Spotlight On…Andrea Wolper

Vocalist Andrea Wolper is a fellow Brooklynite. We met through mutual singer friends a couple of years ago, and I was immediately drawn to her warmth and keen intelligence; she and I spent a lovely afternoon last spring walking and talking in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In addition to her singing and teaching, Andrea is also a curator, activist, journalist and poet, a fearless improviser, the past president of International Women in Jazz, and a black belt in Shotokan Karate. All this to say, I have no idea how she found the time to do this interview for my little corner of the internet, but I sure am glad she did!

Andrea’s thoughtful responses to these Spotlight On… questions hold a lot of wisdom, as well as evidence that she and I both love the Oxford comma. In particular, I find her remarks about building on one’s strengths and making peace with one’s limitations very timely and powerful.

Thank you so much, Andrea (and I’ll join you in a stationery store any time)!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
It started with my mom, who had been a semi-professional singer before she got married. I have a picture by my desk of us singing “Sonny Boy” together when I was about five, and I was always singing, making up songs, putting on little shows. Skipping ahead a few years, I started as an actor, took an overlapping side road as a freelance writer/author, and eventually added music back into my life just because I really missed singing. I didn’t have a plan at that point; I didn’t know that music would become my primary professional focus. I just wanted to sing. So I took some steps and found myself on a path, and at some point I realized it felt like MY path.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Just singing is what came most naturally. Learning what to do with that, and always trying to be braver, freer, more honestly myself is a lifelong process that’s challenging and exhilarating. Learning music theory as an adult (who didn’t go to music school) certainly has been challenging. Identifying and building on my strengths and making peace with my limitations has been a challenge, but that balance shifts over time. And even after all these years I find the business aspects of being a professional musician extremely, sometimes excruciatingly, difficult. 

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I often have a strong yes or no reaction to songs. But I’ve learned to keep an open mind because there are two songs in my repertoire that I reflexively, vehemently rejected when they were suggested to me. They’re actually great songs; I just had to find my way into them, and when I did, they ended up being favorites. I always want to feel an emotional connection to a song, to bring something genuine and personal to it. And I want songs to make sense in the context of what I’m doing. I’m also a songwriter, and a couple of my own aren’t good fits for me, even though they’re decent songs; and some feel right for certain gigs, but not for others. I’m lucky that I get some sideman work, and singing music written or chosen by other people is a whole other thing. Or is it?

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
There’s a Cole Porter song, “Which?” that touches me. It goes, “Which is the right life, The simple or the night life?…Should I read Euripides or continue with The Graphic? Hear the murmur of the breeze or the roaring of the traffic? I want to experience everything.”

I’m like a kid who says, “I want to be an astronaut, a teacher, and a movie star,” only I’ll say a doctor, an investigative journalist, and a dancer, and a human rights lawyer, and a shop owner…and a movie star!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
“Just keep working.” I moved to New York to attend the Neighborhood Playhouse. One day I went to ballet class in tears over some silly drama. The teacher, Mrs. Cole, floated by me and very quietly said those three words. They may not sound like much, but they held a world of meaning. I shifted my focus away from how upset I was and onto pliés, and everything changed. It was a powerful moment.

When I started out doing gigs, I used to worry when someone in the audience asked me to do a song I didn’t know, or told me I reminded them of a singer I didn’t relate to. The guitarist Michael Howell told me it wasn’t so much about that song or that singer: “They like you, and they’re trying to connect with you.” Again, simple words of wisdom that helped me a lot. Oh, he also told me, “When you’re writing your charts, make the chord symbols big enough that the musicians can see them.” That was some good advice!

Fun fact:
I get excited in stationery stores. I earned a black belt in Shotokan Karate. And I am very serious about coffee.

Andrea is performing a concert dedicated to her late mentor, pianist/improviser/teacher Connie Crothers at the Renee Weiler Concert Hall (Greenwich Music House) on Saturday, June 3 at 7:15pm. There is no cover and it promises to be a beautiful and moving evening of music. Don’t miss it–more details can be found HERE.

