Spotlight On…Kendra Shank

29814_425967602577_1299491_nBack when I lived in Seattle, I knew Kendra Shank only by her reputation as a great jazz singer who also enjoyed a career as a guitarist and folk singer.  We met for the first time in New York City shortly after I arrived in 2003; we were both in the audience at the Cornelia Street Café, where our mutual mentor, Jay Clayton, was singing.

Kendra was warm and friendly, with a disarming candor about the rigors of pursuing a singing career in New York City.  Her unassuming nature belied her impressive credentials: Kendra toured with Bob Dorough early in her career; her debut album, Afterglow, was co-produced by none other than Shirley Horn; and Kendra recorded as a guitarist with Abbey Lincoln and received Lincoln’s blessing to record the critically acclaimed album, A Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook.

Thank you, Kendra, for sharing your insights with us!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
Music was in my life from the beginning.  My mother sang me to sleep with torch songs and lullabies.  When I was five years old she played Mrs. Peachum in a university production of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera and took me to rehearsals and performances, so by closing night I knew all those Kurt Weill songs.  My father created the Theatre Department at UCD and I acted in plays from age 5 – 8 (until my parents’ divorce), so it felt natural to be on stage.  At thirteen, my brother inspired me to learn guitar and I played and sang for hours as an emotional outlet and wrote my first song that year when my best friend died in an accident.  But I didn’t realize music would become my profession until after college (my degree was in Art & French and I’d envisioned a life in the visual arts).

20600_10153593156377578_8318472735150606366_nAfter busking in the Paris subway and gigging in restaurants all through college (solo with guitar), I decided to try it full-time after graduation, and within a couple of years realized this was my life’s passion.  My early inspirations included Joan Baez, Edith Piaf, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Barbara (a French singer-songwriter), among many others.  When a friend played me a Billie Holiday record, my focus turned to jazz and my devotion to music deepened to the intensity of a spiritual path.  I’ve been inspired and encouraged on this path by several mentors to whom I’m hugely grateful, including Jay Clayton (my primary teacher, who introduced me to improvisation & included me in various ensembles), Bob Dorough (who took me on tour in 1991), Nancy King (who had me sit in at her gigs), Shirley Horn (who got me my first record deal, co-produced the album, and showcased me at the Village Vanguard in 1992), Abbey Lincoln (who had me play guitar on her album Over the Years and at the Blue Note in 2000), and Rhiannon (who taught me new approaches to improvisation).  And there are so many more musicians and others who’ve inspired me — too numerous to list.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Telling a story, interpreting a lyric, came naturally to me—perhaps because of my early exposure to theatre and my roots in folk music.  Melodies come naturally—I improvise them as I walk down the street.  Accepting the sound of my voice was a challenge.  When I first fell in love with jazz, I wished I had a dark, husky, whiskey-stained voice.  I was once told by a club owner that he didn’t want to book me because my voice was too “pretty.”

Ironically, Abbey Lincoln (whose voice I love for its rough edges) once said to me “I wish I could love the sound of my voice,” so I guess I wasn’t alone!  But I’ve now embraced my sound (at least, on the days I’m not full of self criticism—another of my challenges).

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
A song has to call to me—it has to feel that it’s my story, as if it could’ve been written for, or by, me.  Often I’ll hear a song and just know—I have to sing that.  It was this way with Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” which I first heard on a Chet Baker recording.  Sometimes I’ll be attracted to a song, but then when I sing it, it turns out not to be a good fit and I have to let it go (like a dress that looks great on the rack, but then doesn’t look good on you).  The lyrics are essential—if I can’t believe in the lyric, I won’t sing the song.  I’ll occasionally sing a tune as a vehicle for improvisation that has a less-than-brilliant lyric, but the message still has to be something I can relate to.

