Chris McNulty may well be regarded not only as a fine jazz singer but also as the epitome of jazz globalization these days. Born in remote Australia, she made her career in the USA and in 2003 performed in Russia at the White Night's Jazz Festival to celebrate St. Petersburg's 300th Anniversary. How far McNulty wants to go seems to be the million dollar question to ask the author of one of the finest vocal recordings of 2006: Whispers the Heart (Elefant Dreams).
All About Jazz: First things first... How does an Australian lady get to sing jazz?
Chris McNulty: Much the same way a Dutch, Italian, Swedish, German, British, Irish, Scottish... person does. I was introduced to jazz from just being out there on the road at a fairly early age. I may not have heard music of the likes of Coltrane and Parker on the radio or turntable when I was a kid, but I did hear Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis all the time. There was great music on the radio everywhere in the late '60s, so as a teenager I was listening to all that stuff.
AAJ: How did it all start for you as a singer?
CM: I started singing professionally at age 16, working six and seven nights a week, cutting my teeth on pop, rock standards, R&B and funk. I went out on the road a few years later, and was introduced to jazz by way of the recordings of Herbie Hancock (Head Hunters, Man Child, Thrust) and also Chick Corea and Weather Report. In that environment you are immersed in music 24/7 so I started meeting a lot more musicians, sharing music, hanging out and listening, although I hadn't heard much of any earlier acoustic music. That happened a few years later.
AAJ: But I guess you and jazz were destined to meet...
CM: Looking back now I can see that we [jazz] were clearly on a collision course. By the time I got the jazz bug I'd already had two long stints on the road. There was still only one forum for presenting music, the live arena.
AAJ: How was your learning process?
CM: There were no jazz schools to study in as there may have been in the States, so everyone learned about the music through listening to records, playing the music from those recordings, learning the tunes, the solos, the vocabulary. Then you had to create an environment to hone your skills professionally. I got off the road the second time and within a month or two discovered Billie Holiday, Sarah, Carmen, Nancy and Ella quickly followed.
The interest for learning more about improvisation and in particular bebop, was also triggered by musicians I was gigging with. They were already passionately immersed in the bebop thing, so I had people to play with, musicians such as Paul Grabowsky, Gary Costello (who recently passed on) and many, many others.
I remember we would be traveling to or from gigs and each musician would take it in turn, scatting Charlie Parker solos over rhythm changes in the car after a gig. I'd come off the road from singing pop, R&B and funk so at the time the inner workings of improvised jazz was completely foreign to me.
I would sometimes have to do cabaret shows singing some pretty awful music just to pay the rent during those first few months/years after coming off the road, but I'd come home every morning at 2 am and stay up listening to those recordingsso those young players also learned some things from hanging out with me till the early hours.
Listening to Sarah's Live in Japan or Carmen McRae's Bitter Sweet or Nancy & Cannonball. I had some excellent teachers even though we were never formally introduced. I learnt so much from listening to their recordings. They were the very best
AAJ: I know you had a very particular bond with Carmen McRae.
CM: I was really thrilled to be able to tell Carmen McRae in person just before she passed on, that even though we'd never met till that very moment, she'd been my teacher for a decade or more starting way back in the '70s. I still recall her haughty, hearty laugh. She was a great teacher!
AAJ: What happened then in your career?
CM: I had a fairly well established career by the time I was 25. I am not exactly sure why I was able to change course and develop my own style as a jazz vocalist. I do know that I was able to sustain the pursuit because I was lucky enough to get brought into the studio and session scene by another fine singer, Linda George.
Studio work enabled me to make a good living in both Melbourne and then in Sydney where I ended up moving to in 1980. During that period there was plenty of work so I was able to concentrate on music full time and also develop my vocal style and jazz vocabulary. The studio scene started to crash by the late '80s but it was a great sustainer through those early years.
AAJ: When did you decide to come to the US?
CM: Musicians such as Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach and Phil Woods among others begun traveling and performing in Australia on fairly regular basis and in the process started giving clinics. My appetite had been well and truly wetted by then. Attending Liebman clinics not only fed my yearning to get to New York it also challenged me to start thinking about improvisation and ear training in a more vertical and linear way Up till then I was listening and learning everything by ear.
I sold my car, saved up some money and made a short trip to New York in 1985 and was invited to perform at Blue Note's 4th anniversary celebration after sitting in every night at the jam session. I sang 5 or 6 tunes and found out later that several jazz greats were in the audience. I was most surprised when both Fred Hersch and Jon Hendricks come up to me afterwards to compliment me on my performance.
That was a great experience for me. I guess I went back to Australia with a decidedly altered perspective. The experience also convinced me that I'd return as soon as I could figure out how to do so with my son in tow.