Chris McNulty: A Global Voice
“ To perform with and to people from different cultures is one of the most rewarding aspects playing music has to offer ”
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.
AAJ: And you did return...
CM: Well perhaps not everyone knows that I have lived full time in NYC for 20 years. I arrived here in 1988. I think raising my son here as a single parent pretty well made me a citizen of New York City by default.
AAJ: Going back to Australia: how is the jazz scene down under?
CM: I'm not that savvy about the "Australian" jazz scene anymore, although I just performed at the Melbourne Jazz festival for nine nights with my band (Paul Bollenback, Ugonna Okegwo, Mark Soskin and Jeremy Clemons), as well as in Adelaide. We played one concert every night and then ran the jam session that followed. It was fun to have so many musicians from all over the world sitting in.
AAJ: Anyone we should keep an eye on?
CM: There are some great players over there. I was struck by several. One in particular, an alto player from Melbourne, Dave Rex, if he comes to NYC he will definitely do well. Actually I just found out he's already here... so keep your eye out for him.
Mike Nock (originally from New Zealand) made significant inroads while living here for over 20 years and has left an indelible impression on all who have studied and worked with him since he returned to Sydney in early '80s. Last time I checked he was still teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium. Mike is amazing. He has managed to carve out a unique niche for himself in the global market place while remaining in Australia. That's real hard to do. I think he still tours internationally, puts together great bands and I'm told also has the creative energy of a 20 year old (he'll like hearing that, I'm sure). Having young players around also keeps you young and vibrant and keeps the music interesting, they listen to everything, so they bring a lot of new stuff to the table.
Another great pianist is Mark Fitzgibbons who I also hear is coming to NYC. I've played with him a bunch when I've toured in Australia and plan to have him join me for a tune or two on my next recording as will Paul Grabowsky, another great player and composer. Paul has just landed the highly prestigious position of Program Director for the Adelaide Arts Festival.
Graham Wood heads the jazz program and WAAPA in Perth and performs with many international musicians touring through and will perhaps also join me on this next recording project. Paul Bollenback and I will be performing with Graham Wood, among others this September when we tour Australia.
AAJ: Do you think it's almost mandatory that Australian jazz musicians sooner or later make their move to the US?
CM: Players have been coming over to the States from Australia for more than half a century and they will continue to do so. I think most understand that to develop in certain areas it's essential to come here for a time to explore, study and play. I think players such as tenor saxophonist, Bernie McGann, pianist Chuck Yates, bassist Murray Wall all came here way back in '60s and '70s. Chuck actually played with Carmen McRae for 6 months. They were all able to make some cool things happen while they were here. Murray, along with more recent arrivalsBarney McAll, Sean Wayland and Mat Clohsey among othershas managed to stay here and make NYC his home.
AAJ: It's not an easy job though to make it in jazz in NYC.
CM: I think sustaining a career in jazz in New York in general has never been that easy, but back then you had the added advantage of the music presenting mainly to a live audience, so in a way you went wherever the work took you. Now the possibilities for education appear endless though cost prohibitive for many.
AAJ: Is it easy for an Australian to come and study jazz in the US? Based on your experience what advice can you give to your compatriots?
CM: In Australia there are small and substantial grants available for young players to travel to the States or Europe. Unfortunately it's after you get here that the struggle really begins. There's no longer a down town existence at low rent available to artists of meager means, coming in from out of town, be it from Wisconsin, Idaho or Australia.
When I arrived in NYC there were a ton of great jazz venues open and many great listening environments which also supported the community of jazz musicians, Bradley's in particular. Maybe things will pick up again, but it's definitely turned into a career for musicians who have some sustainable capital to invest for a much longer period of time or you have to do other things to sustain a creative life.
Whether or not you can create a niche for yourself in this current market really depends on how much staying power, willfulness, and across the board business ingenuity you have. Sometimes you might be better off staying in your own country and getting it to work in a less stressful, competitive environment. In Australia, that can be difficult to sustain for a whole different reason, the entire population is only 21 million. But there are some cool things happening in both environments.
Musicians who go back to their home countries, take invaluable information and energy back with them. A great example of that is saxophonist, Michael Stewart who has managed to create some very cool performances/workshop opportunities in Adelaide. Paul Bollenback and I will be performing with his big band next September.
