Spotlight On…Sachal Vasandani

Sachal Vasandani and I go back a long way: he’s one of the very first singers I met when I came to New York over fifteen years ago. My friend V. took me to the Zinc Bar, way back when it was on Houston Street, where Sachal held a weekly gig. I was immediately impressed by Sachal’s obvious reverence for the vocal jazz tradition as well as his fearlessness and creativity as a contemporary artist: Sachal sang standards with a deep sense of swing and history, but he was equally at ease performing singer-songwriter covers and his own original songs.

I was even more impressed by Sachal’s friendliness that evening—he invited me to sit in and we have been pals ever since. When I was getting ready to make my first album, Sachal and I met for coffee and talked about the challenges of making a living as a singer and the pros and cons of crowdfunding. He made astute observations about the changing nature of the music business and gave wise counsel. These days, Sachal continues to maintain a busy touring and recording schedule, and he’s also the coordinator of jazz vocal studies at Temple University.

Despite living nearby one another in Brooklyn, Sachal and I don’t see each other often enough, so it’s a treat to get to pick his brain a little bit, albeit in the virtual realm. Thank you, Sachal!

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
[It’s] hard to put down to one, but at this moment it’s probably Milton Nascimento. The combination of the voice, the spirit—so much light—the connection to social, grassroots movements throughout his recording history—that connection to something bigger. I crave that. Plus, there is so much groove underlying his music. His collaborators, from Lo Borges to Wayne Shorter, are some of the most creative on the planet.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
Mostly technique. I want my voice to do whatever is in my head at the moment, and that requires more technical control.

If you had a time machine and could travel back in time to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself about singing, life, and/or the music business in general?
Your musical path is your own, and it may or may not mesh well with the music business; make no false assumptions.

We live in a DIY-era: in addition to performing and recording our music, we ALSO handle social media, book gigs, and perhaps juggle “side gigs” to keep the bills paid. In the face of all these obligations, time management can be hugely challenging. What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping everything in balance?
When we impose commerce on our music—that is, we rely on ourselves for all the promotional elements—the music does get altered. You could argue it gets compromised—maybe it grows in a new way.  But I’m trying to get back to the root feeling I’ve always had with music, now more than ever.

Stronger winds are wailing outside my door—they are imposing their will on so many others and so many people are hurting as a result. I’m so fortunate to have my own, unshakeable relationship with music and I’m so thankful.

Fun fact:
Ha, what weird habit don’t I have…well, I love to listen to people, hear their stories, their passions, what makes them tick. It inspires me to hear what inspires people—maybe it’s music, maybe not. I get that from my mom. She’s one of the best listeners in the whole world.

Sachal is headlining a centennial celebration of Nat King Cole at Jazz at Lincoln Center on December 14 and 15. Backed by a band of some of the finest instrumentalists around, he’ll be singing new arrangements by the great John Clayton. You can find Sachal’s recordings and keep up with all his news at sachalvasandani.com

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Snow and Shin Hanga

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow at Nezu Shrine

I love walking through New York City during a snowfall. Every corner bar aglow with candlelight in the windows becomes an Edward Hopper tableau. As pedestrians hurry past, turning their collars up against the wind and snow, I wonder what’s in their grocery bags and what they’ll have for dinner to stave off the chill. I make a mental bow of gratitude to the people driving cabs and delivering take-out and wonder what they’ll do to warm up when their shift is over. Then I make my own way home, where a tattered but beloved cashmere schmatta and (if I’m lucky) a bowl of soup await.

Winter arrived last Friday with a record-setting snowstorm. When the snowfall was at its heaviest, I was in a Lower Manhattan restaurant with friends, watching the snowflakes swirl among the skyscrapers. By the time we said our goodbyes and parted company, the snow had turned to sleet. Holding the conviviality of the evening as close as a secret, I made my way through ankle-deep slushy puddles and caught the subway back to Brooklyn, where I ate a couple of clementines and sipped mint tea infused with cinnamon. The coziness of the scene was tempered with a touch of melancholy; my husband was working late into the night and I made sure to leave the light on for him before I turned in for the night, alone.

