Simin Tander: Softly, As In A Morning Dew
For many people around the world, the word jazz evokes a singer in a bar, club, restaurant or hotel, reworking the standards of yore. Vocal jazz has such a high profile, relatively speaking, because radio stations and TV stations largely balk at the idea of instrumental music, and, easy listening-as a lot of vocal jazz tends to be-doesn't scare the punters off. Few are the established singers who haven't visited the songs made standards by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan or Frank Sinatra and their ilk. It may be partly a rite of passage, it's often intended as homage, and more often than not it's the initiative of a record company that sniffs increased sales. When a singer stamps her, or sometimes his mark on a vocal standard, reshaping it to produce something utterly personal, then it's easy to see how these songs can endure. But how often do you find yourself yawning at unimaginative and often quite literal imitations of jazz's vocal doyens and endless stale recitals of standards?
There are of course, many courageous vocalists who follow their own muse, taking jazz/creative singing into new and exciting territory, where improvisation or personal language is central to their craft. Cassandra Wilson, Maria Joao, Meredith Monk, Maria Pia De Vito, Jen Shyu, Youn Sun Nah, Monica Akihary, Gretchen Parlato and, latterly, Lauren Kinsella all spring to mind, but everybody will have their own list, that's for sure. One name to add to the list of original voices pushing vocal jazz into very personal nooks and crannies is that of German/Afghan singer Simin Tander. Her debut recording as leader-heading a conventional jazz quartet-Wagma (Neuklang Records, 2011), showcased a bewitching voice and an unconventional approach to singing characterized on several numbers by her invented language.
Tander moved from Germany to Holland a decade ago to study singing, and the move has paid dividends; in just the past 18 months, she has won has won the Dutch Young VIP award-a grant permitting her to tour throughout Holland- composed music for a popular German TV series, released her first CD, toured Asia, and been invited to the Madrid Jazz festival. Her rise as a jazz singer seems to have been fast, though as in nearly all such stories, there have been long years of grind and hard work. For Tander, there is a slight sense of wonder at her growing success: "It's amazing; in the last year a lot of very positive things have happened. Especially when I was touring Asia and I found myself in Hong Kong, I thought, wow, this is really happening."
Tander's performance with her quartet at the Hong Kong international Jazz Festival 2011 was part of a tour through southern China that also took her to Zhuhai, Shengzhen and Guangzhou, where she was enthusiastically received by young Chinese audiences. Tander does not take her success for granted, nor is it something she dwells upon too much: "I'm very thankful for everything," she says. "I'm self-critical, like any normal musician, and I don't only see myself from the outside. I don't think about it too much because if I do then maybe I lose some focus for the music. I work hard and I do my best. It's my dream to play my music everywhere I can. I'm curious as to what will happen next."
Tander's story is not the typical one of growing up in a musical family: "Nobody in my family became a musician but there was always the space for being creative and trying out things," she says. "I grew up with my sister [Mina Tander] who was two years older than me; she became an actress. Growing up, we were acting, singing and just playing around. There was always music around and an atmosphere conducive to creativity." A German mother and an Afghan father no doubt contributed to Tander's striking looks, but her father passed away when she was just four years old: "I don't know much about his background," says Tander, "whether he was musical or not. I don't have that much memory of him."
The creative atmosphere in Tander's childhood home clearly nurtured in her the ambition to be a singer: "I knew it quite early, when I was seven or eight," she says, laughing. "I started singing when I was very young though I never dared to sing anywhere other than at home. I really wasn't a shy child, I was actually quite extrovert, but when it came to singing I think I realized, subconsciously perhaps, that it's something very personal. Singing was a place where I could really just be myself."
Encouragement came from Tander's sister, Mina: "My sister told me that I should take singing lessons. I wasn't scared but it was a very big step for me. I knew I wanted to sing, I just didn't know for a long time how to start. Maybe I feared criticism. I just sang at home for quite a long time, taking singing lessons only when I was 17 or 18." Singing lessons and the advent of joining her first band were the kick-start that Tander needed: "From then on I had tunnel vision," Tander explains. "I had only one goal."
Tander took a huge leap forward thanks to the help and support of jazz singer Sheila Jordan, as Tander relates: "I had planned a trip to New York and my singing teacher in Holland told me that if I went I should check out Sheila Jordan. I knew her as a singer, of course, and I subscribed to a workshop she gave in Vermont in 2003. She told me about a master-class the following year that she thought would be of benefit to me and she made it happen that I could attend. She's a very special person."
Jordan-one of jazz's great vocal improvisers-helped Tander obtain a scholarship to study in New York, and her guidance would have a great effect on Tander's development as an improvising singer: "I'm sure I learned very concrete things from her," says Tander. "She's a great improviser and she can really scat, but what was most striking was that when she's onstage, she is really herself. She showed me how to reveal a very personal story, to be honest in what you want to say and how you want to say it. That inspired me more than any technical aspect of singing. "
In a 2007 interview with All About Jazz, Jordan said: "Jazz is a music that allows us emotionally and honestly to express ourselves and the lives of others..."- a sentiment that resonates with Tander. "When you create music you create your own world, you are the world itself. You know, in life there are so many rules, you have to do this and you have to that, but in music I have so much freedom," says Tander. "Music opens up a lot of doors."
