Wendy Gilles and I went to the same college, a lush woodsy campus in the Pacific Northwest. We have many mutual friends. We even studied under the same voice teacher. We both are deeply rooted in classical technique and training, but also keep a foot firmly planted in the world of jazz. We didn’t discover any of these coincidences, however, until we (also coincidentally) became neighbors, living just one block away from one another in New York City. We formally “met” one another on MySpace (remember MySpace?!) and marveled at the many ways our lives could have intersected, but didn’t, until we both moved to Harlem.
Wendy is a rare bird: she’s an active choral singer and cantor, bringing her precise musicality and a bell-like vocal clarity to some of New York City’s most prestigious professional choirs. She is also a lyricist and a thoughtful, swinging jazz singer. For the past few years, Wendy has been singing with the Grammy-winning (!!!) Gil Evans Project, helmed by Ryan Truesdell. The Gil Evans Project has garnered Wendy some terrific press, as well as a debut at Carnegie Hall and a busy touring schedule.
Wendy is also just a swell gal. She’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s kind. Wendy is prepping for her yearly residency with the Gil Evans Project at the Jazz Standard, but she took the time to answer some questions for my little blog, and I’m very grateful. Thanks, Wendy!
Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I think the driving force behind choosing to make music my living has always been the joy and gratification I feel when I sing. It is a visceral and intellectual activity that challenges me, body and mind. It’s also something I know I am definitely not happy without. If I had to choose a particular artist who inspired me, it would probably be Ella Fitzgerald. When I received my first Ella record as a gift at 14 years old, I already loved choral singing, and had an interest in joining our jazz choir, but I was fairly timid about it all. The first time I really listened to her, something clicked. After a few listens, I could mimic every song and solo verbatim, and I learned an entirely new musical vocabulary. Ella unlocked something in me—to imitate her, I had to let go of a lot of preconceived notions I had about sound, timbre, and what was “pretty.” She also basically taught me how to improvise.
In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
The easiest part has always been the singing. I started singing at two years old, and harmonizing with my mom around three years. Developing my instrument and building my skills as a musician has always been rewarding and intuitive for me. Academically speaking, I was always really great with ear training, and not-so-great with theory. The biggest challenges for me in pursuing a career in music have been the more business-related skills: networking, self-promotion, PR, and having confidence in myself as a leader and creative voice. I also have struggled to find my footing as someone who works in both the classical and jazz worlds. Trying to figure out my identity in both worlds, and to find a balance between them, is an ongoing pursuit.
If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I would love to be a voiceover artist. I probably have way too much fun doing several accents and dialects in my everyday life, and I could definitely see myself making a living from it. I also moonlight as an editor and ghostwriter for a couple of projects already, and could be pretty happy doing that on a larger scale. I’m a bit of a word nerd, and making sentences more concise, effective, and evocative, satisfies my inner grammarian.
Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
Hmm. I would love to sit next to Nat King Cole at the piano and sing duets. I think one of the most fun concert ideas I could imagine would be recreating the Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley collaboration. I love all of those arrangements, and the band is just so in the pocket. I’m lucky enough to get to sing with a serious dream band in real life, when I sing with the Gil Evans Project. Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I sing with those guys.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
The best advice I’ve received is the same advice I give to aspiring singers who ask for guidance: be as diverse and flexible a musician as possible—don’t pigeonhole yourself. Certainly, develop and hone your craft, but know that each kind of musical style has the potential to inform and improve upon another. I would also say that it is important to value collaboration over personal achievement. The best artists I know are humble, collaborative people who derive so much from making music with others. If you’re intently focused mostly on just yourself and your sound, you’ll miss the best stuff that’s going on around you, and may even inhibit your ability to truly excel.
What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
I listen to a lot of the Wailin’ Jennys (voices in close harmony are like balm for my soul), Love This Giant by St. Vincent and David Byrne, anything from Audra McDonald, Joni Mitchell, Kate McGarry, Patty Griffin. I haven’t actually been listening to a ton of jazz, lately. I’ve been beefing up on some Renaissance polyphony, especially Carlo Gesualdo.
I grew up spending a lot more time in a dance studio than in a practice room. I took tap, jazz, and ballet lessons from the time I was three, until I left for college.
Wendy will be appearing with The Gil Evans Project at the Jazz Standard this week, May 14-17. Get your tickets and treat yourself to some beautiful music!