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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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.

Where it can be found

Jean Dufy, Joséphine Baker et le jazz band (1925)

I stumbled upon the art of Jean Dufy quite by accident: I follow a Twitter account that’s dedicated solely to posting images of art, and one day several of Dufy’s paintings popped up in my feed. I was immediately drawn to the vibrant, saturated colors—which reminded me of Chagall—and the themes of travel and music that recur in his work.

A site dedicated to Jean Dufy tells me he was one of eleven (!) children, born at the tail end of the 19th century. After a stint in the military, Dufy moved to Paris and by the 1920s was rubbing shoulders with luminaries from the worlds of painting, poetry, and music, including Picasso, Braque, Satie, Apollinaire, and Poulenc, not to mention his older brother, painter Raoul Dufy.

In the 1920s and 30s, Jean Dufy lived in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris and exhibited his work frequently. Throughout the 1950s he was a devoted traveler, painting scenes of Venice, Rome, Athens, and London. Dufy died in France at age 76, just two months after his wife passed away.

I have been looking online to see if any of Jean Dufy’s paintings are on display here in New York City and I’m not having much luck. Happily, thanks to the wonders of technology, we can feast our eyes on Dufy’s paintings in the virtual realm. I think it’s important to appreciate beauty where it can be found.

Jean Dufy, Venise

Jean Dufy, Spanish Steps, Rome ca. 1950-55

Jean Dufy, L’Andalouse

Jean Dufy, Venise, le palais des doges, ca. 1955-57

Jean Dufy, Paris, Montmartre

Spotlight On…Champian Fulton

Champian Fulton is a pianist, vocalist, and consummate professional. Raised in Oklahoma, Champian was immersed in jazz literally from birth: she was mentored by her father, trumpeter Stephen Fulton, as well as the legendary Clark Terry and had her first paid gig at age ten, performing for Terry’s 75th birthday celebration.

Champian arrived on the New York City jazz scene over ten years ago with serious chops and a calm self assurance that belied her youth. Since then, she’s recorded nine (nine!) albums as a leader and she performs and teaches throughout the world.

I’ve always gotten a kick out of Champian. In addition to being an incredibly swinging musician and tireless ambassador of jazz, she’s friendly and funny, a great dresser, and an avid reader. I so appreciate her taking some time out of her always-busy schedule to share some wisdom and insights here. Thank you, Champian!

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
It’s hard to pick just one! At different times it’s different people depending on whether I feel more like a pianist or more like a vocalist. Right now, I am really digging Erroll Garner because he is so endlessly creative. As for vocals, I have been listening to more Ella Fitzgerald than ever before in my life. Especially the record Ella & Oscar, which is later Ella. I think she just sounds so completely at ease and loose—there’s a little arpeggio she does in the first 4 bars of “More Than You Know” that just sends me.

Champian performing with Clark Terry.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
Yes, quite quickly. Ha ha. When I was younger I went through a period of practicing A LOT. Basically all day. But then, as [I] get older and have more to do in life, as well as more performances, I just practice less. Practicing now revolves around maintenance on the piano and the voice, and working on new material. That being said, I think about music and listen every day. It’s infinitely easier to practice singing than piano, simply because I can practice singing anytime anywhere: on the subway, washing dishes, cleaning the house. And yes, I sing on the subway, but only quietly!

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?
Just keep at it. Perseverance is the best skill to acquire early on. Stay busy and stay on top of your game.

Photo credit: Antonio Narvaez

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?
I’m pretty organized; I keep lots of lists and spreadsheets and my calendar is color-coordinated. I love social media, so tending [to] that on a daily basis is usually pretty easy. I don’t tend to get overwhelmed by the tedious office work and emails, so I just do them when I can and try to keep my email inbox to under 10 emails and file everything else away. My #1 tip is pick up the phone. A ten-minute phone call can accomplish more than ten emails.

Fun fact:
As I mentioned above, I tend to sing to myself on the subway because I actually just love singing and do it when I’m doing almost every other activity. I think I’m pretty quiet, but sometimes, people who are sitting next to me will get up and move! So there you go, it’s a tip to get a little more room on public transportation.

Champian will be performing this week at Talde in Jersey City (3/28) and Shanghai Jazz (3/30) in Madison, NJ. Not in the New York/New Jersey area? Check Champian’s calendar page to see where she’ll be next!

Spotlight On…Marianne Solivan

Marianne Solivan is good vibes in human form. We met years ago, somewhere on the jazz scene here in New York; maybe it was at Zeb’s, or perhaps Smalls, or was it Swing 46? I may not remember the exact time and place of our first meeting, but I remember vividly how much I liked Marianne from the second we started chatting. She exudes generosity and a deep love of singers and singing.

Marianne’s voice is as warm, honest, and down-to-earth as her personality. She is equally comfortable singing a hard-swinging blues as she is improvising in Spanish over a salsa groove or tenderly interpreting a ballad (any of which she might have penned herself, I might add).