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow at Ukimido Katata

Japanese shin-hanga artists understood the magic of an evening snowfall and the fine line between solitude and loneliness. Shin-hanga, which literally means “new prints,” was an art movement that flourished in the early 20th century in which artist, carver, printer and publisher collaborated to create woodblock prints that honored Japan’s centuries-old ukiyo-e printmaking tradition while incorporating European influences, particularly Impressionism’s attention to light and perspective.

Looking at shin-hanga winter scenes, I can almost smell the wood-smoke-and-snow fragrance in the air and, just as in present-day New York, I wonder about the people I see. Is the kimono-clad woman in Kawase Hasui’s Shiba-Zojo Temple entering or departing the temple—or is does she just happen to be passing by the sacred place on her way from a visit with a friend? Is the lone figure in Snow at Terajima Village (another Kawase Hasui work) focused solely on getting home and out of the weather, or is he strolling slowly to better enjoy the lamplight reflected on the water as snow crunches under his feet?

The pristine beauty of freshly fallen snow never lasts long. But for a few precious hours, the world around us is hushed and still. It is good for us to fall silent, too, and gratefully make our way through the cold to the warm light of home.

Kawase Hasui, Twenty Views of Tokyo: Shiba Zojo Temple

Kawase Hasui, Twelve Scenes of Tokyo: Evening Snow at Terajima Village

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snowy Winter Night Street Scene

Kawase Hasui, Snow in Mukojima

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow on Sumida River

October: looking back, looking ahead

Maybe it’s because late autumn’s path has begun curving toward winter, and the end of the year is in view. Maybe it’s because I’ve entered a new decade and I’m still getting my bearings in this next phase of life. Whatever the reason, my instinct in recent weeks has been to turn inward and live quietly.

Not that it’s been terribly difficult to “drop out,” so to speak: this fall has been the slowest gig season I can remember, and when darkness falls before five o’clock, I need very little coaxing to curl up on the sofa with a good book and a pot of tea. Making soup, roasting vegetables, spending quiet (there’s that word again) hours in conversation with a friend, walking alone through the city, running beneath riotously colored leaves in Prospect Park…these small, lovely moments were restorative and nourishing throughout October.

Oddly, I haven’t been singing much, publicly or otherwise. Gigs or no gigs, I usually at least sing through some vocalises every day (or most days, anyway), but the voice felt battened down, inflexible, and susceptible to strain throughout September and October. My voice and I have known each other for many years, and when it tells me it needs a break, I do my best to take heed.

I’ve been writing more, although not here on the blog, obviously, and certainly not on social media. With the exception of a few Yankees- and Aretha Franklin-related retweets in recent days (C.C. Sabathia and Brett Gardner are both returning! Aretha’s Amazing Grace documentary will finally be released!), I’ve largely stayed off social media, which has of late felt performative and silly, rather than connected. I may very well experience a rush of extroversion as the holiday fervor takes hold, posting and sharing and liking with abandon. But for now, it feels good to be homebound and reflective.

Looking ahead, I’m excited for the whirl and sparkle of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, all of which celebrate hearth, home, and time with loved ones. As far as my part-circumstantial, part-self-imposed chapter of exile from the flurry of gigs, singing, nights on the town, and general busy-ness, I think the proverbial page might be turning: I’ve got a voice lesson on the calendar this week and a handful of gigs booked for December.

In October, I…
Blogged about: September.

Watched: The Man in the High Castle. So much time had elapsed between last season and this one, I struggled to keep up with all the intricate subterfuge in this compelling series, but the performances and art direction were as strong as ever. Lidia’s Kitchen. What can I say? I find cooking shows therapeutic, and Lidia is really good. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I enjoyed the novel by the same name, and the film adaptation (full of familiar faces from Downtown Abbey) was completely charming.