AAJ: How decisive was for your career the International Study Grant you were awarded from the Australia Council in the '80s?
CM: Well I guess, if you look at in dollars it wasn't substantial. Acting on it changed my life. When I received word that I had been awarded a grant, I was excited but also ambivalent. I'd just bought a house with very little personal savings and large bank loan. My son was only six years of age.
To leave that all behind and consider taking my son from an idyllic setting in Sydney was a tough decision even if was initially only meant to be three months. It was disruptive and challenging and when I look back it must have also been traumatic. How was I going to be able to pursue my career without a support network in place? How quickly was I going to be able to create a safe and secure environment for my son.
It was a difficult decision. I made it knowing there were going to be some positive and negative repercussions. Six months later, I packed our bags and arrived in NYC on frigid early spring evening in March 1988. I had no way of knowing then that those three months would turn into 20 years. I was offered a record deal and after more trepidation took another huge gamble and chose to stay. I recorded six months after I arrived. The decision to stay brought many challenges. I came from a country that had national health care and free education; so many things were not similar.
AAJ: What surprised you most?
CM: I thought we were coming to the centre of the universe, the melting pot, the hippest place on the planet, where all colors and creeds got along, but as is turned out we found the whole environment to a lot more polarized, especially between black and white and then there was the Giuliani period.
Raising a child of color, a son, was really tough not only for my son, but also for me and I guess for a whole bunch of people. There were times when I found it extremely difficult to juggle the dual roles of single parenting, while doing two and three day gigs and maintaining my focus and identity as a jazz musician, recording and finding work as a performer. My kid came first, always.
AAJ: Did you ever think you should give up?
CM:The tough thing was not to give up, and I never did, not for one day or one week in the entire time. Holding fast to the identity I had at 16 years of age proved to be the hardest task of all. I always knew that this was what I did, and in a way it has been the thread that has connected me through the journeys, and there have been many. So my identity as a jazz musician, defines who I am more than anything else.
AAJ: What was the real impact of being in NYC?
CM: There's nothing like New York. You have access to the greatest players on the planet. It's had an immeasurable affect on my growth and maturity as a creative musician. I must say though, I do miss the New York that I arrived to in the late '80s. Everything has changed, but in a way not much has, we still struggle to make things happen.
AAJ: It's not an easy way work...
The life of the jazz musician often feels like a labor of love for most of us. It's a career choice made with dreams and aspirations and the creative life definitely sustains us. Unfortunately for many, professional opportunities and the fiscal rewards they provide are often not commensurate to the time and focus that one needs to devote to maintaining that high level of craftsmanship. That's always a struggle and each of us has to make choices that are not always compatible to keeping up with the practical things in life, like making the rent and putting food on the table.
Back in Australia 20-30 years ago, I was called as a sideman a lot. In NYC rarely, so I got used to the idea that I had to create and generate my own performing opportunities. It's prepared me well for the current situation: I create my own touring opportunities. I'm still unsure what motivates and inspires us to keep going down that path. Maybe once we get hooked we have little choice in the matter, it's in the blood. The choice (if it's a choice) doesn't come without costs and compromises, but tell any one of us that we can't play this music and you'll see how much passion and commitment is inside every one of uswell you're going to hear it first I hope.
AAJ: In your wildest dreams did you ever imagine singing in Russia?
CM: Not quite. It's funny and I'm not sure what parallels can be drawn from this, but I discovered my creative voice and adventurous spirit fairly early on in life. An ability to imagine myself outside the tiny working class, slim on culture and art, universe that my five siblings and myself were raised in, is at the core of what drove me to write stories about far off lands, cultures and people.
I guess many things remain possible if you have an open mind and an adventurous spirit. For me those very same ingredients have fed my journey as musician. You also have to be fearless but careful at the same time but the other most essential ingredient for a jazz musician is work! We need to work, we need to play. This music is constantly cross-pollinating, it's not all here in the States, it never was, nor is the work either. We have to be opportunistic, so we go where the audiences are and very often it's a musician that sparks that interest to travel to a far off place. If people have a yearning to hear this music, it often only takes a conduit or two to bring jazz musicians together, often times it's an entrepreneur and sometimes it's not.
