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Chris McNulty: A Global Voice

By Published: March 28, 2008

AAJ: If you agree let's move on to what you do best: singing. It's said you have a touch of Sarah, a hint of Ella and a whole lot of vibe. How would you define your vocal style?

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 development—Parker, Coltrane, Davis, Shorter, Hancock, Mingus, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter—played 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 then—Sam 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.

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