Spotlight On…Rebecca Kilgore

rebeccakilgore1I’ve been a fan of Rebecca Kilgore‘s for many years, now. I remember the first time I heard her sing “I Told You I Loved You, Now Get Out.” I loved her insouciant, intelligent interpretation and sought out more of her recordings as soon as possible. She’s a girl after my own heart—a real song hound who brings little-known, seldom-performed songs to life and makes them her own.

Rebecca’s records often center around a theme, whether paying tribute to a specific singer (Maxine Sullivan), composer (Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern), or an entire gender (I Like Men), and her singing is a natural extension of her disposition: warm, unaffected, and generous.

Rebecca is based in Portland, Oregon, but we lucky New Yorkers have her in our midst this week, and it’s not too late to get your tickets for this evening’s show at the Metropolitan Room. Don’t miss it! To tide you over until then, she has taken time out to answer a few questions for the Spotlight On… series. Thank you, Becky!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
My dad was the choir director at the Unitarian church I grew up in (in Massachusetts). He wrote music for the choir, and was always writing music at home. My sister and I used to play recorder duets when we were small.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Finding material is the easiest thing for me. I have a long list of tunes I yearn to learn, and it never gets any shorter no matter how many I learn. Most challenging for me is the fact that I make all my charts/lead sheets, with the exception of when I work with Harry Allen and/or Dan Barrett, which is great. I studied basic music theory but wish I had studied harmony and counterpoint.

rebecca-kilgoreHow do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I admit I’m a sucker for a beautiful melody. But the song must also have a compelling story which is economically told. The song “Heart’s Desire” with music by Alan Broadbent and lyrics by Dave Frishberg excels at both music and words.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I studied fine art in college, and still like design, so it would be something in the visual arts.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Hmmmmm…. That’s interesting. Someone told me a singer should be able to sing a cappella and still convey the beat, rhythm, and swing. Don’t lean on the rhythm section to do it for you.

Also, working with Dave Frishberg was always an education for me, not by anything he came out and said, but by listening to his musical decisions and good taste.

Fun fact:
I don’t like to be the center of attention!

Rebecca is performing tonight at the Metropolitan Room. Get your tickets HERE and treat yourself to an evening of thoughtful, joyful, elegant music-making!

Spotlight On…Gabrielle Stravelli

dsc_7444Warm. Witty. Expressive. Open. Wise. You could apply any—or all—of those adjectives to Gabrielle Stravelli, and you’d be right. She is a good time gal with a whip-smart intellect and a big heart. Gabrielle sings with an effortlessness that belies her musical precision and finely honed vocal technique.

In short, I’m a fan.

I was delighted when she asked me to be a guest on her podcast, Big Modern Music, last year. We had a blast getting to know each other and talking at length about repertoire, song interpretation, and making one’s way as an artist in New York City (you can listen to the full episode HERE).

When she’s not hosting her podcast or traveling throughout the world on US State Department tours for American Music Abroad, Gabrielle is making beautiful music. And Tuesday night, December 13, she’ll be taking the stage at SubCulture to celebrate the release of her new album, Dream Ago. (Rumor has it that DUCHESS will be joining her for a tune!)

To tide you over until then, here’s Gabrielle’s delightful interview for the Spotlight On… series. Thank you, Gabrielle!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I have to give my parents credit for encouraging me to pursue a life in music—despite the fact they are not musicians, nor is there a single musician in my family besides me! I have loved singing and music as long as I can remember, and I was fortunate that they recognized and supported that. My parents were real music lovers and played a lot of music from many different genres in the house growing up. I think that was a big influence on my musical taste; I’m pretty adventurous and don’t really consider any kind of music “off-limits” for exploration.

gabrielle047In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
What a great question! I think I’ve always felt comfortable being “fluid” in performance, by which I mean that I never mind if things are played a bit differently or if a player wants to do something spontaneous. I’ve never needed things to be the same each time; even when I was a kid I liked to roll with changes and react to the music in the moment.