10688226_10152836981227578_372638332881355686_oI love a song whose lyric is at the level of poetry and the melody and changes are sublime, like “A Timeless Place” (aka “The Peacocks” – music by Jimmy Rowles, words by Norma Winstone) or Abbey Lincoln’s “Down Here Below.”  But I also love a very simple lyric and melody like “Motherless Child.”  A song can come from any source, but I do have a fondness for seeking out original music from musicians I play with.  I generally prefer not to hear another vocalist’s version beforehand — so that I can come to the song fresh.  Whatever goes into my ear is likely to come out my mouth, so I prefer to listen to an instrumental version, or just learn it off the page.  Lately, I’ve also been drawn to tunes without lyrics which I sing instrumentally, or occasionally I’ll add a lyric.  I also sometimes improvise a song, with words, on the bandstand.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
If I still had the physical capacity for it, I’d go back to glass blowing (what I’d planned on doing before music became my life).  I love making things with my hands.  Or I’d do something in the healing arts, in service to others.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Be True to Yourself.

Fun fact:
I like to body surf, especially in the Pacific Ocean.  It’s thrilling to feel the power of the ocean in such an immediate way, and it reconnects me with my place in Nature and the Oneness.

The Kendra Shank Quartet will be celebrating its 16th anniversary (!) with this Thursday, October 15 (sets at 8 and 10 pm), at Kitano here in New York City.  The New York Times’ Nate Chinen calls Kendra an “assertive and open-minded jazz singer.”  Treat yourself to a night on the town and go hear them!

“New York is hopeful.”

It occurs to me that there are other towns. It occurs to me so violently that I say, at intervals, “Very well, if New York is going to be like this, I’m going to live somewhere else.” And I do—that’s the funny part of it. But then one day there comes to me the sharp picture of New York at its best, on a shiny blue-and-white Autumn day with its buildings cut diagonally in halves of light and shadow, with its straight neat avenues colored with quick throngs, like confetti in a breeze. Someone, and I wish it had been I, has said that “Autumn is the Springtime of big cities.” I see New York at holiday time, always in the late afternoon, under a Maxfield Parish sky, with the crowds even more quick and nervous but even more good-natured, the dark groups splashed with the white of Christmas packages, the lighted holly-strung shops urging them in to buy more and more. I see it on a Spring morning, with the clothes of the women as soft and as hopeful as the pretty new leaves on a few, brave trees. I see it at night, with the low skies red with the black-flung lights of Broadway, those lights of which Chesterton—or they told me it was Chesterton—said, “What a marvelous sight for those who cannot read!” I see it in the rain, I smell the enchanting odor of wet asphalt, with the empty streets black and shining as ripe olives. I see it—by this time, I become maudlin with nostalgia—even with its gray mounds of crusted snow, its little Appalachians of ice along the pavements. So I go back. And it is always better than I thought it would be.

dorothy-parker-1411-t-600x600-rwI suppose that is the thing about New York. It is always a little more than you had hoped for. Each day, there, is so definitely a new day. “Now we’ll start over,” it seems to say every morning, “and come on, let’s hurry like anything.”

London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it. There is excitement ever running its streets. Each day, as you go out, you feel the little nervous quiver that is yours when you sit in the theater just before the curtain rises. Other places may give you a sweet and soothing sense of level; but in New York there is always the feeling of “Something’s going to happen.” It isn’t peace. But, you know, you do get used to peace, and so quickly. And you never get used to New York.

-Dorothy Parker, “My Home Town”



Spotlight On…rené marie

It is impossible to not be inspired by rené marie.  Her singing is the very embodiment of joy, freedom, and fearlessness.  Her original songs accomplish that rare feat of being intensely personal, even autobiographical, but also universally relatable.  Hell, her very biography is a study in saying “Yes!” to life: rené began singing professionally at age 42, when her then-husband declared that she must stop singing or move out of the house.  Since then, she’s recorded close to a dozen albums, including last year’s Grammy-nominated love letter to Eartha Kitt, “I Wanna Be Evil.” MI0003641645

Every time I hear rené marie sing, I come away feeling as though I have learned valuable lessons about life, love, and generosity of spirit. As I write this post, I’ve been listening to rené on Song Travels with Michael Feinstein, and tears keep springing to my eyes.  There is something utterly life-affirming about her very presence, and clearly Feinstein feels it, too.  “You are a gift,” he says at the end of the interview, and I couldn’t agree more.