Having studied in New York, it seemed that the Big Apple's door was beckoning for Tander, but her destiny lay elsewhere: " I did think about staying in New York for a longer time, maybe a year and seeing how far I could get, but things started to happen for me here in Holland. I think it would be hard for me to settle in America, far away from my family," she says with frankness. It's not an option that she rules out in the future: "For a period I would love to live in New York. It's another world. I only know the East coast but I really like it."
Returning to Holland, Tander began to make a name for herself on the jazz circuit, though she didn't feel any pressing need to record, in spite of the fact that she had written and had been performing a number of songs from Wagma for several years already: "People would say, 'Oh, you have to record a CD,' but I consciously took my time. I felt that the songs were not quite where they should be. It was a very intuitive choice not to record before. I didn't want to record them when I felt they weren't ready. Other people choose another way, they just write and record immediately, which is also nice, and maybe I'll do that more in the future, just go with the flow instead of letting things grow, but for this album it worked."
Tander explains the meaning behind the CD's title: "It's Pashtu language, which is spoken in Afghanistan. My father's family all speak Pashtu and it's actually my second name. My father wanted me to have a typical Pashtu name and it means morning dew. Part of me wanted this so badly already when I was a little child so I called it Wagma to make the connection. That's the story behind the title; it's very personal." Whilst it may seem like an intimidating prospect to commit her vocal improvisations to record, for Tander there were few nerves and no need to psyche herself up: "No, I was lucky," she says, "because I recorded in a very nice, relaxed atmosphere and all the technicians were wonderful. I recorded almost everything live with the band, and I just closed my eyes and went for it. I didn't hide myself. My band is very good and it was a wonderful experience."
The quartet that Tander leads on Wagma features Jeroen Van Vliet on piano and electronics, Etienne Nillesen on drums and Cord Heineking on double bass. The group chemistry is pronounced and the music is a subtle blend between tradition and experiment: "I think it has a lot of different influences and I guess you can hear that," acknowledges Tander. "It represents what I like. I like to experiment with my voice and I like to sing simple songs. I try to combine the two and make one story."
Tander's improvisations are striking and her impassioned interaction with Nillesen on "Gallery of Remembrance"-a live tour de force-begs the question as to whether Tander feels more in her skin improvising or singing lyrics: "When I play live I go much deeper into improvisation than what you hear on the record. I've always loved to improvise and sing without words. But I can't say that I like it more than just singing a simple song with lyrics-something I love more and more the older I get," she clarifies. "I like combining the improvisation-my own language- with the more concrete song form."
Tander's unique "language" is better heard than analyzed, but it's something that has been a part of her for a long time: "I had it at a very young age," says Tander. "I always played around with sounds when I was a child." In a live setting-where Tander goes deeper into her personal language-there is greater adventure, and with greater adventure comes greater risk, occasionally, of losing her way: "Of course it happens that you are in the middle of something and you suddenly ask yourself where am I?" admits Tander. "That's the moment where you're thinking again; where am I? How can I get back? When I'm thinking, it can happen that I find myself out of the zone."
Tander doesn't resort to fallback phrases with which to rescue such situations, nor does she vamp: "I've learned sometimes just not to do anything, to be silent and wait to see what happens," she says. "It's easy to overdo things. I did that more when I was starting out but I've learned to be silent and wait for the moment to enter again, when I'm not thinking."
Seven of the ten songs on Wagma are Tander originals, suggesting that song writing is something that comes as naturally to Tander as singing, though she quickly dispels the notion: "I need a lot of time for writing," she says. "I know what I want but it's not always that easy to get it. It was always something I wanted to do but I started writing quite late. However, I love writing and I want to do it more. It's another challenge."
The three interpretations to which Tander brings her very personal touch on Wagma are Michel Legrand's "The Windmills of Your Mind," Pedro Flores' "Obsession" and Nick Drake's "Riverman," songs that reflect the diverse range of Tander's influences: " 'Obsession' was a song that I sang when I just started singing," explains Tander. "'The Windmills of your Mind' I chose for my final exam for my Masters, as a kind of encore. I had started to develop an interest in more simple songs and part of me just wanted to sing lyrics and beautiful songs. I love Nick Drake and I love the lyrics, which have a sort of mystery behind them. Somehow I felt it belonged on the album."
The subtle use of electronics throughout Wagma seemed instinctively like the right move for Tander: "I talked with the band about how we were going to record this music and I had the idea to add some extra flavor and maybe play around with electronics a little, so in that sense I conceptualized it but Jereon [Van Vliet] was the one who chose the sound and experimented with it in his studio." Not all the electronics employed, however, were carefully orchestrated: "'Closed Eyes' was left very open, very naked," explains Tander. "I knew the atmosphere I wanted and we just improvised with that." There's nakedness, too, about the mostly spoken-word "Purity," a poem set to minimalist music. Tander takes up the thread: "The lyrics I had already written several years ago," she says. "It's a song I haven't performed a lot live because despite it being very simple it's also very subtle. The sound live has to be perfect because it's very delicate."
