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Interviews

J.D. Walter: Being a Verb

By Published: May 18, 2009
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Singing Style and Technique

AAJ: Now let's talk about your own music. For me, you're the most innovative jazz singer today, period. For example, the critics call what you do scat, but it seems to me you strive for something far more than that. You use sounds in a whole fresh variety of ways. From your own perspective, what are you seeking, what is your thing, that you're trying to create and develop in your singing?

JDW: I've always had problems with the word scat. All we're doing as musicians, and I like to consider myself a musician who happens to sing, and I'm trying to find my own voice improvisationally. At some point in his career, a musician says, "Well, I've copied the music and vocabulary of, say, Lester Young

Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
saxophone
, Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
1904 - 1969
sax, tenor
, Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
1930 - 1956
trumpet
, Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan
1938 - 1972
trumpet
, Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
, Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
, and so on. But who am I? What do I want to do?"



As Miles Davis said, "It's simple—all you have to do is find out who you are and be that." And what I'm trying to do is find out who I am, and, as I said, for me a part of that is being a verb, so I'm always going to be changing and evolving. I suppose what I'm trying to do is continue in Betty's footsteps of pushing the envelope of singing. If you think about it, scat itself wasn't always accepted. In modern times, Bobby McFerrin

Bobby McFerrin
Bobby McFerrin
b.1950
vocalist
is someone who developed his own approach. Bobby, and Al Jarreau
Al Jarreau
Al Jarreau
b.1940
vocalist
, in particular, made it possible for me to do what I do in more of a modern way.



These days, I'd like to get more involved in writing and composing, explore electronica. Already 50 to 60 percent of what I perform is original. I'd like to write more, and find a still more solidified voice in that. And try to do it in a way that hasn't been done before or in a way that is just uniquely me. For that reason, I almost had to stop listening to other singers for a while. My mind can be like a sponge sometimes, and I pick up on their nuances. I don't want to do that. I want to find my own nuances and voice, a continual journey.



AAJ: I've been told by a number of musicians that they stop listening to their peers and mentors as much, so they can discover who they themselves are. Now, I also like to know what musicians are doing from the "inside" so to speak, in two respects: First, how you take a tune from the time you learn it to the live performance or recording; and second, once you've mastered the notes themselves, what's going on inside you when you're singing? For example, pianist Fred Hersch

Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch
b.1955
piano
's teacher said that "Fred doesn't play the notes; he plays what's between the notes." And you too seem to going for something beyond the tune itself. So, what are you experiencing in your mind, your heart, your body when you are singing?

J.D. WalterJDW: That's a good point about playing beyond what's on the page, and something I stress to my students as well. The map is not the territory, as it were. What's on the paper is not music, and while we may want to remain faithful to the tune, we have to add our own personality to it. Depending on where we are in our career and development, we could stray very far from that tune or not. I'm interested in psychology, and there's a book by Colin Wilson called Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution (Littlehampton, 1972), and I find Maslow's concept of the peak experience to be what I'm looking for. I'm looking to dig deep within the smithy of my soul, as it were, and get it out. It's a very cathartic experience for me to perform. There are very emotional things for me to get out, and I'm looking for that peak experience, I'm endeavoring to do what Maslow said, that we can actually create peak experiences.

Some think we need a drug to do that, but I don't agree. Our brains are chemical factories, and we can make our own chemicals. We can have these epiphanic experiences. We can search, and I'm searching when I'm singing, I'm looking to squeeze out the emotions, whatever they may be at the time, whatever's affecting me in my life at the time, or my memories, and bring the band along with me on that peak experience, and with the best players, they're inspiring me to go to those places inside me.



Also, I want to make the band happy—if they're happy, then I'm happy. "Happy" just means that something is happening for us, the emerging and divulging of these emotions. I want to affect people, let them know what I'm going through. I want them to identify and empathize with me: "Yeah, I've felt that way, too." That's the relationship between the performers and the audience—we're a conduit for the emotions all human beings have. And jazz specifically allows us a further vantage point for those emotions because we are not trying to repeat predetermined musical ideas—maybe we can go a little deeper. Through deeper melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic expressions, we can say something more. We can use our entire vocabulary, our arsenal of expression, to say something more.



AAJ: I do think that many of the pop and rock musicians would give a nod to jazz in that respect. For example, [Carlos] Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana
b.1947
guitar
acknowledges the influence of Pat Martino
Pat Martino
Pat Martino
b.1944
guitar
and John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
in pushing the envelope of his music. Your own recording of "It Never Entered My Mind" on Live in Portugal exemplifies what you just said about using the jazz vocabulary to provide a peak experience of emotional expression. I've rarely heard a ballad sung in a way that brings out so many expressions and nuances of emotion as you do on that tune. What were you thinking and feeling at that concert in Portugal?



JDW: Jaco Pastorius

Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius
1951 - 1987
bass, electric
said, "If you think, then you stink." The fact is that I was so distracted by so many things when I was doing that number in a beautiful outdoor setting, it being the first tune of the set, finding the sweet spot on stage with the monitors, etc., that I wasn't thinking about the music, the emotions came out almost in spite of myself.



AAJ: It's as if you're in an altered state of consciousness.



JDW: The Spanish have a word for it: duende the summoning of the spirit. Someone once asked me what would be my ideal situation for performing. It's basically about the audience. It's a doctor-patient relationship with the audience, a symbiotic relationship. If I can get the audience emotionally involved, then we're feeding off each other. In some countries, the audience doesn't clap after solos, and you're puzzled—it feels like a great performance and they're not responding. And then you get a standing ovation and an encore.



But later you realize how much you needed that affirmation during the performance itself. However, the audience in Portugal was very receptive, clapping a lot after solos, and I think that drives us. I'm not ego-driven, but I'm "happy-driven," and I want that connection with the audience.



AAJ: It sounds like you're very engaged with the audience, while some musicians try to exclude the audience from their consciousness in order to focus on the music itself.

J.D. WalterJDW: It varies depending on my state of mind. Sometimes I feel like the proverbial turning my back on the audience. A number of singers have said to me, "Why aren't you smiling more? Your turning those buttons on your amplifier all the time, it's distracting." Well, I've never heard someone say to a bassist, "You don't smile enough." And nobody criticizes a guitarist for adjusting his gear while he's playing. And so on. What's so different about a singer?



AAJ: Those critics may have a stereotyped conception of a singer, as one who stands there facing them and singing directly to them.



JDW: I sang at the Deer Head Inn the other night and I talked a lot to the audience. Someone said afterwards, "We love the stories; we love that you told those stories." And there is a valid point in opening yourself to the audience and letting them get to know you. But on the other hand, you've got someone like Pat Martino, who talks very little to the audience, and then you have a mystique going on. It varies with the musicians, the audience, and the particular night. There are so many factors involved. All we can do is what we do, and hope someone gets it. I hope it touches somebody.



AAJ: I did hear you at the Deer Head in the past, and I felt there was intense communication in that kind of intimate setting just from the music, and also because you had Jim Ridl at the piano, who communicates musically on many levels.



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