isn’t in London.

Marie has always been musical, and she says, “One thing I know about singing is that for me  it’s a pretty instinctive, visceral thing – something that needs to be done. I didn’t enjoy my early music lessons on piano, or singing in school. But as a teenager, armed with a guitar and a few chords, singing came easy. I don’t mean that my singing was always good, but sometimes it was, and I became aware the ways people respond to the human voice.” `I asked her about open-mike singing, and she surprised me by saying she hadn’t  yet been to many, “but  as a teenager, ad hoc singing at the drop of a hat was something I did do with chums, at any opportunity.”  I hope she will start adding open-mike singing to her schedule soon!

I asked Marie how she came to singing jazz from her earlier, teenage experiences of folk singing: “I hadn’t really done much singing for many years and wanted to rekindle that joy. I couldn’t bear to go back to tired old pieces. I was in my 50s and in search of something new. I looked towards jazz, without too much knowledge of what that might entail. When I first went along to a City Lit class, it took the most enormous effort to summon up the courage to audition!”

What is clear as well is that Marie’s grounding as a musician is in the spirit of connection among instrumentalists, singers, and audience – -each having a share in what is produced by the whole group.

Last month, Marie and Alan hosted an evening of song at their house in Islington, which was a great mix of her friends, including some fellow jazz singers, and those whose roots are in more traditional folk music. After a delicious dinner, the chairs were pulled back, the long table dismantled and we listened to the wonderful pianist Simon Wallace accompany the guitar-playing and singing Marie, and some of her jazzing friends.  It was great fun and it seemed to me that everyone enjoyed themselves, each other, and the collage of jazz and traditional music.  It was something of a first for a few of us as well….listening to both folk and jazz in a welcoming environment.

And this is one of the central themes in Marie’s musical life.  With links to many genres of music, she is happy to mix them up and see what happens – an alchemist of traditions!

Marie returned to her piano studies last year, and when I asked her how that is going, she gave voice to her fundamental seriousness as a student of both melody and theory.  She is working now on setting traditional songs to jazz arrangements, as a way of bridging their distances, and creating a hybrid sound.   Its an exciting project, and I think it belongs to the newer strands in jazz music by marrying the singer-songwriter tradition, which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, and has been emerging again in the work of Sasha Osbourne, among other singers.

Marie is funny, and clever, and she has an open-hearted and welcoming approach to singing.

Can’t wait to hear her next folk-jazz arrangement!

And oh yes, Marie is about to welcome home Chester, the dog she and Alan are adopting. Maybe there is another musical collage ahead:  the Chester, Marie and Alan Band!

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Marie Clarke: Changing the Landscape

image for 60 +IMG_8470.JPG

Marie Clarke

Marie Clarke, saloniere, guitar player, jazz & folk singer, and born-again pianist pushed her various instruments aside and met me for breakfast at Ottolenghi in Islington last week to talk about her musical experiences.

On just this topic of instruments, she says, “Well, you know I can play anything I can get a sound out of: spoons, tambourine, bean jar shaker….”: in brief, Marie is a sparkling magpie musician: no spoon too bent to be left out of the music she makes.

Marie has been a successful landscape designer for many years [ the sole exception was her attempt to sort out my Barbican plant boxes, ruined by my own lax and lazy attempts to garden, or even let flourish what she had sown.] She and her husband architect Allan Conisbee have recently finished work on their house in Norfolk, the county where she sings when she isn’t in London.

Marie has always been musical, and she says, “One thing I know about singing is that for me  it’s a pretty instinctive, visceral thing – something that needs to be done. I didn’t enjoy my early music lessons on piano, or singing in school. But as a teenager, armed with a guitar and a few chords, singing came easy. I don’t mean that my singing was always good, but sometimes it was, and I became aware the ways people respond to the human voice.” `I asked her about open-mike singing, and she surprised me by saying she hadn’t  yet been to many, “but  as a teenager, ad hoc singing at the drop of a hat was something I did do with chums, at any opportunity.”  I hope she will start adding open-mike singing to her schedule soon!

 

I asked Marie how she came to singing jazz from her earlier, teenage experiences of folk singing: “I hadn’t really done much singing for many years and wanted to rekindle that joy. I couldn’t bear to go back to tired old pieces. I was in my 50s and in search of something new. I looked towards jazz, without too much knowledge of what that might entail. When I first went along to a City Lit class, it took the most enormous effort to summon up the courage to audition!”

What is clear as well is that Marie’s grounding as a musician is in the spirit of connection among instrumentalists, singers, and audience – -each having a share in what is produced by the whole group.

Last month, Marie and Alan hosted an evening of song at their house in Islington, which was a great mix of her friends, including some fellow jazz singers, and those whose roots are in more traditional folk music. After a delicious dinner, the chairs were pulled back, the long table dismantled and we listened to the wonderful pianist Simon Wallace accompany the guitar-playing and singing Marie, and some of her jazzing friends.  It was great fun and it seemed to me that everyone enjoyed themselves, each other, and the collage of jazz and traditional music.  It was something of a first for a few of us as well….listening to both folk and jazz in a welcoming environment.