I was kind of nervous when I asked rené to answer a few questions about her artistry and life in music for my little blog.  Who did I think I was, anyway?  To my delight, rené answered immediately, with thoughtful, open-hearted responses to the interview questions, and she was incredibly gracious.  Thank you, rené marie, for sharing your kindness and humanity with us through your music.  The world is infinitely richer for it.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
For me, “pursue” isn’t quite the word.  It’s more like who/what inspired me to allow music to be my primary means of communication—and that would be my dad.  He had a shameless and unbridled joy whenever any kind of music was playing.  It wasn’t unusual for him to spontaneously break out into song with an aria or an ol’ bluegrass piece of something at the top of his lungs.  He loved opera and classical music and knew how to take the most mundane melody and bring it to life, oftentimes by changing the lyrics into something having to do with our chores, eating our dinner, doing our homework, etc.  None of the music was considered outdated or old-fashioned.  He made all that music—whatever he listened to—alive and accessible and applicable to the lives we were leading.

My favorite memory is of my dad listening to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” and constructing an entirely pantomimed drama of an African hunter waking in the morning, preparing his meal, getting ready for the hunt, being on the hunt and finally, at the music’s climax, killing his prey. All of this while moving his body rhythmically with the song, his movements and facial expressions telling a story with the music without using one word.  Fascinating.

464328_10150634491208280_709976347_oIn the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Composing songs comes so naturally to me—I have done this since I was a child, I just didn’t realize I was “composing”, so to speak.  Making up songs in my head has always come naturally to me and, as a child, I was never self-conscious about it because I never knew there was a school of thought about how it should be done.   Music is always playing inside my head—any and all kinds and melodies, lyrics, etc.  This could be due to the fact that I rarely listen to other peoples’ music. Not that I don’t like it.  It’s just that their music tends to crowd out the music playing in my own head and I’d rather listen to whatever is “playing” at the time.  See what’s shakin’ around up there!  I like giving free rein to whatever musical ideas I have—the less obviously connected, the better.

The most challenging thing I deal with is all the negative self-talk I give myself, especially when I am in the midst of doing the very thing that makes me happy: singing in front of an audience.  I am so ridiculously hard on myself, I don’t know how I manage to get through the gig sometimes!  And I don’t know which is worse: the negative self-talk before the gig (“Who do you think you ARE?!?”), during the gig (“Oh, that sounded awful. Is there food between my teeth? Can they see through my dress? You’re doing that stupid thing with your arm again! STOP IT!”) or after the gig (“You counted off that tune too fast. Your voice croaked in the middle of the song. You’re getting old, nobody really likes what you did—they’re just being polite.”).  Geez-a-roni!!  I drive myself crazy…

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I choose a cover tune based on two things: 1) does it move me? 2) do I have any kind of unique perspective/rendition of it to bring the table?  If I can’t , then I think it’s best left alone.  For instance, as much as I love “Lush Life” or “Guess Who I Saw Today,” I’ve never sung either of those songs in public because there’s nothing I can do to add to them, y’know?  They’ve been done so well by so many other singers that I just have nothing to add!

5q1d18tbk11ge1g3ci49Much time and thought is given to the set list.  It’s like preparing a meal for guests.  You decide what you’re going to have based on who’s coming to dinner.  This is why I like to go out into the audience or the lobby sometimes and meet people, talk to them prior to the gig.  I can get a better feel for who they are and why they’re there—it’s so interesting!!  Then, when it’s time to sing, I feel like I’m singing to people I at least know a little something about.  I can look in their faces and surmise certain things about them based on their expressions alone.

There’ve been times when I’ve completely deviated from my set list because I sensed I had misread the audience and wasn’t getting through.  There’s always that chasm that exists between musicians and the audience: the stage is high and often far away from the first row, to say nothing of the rows behind them!  So the song, the lyrics, my physical movements and facial expressions must rope the listener and pull them in as close to me as possible.  Each song we play MUST do that—otherwise, what’s the point of singing it?