In addition to being a wonderful singer and a great hang, Marianne may also be the hardest working woman in show business. She maintains a busy touring schedule, she helms her own big band, and she’s a sought-after jazz vocal educator, too. Singers, take note: next month, Marianne will be teaching a couple of workshops (The Art of the Song and Rhythm Section Grooves), in which both fledgling and experienced singers will have the chance to hone their craft in a supportive and challenging environment. Space is still available, so don’t miss out! Email jazzinmind@gmail.com for details and registration.

Marianne took the time to answer these (new!) Spotlight On… interview questions from the road, in the middle of her jam-packed European tour last month. Thank you so much, Marianne!

Photo credit: Gulnara Khamatova

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
Oh…that’s a tough one. My first instinct is to say Ella, Carmen and Betty. Ella because she introduced me to this music. When I heard her sing I fell in love with jazz. She also continues to remind me of the constant silver lining in life. I hear that in her voice on every song. Carmen because she is still teaching me how to swing, phrase, and be exactly who I am in every tune. And Betty….oh man, it’s what I aspire to: to be fully free and fearless. To always push myself further and play with the band on a deeply intimate level.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
Well, due to some past vocal issues I do lots of simple but strategic vocal warm-ups every day if possible. I work on learning new tunes and I shed older ones. I work on really learning the harmony of tunes I’ve been singing and getting more ideas for arrangements and such. It’s not too regimented but it’s consistent.

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?
Oh god! Well, I would tell myself to go and find Betty Carter and stay as close to her as possible. I would also go back to the beginning of my singing and tell myself to never try to sound like anyone else. I would tell myself how precious my own sound is and to never try and change that.

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?
Well, first off, be kind to [my]self! I will never get done all that I want and/or need to get done. It’s just an overwhelming amount of work, so when I am tired or need down time I don’t punish myself about it. I need to rest and to enjoy life and not feel that I’m chained to my job at all times.

Marianne and her Jazz Vocal Workshop students after their successful performance.

When I got better at doing this, I finally got to a place where I enjoyed all [of] this work. It’s part of the deal: if you wanna be a singer, bandleader, front person, you have to do so much of it alone at home with your computer. It can be isolating and infuriating and just tiring, but when I think that it all leads to me being onstage singing, it helps me deal with it all. The payoff for the work, for me, is totally worth it. Every time I get to sing I know all that time and effort was well worth it.

Fun fact:
Oh man…I think I’m pretty much a nut, so who knows? Umm…ok, I really have issues with heights. I have melted down on the elevator up the Eiffel Tower, and on funiculars all over the world. Ferris wheels kill me, though I still try and get on them with hopes that I’ll overcome it. And on a more day-to-day basis, staircases that don’t have the back of each step (so you can see down as you walk up), or glass ones like in the Apple store, put me in a panic. A total panic.

Marianne will be performing in the Poconos at the Deer Head Inn on December 16 and at Smalls, (right here in NYC!) on December 17. Visit her website for all the details.

Spotlight On…Roseanna Vitro

Photo credit: Devon Cass

I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting Roseanna Vitro in person a couple of times, but I’ve been aware of her as a singer, writer, and teacher for a long time. A Grammy-nominated vocalist, Roseanna has performed and taught all over the world. Her projects are ambitious and eclectic: among her many endeavors are tributes to her Southern roots (she hails from Arkansas and began singing jazz in Texas), as well as the songbooks of Clare Fisher, Randy Newman, Ray Charles and Charlie Parker.

I’m moved by the openness and generosity of Roseanna’s answers to the Spotlight On… questions. There’s a lot of wisdom to be gleaned from this interview. Thank you, Roseanna!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I knew I would be a singer since the age of four. My mother, Ruby Mae, is ninety years young and still singing. Her sisters and brothers were all gospel singers. My mother is my inspiration. I sing about everything; it’s in my DNA. Music comforts my soul.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
It was always natural to sing in every possible situation and style of music. When I was young I sang in school programs, competitions, madrigal groups, classical All-State choirs in German, Italian, Latin, and French, theater repertoire, southern gospel and rock ‘n’ roll bands, and folk music. I was solid in my direction. The challenges were “looking the part” and discipline combined with focus. My wild and passionate personality did not lend itself to sitting in a practice room alone with my metronome and scales.

Photo credit: Paul Wickliffe

It has been most challenging to understand I must practice a vocalese solo, like “Moody’s Mood for Love,” much longer than some other singers who are blessed with perfect pitch and a photographic memory. I wanted to conquer every style and sing it as well as the masters. But as you grow up you begin to recognize the types of songs, lyrics and melodies that flow the most naturally out of your voice. The recognition of my shortcomings has not stopped me from choosing difficult melodies plus singing with and listening to the greatest instrumentalists. I take vocal technique lessons every month in my efforts to deal with an aging voice as well.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I was always hungry to learn songs that spoke to my heart first, then intellect, and always [with] a rhythm that moved me. The songs you choose say to the world “who you are.” I learned the popular songs and repertoire I needed to become a club date/party singer in my early 20s, once I was adopted by jazz musicians in Texas.