Sound is clearly of paramount importance to Tander, whose singing is often very subtle. Perhaps then, it was inevitable that she had a hand in the production of Wagma alongside Phillipp Heck-who also did the mixing-a working relationship that Tander recognizes as essential to the final sound of the recording: "It's a relationship almost as important as that with the musicians. You have to trust each other and you have to speak the same language. I can know what I want, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's interpreted in the way that I mean it," she expands. "There are a lot of ways to interpret things sound-wise; it's always an adventure. But I am very happy with our collaboration. I am very thankful for Phillipp Heck's work; he did a fantastic job," she acknowledges.
Listening to Tander's singing on Wagma, it's difficult to discern any obvious influences in her approach, though Tander recognizes the importance to her development of Portuguese singer Maria João: "I started listening to her when I was 19," explains Tander. "I listened very intensely for about two years. I really get completely into someone and I absorb it a lot until I feel, okay, it's time to let go of that; I love what she does but in the last years I haven't listened to her so much."
Tander also cites singer Al Jarreau as an influence-perhaps, subconsciously, her most formative influence as regards improvisation: "My mother listened to him a lot so I always heard him. I'd just be singing along in the car to him and especially his way of improvising without thinking about it." Instrumentalists too, have shaped Tander's ideas about improvisation, in particular, she says, saxophonist Wayne Shorter's quartet of the last decade. "I've seen that band a lot of times," says Tander. "It's one of my favorites. Björk was also an influence, but she's very particular and I cannot listen to her all the time. She can be dark, but she's inspired me a lot."
Though busy promoting Wagma with concerts at home and abroad, Tander also finds the time to collaborate with other musicians and in a surprisingly wide range of projects, including composing for television and film. One of Tander's most original projects is the all-female experimental group, PLoTS, featuring Tessa Zoutendijk on violin/loop station, soprano/alto saxophonist Esmee Olthuis and pianist Laia Genc. Its debut recording Songs from the Edge (JazzHausMusik, 2012) is an impossible to categorize, yet emotionally charged collection of song-form/improvisation, written by composer/conductor Hazel Leach.
Another notable collaboration was with Dutch trumpeter Eric Vloeimans: "Unfortunately it's not an active trio anymore," says Tander. "It wasn't really a conceptual idea that we wanted to form a trio; pianist Florian Weber and Eric had a gig and they needed a third musician to join and they thought of me. We played a very beautiful concert in a church and it was really kind of magical. We played some of Eric's songs and some of mine and the trio sounded really complete. After that we played some really nice concerts and there was talk of making a CD. If it happens it happens, but everyone is busy and it was just at a time when I was focusing on my CD. When there's space again we will do something as a trio but for the moment there are no concrete plans."
Then there's Tander's ongoing collaboration with Israeli singer/guitarist David Goleck. "It's very intimate and very different," says Tander. "It was immediately clear that David spoke to another side of me that I don't express in my quartet." The duo had only an hour to rehearse before their first concert together, but the spark between them convinced them to go into the studio, resulting in the haunting Folksongs From Another Land (Kululush Records, 2011). "It's a different sound," explains Tander. The lyrics are in Hebrew. It's a different direction for me and I like it."
Tander returned to her native Cologne, Germany in 2011, despite having built a name for herself in Holland: "Holland was going very well for me," admits Tander, "but Germany is my home country and I wanted to try it there." On returning home, Tander didn't waste any time before she began exploring new musical directions: "I play in an exciting new trio in Cologne called a si & twice no, with drummer Christian Thome, who also uses his laptop, and cellist Jorg Brinkmann. It's a lot about groove. It's not in my name because I want to keep my focus on the quartet. I'm also working on new repertoire for my quartet though I don't know when we'll record."
Recently, Tander stretched herself even more, working with Amsterdam-based David Dramm and the unconventional big band, the Ensemble Labyrint, singing on Dramm's arrangements of The Velvet Underground & Nico (Verve, 1967). Clearly, Tander is open to any musical possibilities that excite her imagination: "I'm open to everything as long as I can be myself," says Tander, "but if I can't be myself I'd rather not do it." There are plans to record a CD with her Cologne trio and ambitions to compose further for TV and film. Tander's priority, however, remains her quartet. "I'll play everywhere I can with the quartet," Tander says enthusiastically.
The traveling back and forth between different towns, countries and continents to play concerts can be a grueling old slog, but for Tander there's nothing else she would rather be doing than singing to audiences all over the world: "I can't imagine just staying at home and working in the garden, maybe for a short while, but then I have to sing again," she affirms. "There is not really another option for me."
Hazel Leach/PLoTS, Songs From The Edge (JazzHausMusik, 2012)
Simin Tander, Wagma (Neuklang Records, 2011)
Simin Tander/David Golek, Folk Tales From Another Land (Kululush Records, 2011)
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