Carmen Lundy Presents... Carmen Lundy

R.J. DeLuke By

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I'm very privileged, because I know that to do this and to do this music well requires a great deal of skill and commitment and love of sound and art and rhythm and melody and Americana.
She writes her own music, complete with original lyrics. She paints, and her oil works have been exhibited, as well as sold to private collectors. She’s played the lead in Sophisticated Ladies and played Billie Holiday in They Were All Gardenias on the New York stage.

But mostly, she’s a singer with a rich voice that is both ebullient and stylish. She’s the first jazz vocal major at the University of Miami back in the 1970s. She’s Carmen Lundy, one of a group of singers that is carrying on now that the early original greats are leaving. She sings jazz at a time when recording sales are down in all musical genres and gigs are not as plentiful as they should be for true artists. With her new CD, This is Carmen Lundy—a collection of entirely original songs and lyrics — she hopes to make a statement that will carry on and make an enduring mark, a lasting example of who she is. Lundy bares herself in the new recording.

And she is unafraid of the designation “jazz singer.” Some singers have shunned that label. And let’s face it, “jazz singer” doesn’t exactly make most record producers, motivated by dollar signs, jump for joy because it’s not going to make them rich.

It doesn’t matter. Carmen Lundy proudly embraces it.

“I think not everyone can be a jazz artist. Even if you’re referred to as a jazz artists, when it comes to the music you cannot get away with anything but the real deal. So even though you’re called a jazz artist, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily are. I think it’s just the way the music plays on, and what you really have to say and what it sounds like and where it’s coming from and all of that,” said says. “And I’m very privileged, because I know that to do this and to do this music well requires a great deal of skill and commitment and love of sound and art and rhythm and melody and Americana.”

“If you’re in that elite club?” she says gleefully. “Yes, I have no problem with ever being referred to as a jazz vocalist. I think it’s a unique moniker. I’m very happy to be a member of this society.”

And she hopes the new music can help people in the post September 11 atmosphere that has some people still stepping through life with trepidation. While she’s included original songs in all of her previous CDs, this is her first all-original recording.

“I think that this turn of events in our history as a nation has promoted the awareness and the need for realness in music. We can pretty much count all the disposable kind of music as just being part of our appetite. Kind of like how they refer to junk food, I guess. Not to put any kind of music down, because I’m not doing that. I think this is a point in time where people really want to hear something that’s real, straight from the heart, AND libido sometimes, just for a distraction” she says with a warm laugh. “But I kind of think we really want to just get a feel and sense that—this is OK, we are fine. We are gonna get through this. Comfort and truth. And I just hope a couple of my tunes talk to you like that when you hear my music. That’s all I can ask. That something says: This is really how I feel, about whatever subject matter. And just go straight to the heart and I don’t care so much whether it’s the best singing ever that I’ve done, or the worst. But when we did this CD and played these songs, it had a vibrancy, there was a creative energy flowing in the studio and hopefully we got that on tape. And that’s all I can really say.”

The new CD has a strong array of players, including Bobby Watson’s alto sax and horn arrangements by the sax master and longtime Lundy friend. Drummers Victor Lewis and Ralph Peterson and pianists Onaje Allan Gumbs and Anthony Wonsey are among the stellar cast.

“I think I’ve been working on these tunes for about two years,” she says. “Some of them were written in the last couple years. And during that period, a few of them I would play before I recorded them, so I could get some feedback from the audience and also from the musicians in terms of what the tune played like and if it had a vibe, or if it needed some work. And the songs actually developed that way, into what we hear on this record. They’ll probably change a little bit. I might do something faster or slower, live – that sort of interpretive thing that I like to continue. But it’s all original music.”

“I think I’ve been working on these tunes for about two years. Some of them were written in the last couple years. And during that period, a few of them I would play before I recorded them, so I could get some feedback from the audience and also from the musicians in terms of what the tune played like and if it had a vibe, or if it needed some work. And the songs actually developed that way, into what we hear on this record. They’ll probably change a little bit. I might do something faster or slower, live – that sort of interpretive thing that I like to continue. But it’s all original music.