AAJ: Who took care of things in Russia?
In the case of jazz in Russia, much has developed from the efforts of the jazz musicians already over there. Pianist Andrei Kondokov, not only a wonderful musician but a great composer, started bringing musicians over to perform several decades ago. Paul Bollenback was the conduit for me, so we've both been very lucky indeed to be included in that circle. The highly gifted tenor saxophonist, Igor Butman is also involved in bringing musicians over to Moscow. Igor performs with Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center on a regular basis. The cultural exchange has happened through the actions, drive and creative energy of the musicians and their close entrepreneurial partnerships.
Leaving one's homeland aside, I've continued to pursue an adventurous life, it brought me all the way to New York and it's also what brought me to Russia. To perform with and to people from different cultures seems to me to be one of the most rewarding aspects playing music has to offer (minus the long lines at airport security, lost luggage and sleep deprivation).
AAJ: Do you have plans to go back in Russia?
CM: I am actually leaving in two weeks time to tour over there. I'll be in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Ekaterinburg (the Ural Mountains), also Kiew and Khativ, Ukraine. We will be performing in our Trio Delux format: Paul Bollenback, Andrei Kondokov, piano and myself. We'll be doing some festivals, some concert halls and some clubs.
I have my Russian coat ready and hope we're not going to be too brrrrrrrrr... Russia is always an adventure, sometimes just amazing and sometimes tough. I'm looking forward to performing with these two guys though, we have such a great hook-up. Also looking forward to experiencing the sites, sounds and smells of Russia again. I love that black bread, caviar, blini with jam and sour cream but also looking forward to hanging with some Russians. They are really such a warm and passionate people.
AAJ: Talking about that... How do people react to this traditional American music? I know the iron curtain has fallen down quite a few years ago but still...
CM: It depends on where you are. There are audiences in Russia who come out because of a real love for the music and some who are just there because they have the money or someone told them to be there. But it always takes people with a passion to make the connections to bring the artist, the venue and the audience together.
Audiences sometimes take that for granted, the fact that we are up there doing this. They don't see what efforts are made off the stage and how we've made it there. We are there to uplift, entertain, stimulate and inspire so in a way I guess why should they? Still audiences often don't realize how difficult it is to fill a room, especially these days.
In the States we are competing with so many different kinds of entertainment. What I see is that people react and respond to art/music they have not been exposed to in different ways. They almost always see the artist coming from outside as more exotic, more orthodox, especially if the art form originates in the visiting person's culture, I guess audiences believe correctly or incorrectly that it gives them more legitimacy. The crowds turn up either way and the audiences in Russia are often huge. That's a wonderful experience.
AAJ: I suppose we both agree that being a US citizen is not an issue in becoming a jazz musician.
CM: There are great players coming from many different parts of the world playing this music. The players obviously have a reverence and understanding of its origins. So many more musicians from every corner of the globe are mastering, refining and putting their own cultural stamp on this music, either by way of their own folk music, modal traditions, instrumentation, sonic choices or compositionally, so the music is definitely stretching out and perhaps the boundaries are becoming more blurry as a result. I reckon that's OK.
AAJ: What's the trigger behind that?
CM: Education and the Internet have had an enormous impact. There are so many more wonderfully talented musicians and vocalists who were born and remain outside the US. Many studied with the American musicians who were traveling and performing over there decades ago, and many more (including myself) learned a great deal by listening, dissecting and emulating what they were hearing from recordings. There's been more than half a century of sharing, absorbing and mastered the language and I think it has increased exponentially with the arrival of the Internet, freeing up of borders and the availability and access to music data bases and downloading sites (unfortunately bootlegging is rampant over there). So, all this exchange is good for some things and bad for others.
AAJ: How do you thing it will impact jazz musicians?
CM: Only time will tell how this affects our music and our incomes. It doesn't look hugely promising where selling music is concerned, but if it opens up more opportunities to perform live, that's a good thing. At same time audiences, not just in the US, are getting huge doses of other genres of music, cool jazz, blues, pop, hip hop. I heard so much hip-hop in Lebanon recorded by Arab artists, both Muslim and Christian, it was truly bizarre.
