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…Kat Edmonson

Kat Edmonson inhabits a unique musical world. She hails from Texas, has headlined Austin City Limits, and she’s performed extensively with Lyle Lovett, but you’d be wrong to pigeonhole her as a country singer. Come to think of it, you’d be wrong to pigeonhole Kat at all.

The songs she writes nimbly genre-hop, encompassing mid-century pop, bossa nova, and jazz. She’s covered Brian Wilson, the Cardigans, and the Cure, but she’s equally comfortable in the realm of jazz standards (dig her swinging “Mountain Greenery” in Woody Allen’s latest film, Café Society). In fact, the first time I heard Kat in person was with the EarRegulars at Winter Jazzfest last year. Her rendition of “The Very Thought of You” was earnestly sweet, but not cloying, thanks to her keenly intelligent interpretation. The audience, myself included, was spellbound.

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The gals of DUCHESS in the studio with Kat.

Imagine, then, my delight when Kat contacted DUCHESS to sing some backgrounds on her upcoming release for Sony Masterworks. Amy, Melissa, and I had such a great time with Kat in the studio that we invited her to be our special guest for our upcoming variety hour at Jazz Standard next week…and she accepted! So, if you haven’t done so already, get your tickets now for what promises to be a hilarious, happy, swinging night of music and laughs on Wednesday, November 30.

And, to tide you over until then, here’s Kat’s Spotlight On… interview. Thank you, Kat! See you next week!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I identified myself as a singer as early as I can remember. As a child, I would sit and watch Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly on the screen and I knew that one day I would be up there with them. It never occurred to me until much later that I wouldn’t actually get to work beside them but the spirit of what they did lives on in my heart.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Writing songs has been most natural for me. I never stopped to consider what it took to write a song or the right way to write a song until I became an adult. I started as a child in a primitive way by sounding out my feelings through melody and words that seemed to ring true. It was almost as though I was pulling the music out of the air. It’s perhaps more painstaking of a process now but only because I am much more exacting in the way I write. I can’t settle for anything less than the truth. Otherwise, I have no way to gauge whether my work is good or not.

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Kat singing in Woody Allen’s “Café Society.”

I never thought I’d feel this way but accepting the sound of my voice has become the most challenging thing. I always loved my voice until fairly recently when people began to criticize it harshly in articles and reviews. After that, I began dreading hearing myself and singing in front of audiences became excruciating for me at times. It’s been a very difficult process but I am working through it and I’ve learned about myself in the process. I’ve learned how to love this voice no matter what other people think of it. My voice is my voice and I don’t need anyone’s permission to sing. And I have no choice but to sing. It’s what I’m called to do.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
Often times, I will hear a song and think, “boy, I wish I had written that” and that makes me want to sing it.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I would be an actor. Incidentally, I am currently in acting school at The William Esper Studio in Manhattan and I love it. I’m also learning how to tap dance which is some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I think screen-writing could be cool. I could also see myself being a food-writer because I love reading about food so much! When I was a kid, I wanted to be a jingle-writer but that’s not such a big profession these days. I think it would be fun to write greeting cards!

kat_edmonson_2609679bWhat’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Be yourself. I’d heard that so many different times in my life when I didn’t know what it meant. I know now. It means be yourself at all costs. Be yourself when the people who support you the most don’t understand what you are doing. Be yourself when YOU don’t even understand what you are doing. Follow that calling in your heart even if you can barely hear it amidst all the other noise and be yourself. It’s always the way to go.

Fun fact:
I have a predilection for old people and the sort things they like. I’m talking about elderly people and the kinds of activities, interests, and places that most of my peers consider boring and has-been. And nothing bores me more than trends. If I see a whole bunch of people going in one direction, my natural reaction is to go the other way, probably even in spite of myself! I just love exploring and discovering things on my own. At heart, I’m a quirky old lady and happily so.

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!

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!