Read: The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton. It’s been close to twenty years since I first read this novel, and let me tell you, Lily Bart’s dependency on men, self-sabotaging choices, and [SPOILER] fall from grace resonated very differently with me as a forty-year-old, married New Yorker than when I was a barely twenty-year-old West Coast girl venturing into adulthood for the first time. I read this for (squee!) book club and am looking forward to our discussion of Wharton’s merciless portrait of Gilded Age New York City’s upper crust and women’s lack of agency and autonomy. Edith Wharton’s prose is incisive, forthright, and elegant—she’s long been one of my favorite authors and it was a pleasure revisiting her work last month.

Listened to: Aida Cuevas! Live! The queen of mariachi performed a sold-out show here in NYC and she was a deeply generous, charismatic performer. Tea & Tattle podcast. It’s sew veddy, veddy British.

September: looking back, looking ahead

When I began this post, the Yankees were about to play Boston in game 3 of the ALDS and I was cheering my pinstriped paramours in between sips of hard cider. Trays of cauliflower, savoy cabbage, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash were roasting in the oven, which I tossed with farro, toasted walnuts, and blue cheese for a very autumnal dinner. I was still feeling exhilarated from my late-afternoon run in the mist that hung in the air all day.

This morning, I woke up feeling a bit shellshocked by the fact that Austin Romine—a catcher, for the love of Pete—pitched in a playoff game that culminated in the most humiliating defeat in Yankees post-season history. That’s the thing about fall, though: everything seems to change overnight.

A lot of people have remarked on the speed with which September flew by, and I’d have to agree. The month began with a brief but soul-nourishing weekend in San Francisco for a couple of gigs with the great Harry Allen. With Harry at the helm, the music was guaranteed to be swinging—that the band was made up of dear friends, all of whom are smart and hilarious, was a big bonus. We performed in Bing Crosby’s mansion (!) and an elegant club in the city as part of a concert series presented by a dedicated, enthusiastic jazz advocate who understands and loves musicians. And while it feels banal to talk about, of all things, the weather when reminiscing about a weekend in California, the blue skies and cool breezes were exquisite after weeks of New York City summer humidity. My hotel room had a record player and a few LPs, so in the mornings I sipped tea and sat on my little terrace while Boz Scaggs or Little Anthony and the Imperials played in the background.

CA Collage

Scenes from San Francisco: LPs in the hip little hotel; dim sum with the band; the city at twilight; the concert program.

The icing on the cake, though, was the time I was lucky enough to spend in the company of beloved friends from my time in Seattle (twenty years ago!). M. and E. relocated from Seattle to northern California some years back, and we don’t get to see each other nearly enough. M. and I went for ramen and a walk in sunny Golden Gate Park on Sunday afternoon before the gig, which (somewhat strangely) was at five o’clock, allowing us plenty of time to go to dinner afterward. M., E., and I drove through the pastel San Francisco twilight to a charming Nob Hill Italian restaurant where we laughed and talked as streetcars passed by. There are truly no friends like old friends, and I returned to New York City with a very full, happy heart.

IMG_2797

Duchess + our band after a successful couple of shows in North Carolina. Tired, sparkly, and happy.

September closed with a Duchess tour to North Carolina. We performed for a musical society in Oriental, a coastal town that was hit hard by Hurricane Florence, then traveled inland to sing at a music education gala in Pinehurst. Seeing the damage inflicted by the hurricane—roofs crushed by fallen trees, piles of insulation and furniture on the sidewalks—was sobering. We were honored by the opportunity to provide some musical respite for North Carolinians.

Looking ahead, I’m excited to do more running in the crisp autumn air. I’m eager to do more fall cooking and embrace decorative gourd season. But first things first. Tonight the Yankees are facing Boston again for one more game at home. If the Yankees win, they head up to Boston for the final game of the series. If they lose…well, they’re done until spring training. And they say April is the cruelest month.

In September I…
Blogged about: August. ‘Tis Autumn! (for Duchess). Singer-friend Emily Braden.

Watched: Mr. Selfridge. Jeremy Piven is (occasionally hilariously) miscast in this PBS period drama about an American-owned department store in turn-of-the-century London. Some of the American accents are…questionable. But I am nevertheless completely engrossed.

