With her recent release, Under The Moon, singer/songwriter Barbara Sfraga has proven herself one of jazz’s foremost vocalists. More than willing to step away from standard arrangements and approach multiple genres, Sfraga is not only a talented performer, she’s an innovative arranger.
Catching up with Ms. Sfraga at this year’s International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) conference, it was my privilege to speak with her for a few moments about her album, approach to writing, and of course, jazz education.
AAJ: Let’s start with a few questions about you latest release, Under The Moon.
AAJ: A terrific album. One of my favorite tunes was the Bob Dylan song you used to close of the album, “Every Grain of Sand”. What led you to it?
BS: Well, in the seventies I actually started off as a rock and roll organ player. I was a church organist before that, and than got into rock and roll. So I’d done a lot of those tunes. I did a lot of piano and vocal tunes at that time. So I’ve always loved Bob Dylan. His lyrics are just the most amazing, targeted stories that I’ve ever heard. He really does get to the soul of things. And that one song, “Every Grain of Sand”, just kills me. It’s a song about catharsis, about understanding, finally knowing, it just tells quite a story and it got to me. I thought, ‘let me try it with bass and voice’. I needed to have it sparse. Chris Sullivan couldn’t have been a better choice for that song, or anything else that I do.
AAJ: When did you start working with Chris?
BS: Well, the unit that I’m working with now I’ve been working with for a year and half now. It feels like forever! We really have a cohesiveness that transcends time.
AAJ: You mentioned the sparse approach on the Dylan track. That seems to be something you pursued throughout the album. I’d like to talk about how you reconfigure songs, especially standards that might have a history of more elaborate productions or arrangements.
BS: Well, the thing that I like to do with music in general is to find musicians that transcend their instruments and who can play a variety of genres, not just jazz. I love jazz, don’t get me wrong. I’m firmly rooted in jazz. But I also like to go elsewhere... So the way I approach it is to find people like that so we have more to work with. If you take Mike Thompson and Chris Sullivan, we have a kind of telepathic way of taking left turns through genres and time signatures and those instant arrangements done on the bandstand then form into full arrangements...By transcending the normal approach to our instruments that scarcity kind of just develops naturally. You can really hear everything. If you are using the piano not only as a piano—-you can bang on it, pull the strings—-anything can happen. When I sing, I’ll do the same thing. We have that freedom, we can go anywhere at anytime. I wanted that to come through on the album.
AAJ: One element of your approach which really stood out is your emphasis on lyrics.
AAJ: There seem to be two schools. I always say two—-there are lots of schools—-but one common approach is to view lyrics as just vehicles for the notes. They can be obscured, or bent, and the meaning isn’t that important. But you seem to focus on the lyrics as a method of storytelling. How do you choose your songs? How do you approach interpretation?
BS: It’s so funny that you should mention that. Up until five years ago I was not focusing on lyrics at all. I was approaching every tune as an instrumentalist. I got a lot of flack for that from my mentor, Mark Murphy. He’d say, ‘I don’t understand a word you’re saying. You’re not enunciating. You’re not telling the story. Do you know the story?’ And I looked at it, and you know what? I didn’t. Since then—-because he’s my mentor, I’ve learned more from that man than any teacher since kindergarten. He’s a serious educator—-so since then I’ve been working on that. Now, I pick out songs because of the lyrics. I will still get a little cynical with the lyric. I’ll change it as the groove changes. If I change the groove on something like “Sophisticated Lady” instead of something that was really dark, and ‘oh, my god, I’m gonna kill myself’ into something more like I’m observing this sophisticated lady and letting her know that this isn’t the end of the world. So putting it in three and speeding up the tempo tells a whole different story. Same thing with “You’ve Changed”, doing it as an up-tempo Samba.