The most challenging thing for me has been developing confidence on stage. I’m not shy but I am quite private and being on stage felt so vulnerable for such a long time—in my early days I think I would try to hide while I was on stage, which just doesn’t work. I had to learn to give myself permission to “take [the] stage” and to be comfortable projecting that feeling of “I believe in what I’m doing and you should, too!”

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I’m always asking musicians for song suggestions and I’m so grateful when someone really gives me something out of left field. I also worked in a record store for several years, which opened me up to so much stuff I might never have discovered. Like so many singers, the lyric is probably the biggest factor. You can reharmonize a simple song, but it’s pretty hard to take a song with a vapid lyric and make it work. However, if I really like a song and it’s super short or there’s not too much meat to it, I’ve gotten comfortable writing extra lyrics so that there’s a little more to the song.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I’d love to say that I’d go into engineering or quantum physics, but the truth is that if I didn’t sing, I’d do something in fashion. I love color and pattern and I have always loved clothes—in high school I was the weirdo wearing vintage sailor outfits or items that I would find at a thrift store and deconstruct. I really do believe that clothing is always costume and that what people choose to wear is such a powerful statement of how they want the world to see them.

10959981_919499088083616_9101897692445801490_oWhat’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
“Compare and despair.” Someone I know is a career/life coach and this little tidbit really stuck with me. There’s an element of competition in what we do—that’s unavoidable—but I think that in some ways, social media has exacerbated the issue of being able to look at every aspect of someone else’s career or life and say, “Why isn’t that meeeeee?!” And you’ve really got to remember that comparing never leads anywhere good and it’s also pointless. The truth is you can’t be that person. And they also can’t be you. There’s room for everyone.

Fun fact:
I played french horn for years as a kid. #bandgeek
I’m also really an early bird. I’ve forced myself onto the vampire/musician schedule of late nights out of necessity, but I actually love to get up in the morning and enjoy that time of day when I feel New York hasn’t completely woken up yet.

Gabrielle will be celebrating the release of her new CD, Dream Ago, at SubCulture on Tuesday night—tickets are available HERE. Come! A full listing of her upcoming performances can be found on her website.

Spotlight On…Nicky Schrire

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Photo: Jonx Pillemer

Singer-songwriter Nicky Schrire completed her Masters of Music at Manhattan School of Music, which is how she came to be in New York City, and how I came to meet her. I heard Nicky sing for the first time at one of Amy Cervini’s duet nights at the 55 bar, and was charmed by “Penguin Dance,” a song the two of them co-wrote.

Nicky released her debut recording, Freedom Flight, in 2012, establishing herself as a unique presence in the ever-shifting landscape of vocal jazz. She’s recorded Bob Dylan and Beatles covers, Great American Songbook standards, and a great deal of original music, which seamlessly fuses folk, pop, and jazz sensibilities to create a sound uniquely her own.

Nicky left the Big Apple and spent some time in London before returning to Capetown, South Africa, where she currently makes her home. She and I share a birthday (August 22, along with Dorothy Parker, in case you’re curious) and a deep and abiding love of ice cream, as evidenced by her gorgeous Instagram feed. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into your life in music, Nicky!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I’ve always just loved music. It sounds rather too simplified, but it’s been part of the fabric of my life since childhood. Music was played in the house, we watched musicals both live and on the television, we listened to music in the car going to and from school, we sang songs for fun. I never discussed with my parents whether or not I should study music post-high school. I’m lucky they were supportive and they felt it as natural a progression as I did.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
The decision to study music, both at the undergraduate and post graduate level, didn’t really require decision. So knowing the next course of action to develop as a musician has always come naturally to me. That streak of luck lasted up until I finished graduate school. Navigating the jazz industry after school and figuring out where I fit in has been very challenging.