“It was really my brother’s [bassist Curtis Lundy, also producer of the CD] inspiration. It was his idea, his suggestion that we go for new music. And this is something that he’s done too. This is sort of an outgrowth, I think, of what he started, really, prior to our making this record, which is something, I must say, I hadn’t really thought about until now, talking with you. So the whole idea is really because of his suggestion, to make this kind of a statement now in my career, because I previously have been associated with singing standards, lots of the familiar repertoire done by all the great jazz artists. It was a certain point in my career where I felt like I needed that signature piece and didn’t quite know which one it was. Hopefully, out of nine, something will come of it.”

The CD has a contemporary feel, but was it by design?

“No. Not at all by design. I don’t really approach composition from a clinical point of view. It’s really more of an inspiration. I don’t stop and think: ‘Gee, I’m gonna write a contemporary kind of a song.’ You don’t just stop and make that kind of a decision, because songs don’t get born like that really. I mean if someone called me up and said, ‘Look Miss Lundy, we’d like you to write a jingle for blah-blah-blah dental corporation.’ Then you’d know they want something that has to do with teeth. But otherwise, the whole writing experience is more a stream of consciousness, more of a kind of being there when the songs happens. And then the song develops and then other musicians may play it. And you think about what it would sound like if it were approached in a totally different way than you originally conceived it. All those things happen. So I don’t know that I stop to make those kinds of final decisions about what the song is and what market it’s going to reach. Oh gosh, that’s too much for me to think about [laughter].”

In composing, the melody is what usually comes to her before anything else. “Then it’s harmony. Or it’s harmony and melody simultaneously. With the harmony and melody sometimes the rhythm is just there. And sometimes not. The lyrics? It’s a beautiful thing when you hear it all at once, you know? You hear the words, you hear the music, you hear the chords, you hear the rhythm, you hear everything. It’s just there, happening. Other times you develop an idea. Some kind of a thought, or musical phrase will evolve into some other part of what the initial creative thought was, the idea, the melody. So I think it’s the melody [first]. Every now and then you hear the words at the same time, but I guess it’s different for every writer. I don’t know that it’s one particular process for all.”

That’s cool coming from a woman whose formative years in the late 60s and into the 70s was influenced by the rock and folk that swamped television and radio was emblematic of those times. But her exposure to all kinds of music started in early childhood having come from a musical family.

“The sound of music was just something that was in my sight line all the time. My mom was a wonderful singer of gospel music. She had a group that was made up of siblings, as well as extended family and community members. They sang together for 40 years. I have an aunt who plays incredible piano. An uncle who played organ. Another aunt who sang professionally for a little while. So there are many, many influences that were just inside my family life as a kid. I guess when I got to be a little older, I was crazy for the Beatles and crazy for Carole King, and Dionne Warwick and Robert Flack and on and on.”

Eventually, jazz crept into her life and she found its improvisational and artful nature took her to a place where she could flourish. A high school friend and pianist she worked with at that time, David Woodstein, turned her on to it.

“We actually started a band together and while he was accompanying me he approached the piano kind of different. I liked his harmonies and I liked the way he made simple chords sound very luscious and thick and that’s how I discovered jazz. He introduced me to Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock and Cannonball Adderly and so many other great artists. Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And through this one person I was introduced to all the great jazz artists, and that sparked my curiosity and I began to get very serious about the music and discover the vocalists. I went into college [the University of Miami] and became a jazz major and learned my craft and performed professionally when I was in school. Kind of paid my way like that. Ultimately began to write music and try to say something that’s true and in the tradition of jazz music and of the time that we live in. Hopefully, it will still resonate beyond now. That’s all I can hope for.”

Lundy’s influences read like most singers of her era might, including all the classic great singers. And why not? But there were others as well, classic in their own idioms. “Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae. Phyllis Hyman, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and on and on. Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Nina Simone. Can I stop now? Mahalia Jackson. Leontyne Price,” she says with fondness and a sense of elation.

Anyone particularly special above the others? “Betty Carter, for sure. Without a doubt,” she says. “Just who she was as a musician and an artist. Not just the improvisation. She really sang a song. She interpreted a lyric. She was unique and had her own idea. She was original. She had a heart of gold. She was inspiring. She was a great teacher.”