You know, when I first started composing “for real,” I could never bring myself to sing one of my own compositions, even when they were on the CDs people were buying.  It just didn’t look right to see the set list with my songs stuck in between all those wonderful jazz standards.  I felt presumptuous putting them there.  But then people started actually requesting my originals from the audience or sending me an email to say how much they enjoyed my original tunes.  That was a real shot in the arm and I began to understand that every single one of those wonderful standards were at one time brand new songs that no one had ever heard. That, plus realizing that if I don’t sing the songs I write, then who will?

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I’d be a landscaping or fine woodworker. I love working with my hands.  I can get completely lost in it and forget what time it is, what day it is…

05_highresWhat’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Three of them:
Eleanor Roosevelt: “We simply must do the thing we think we cannot do.”

My brother, Claude, told me when I was still working my day job, “Jump and the net will appear.”  He sent this one sentence to me in an email every day for a week.

An anonymous person in the audience: “Shut up and sing.”

Fun fact:
When I’m looking for a way to shake up my thinking or change my perspective on something, I sleep with my head at the foot of my bed and my feet at the headboard for a couple of nights. This also works if I want to go on vacation but don’t have the time or money to do so.  Going to sleep then waking up with just that one different perspective can be so refreshing and change my thinking around.

rené marie will be performing at the Jazz Standard this week, September 10-13.  Don’t miss out on your chance to hear her; tickets are available here.  You can bet I will be there!

August: Looking back, looking ahead

I know that summer doesn’t really end until September 22…but the end of August always feels like the end of honest-to-goodness, hot-shouldered, freckle-nosed, ice-cream-at-every-opportunity summer.  This particular summer has been filled to the brim with singing and travel, friends, food, art, and plenty of time spent just enjoying New York City.  Now, just as with a good book, a good meal, or a good concert, I am feeling both happily satiated and sad to see it end.


A few photos of my time with the Balestrini family.

Perhaps I’m feeling extra sentimental and philosophical because of an anniversary that just passed: exactly twenty Augusts ago—my god, I can barely type the word “twenty”—I arrived in Italy to begin my foreign exchange.  During the months I spent living la dolce vita, I learned to speak Italian, tumbled headlong into a lifelong love affair with Italian food, and became a part of three wonderful Italian families, with whom I still keep in touch and see as often as possible (which is to say, not nearly often enough): the famiglie Balestrini, Amigoni, and Mascheroni.

In the summer of 1995, I had just escaped the confines of both high school and my small Alaska town.  Everything was a revelation, from traveling alone to discovering gelato, to the calls of “Ciao, bella,” as I walked down the street.  Because social media and Skype didn’t exist (I mean, email wasn’t even really a thing yet), I spoke to my parents just once a week on the phone and wrote actual hand-written letters to my friends in the States.  I was fully immersed in Italian life in a way that I doubt is even possible, now.  And, in the process, Italy gave me a world both infinitely bigger and smaller than I could have ever imagined.


The Amigoni family, and a few moments with more Italian loved ones.

I suppose, then, that today’s post is really a love letter to la bella Italia and to the people who changed my life forever, for better, twenty years ago: Domenico, Anna, Chiara, Giovanni, Vittorio, Angela, Cristina, Leo, Eugenio, Gabriella, tutti i figli Mascheroni, Lory (e la tua mamma), Ruta e Dario, and the many other kind souls who welcomed me into your hearts and homes, I hope you all know how very much I love you.


The castle–yes, castle–that belonged to my 3rd host family, the Mascheroni. My mother came to visit and we spent an incredible day there.

Looking ahead, DUCHESS is heading west this month: California, to be precise.  We’ve got gigs lined up in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco, and we’ll close out our tour with a performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival (!).  On September 29, I’m returning to Mezzrow with the wonderful pianist Ehud Asherie for an intimate evening of vocal/piano duets.

In the meantime, Labor Day weekend is just a couple of days away and the forecast is for sunny skies.  I’m planning to bid summertime a fond farewell with a day trip to Coney Island for a spin on the Wonder Wheel, a stroll on the boardwalk, and perhaps some Russian food in Brighton Beach.

In August, I…
Blogged about: July. Getting older.

