With her recent release, Under The Moon
, singer/songwriter Barbara Sfraga has proven herself one of jazz’s foremost vocalists. More than willing to step away from standard arrangements and approach multiple genres, Sfraga is not only a talented performer, she’s an innovative arranger.
Catching up with Ms. Sfraga at this year’s International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) conference, it was my privilege to speak with her for a few moments about her album, approach to writing, and of course, jazz education.
AAJ: Let’s start with a few questions about you latest release, Under The Moon.
AAJ: A terrific album. One of my favorite tunes was the Bob Dylan song you used to close of the album, “Every Grain of Sand”. What led you to it?
BS: Well, in the seventies I actually started off as a rock and roll organ player. I was a church organist before that, and than got into rock and roll. So I’d done a lot of those tunes. I did a lot of piano and vocal tunes at that time. So I’ve always loved Bob Dylan. His lyrics are just the most amazing, targeted stories that I’ve ever heard. He really does get to the soul of things. And that one song, “Every Grain of Sand”, just kills me. It’s a song about catharsis, about understanding, finally knowing, it just tells quite a story and it got to me. I thought, ‘let me try it with bass and voice’. I needed to have it sparse. Chris Sullivan couldn’t have been a better choice for that song, or anything else that I do.
AAJ: When did you start working with Chris?
BS: Well, the unit that I’m working with now I’ve been working with for a year and half now. It feels like forever! We really have a cohesiveness that transcends time.
AAJ: You mentioned the sparse approach on the Dylan track. That seems to be something you pursued throughout the album. I’d like to talk about how you reconfigure songs, especially standards that might have a history of more elaborate productions or arrangements.
BS: Well, the thing that I like to do with music in general is to find musicians that transcend their instruments and who can play a variety of genres, not just jazz. I love jazz, don’t get me wrong. I’m firmly rooted in jazz. But I also like to go elsewhere... So the way I approach it is to find people like that so we have more to work with. If you take Mike Thompson and Chris Sullivan, we have a kind of telepathic way of taking left turns through genres and time signatures and those instant arrangements done on the bandstand then form into full arrangements...By transcending the normal approach to our instruments that scarcity kind of just develops naturally. You can really hear everything. If you are using the piano not only as a piano—-you can bang on it, pull the strings—-anything can happen. When I sing, I’ll do the same thing. We have that freedom, we can go anywhere at anytime. I wanted that to come through on the album.
AAJ: One element of your approach which really stood out is your emphasis on lyrics.
AAJ: There seem to be two schools. I always say two—-there are lots of schools—-but one common approach is to view lyrics as just vehicles for the notes. They can be obscured, or bent, and the meaning isn’t that important. But you seem to focus on the lyrics as a method of storytelling. How do you choose your songs? How do you approach interpretation?
BS: It’s so funny that you should mention that. Up until five years ago I was not focusing on lyrics at all. I was approaching every tune as an instrumentalist. I got a lot of flack for that from my mentor, Mark Murphy. He’d say, ‘I don’t understand a word you’re saying. You’re not enunciating. You’re not telling the story. Do you know the story?’ And I looked at it, and you know what? I didn’t. Since then—-because he’s my mentor, I’ve learned more from that man than any teacher since kindergarten. He’s a serious educator—-so since then I’ve been working on that. Now, I pick out songs because of the lyrics. I will still get a little cynical with the lyric. I’ll change it as the groove changes. If I change the groove on something like “Sophisticated Lady” instead of something that was really dark, and ‘oh, my god, I’m gonna kill myself’ into something more like I’m observing this sophisticated lady and letting her know that this isn’t the end of the world. So putting it in three and speeding up the tempo tells a whole different story. Same thing with “You’ve Changed”, doing it as an up-tempo Samba.
AAJ: You don’t always present the expected reading of a lyric. I thought that was a really fascinating element to the album. “Stardust” stood out for me in that way. I kept asking myself, ‘Is that all really in there? Why haven’t I heard it before?’
