Marcia Willis and her Dad at Battersea Bridge
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:
- More basic technique work focused on preparing for a gig of Wayne Shorter songs in October.
- Taking more opportunities to sing and improvise with instrumentalists and other singers.
- 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.