Chatting With Jackie Ryan

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I just love to take them [the audience] on the journey with me. I don't always know where I am going, but when I am inside of a song I can feel the audience is right there with me, taking that ride.
Jackie Ryan is a San Francisco-based vocalist with three excellent CDs available. The most recent two are on Open Art records, the latest is titled This Heart of Mine.

All About Jazz: Congratulations on your latest CD, This Heart of Mine. It is an exceptional vocal album and certainly one of the best in the past few years.

Jackie Ryan Thank you so much, Roger. It was so fun to do... a labor of love—all the way through to the mix. I loved working with the engineers as much as I loved recording it. It was the most enjoyable project I have ever done. The musicians are all friends and we took our time with it. I am so glad you like it.

AAJ: Your beginnings? I think that I read that you are from a musical family. Where did the love of jazz begin?

JR: Yes, my parents were both singers, but they were more from a classical background. My mother sang in operettas in Mexico and my dad sang at concerts. He performed all the classical compositions of Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, etc., in all the languages they were written in. But they were also, I think, both very natural singers first and foremost. And they both came from a long line of singers also. My mama always sang sweet little Mexican folk songs around the house and my dad loved to sing songs from musicals like Tevya in Fiddler on The Roof. A lot of entertainment there! So there was always singing per se, but not jazz. I discovered that later somewhat by accident.

AAJ: When did you start singing?"

JR:I think I started at about 4. I used to just sing all the time. I sang myself to sleep at night and drove my siblings crazy...no one could shut me up! When I was about 15 I joined a band and wrote my own material and performed for local dances. Then I got into R&B pretty heavily. Otis Redding type stuff. When I was about 20 I had burned out my voice belting out all that heavy gospel. My mom had passed away when I was 15 and my Dad worked 11 hours a day. So no one was really around to give me much guidance. Didn't know the boundaries of what I could take like I do now. I ended up not being able to talk for 2 years. It put me through a big change. But in hindsight it was a blessing. When you can't talk what do you do? You listen. I started listening to jazz radio at home a lot. Wow! I fell in love with the music! Then I took a music class at college. There I met a record collector who turned me on to all the great music masters. I really owe him. He turned me on to Coltrane, Miles, Mingus, Monk, Charlie Parker, Eddie Jefferson, and Oscar Brown, Jr.... the woiks! I still have many of the tapes I made from that time. I was hooked. I remember the first two jazz tunes I learned were "Lush Life" and "Sophisticated Lady." I loved the challenge of their melodies. Jazz was it for me!

AAJ: Jazz is a minority art and jazz singing is a stepchild to that minority art. So, do you ever feel that you should have chosen another career? (I heard one musician say that "I did not choose jazz; it chose me.")

JR: No. And that's it exactly. If one "chooses it" I would think that would have to be a calculated decision. And then it could not be from the heart. I had no choice. Actually, I think that goes for just being an artist in general. It drives you, pushes you and eats at you every day. You can never rest. You are never satisfied for long. It is not always easy. There may have been safer roads. But, they would not have been easier. I tried at one time and I was miserable. So, as tough as it gets—and trust me it gets REALLY tough at times—this is my calling and I have no choice. I have thought a lot about it.

AAJ: Your sense of phrasing, your handling of a song's text is often stunning. Does this come natural to you or do you decide to focus on lyrics?

JR: Singing is as much about HOW you sing that lyric as it is about the lyric itself.

Just as speech is loaded with subtle tonal inflections that can make one sentence mean something entirely different from how it is written, so it is of course with a song lyric. Singing is a form of communication and speech. Your personality shows in your speech and humor, right? So it has to naturally come through in your music. How you "phrase" the lyric can give it your own special meaning. It is all about how you communicate those words. And to be playful is what makes it art.

AAJ: What attracts you to a song? Lyrics first or melody? How do you select them and your CD "themes?"

JR: Both. I like something that is not predictable. From a musical place you can find great surprises in jazz, because the possibilities for musical choices are absolutely endless. And so it is also with some Brazilian music. Some of their melodic turns are really thrilling. Of course the lyric has to touch me. I love to write, so I really appreciate a well-written lyric. And I hate bad, or lazy, lyric writing. You do find that in some jazz tunes where someone has taken a hip tune and put lyrics to it. I'm not talking about the vocalese masters like Jon Hendricks, or others in that class...but a few obscure ones I have heard. Some compositions are better left without a lyric. The melody speaks for itself. Also, a lyric needs to touch me in some way. It needs to be clever, it needs to be thought out well and most of all it needs to be honest.

I select songs for CDs by just whatever may be attracting me at that time. I'm not hugely into themes, per se. But if there is a theme, sometimes it will just come out after you have already recorded—like deciding what to name a painting after you have painted it, I guess.

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