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Photo: Shervin Lainez

As far as musicianship goes, I’ve always had a fairly good ear and musicality so that has helped me out when learning new repertoire or absorbing new vocal techniques. It has been difficult to really figure out what I want to say, musically speaking, through songwriting, arranging, repertoire choice and stylistic choices. Jazz is a genre that is hybridising and changing as I type this. It should make it easier to feel one has carte blanche to create whatever version of “jazz” one desires, but in fact it makes it more challenging because the musicians and the audiences and the powers-that-be who curate performance opportunities aren’t all on the same page.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song? The lyrical component of a song is very important to me. If I can’t relate to the story being told, I won’t sing the song, in all likelihood. Even if I’m crazy about the melody or the harmonic content or the general atmosphere of a song, I know it will be challenging to delier the lyrics honestly so I’ll forego singing that song. I also tend to favour more obscure tunes over oft-sung songs.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I love food and small businesses that celebrate local suppliers and seasonal, local ingredients. So I’d try to be involved in a profession that aligned me with that industry. I love the sense of community in jazz and I sense that exists in the food community too, where business owners know one another and there’s a great pride in what they do.

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Photo: Jonx Pillemer

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
The best piece of advice I’ve read came from Amy Poehler’s autobiography. She wrote, “Good for you. Not for me.” I love that. It helps us to acknowledge someone else’s path and then swiftly move on.

Chris Rosenberg spoke of life being a pie when I was at Manhattan School of Music. I always think of this analogy. It makes you realise that music or career are incredibly important, but they’re only one slice of the pie. Sometimes that will be the bigger slice, and at other times it’ll be smaller. This visual idea taught me to constantly question how satisfying and rich my entire “life pie” was. I found, very often, that the entire pie was career-focused and it wasn’t very satisfying because it came at the cost of family, friends, and really enjoying life.

Fun fact:
People are often surprised to learn that I was a saxophonist (tenor, soprano and baritone) for about eleven years. The saxophone introduced me to jazz and I played in big bands and did corporate gigs well into my undergraduate degree (I was as a saxophone major for the first year). I also played in the on-stage orchestra for a Cape Town production of Fosse, Kander and Ebb’s Chicago. I lied about being able to double on the bass clarinet and had to both find one to rent and learn how to play it in a week or so. I don’t recommend this modus operandi to anyone! I also learnt the harp for a year while at junior school.

Spotlight On…Vanessa Perea

24421640993_25a85801d1_bI heard Vanessa Perea sing for the first time at North Square, where she was performing in an intimate setting, backed by guitar and bass. Her boyfriend, trombonist Robert Edwards, joined in for a few tunes, as well. I was struck by Vanessa’s excellent time and phrasing, as well as her warm, flexible timbre and spot-on intonation.

A lot has happened since I first met Vanessa. For one thing, her debut album, Soulful Days, was released on the Zoho label to critical acclaim: Jazz Times lauded her “remarkable air of maturity, recalling the interpretive fearlessness of Anita O’Day.” She can be heard regularly throughout the tri-state area in a variety of settings, from leading her own jazz quartet to fronting a funk band.

In other news, she and the aforementioned Robert Edwards are getting married this month! Congratulations, Vanessa, and thank you for answering some questions for my blog!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I was inspired by many different artists growing up. I used to listen to a lot of pop/R&B music and, of course, Spanish music because of my parents. I also studied with a classical voice teacher who taught me art songs and Broadway tunes.

I knew I wanted to perform, but I didn’t know that I could make an actual living in music, and I was falling in love with so many different styles of music. I decided to go to college for music; later on I transferred to the music education department. When I got there, I met some wonderful people who were real inspirations to me. The teachers and students were all working musicians [who were] still practicing and performing; some students and teachers were even on the same gigs together. That was so cool to me. I listened to jazz for the first time in college and decided to study it from then on.