Read: 1984, by George Orwell. I have always wanted to be in a book club and I finally am. Orwell’s portrayal of life under a totalitarian regime was our first selection, and it felt way too timely.

Listened to: Lowdown, by Boz Scaggs. This song was on heavy rotation during my stay in San Francisco last month; I think I’ll always associate it with waking up at sunrise in San Francisco and having a cup of chai on the terrace.

Spotlight On…Emily Braden

Emily Braden sounds like herself when she sings, and no one else. Her improvisations are freewheeling and exuberant. Her interpretations of jazz standards and original songs (whether self-penned or entrusted to her by another composer) are laced with R&B inflections and joyfully suffused with her irresistible sense of groove. Emily is apt to juxtapose a Gershwin tune with a hit by Whitney Houston and throw in a whistle solo for good measure, and because all of those things are authentically Emily, they’ll all add up to happy-making, expertly rendered music.

I became aware of Emily Braden’s singing in recent years because, well, her name comes up a lot on the scene. She’s hugely in demand here in New York City, from her performances with Misha Piatigorsky’s Sketchy Orkestra to her late-night collaborations at SMOKE to (my personal favorite) Double Bass Double Voice, an unusual trio project comprising Emily, fellow vocalist Nancy Harms, and bassist Steve Whipple. Emily is a busy woman. She’s also a kindhearted, warm soul, and I am grateful to her for sharing her insights here on my blog. Thank you, Emily!

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
I’ll be disciplined here despite my mind saying “But what about — and  — and —?!”  

Like many singers, I will always return to the sheer joy, vocal mastery, and excellence that is Ella Fitzgerald. Before I ever thought to be a professional singer myself, I emulated her every inflection, attempted each line and memorized entire solos within the walls of my bedroom. It was through Ella’s music that I first found my own voice.

In addition to her artistry, I have profound respect for her as a large black woman artist who lived in a racist, sexist, size-ist society and still managed to create some of the most stunning art known to humankind. She embodied delight and had such a pure connection to the creative source. As a young fat white girl myself who did not “fit” easily in a culture obsessed with thinness and Eurocentric “beauty” standards, I gained a sense of my own worth and empowerment through experiencing Ella’s undeniable talent in videos and recordings early on. Seeing her onstage allowed me to picture myself there, as well. I still use her as an example and a reminder when I feel discouraged. To this day, her laughter is one of my very favorite sounds.

Top contenders: Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae. How can one choose?!

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
Does attempting to sing while playing beginner-level guitar count?! That’s what I’ve really been up to lately. It’s forcing me to focus on the fundamentals once again—namely rhythm, phrasing and intonation. I’m blown away by how practicing a new instrument is taking my understanding of the music to a whole new level.

Quite honestly, I am just beginning to prioritize practicing again. For the past eight years living here in New York, my focus has primarily been on staying afloat financially and making a name for myself by performing as often as possible. A lot of my training (and practicing) has happened while on stage. I’m now just shy of the two-year mark of quitting my job and am returning to fundamentals. The priority is always shifting––something from a voice lesson here, a folder of new exercises there. [Last] summer, a piano player I was working with in Bangkok gave me a bunch of altered scales to practice to add another layer of color and depth to my solos. That’s been very useful to me.

If you had a time machine and could travel back in time to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself about singing, life, and/or the music business in general?
Mostly I would offer my support and encourage the younger me to simply create, create, create. Live fearlessly. Be kind to people, regardless of who they are and whether or not you perceive that they can do anything for you. If you come up against a barrier or a block, do your best to understand where it’s really coming from and push back up against it.

I would also try to impart that singing is about so much more than just singing.  Making music equal parts self-discovery and service to others. You learn so much about yourself and the world through through music.

We live in a DIY-era: in addition to performing and recording our music, we ALSO handle social media, book gigs, and perhaps juggle “side gigs” to keep the bills paid. In the face of all these obligations, time management can be hugely challenging. What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping everything in balance?
Still working on that one for sure! I can’t say I’m completely successful at this but I try to make time for things that are not music-related in order to avoid burnout. I try to respect my need for downtime. When I do relax, I relax intensely and remind myself that doing so will allow me to work more effectively when I throw myself back into the current.