Lundy actually entered college listed as studying opera, but that was only a way of pursuing an education that involved singing. “Because it was clear that I did not want to do education as a major. The only option I had was to enter the opera program as a vocal major. It was as a result of entering that opera program that I discovered the jazz school at the same university. And that’s how I was able to develop my interest in jazz music and maintain two degrees at once. So I was in the classical program at the same time I was in the jazz program. And then I ultimately became a jazz major and actually was the first jazz vocal major at the University of Miami.”

She didn’t stick around long after graduation, moving to the Big Apple, which was the world center of jazz music. Such a move would be daunting for anyone, but Lundy found that she could survive and blossom. And she found that musicians are appreciative and supportive of talent – a circumstance that she still treasures today.

“I moved to New York in the late 70s and just did my thing. Had a great, great experience in New York. Working with a lot of veteran jazz musicians and hearing some of the great, great artists, all of whom were alive, as opposed to now. This was just a great time for me, developmentally, to be in the hub and experience the music that way and to play so much and to get something happening.”

“There was Don Pullen. A guy named Bucky Thorpe who had an organ trio and trumpet gig in Harlem up at the Red Rooster. There was Walter Bishop Jr. I had one of my first record dates with him. So many other people. Phyllis Hyman was wonderful to me and supportive. My teachers, my professors, my mentors. I had a great support system. So many great musicians along the way. Bobby Watson, my brother Curtis Lundy. As I mentioned Betty Carter. Sarah Vaughan was always kind and Carmen McRae was always very kind and caring and willing to share herself like that. I’ve had some great experience with Shirley Horn and Nancy Wilson and I’ve actually shared the stage with Nancy Wilson and Betty Carter. Even after having left New York and spending the last few years here in Los Angeles, it’s the same thing. There’s a great supportive, interconnected vibration that hopefully finds its way and remains in music.

“The jazz community, globally speaking, we are a community that is very close knit. We’re well aware of the contribution of what we’re making to the art form. I think we’re very aware of one another. The jazz community in New York is very intra-supported. Very interactively supported, the way I remember it anyway. The music came first, so that when you come to the bandstand and you’re playing the music, then that’s what really counts and that’s what people really want to hear. So you get in there and hopefully you can bring some music to the stage. That’s something that New York musicians, and I think musicians all around the world, embrace. When they hear something that’s there, how could you not acknowledge it? So I think that I’m very fortunate to have come into the city at a time when there was a vibrant community. They were more than happy to bring you on.”

So Lundy has been able to attain success in that community. And while some musicians seem to be lamenting the current economic cycle in jazz – that clubs and concert venues may be dwindling a bit – she doesn’t see it that way.

“I can’t talk about the club scene nationwide. In New York, I don’t really have a perspective because I haven’t lived there for many years. I live in Los Angeles. The club scene in Los Angeles reflects familiarity, I would say. In other words, the better known jazz venues will more than likely bring artists who are better known from the jazz community throughout the world into these venues. That’s a certain club scene. Then you have artists and musicians who are out there just putting the music out. I don’t frequent live music as often, as much as I might have at some other point in my career, because I’m too busy out there doing it. But the club scene is thriving and I think the club scene will thrive.”

It’s a wonder she can find time for other interests, with the music business being so demanding. But she has a tour of Europe coming up, including two weeks at Ronnie Scott’s nightclub in London. How does she find time to paint? “The same way I find the time to practice my music. I have no clue as to what I’m doing. I’m self-taught. It’s just part of the process of creative expression. I don’t have to have a band or musicians or an audience I can just do that,” she says with a palpable air of warm modesty. “So it’s a wonderful connection for me. Working with colors and oils and textures, it’s endless. It’s an endless discovery. I never really quite expected to be doing this sort of thing at all. That anyone would like what I do enough want to have it in their own space is something I really appreciate, but never quite thought that would happen.”

As for her music?

“I just hope that this new record gets its point across. It’s a very live record. It’s not cool and easy. There are a couple of quiet tunes, but this is just like — WAAAA!! — right out of the box. And it ends that way. So I guess there was some kind of urgency in making the record and it just had that in it, you know? That’s just what this is. I don’t know what the next project is yet, but I just hope that this one is something that hangs around for a while.”

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