13124763_804275414290_3594342722857042727_nIn the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? 
Rhythm and melody. I always find myself doing rhythmic things with my singing. It’s not something I plan out. It just happens. It’s like I’m trying to sync my singing with my dancing! And, melody. I was always a soprano in choir, so I naturally cling to melodies.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
It’s hard to say one thing. I listen to the lyrics, the melody, the harmony, various versions by other artists… but lately, I have been paying more attention to the lyrics.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I think I would like to be a nurse. I’d like to help people. I think I would be good at it. [Ed. note: I am struck by how many of the singers I’ve interviewed have chosen a healing, helping profession in response to this question. It suggests that what I have long suspected may be true: music is, itself, a healing vocation.]

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
I guess it sounds cliché, but when I was fresh out of college, people used to tell me to “keep listening.” It’s true. There is always something new to hear and learn from.

Fun fact:
I have a thing for shoe repair shops. I love them! I love the feeling of bringing in my old pair of shoes that need a new heel and picking them up looking brand new. I love their history and charm. I actually go to the same shoe repair my dad used to go to when he moved to this country in the 80s. The guy still asks for my mom and dad every time I’m in there.

Vanessa will be singing throughout the summer in New York and New Jersey, from Manhattan’s Carnegie Club and Flatiron Room to Atlantic City and beyond. Check out the details on her calendar.

Spotlight On…Thana Alexa

11232988_10102375596826729_3426312977938051540_nNew York City-born, Croatia-raised vocalist Thana Alexa is formidable.  In addition to being a wonderful singer, with flawless intonation and improvisational skills on par with the finest jazz instrumentalists, she’s a highly accomplished composer and arranger.  Her debut album, Ode to Heroes, was released on Harmonia Mundi/Jazz Village in 2014, and jazz great Joe Locke had this to say: “Technically superior, artistically engaged and emotionally awake, [Thana] shows us that she has the ability to connect head and heart. The results are a gift to us all.”

Thana’s had an extremely busy touring schedule in recent months, performing with her band and in collaboration with her husband, Grammy-winning drummer Antonio Sanchez.  She graciously shared her perspective and insights for my ongoing “Spotlight On…” series here at Ad Alta Voce.  Thank you, Thana!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
Music has been a huge part of my life ever since I picked up the violin at four years old.  My mother always loved classical music and my father loved jazz, blues, soul and funk.  I grew up listening to everything from Mozart to Bob Marley to Earth Wind & Fire to Louis Armstrong to Pat Metheny.  Although my parents were very supportive of my violin playing and singing, I never saw music as a career option, since everyone in my family always had “real jobs.”

When I started college, I decided to major in psychology and minor in music, still thinking that music would always be a prominent hobby in my life.  After a year of college, where I began contemplating my future, I realized that there was a huge emotional and spiritual hole in my life—almost as if I wasn’t being honest with myself.  It became very clear to me that music WAS the only option that would fulfill me and ensure my happiness a human being.  I would say that entertaining the thought of NOT doing what I truly loved in life motivated me more than anything [else] to pursue music.

11138167_10102108336548469_3045587055724263760_nIn the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
As with most singers, I think that listening and using my ears has come very naturally to me. Because singers are not usually taught in the same way that instrumentalists are, we are forced to rely on our ears a lot.  That has opened the door to lots of things for me that I’ve worked hard to master, like sight reading, learning parts very fast, memorizing, being able to harmonize and hear interesting things within a chord, etc.

Because of the fact that I love to solo, I’ve had to teach myself how to learn like an instrumentalist and apply it to my voice.  In doing so, I’ve found that experiencing the power of silence and space in soloing is extremely difficult.  Silence is terrifying, but it’s within the space you leave that sometimes the most beautiful music is born.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
The repertoire I sing varies depending on the gig I’m doing.  If I’m performing with my band, then I sing my own original music.  If I’m performing for an event that requires me to sing standards, then I choose the standards that speak to me, make me feel good, and make me believe in what I’m singing.