The market is saturated with so much music now and it's not [only] jazz musicians who have to compete with that: music, sheet-music publishers, all sorts of areas are also suffering. We have to find a way to attract and lure those audiences back to us, but we can't control what's going on in the big economic picture. Unfortunately I still feel like "real" jazz audiences are shrinking here. I hope not in Russia; it's a great place to perform.
CM: Not by any one thing. I don't use a lot of power all the time but I use it sometimes for emotional affect. I use a head voice for tone and pitch as I do softness. For me, pitch goes hand in hand with rhythmic phrasing and groove. I don't know where I learnt to pull all these components together but I do know that I learnt every one of those things separately by listening to great singers and players, but it didn't just come from listening, you have to do this a lot.
The first ten years of my musical career were spent listening and playing a lot. I didn't come from a schooled academic background but was working 6 & 7 nights a week at a young age, but I knew if I copied certain licks, phrases technically difficult vocabulary, I would learn how to get better, then at some point you have to let that go and find your own ideas.
AAJ: Who influenced you then?
CM: Everyone of the great players we revere for taking this music on a historic journey of harmonic and rhythmic developmentParker, Coltrane, Davis, Shorter, Hancock, Mingus, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carterplayed music initially to make a living, some made it to a place where they never had to go back to it, others for whatever reason ended up back in the scuffle game.
Either way, most of those players cut their teeth on the music of the day and whatever it was, absolutely informed what and how they developed. So I would say briefly that I was informed by the R&B of the '60s because that's what I was listening to on the radio and it was great. The funk and pop music of the day and then the whole encyclopedia of jazz which I'm still just a smidgeon of the way through came after that. I have some R&B sensibility in there cause I heard so many great singers back thenSam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, but by the time I got to the jazz thing, I had already developed a certain amount of vocal maturity, a distinct tone, rhythmic ability and well breathing technique.
AAJ: Who did you enjoy in jazz?
CM: The great jazz singers, especially Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Billy Holiday and also Frank Sinatra totally flipped me out. I had to approach the time and phrasing thing from a whole new place. The interesting thing that happened for me was that because I had already developed pitch and tone while singing simpler music, I think it enabled me to develop melodically and rhythmically in a freer way.
Something else also happened to me when I was a very young singer which I have never talked about but it had a profound impact on me. I sang with laryngitis after getting a bad cold at the age 17 when I didn't know any better and developed nodules on the vocal chords. I wasn't able to sing for three months and was not even allowed to talk, nor whisper. I had to write everything down and have speech therapy.
It was a really scary time. My band saved my gig for me and put in a sub till I was able to work again. It taught me an invaluable lesson, take care of your instrument and get the right technique. I was pretty well self taught and I think breathing correctly is difficult to teach, it took me ten years of solid work to learn how to master the control of breathe correctly, without straining my voice. They were tough road warrior days, lots of smoke, travel, late nights and loud bands. I learned because I never ever wanted to lose my voice again.
AAJ: On Whispers the Heart, once again you get together with fine musicians such as Frank Wess and Ingrid Jensen. How challenging is it working with musicians from different generations and styles?
CM: Well, not difficult at all. For me the music always dictates my sonic and musical choices. I look at the material that I'm arranging and then decide who will suit the material.
For instance I knew Ingrid would bring a very unique stamp to my original music, but I also knew that she'd handle the odd meter stuff and the unusual forms.
Frank Wess I just love, who doesn't? So it wasn't hard to find a tune for him, just wish I'd had him on more than one. I'd written a much more complicated arrangement for "Make it Easy On Yourself," but there's the challenge, it wasn't going to work, so we changed it up and had Frank play over a different set of changes that I'd written for the intro to sit under the string quartet arrangement, which in the end I decided not to use. I'm sure it felt kind of strange for Frank at first, but I think he dug it. He was a dream to work with, they all were. On every recording, not once has a musician not come to the table with beauty and reverence for the music and the occasion. I have been truly blessed.
AAJ: What about the other musicians involved?