Watched: Cymbeline, at Shakespeare in the Park.  I feel so lucky to have experienced the magic of Shakespeare in the Park twice in one summer, without ever having had to queue up for tickets at the crack of dawn!  “Key Largo,” with Bogie and Bacall.  The New York Restoration Project showed this iconic film in a Bed-Stuy garden and it was magical.

Read: Well, “perused” is a better term, but Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann is a book I’m eager to explore more in-depth.  Over the years, McCann photographed many of his colleagues and friends, everyone from Ray Charles to Duke Ellington to Redd Foxx.  This book is the first time his reflections and photographs have been compiled into one volume.  Definitely worth checking out.

Listened to: A lot of Les McCann + Eddie Harris.  This grooves so hard.  “Sock it to me!”  Damn.



There Is No Greater Love

My birthday was yesterday, August 22.  There are a couple of things I really love about having a late-summer birthday.  For one thing, I share a birthday with Dorothy Parker (in my fantasy, we’d meet at the Algonquin and trade witty bons mots over martinis, but let’s be honest, she’d leave me in the dust before I’d even had my first sip).  For another, there’s an intrinsic languor about the last week of August.  Everybody knows that summer’s on its way out, but the air is still heavy and humid, and the pace of the city—of life, really—has slowed to a near crawl. There’s ample time for reflecting on the past year and thinking about what I want to accomplish in the year ahead.

Wise words on a birthday card from a beloved friend.

Wise words on a birthday card from a beloved friend.

As I am wont to do, I flipped through an old journal recently and came upon my birthday entry from last year.  As I read, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry: my goals on last year’s birthday were exactly the same ones I’d just written down for this year.  Exactly the same. Either this meant I was extremely consistent in my quest for self-improvement, or (and this is much more likely) I had not come even close to becoming The Woman I Want To Be in the past year.

Over the course of my actual birthday, though, I experienced an avalanche of Facebook birthday greetings.  Many well-wishes came from friends, but lots of total strangers took a moment to send a birthday message—and isn’t that kind of lovely?  I also received several videos and voicemails from loved ones’ adorable children singing “Happy Birthday.”  Let me tell you, hearing kids under 5 try to pronounce “Hilary” is a one-way ticket to glee.  And my heart swelled when I received a birthday card in the mail from my 80-something grandmother, with a loving note and a $20 bill tucked inside, just like when I was a kid.

Later, I met up with a dear friend whose birthday falls the day before mine, and we ate cheap-but-delicious Israeli food at a teensy-tiny West Village spot, then headed to Mezzrow for an evening filled with exquisite music, bubbly Prosecco, and lots of kibitzing with an array of musician friends who happened to stop by.  As I looked around the club, I realized with amazed gratitude that I’ve spent a third of my life among jazz musicians in New York City.

My husband is, by nature, more reserved than I (he has no social media presence whatsoever, bless him!), so I will simply say that walking in the front door to find him waiting up for me—he’d worked a 12-hour day in the recording studio—was the best part of an already-fantastic day.  There truly is no greater love.

Sure, I’ll keep making lists of goals on my birthday.  The quest for self-improvement will continue.  But I am also mindful of this line from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I recently read on a cross-country flight: “What if I was never redeemed?  What if I already was?”



July: Looking back, looking ahead

It’s August!  The temperatures are hovering in the 90s every day, and the slight sunburn on my shoulders is a (slightly uncomfortable) reminder of yesterday’s picnic on Governor’s Island. Relaxing into August’s hot weather and slower pace feels right, especially after a very fun and very hectic July.


Scenes from Seattle. What an amazing trip: clear skies, dear friends, and lots of great music.

DUCHESS hit the road again last month.  We trekked out to the beautiful Emerald City of Seattle, my former stomping grounds, for a few days chock full of gigs, sunshine, and time with dear old friends.  We meandered through the Pike Place Market and drank local microbrews at a bar overlooking at Puget Sound.  We paid two visits to my favorite restaurant, Le Pichet, and sipped some rosé at David Butler’s chic downtown wine bar, Le Caviste.  We even kicked up our heels, with a post-gig after-party that included copious amounts of guacamole and a spontaneous dance-off.  Thanks in part to a fantastic write-up in the Seattle Times, our shows at Tula’s and PLU’s Jazz Under the Stars were sold out, so the trip was a resounding success.