BS: It’s all there. It really is. “Stardust” is actually the very first song I have any recollection of. My mother used to play it on piano. I was at her knee while she way playing. I mean I was like two, or three. That piece really stuck with me.
AAJ: Is that how you got started?
BS: Yes. My mom. My mom was a pianist. We had a big, old upright. I started on that when I was four. Then they got me some lessons, but the teacher sent me home because I wasn’t learning to read, I was just playing by ear mostly, unfortunately. So those lessons ended and I continued to do things on my own. Picking out melodies and some chords, just teaching myself. Then they gave me formal lessons when they bought an organ when I was about ten or so. Then, when a church organist’s job came up, my mom said, ‘Why don’t you go out for that’ I think I was in eighth grade. So I did, and I did that until I graduated high school. Simultaneously, I got into the rock band thing. I ventured a little into rock singing, but I wasn’t really singing very much back then. Somehow I was singing classical back then, and I went to school for singing. I knew I wanted to be either an art major or a music major.
AAJ: So you were trying to make a lot of money?
BS: Yes! Exactly. And Jazz no less.
AAJ: It sounds like parental support played a large role.
BS: Yes, they were very supportive. To this day they’re very supportive. Worried, but supportive.
AAJ: Aren’t they always worried? They always find something.
BS: True. But they’ve always been there. My very earliest memories are of my mom teaching me the great standards. The American song book. “Stardust” was always such a beautiful song to me. And she always played the verse, so I learned it. I’ve had that verse in my head since I was three. So I sang it all through my life, but I never sang it live until a few years ago. I just said, ‘I should do this.’ I never imagined it would turn into a kind of reggae-ish thing, though.
AAJ: It really shows how even a tune that’s been played so many times can still be reworked, how you can find new facets in the music just by changing your perspective, adjusting your approach.
We should talk a little about that. I mean, here we are at IAJE, we should talk a little about jazz education.
BS: Yes, we certainly should.
AAJ: You’re pushing jazz in a different direction, bringing in new instrumentation, approaching pop songs, experimenting with a more minimalist style. Where do you think jazz singing is going?
BS: I think that is where it’s going. People like Cassandra [Wilson], Patricia Barber, Ian Shaw, Mark Murphy. This is the kind of thing that Dizzy and Louis Armstrong were talking about way back when. They were doing this. In their time they were pushing the music forward. But there are those folks who want to keep the music where it was, the so called ‘jazz police’.
AAJ: I was just listening to a panel on the jazz police. It seems the more we talk about the jazz police, and where jazz is going, or ask if jazz is dead, and or how we can preserve it, we’re already taking the wrong approach. We’re always looking back instead of focusing on what’s next.
BS: That’s right. My feeling is—-like I told you. Church organist to rock keyboardist, then school for classical voice—-I found jazz late, in the eighties. That was when I was in my twenties. That’s when I really started paying attention. I loved it. I was singing nothing but jazz—straight ahead jazz—-for a long time.
AAJ: What about jazz...
BS: Got me? One of the first people I ever heard was Mark Murphy and I stopped and thought, ‘What is that?’ Mark Murphy, Judy Roberts. I heard unconventional jazz singers from the beginning. Along with Anita O’Day and Ella and Billy, who I loved. There’s just a feeling you get from hearing jazz singers who really wear their hearts on their sleeves. Good jazz singing—like Mark’s—-Mark can move me to tears. Not many can do that today. I can tell you the ones that do. Rene Marie, her delivery is such that you can be really moved. That kind of singing really gets me.
AAJ: More of a personal honesty...
BS: A total honesty. And believability.
AAJ: I’m wondering what it is that holds jazz back from the mass market.
BS: Marketing. Well, that’s one of the things. But there are people who are looking to hold the genre back from growth, which is unfair to the genre, as well as the folks who are playing it. But, you know, you take your life in your own hands when you do this. You do it for the passion. You do it for the real reasons. You don’t care what other folks say. You just do what you do, and hope people get on the train.
AAJ: Do you do any teaching?