CM: Tineka Postma and Dave Pietro, two completely different players, brought some really deep stuff to the table. Dave was originally booked to play alto and flute, but also ended up playing a ridiculous tenor solo on "Come Rain or Come Shine." Gary Versace was magical and just a blast to work with, as was Ed Howard, Montez and Matt Wilson. What a character: he put that penny whistle in without ever asking, but what a great choice.
AAJ: And then there is Paul, of course.
CM: I can't say enough about how much I've learned from working and collaborating with Paul Bollenback. He completed my vision masterfully and he is a tireless worker for the cause. He's also one of those great chameleons: I ask him to deal with a lot of different material and he handles it all with impeccable artistry and always with great sensitivity and aplomb. The success of that recording has as much to do with Paul as it does with me. He's just the very best in every way.
I'm always in awe of the extraordinary musicianship and professionalism of these players. Yeah, well living in New York, you have access to the very best of the best. That is for sure.
AAJ: What's the secret behind this successful partnership?
CM: Well, we both really enjoy the creative process, we work well together and we rarely have a conflict about the music, it's just a "let's dig in and get it done" kinda vibe. Sometimes we can end up in a struggle as far as time constraints, other tour commitments, which can put some real pressure in there. I tend to want to be left alone to get my music charted and correct before I give Paul a look. Always nerve wracking wondering if something is going to work, flow, make harmonic sense, so much of what I write is non-traditional and slightly bizarre form wise, but it's logical in it's own way too.
Paul gets things really fast, he just engages very quickly, just great to work with. Then he'll give me something that's so crazy to sing vocally and the anxiety level goes up a notch. He deals with it. That's a good thing.
We understand each other instrumentally and write with specific things in mind for each other. I really dig how that's developed. Sometimes I worry we don't get to that often enough. We're out on the road, or some other stuff comes up, but when we get to it, it's a lot of fun.
Paul and I just co-produced a hip-hop/R&B/soul meets jazz project with my son Sam, who is an awesome talent and prolific composer. We were able to come up with a combination of musical choices that really enhanced an already amazing project. That was a real blast, to see how and where both of us took it as instrumentalists and also as producers. It worked great. Look for Chap OneStrange Frequencies. Though it's not coming out on our label, it's killin.'
AAJ: In your opinion what is there for people to enjoy in this record?
CM: Well, it's a great sounding record. We use Dave Darlington on all our final mixes and he is in a word, ridiculous! I like the way it flows even though the originals are so different to the standard material. I think we allowed the music to play itself. I book the players for the stamp they are going to put on it, I trust them and that entirely. Once the sonic choices are made, I don't want to interfere with the creative flow. It's cool, it's in the moment, but if someone is real unhappy with something they have played, we'll do it again or if the vibe isn't right. We had a two hour rehearsal as there were some complicated arrangements, that was it. Most times though we're looking for a vibe, a feel, groove. You can't replicate that over and over again, sometimes it's the first take, maybe the second, but rarely do we do anything more than that. If I goof up, I'll fix it and the same goes for anyonethat's the beauty of having it all on pro-tools.
AAJ: What do you want to accomplish in jazz? Should we expect you to mix Australian rhythms and folk songs with jazz in the near future?
CM: No. I've lived in NYC too long. Once, way back in the late '70s perhaps, I suggested having didgeridoo on a recording and I received a blank stare. Thank God things have changed over there. I think it has been done a lot now, however I think you can only use one as a drone over a vamp or modal thing (they only have one tonal center), which would suit some of my music great, but it's not on my current radar, I'd have to be living in Australia and I don't see that happening.
I do think I'd like to put a folk song I wrote when I was fourteen on my next recording though. I memorized it by singing it to myself in bed every night for a week and low and behold it has never left me. The really bizarre thing is that I'd forgotten all about it till one day a few years back I was listening to Hungarian folk singer, Marta Sebestyan and I immediately recalled this old melody that I'd written so long ago. I began singing it over this Hungarian mode and it fit like a glove. It was even in exactly the same key.
Here's something that I just found out fairly recently. My great grandfather on my dad's side was a Swedish seaman who jumped ship in Melbourne, Australia to marry my great grandmother. The Swedish seaman's name was Gellert. We dug around and though the name does appear in Swedish genealogy, apparently Gellert has its origins in Hungary!