12717567_10102579202823679_6537363057341000516_nIf you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
Because I got a degree in psychology and put a lot of emphasis on the study of music and psychology, I would probably do some form of music or creative therapy to help people with physical illnesses, mental disorders, etc.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
“Say what you mean and mean what you say.  If you make a mistake…MEAN IT!” (Bernard Purdie)

Fun fact:
I have a weird snort/cough thing that I do to get rid of phlegm during recording sessions and before gigs. Gross! [Ed. note: I’m pretty sure every single singer reading this can relate to this one!]

The Thana Alexa Project (with special guests Antonio Sanchez and Kevin Hays) will be performing at Jazz Standard here in NYC on Wednesday, March 16th.  Other tour dates can be found on her website.   

Spotlight On…Jane Monheit

janemonheit_photo_billwestmoreland_webAs is true for many fans of vocal jazz, I first became aware of Jane Monheit when she burst onto the jazz scene over 15 years ago after wowing the judges and crowds at the Thelonious Monk Competition.  As her star rose in the ensuing years, Jane was rapturously received by audiences and critics.  At the same time, some skeptics wondered aloud how—or, indeed, if—someone as young as Jane (she made her first album at 20 years old) and (gasp!) as attractive as Jane could really be a true jazz singer.

Amidst the flurry of all that attention, which I imagine must have been overwhelming, Jane coolly went about her business, touring and recording virtually nonstop.  Today, with eleven solo albums to her credit, any debate has long since ceased: Jane is unquestionably one of the foremost voices in jazz.

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Jane and the gals of DUCHESS.

Jane is also a highly collaborative artist, and an enthusiastic supporter of other singers.  During her year-long residency at Birdland, where she hosted a weekly jazz party, I had the immense pleasure of sharing the stage with Jane for a duet of “Corcovado.”  More recently, she made a cameo with DUCHESS, joining us onstage at the Jazz Standard for a lovely version of “Que Sera, Sera.”

Jane Monheit is a class act, a nice person, and she happens to be hilarious (if you’re not following her on Twitter, you really should). She was kind enough to take time out of her touring schedule to answer a few questions for my blog. Thank you, Jane!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I grew up singing, among musicians, hearing music every day. I literally never even considered a career outside of singing! It was just a question of genre, since I was surrounded by so many different kinds of music at home. I think deep down I always knew it would be jazz, though.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Most naturally….that’s probably just my actual sound. I’ve always believed in singing in the most natural way, as opposed to cultivating a sound that seems to match a certain genre or trend. Our simplest, most sincere voices tell the most truth, I think. Most challenging….that would be just dealing with the daily pressures of this business. Growing a thick skin. Knowing when to say no. I’ve always been an overly sensitive person, and show business can be pretty harrowing if you let certain aspects of it get to you. I am far better at dealing with this now, at 38, than I was in the beginning!!

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
It has to be a gut-punch. I have to have no choice. If you choose to sing a standard, a song that has been done a thousand times, and done by legends and icons…you’d better have a reason, and a good one! It needs to be personal. It needs to be true love.

09_jm_2010-282x300If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
Oh I have no idea!!!! I’d have most likely gone into musical theater. Still singing, of course!!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Once, when I was twenty and had just placed second in the Monk Competition, Wayne Shorter came up to me and said, “It’s all about reconnaissance.” I dont think, back then, that I listened quite closely enough. I understand now what he meant.

Fun fact:
I’m a full-on crazy cat lady. I live for horror films and novels. (And naps.) I’m a vegetarian. I have the sense of humor of a fourteen year old boy and my ability to curse is the stuff of legend [Ed. note: Gurl, I feel you.]. I’m watching South Park in my pajamas as I type this. I am not a grown-up!!!

Jane Monheit will be back at Birdland this Saturday, January 16, performing music from the Ella Fitzgerald songbook.  Keep an eye out for her next album, also a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald, produced by Nicholas Payton!