Having a side gig for [my] first seven years in NYC while performing regularly was a great exercise in time management, structuring a day, and self-discipline. I learned so much about the importance of staying organized, returning emails and phone calls, working efficiently. Having a small window to get it all done during those years made me value the time I have now.

Fun fact:
I have a Masters degree in Latin America Studies and speak fluent Spanish (surprising NYC cabbies since 2007)!  I  can speak (and sing!) with my mouth closed and I whistle like a mutha’. I love to whistle. Solos and fancy tricks and everything!

Emily’s been singing on the other side of the world, performing nightly for audiences in Bangkok, but she’s back in town for a handful of great shows in the next couple of weeks, including an early set at 55 bar on October 5. Head over there to welcome Emily back to New York City, and let yourself be delighted by her singing.

August: looking back, looking ahead

Last month, I painted my toenails a bright orange-red and flew to the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico to celebrate my birthday in the company of a few people I love dearly. I drove (!) for the first time (!) in fifteen years(!) and ate lots and lots of chips and guacamole. After a dinner and overnight stay at Rancho de Chimayo, we traveled to Taos, where we stayed in a charming casita with brightly painted walls and Southwestern decor. We ate our breakfasts every morning at the little outdoor table in the backyard and grilled in the rain.

One highlight of the trip was touring Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, where she lived and worked, her life force and creativity undimmed, until her death at age 98. We saw the wall with a door that compelled O’Keeffe to spend fifteen years trying to buy the adobe house from the Catholic church and which later became the subject of many of O’Keeffe’s paintings. Among other things, we learned that O’Keeffe paid for the local kids’ Little League uniforms, and that while she was not a particularly good driver, she was a decidedly adventurous one. O’Keeffe also had a long standing tradition of exchanging practical jokes with her groundskeeper, whose grandson oversees the still-functioning garden to this day.

Scenes from Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu and yours truly, daring to drive.

Looking out across the vast landscape at Pedernal Mountain—the endless sky, dotted with clouds; the red earth; the dusty green sagebrush—I was awed by what O’Keeffe described as “…the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding…the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.”

A few days later we took a much shorter trip to meet another fascinating woman: Millicent Rogers. An East Coast socialite by birth (her grandfather founded Standard Oil, for crying out loud), Rogers retreated to New Mexico in the early 1940s following a painful breakup with Clark Gable. She collected and designed Southwestern-style jewelry and championed Native American causes. Millicent Rogers suffered from fragile health her entire life–she died at just 50 years old from an aneurysm–but she left behind a vast collection of jewelry and art, much of which is housed in the intimate, welcoming museum that bears her name.

I enjoyed looking at the museum’s beautifully curated exhibitions and learning more about Millicent Rogers’s glamorous life and aesthetic gifts. But the most emotionally resonant piece at the museum, for me, came in the form of a letter Rogers wrote to her son shortly before her death. Generous, wise, and with more than a touch of mysticism, Rogers’s words continue to reverberate in my heart:

Did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the Earth, so that I felt the Sun on my Surface and the rain. I felt the Stars and the growth of the Moon, under me, rivers ran. And against me were the tides. The waters of rain sank into me. And I thought if I stretched out my hands they would be Earth and green would grow from me. And I knew that there was no reason to be lonely that one was everything, and Death was as easy as the rising sun and as calm and natural—that to be enfolded in Earth was not an end but part of oneself, part of every day and night that we lived, so that Being part of the Earth one was never alone. And all the fear went out of me—with a great, good stillness and strength.

If anything should happen to me now, ever, just remember all this. I want to be buried in Taos with the wide sky—Life has been marvelous, all the experiences good and bad I have enjoyed, even pain and illness because out of it so many things were discovered. One has so little time to be still, to lie still and look at the Earth and the changing colours and the Forest—and the voices of people and clouds and light on water, smells and sound and music and the taste of wood smoke in the air.