A bit later in the month, DUCHESS debuted at Jazz at Lincoln Center, taking the stage at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for two nearly sold-out sets.  We also performed in Tarrytown, singing an outdoor show for the Sunset Jazz at Lyndhurst concert series.  It was the perfect way to close out our very busy summer; our next shows are in September, when we travel to California for the Monterey Jazz Festival and gigs in LA and the Bay Area.


It’s always a kick in the pants to wind up in the New York Times.

In my solo singing life, I returned to Pompie’s Place for a couple of performances.  Ehud Asherie, the show’s pianist and musical director, has assembled a very swinging band, and it’s been fun singing solos and duets with vocalist Lezlie Harrison in this cabaret/theater hybrid.  The New York Times came out and wrote a great review, and we’ve got two more shows this month: August 7 and August 21.

A couple of interviews hit the airwaves last month: my appearance on Song Travels with Michael Feinstein aired on NPR, as well as my conversation with Judy Carmichael for Sirius XM’s Jazz Inspired. It’s always fun to talk about songs, singing, and life in the arts with kindred spirits, and both Michael and Judy are such thoughtful, generous hosts.

Looking ahead, August happens to be my birthday month, so I have a favor to ask: will you please take a moment, right now, to vote in the DownBeat Readers’ Poll and the HotHouse Jazz Awards?  You’ll find some familiar names in there, including (ahem) yours truly in DownBeat’s female vocalist category, as well as DUCHESS in several categories (both polls).

Things are a bit quieter on the gig front in the coming few weeks, so I intend to go to the beach, hear some live music, and surrender to the slower rhythms of the dog days of summer.

In July, I…
Blogged about: June.  Nature in the city.  Singer-friend Katy Bourne.

Watched:  Downtown theater.  My friend Jennifer Peterman and her writing partner, Tom Gualtieri, teamed up for a reading of some of their respective work to benefit Stage Left Studio, a performance space that had served as an incubator for developing works in New York City for ten years but which was closing due to the ever-escalating Manhattan rents.  In that spare, tiny theater, Jen and Tom brought characters to life—characters that they had created—and made us all laugh and cry with their honesty and humanity.

I also saw Melissa Ritz perform her one-woman show, Bombshell of Rhythm, about the 1930s female bandleader, Ina Ray Hutton.  She not only conceived and wrote the entire show, she sang, danced, and played multiple characters, commanding the stage for 75 minutes.  Melissa has performed Bombshell of Rhythm throughout the USA and, by sheer dint of her moxie and imagination, she has brought new life to a largely forgotten figure of American popular music.

This kind of open-hearted, grassroots storytelling is deeply moving to witness and, I believe, crucial to the creative soul of a city.  Sadly, in Manhattan, the skyrocketing rents are making it harder and harder for fledgling artists to do their work.  I implore all of us to go out and support new works in off-the-beaten-path venues.

Read:  The Music at Long Verney, by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  My friend Michael Steinman edited this collection of short stories, and I trust both his aesthetics and heart. Warner’s cool, reserved prose took a bit of time to get used to, but yielded rich rewards, like this gem:

“For though it was news to her that she had the soul of an artist, she accepted the revelation.  It isn’t what you do that matters; everyone has a right to earn a living, and fooling a wiling public is as good a way as any other.  They enjoy it, you enjoy it, everyone’s happy.  Where the soul of an artist comes in is when you won’t let the public fool you.”

Listened to:  Jackie Wilson.  I’ve been a fan of Mr. Excitement for many years; his rendition of “Danny Boy” is, for my money, one of the greatest vocal performances ever recorded in any genre, in any era. Pure greatness.

Spotlight On…Katy Bourne

For all its downsides (vitriolic political flame-wars, pseudoscience masquerading as fact, and getting tagged in embarrassing photos from high school, to name a few), Facebook can be a pretty cool place.  I’d never have funded my album without social media, and Facebook makes it easier than ever to keep in touch with people, whether they live right here in New York City or halfway across the world.

katy-background-2Katy Bourne, a Seattle-based vocalist and writer, is one such cyber-friend.  We have a number of mutual friends in Seattle’s jazz scene, but we got to know each other in the virtual realm of Facebook.  After corresponding online, Katy and I finally met in person last summer when I did a mini-tour in the Pacific NW.