And this is one of the central themes in Marie’s musical life.  With links to many genres of music, she is happy to mix them up and see what happens – an alchemist of traditions!

Marie returned to her piano studies last year, and when I asked her how that is going, she gave voice to her fundamental seriousness as a student of both melody and theory.  She is working now on setting traditional songs to jazz arrangements, as a way of bridging their distances, and creating a hybrid sound.   Its an exciting project, and I think it belongs to the newer strands in jazz music by marrying the singer-songwriter tradition, which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, and has been emerging again in the work of Sasha Osbourne, among other singers.

Marie is funny, and clever, and she has an open-hearted and welcoming approach to singing.

Can’t wait to hear her next folk-jazz arrangement!

And oh yes, Marie is about to welcome home Chester, the dog she and Alan are adopting. Maybe there is another musical collage ahead:  the Chester, Marie and Alan Band!

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October 2017 Gigs

    • Sunday Jazz Poster November 2017WAYNE SHORTER SONGBOOK: A TRIBUTE TO WAYNE SHORTER LONDON: Battersea Barge

      SUN 22ND OCT, 2017 2:00pm

    • MARCIA WILLIS HAS A GIG COMING UP LATER THIS MONTH:
    • Date is 22nd October. Band is Rick Simpson Arnie Somogyi Tom Wrightand Michael Chillingworth. Doors open 2pm, starts at 3pm.
      Any profits to be donated to STORM Skills Training CIC which provides not-for-profit and evidence based training plus community engagement in the UK to prevent suicide.For tickets, go to http://www.wegottickets.com/event/392400

     

  • Our Own MARCIA WILLIS HAS A GIG COMING UP LATER THIS MONTH:
  • Date is 22nd October. Band is Rick Simpson Arnie Somogyi Tom Wrightand Michael Chillingworth. Doors open 2pm, starts at 3pm.
    Any profits to be donated to STORM Skills Training CIC which provides not-for-profit and evidence based training plus community engagement in the UK to prevent suicide.For tickets, go to http://www.wegottickets.com/event/392400
    • Fri, Every Week, 20:00
    • Crouch End Cricket Club
      Crouch End Cricket Club, 185A Park Road, London,
    • Another fantastic week @ Crossover Jazz Room Open Mic At Playon Events Crouch End N8 8JJ

      The Andrew Mckay quartet (house band) Live music

      These are some of the finest musicians that you will ever see.

      They have all performed at Ronnie Scotts. We feel so honoured have them in Crouch End performing every Friday.They are our resident band If you want to see them perform and entertain you join us this Friday for another spectacular show. Can you imagine Ronnie Scotts in Crouch End.

      This is night not to be missed spread the word celebrate your birthday with us or if you are look for a good entertaining night out, look no further.

      We have people coming from North, South, East and West London. We have also had people from the USA, Caribbean and Sweden that have heard about this Friday night and have come to join us.

      Everyone is taking about it. Warm friendly atmosphere and beautiful surroundings.

      I would like to thank all the people that came on Friday what a great time we had.

      If you want to join us this Friday come down everyone is welcome.

      185a Park Road Crouch End N8 8JJ
      Doors open at 7.30
      Show starts at 8.pm
      DJ party time 10.30 to 12.am
      Entry fee £5.00
      Food and drinks on sale
      Free car parking

Serious Work and Joyful Song: talking with Marcia Willis.

 

Marcia Willis and her Dad at Battersea BridgeIMG-20170716-WA0004

As we look towards the autumn round of Sunday Jazz sessions at the Windsor Castle, its time again to invite some of our favourite singers and contributors to the world of London song to tell us about their musical lives and practices.

I met with the multi-talented Marcia Willis at Chez Bob’s, the Belsize Park Café where there is the good food that makes for good thought, and we wandered the shape-shifting terrain of Marcia’s talents as a singer, a composer and lyricist, and oh yes, a practising psychiatrist as well as a past researcher in psychology and improvisation.

Marcia recently did a gig at the Battersea Barge with Winnie Greer where she sang “Trying Times,” by Roberta Flack. If you click on the link below, you will hear her rich sounds carry the weight of the argument of the song. I guess majestic is the word for it – and you can feel her place in the tradition of powerful and serious female singers, from Lotte Lenya to Nina Simone. Listen:

 

 

if you have trouble click on the YouTube sign at the bottom right hand side of the clip.When we had settled down to our snacks and sodas, we turned to Marcia’s musical history:  how she started singing..

“I started listening to jazz as a child and singing along to songs and tunes I liked. My biggest influences were my father’s record collection, and Gilles Peterson’s radio and Dingwalls sessions. Gilles would play everyone from Art Blakey to Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and John Coltrane, Brazilian music by Jobim, Aierto Moreira and baterias, as well as tracks byTito Puente, Pharaoh Sanders and what was called Acid Jazz…basically anything Gilles thought was good music. Listening to all this meant that I had a love of the music before I focused on formally learning how to sing jazz.”