Life is absolutely beautiful if one will disassociate oneself from noise and talk and live according to one’s inner light. Don’t fool yourself more than you can help. Do what you want—do what you want knowingly. Anger is a curtain that people pull down over life so that they can only see through it dimly—missing all the savor, the instincts—the delight—they feel safe only when they can down someone.  And if one does that they end by being too many, more than one person, and life is dimmed—blotted and blurred!—I’ve had a most lovely life to myself—I’ve enjoyed it as thoroughly as it could be enjoyed. And when my time comes, no one is to feel that I have lost anything of it—or be too sorry—I’ve been in all of you—and will go on Being. So remember it peacefully—take all the good things that your life put there in your eyes—and they, your family, children, will see through your eyes. My love to all of you.

In August I…
Blogged about: July. Aretha Franklin.

Watched: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Blazing Saddles. Classic films, and fun to revisit as an adult. Also: Karen Allen! Madeline Kahn!

Read: The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker. An extremely funny, well written meditation on poetry and writer’s block. Women in Sunlight, by Frances Mayes. I wanted to love this book—I like Mayes’s literary voice and am always happy to read anything about a plucky heroine putting down roots in Italy—but this was nowhere near the caliber of her non-fiction writing. It was kind of like a Nancy Meyers film in book form.

Listened to: Chet Baker, It Could Happen to You. There is no separation whatsoever between Chet’s playing and his singing. Chris Flory, Chris Byars, and Neal Miner, live at Mezzrow. I had the honor of sitting in for a tune with this trio at my favorite club…but mostly I just sipped my cocktail and grinned while they played elegant, swinging renditions of beautiful standards. Long live live jazz!

The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen!

We all have superpower dreams once in a while. Some people dream of flying, others of breathing underwater or leaping buildings in a single bound. I once dreamt I could sing soaring, effortless high notes like Aretha Franklin and believe me, that sensation was more thrilling than anything Superman was ever capable of.

When I was twenty-five and newly arrived in New York City—perpetually broke and overwhelmed by the day-to-day rigors of waitressing, apartment-hunting, and trying to forge a singing career—I spent a couple hundred bucks I didn’t have on tickets to an Aretha Franklin concert at Radio City. 

The crowd that night was star-studded; I was seated behind Arif Marden and Cissy Houston, and Bette Midler was just a couple of rows ahead. Aretha was in fantastic voice and seemed to be giving a concert for her friends, singing whatever she damn well pleased. The set list was eclectic, spanning the full breadth of Aretha’s decades-long career: she sang “Won’t Be Long” and a few jazz standards, a nod to her earliest recordings on Columbia Records. She treated us to a medley of her biggest hits and even performed “Precious Memories,” from her 1972 live gospel album “Amazing Grace.”

The apex of the evening came when Aretha, resplendent in a Glinda-the-good-witch-of-the-North ball gown, chandelier earrings, and a silky blonde ponytail, sat down at the piano. She sighed. One of her earrings had fallen out at some point earlier in the evening, so she took the other one out, too, and set it on the piano. She turned to the audience and said, conspiratorially, “Imma let it all hang out tonight,” and she took off her ponytail and set it on the piano, too. Then she accompanied herself (she could have had a great career as a pianist even if she’d never sung a note) on a rendition of “Dr. Feelgood” that shook Radio City Music Hall—and the souls of everyone in it—to their very foundations.

In the 1980s, the state of Michigan officially declared Aretha Franklin’s voice a precious natural resource. As far as I’m concerned, she was one of the wonders of the world. In my life’s most exuberant moments of heart-spilling-over joy, I’ve turned to Aretha for release. In the darkest nights of my soul, hopeless and helpless, Aretha has given me faith in the tomorrows yet to come. She’s still doing that.

Right now I am listening to Aretha’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” because Aretha’s singing is the closest thing I have to a religion. “At the end of a storm,” she sings, “there’s a golden sky/and the sweet silver song of a lark.” Unimaginably, Aretha Franklin has departed this plane and gone to that golden sky but—hallelujah!—there is a sweet silver song and the song was Aretha, is Aretha, and will always be Aretha, for hers is the power and the glory.

Amen.

Amen.

Amen.