AAJ: What projects are you currently developing?
CM: Now, I'm just trying to stay busy, whether it be touring, recording or continuing to develop as a composer. I have plenty to keep me busy, a new project to prepare, four or five tours to complete this year. I'm trying to keep pushing the boundaries. It's more a matter of finding the time and then the inspiration to go for it.
Paul and myself will be special guests for a big band performance in Adelaide, Australia this coming September so this will give me an opportunity to arrange for a larger ensemble which is something I've been wanting to tackle for some time now. I'll have to knuckle down and deal with some learning curves. Writing two string quartets for my last recording was a start and a challenge, recording it even more so.
It will be great to get my piano chops a little more honed. I've finally started to appreciate that if I don't compare myself to someone that's been doing it for 30 years (piano), I cover a lot more ground and am a lot less concerned with the result than the journey, although I do have to set goals for certain things, especially where piano is concerned. It's the "not measuring up" that kills the inspiration, so trying to train that one out of me.
I certainly don't have those issues to deal with as a vocalist, but I'd love to explore some things that I've not had a chance to do. That would make me very happy. Continuing to challenge myself by improving my skills, keeping up a healthy practice regime and maintaining a creative life definitely tests ones staying power.
I'm proud to be a part of a community that not only holds those values sacred but holds fast to the idea that creative freedom is one of the greatest giftsto give and to receive.
AAJ: How about the future of jazz singing, how do you expect it to evolve in the next 10 or 20 years? Will we run short of swing or is it forever like diamonds?
CM: There's a lot of competition in the vocal arena these days. I hear great things on a regular basis. I really dig that there's so many excellent singer/musicians out there, young and middle aged, it's a great time for us. We really don't have to be at the mercy of having to ask another musician to do this or that for us anymorewe can do it all ourselves. I think we're surprising not just ourselves but also a lot of musicians. We've become a lot more independent. I think that's the biggest development and course change that's happened to jazz singing in many decades. I'm proud to be a part of that new wave.
AAJ: Is it still easy to find rhythm sections that really swing?
CM: As far as swinging is concerned, for me it's hard to swing if the rhythm section isn't, however I will force the issue if I have to and I'm glad I come from enough tradition to know how to enforce the law if I have to.
Across the board I still hear something in great rhythm sections here, whether it be Victor Lewis and Ed Howard or Ugonna Okegwo and Billy Hart, that has a sensibility, intensity, drive and energy that I rarely find elsewhere, I think audiences pick up on that elsewhere and when they hear something like I've described I think they also know that they are being transported to a whole other level.
AAJ: How's the level of jazz musicians these days?
CM: I go out of the country a lot and while I'm often astounded by the standard of musicians I find out there, I don't always get the entire "thing." I get a lot of one thing or the other and it can be great, but the real subtleties are quite often missed.
That thing about listening and playing off each other, the level of harmonic and rhythmic development and freedom that has developed over decades and decades, that really happens as a result of intense competition and something else that is purely American and African at its root.
I guess that's what I heard back in 1985 when I left Australia for the first time. I also think on a musical level. I stayed because of it. I think that's why many players leave where ever they are so they can come here and learn about that, get it into their playing. Once you get it, it's hard to leave it behind... now that's American to the core and to me the essence of pure swinga forward moving motion where all three of four components are divinely in sync while creating separate voices.
For me, the dividing line, the thing that separates it from everywhere else, is still that steaming rhythm section. I notice that some of that has been missing of late, players passing on. I especially miss Billy Higgins. Still there's enough going on that keeps me here with a knowledge that I can put together a tour, a recording and invite some of the greatest cats around to join me and just simply have a ball, playing challenging and swinging music or catch a subway and go hear it.
How could I ever leave? I love it too much.
Chris McNulty, Whispers the Heart (Elefant Dreams, 2006)
Chris McNulty, Dance Delicioso (Elefant Dreams, 2005)
Chris McNulty, I Remember You (Mop Top/Elefant Dreams, 2004)
Chris McNulty, A Time For Love (Amosaya Records, 1996)
Chris McNulty, Big Apple Voices (Venus Records, 1994)
Chris McNulty, Waltz for Debbie (Discovery Records, 1991)