I can feel it to my toes when I’m singing a truth. Some songs you simply have to sing; you have no choice. Songs like “So Many Stars,” “You Are There,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “Certas Canções,” “Long As You’re Livin’,” “Happy Madness,” “Waltz for Debbie,” “But Beautiful.” I think of repertoire as a collection of songs that fulfill my personal mandate for happiness: A) songs that speak to your heart, B) songs that make a statement about life, C) songs that are silly and fun, D) songs with deep grooves…they just feel good.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I wouldn’t have chosen another profession. I have discovered I can blend into a corporate atmosphere if I have to. I learned I am a good teacher for over-sensitive, talented singers who don’t fit the cookie cutter model. I love gathering vast amounts of information for singers and sharing in our community. I totally dig producing vocal projects at this stage because I love other singers. I have enjoyed the challenge of writing, “Voices in Jazz” for Jazztimes.com, interviewing famous and not famous singers. It’s always about singing and enjoying your life, helping others, and my best gig is being a mother. But, there isn’t another profession for me.

Photo credit: Janis Wilkins

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
I’ve received much advice in my long career. I’ve made major mistakes which cause me to wince even now. I think the most important advice I needed to digest and still work on is keeping my mouth closed when I’m nervous or anxious. Just sing, don’t talk.

Fun fact:
This isn’t actually a fun fact. I think the “nervous” factor is a quirk. I guess being “silly” would be my fun quirk in response to nerves. It’s taken me years of looking back to understand how fear or deep feelings like: “I’m good, I know I have something special to offer” versus “I’ll never be good enough” affect your mistakes.

The wisdom is: Music is a business, and business has no feelings. It’s just business. Enjoy your music, don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t let your success rely on the big power brokers in our business. If you’re happy, you are a success.

Roseanna will be performing at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack, NY on August 5. For those of us in NYC, mark your calendars for August 12, when she’s bringing “Bossas and Ballads on a Summer Night” to Jazz at Kitano!

May: Looking back, looking ahead

Ebbs and flows—of money, of employment, of time—are hallmarks of the freelance life, and I’ve loved the busy-ness of the past six months. Singing has taken me from a film set to Italy to the Caribbean to Canada, as well on short jaunts to the Midwest, South Carolina, the Pacific Northwest, and the Hamptons (and a vacation took me to Mexico for some much-needed R&R). When not on the road, I’ve been onstage or in the recording studio. Yes, 2017 has been fast-paced and action-packed thus far, and I’ve been having a great time going with the flow of busy-ness.

But…(you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) when one’s energies are directed outwardly for too long, it’s absolutely essential to replenish the well, which is exactly what I was able to do in May. Last month, I hung out with friends, ran a 5K, visited the Met and Cooper Hewitt museums, saw a performance of Shakespeare in the Park, went out to hear some great live jazz, and I even saw an opera. It feels so good to be a tourist at home, gleaning inspiration from New York’s endlessly vibrant art and culture.

Shakespeare in the Park; stopping to smell the roses at Brooklyn Botanic Garden; the Jazz Age exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt museum.

Of course, May hasn’t been all leisure. With the help of the nice folks over at Squarespace, I built a shiny new website, which has been on my to-do list for quite a while. And I’m currently doing a lot of preparation and outreach in anticipation of—drum roll, please—the Anzic Records release of THE LATE SET, my new album with pianist Ehud Asherie, due out in October!

The new homepage over at hilarygardner.com!

Looking ahead, I’ve got a few great gigs on the horizon (including an exciting show with Duchess for Lincoln Center Out of Doors on July 28), and I’m really looking forward to summer. I’ve got a whole list of fun summer plans for the months ahead, including a Circle Line cruise, picnics in the park, beach days, beer gardens, and baseball. Summer’s here. Let’s party.

In May, I…
Blogged about: April. The Song Is You (a remembrance of Josh Wolff). Singer-friend Andrea Wolper.

Read: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. A well-written, enjoyable read about a woman who, had she been born in a different time, might have been remembered as so much more than a famous writer’s tragic wife. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. I’ve felt a strong inclination toward doing more writing, and this book was just the push I needed to get started.

Watched: Der Rosenkavalier, Lincoln Center HD. A big-screen version of Strauss’ gorgeous opera, with Renée Fleming in her last performance as the Marschallin. Exquisite. Julius Caesar, Shakespeare in the Park. This production was way too heavy-handed with the Trump metaphors (we get it, a megalomaniacal narcissist is running our country and imperiling our democracy), but Corey Stoll is always fantastic.

[UPDATE: In the wake of Delta Airlines, Bank of America, and American Express pulling their support from the Public Theater, I would like to add that I support the Public Theater without hesitation or reservation. Part of what art is meant to do—indeed, perhaps its most important function of all—is to, however provocatively, interpret and portray complex issues that pertain to the here and now. For crying out loud, the whole point of Julius Caesar is that democracy is fragile and can be undone, even destroyed, by violence.]

Listened to: Double Bass Double Voice (Emily Braden, Nancy Harms, Steve Whipple). I saw this trio’s CD release show at the Zinc Bar and was completely blown away by their song selections (everything from Duke Ellington to Stevie Wonder to traditional spirituals to Billy Joel), inventive arrangements, playfulness, freedom, and communication.