There really is no substitute for actual face time (not FaceTime), but since Katy’s in Seattle and we’re all scattered hither and yon, we’ll convene here on this blog for a little conversation.  Thank you, Katy!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I grew up playing alto saxophone, but beyond the school marching band, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for a fledgling young sax player in my hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma.  And nobody was spinning jazz for me, at least not when I was a kid.  As a teenager, I spent a fair amount of time with older kids—friends of my big sister’s.  They turned me on to many artists from a wide range of genres.  We listened to everything and went to a ton of shows (Some of my fondest memories are of sneaking into Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, OK with a fake I.D.).  It was during this time that I got hip to Pat Metheny, Tom Scott, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and other contemporary jazzers.  I didn’t discover many of the early greats, such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald, until college.

Vocationally-speaking, my focus has predominately been on writing over the years.  Although music was always a big part of my life, I had no inkling that I would end up singing jazz.  I got into singing a little by accident when I was asked to join a blues band here in Seattle.  I ended up singing with that group and a few others around town.  After one of those bands died a particularly nasty death, I decided to lick my musical wounds by studying jazz with the great vocalist Greta Matassa.  I was hooked instantly. It’s been a long road and, God knows, Greta deserves some kind of sainthood status for her patience with me.  I like to say that going from blues to jazz, for me, was like going from playing hockey to figure skating.  Finesse and refinement do not come naturally for a goober like me.  I’ve had to work hard.  I will always have to work hard.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
I think I assimilate rhythm pretty well and enjoy horsing around with different grooves and odd meters.  Being a writer helps my rhythmic sensibility.  Writing is rhythm.

The most challenging thing for me…and the thing I love the most…is scat singing.  Improvisation is a big, crazy adventure.  So many layers to navigate.  You not only have to have intelligent ideas but also the chops to execute.  I am a lifelong student.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
Dance and choreography.  I love to dance, both within the structure of a class or out on the dance floor.  For me, nothing is more blissful or liberating than the almighty get down.  I am happiest when I’m moving.  It’s visceral for me.  And it’s the ultimate tool for assimilating rhythm.  When I’m in my car, I listen to music and make up choreography in my head. (And frequently try out the choreography later, often in the kitchen.)  I’m completely infatuated with Les Twins.  To move like those guys….well, that would be the ultimate.

Another very desirable profession for me would be sports journalism.  I’m insane for football and I love to write.  Seems like a damn perfect marriage to me.  I actually haven’t ruled this out as potential pursuit in the future.  Stay tuned.

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
OK, that’s an impossible question, and the answer would be different on any given day.  I can tell you this much: I’d love to sing tricked-out standards in a duo gig with Hiromi in a cocktail lounge in outer space; I’d love to mainline the wild spirit of Gene Krupa and unleash across the cosmos on the two and four; I’d love to float in the Zen-like elegance of Eddie Gomez, perhaps channeling Bill Evans along the way.  Closer to home, if I ever had the chance to work with Randy Porter, I would die a happy woman.

bourne_fates_cdWhat’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
To always turn back to the music.  No matter what is going on during a gig—weirdness with the room or the crowd, sound problems, conflict with someone on the bandstand, whatever—ALWAYS turn back to the music.  In essence, get yourself (and your ears) back to the present moment.  That’s where everything is happening.  Listen.

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
Industrial Revelation has been dominating the iPod this summer.  Those guys are on another level.  I’ve also been revisiting many of the artists that I grew up with such as The Who (as well as Pete Townshend’s solo recordings), Hall & Oates, and Todd Rundgren.  I just saw Todd at the Crocodile in June, and the cat still completely has it.

Fun Fact…
I have a tattoo of a guy shoving a fork into a toaster.

You can read some of Katy’s writing on her blog, and if you’re in the Pacific NW, she’ll be appearing at North City Bistro on August 6 with pianist Darin Clendenin.  Her album, As the Fates Decide, is available on PonyBoy Records.