Marcia has studied with some great singers, and first began in workshops with Lee Gibson in summer schools: “Lee Gibson is a great performer with trios and big bands and a strong link to British vocal jazz history. I’ve also participated in summer schools and workshops with Brigitte Beraha and Anita Wardell and had one-to-one lessons with Michael L Roberts during my MA course — I used to think of those as ‘organised playtime’. Lessons are helpful (even experienced professional singers and instrumentalists continue to have lessons) particularly with identifying technical issues. However, it’s really important that you follow up on these and do the practise and exploration between the lessons.”

Going from lessons to open-mics and singers’ evenings can be a short or a long journey…but we all agree that once you have done it, going back gets easier.  Marcia said:

“Going to open mics is a good way of hearing music by other people on the journey, of putting into practice what you’ve learned in a live setting and of developing a network of people you can contact if you are organising a jazz event or gig. Tina and Dominic’s monthly sessions at Windsor Castle are great and the atmosphere there is encouraging and supportive as well as musically varied and entertaining.”

Marcia is a ten year member of London’s Songlines choir, and “For the past 18 months, l’ve also attended monthly group vocal improvisation/circle singing workshops with Guillermo Rozenthuler, a London based Argentinian vocalist and guitarist who can work within the jazz idiom but is better known for Tango and Latin American music (he currently works with Mishka Adams in Amizade).”

It’s hard to imagine that with all this going on, Marcia still has time for regular practice time, but she takes her singing life seriously, and she has generously shared her practice schedule with us:

“It depends very much on what songs I’m working on and whether I have any choir rehearsals or concerts coming up. In general, that dictates the focus of my practise sessions. My actual schedule depends on the amount of time I have before a deadline but includes the following:

  • Listening repeatedly to recordings until l can hear whole form (melody, chord changes, bass lines and other instrumental parts) in my head
  • Writing out the lyrics, noting rhymes, visual imagery and the story of the song
  • Noting where rhymes and repeated musical phrases coincide
  • Singing through the song (vocally or in my imagination) focusing on telling the story
  • Technical work also related to songs I’m working on (eg. phrases on long breaths, interval shifts like semitones or octave jumps, singing across break or at upper or lower parts of my range, articulating words in quiet passages).
  • Spending most time working on the things I find difficult to do in the song or songs I’m working on
  • Using time travelling time do a lot of active listening

“I’ve also found that my general physical and psychological health (e.g. posture, core strength, stress, performance anxiety) also affects my singing. Working on my physical health over time has made a big difference.”

[As for me, Annie, I am going to pin that list on my wall and aim try to incorporate as much as I can into my practice sessions.]

Marcia is also well-known for the lyrics she writes, including vocalise, to  jazz instrumentalists’ tunes.  She is working on music by Wayne Shorter now, and will be giving a concert honouring him on October 22 at Battersea Barge.

Asked to name her favourite singers, she replied:“There are too many singers to mention! Today’s list would include classics, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Carmen McCrae; among contemporary US singers,  Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson, Rene Marie, Gretchen Parlato; and here in the UK, Anita Wardell, Brigitte Beraha, and Mishka Adams among others.” But, she added:

“It’s important for me to listen to singers who aren’t necessarily categorised as jazz singers but who have a  great voice, a distinctive sound, who are good story tellers and communicators, with or without words, and great performers. For example (in no order): Carleen Anderson, Rachelle Ferelle, Chaka Khan, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Kate Bush, Bjork, Nao, Alyusha, Amy Leon, Nai Palm, Skin, Bobby McFerrin, Randolph Matthews, and Ian Bostridge. I don’t aspire to sound like all these people (or the singers I previously mentioned), I admire what they do.”

I asked her how she would describe her singing style:

“ I find that hard to pin down but I think I’d say it’s rooted in the jazz tradition and that you can hear the influence of some of the singers and instrumentalists I like in my singing. I have recently been described by others as sounding like Nina Simone,  and Cassandra Wilson”.

As the afternoon began turning into what looked like rush hour, I asked Marcia what’s up next:

  1. More basic technique work focused on preparing for a gig of Wayne Shorter songs in October.
  2. Taking more opportunities to sing and improvise with instrumentalists and other singers.
  3. Definitely more exploration of theory and learning to play the guitar.

 

Before we parted at the Belsize Park Tube, Marcia left me with three important points she wanted to say to us all:

“I think it’s important to have a sense of why you want to sing and why you want to sing a particular song. Also remember that singing and performing are separate skills and both need work.”

“Don’t forget to listen to instrumentalists and bands without singers. It will broaden your enjoyment and understanding of jazz (and other genres of music) and that will inform your singing.”

Don’t lose your love of music.