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Cheryl Richards: Another Spring, Another Song

Cheryl Richards: Another Spring, Another Song

Courtesy Brian Geltner

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A song that I’ve previously felt as kind of cheerful might have a sad or poignant undertone depending on what’s happening in the moment with the band. In this way, the tune feels new and surprising every time—not unlike free improvisation.
—Cheryl Richards
It can be hard to find new things to say in old songs, but after many years of singing the standards, some singers are still able to discover the secret of a song. Cheryl Richards is a shining example of a singer who has been able to prove the relevance of the standards for a modern audience.

Her musical approach doesn't cater to nostalgia, but highlights a link between tradition and experiment and has been described succinctly by writer Mark Weber on metropolis.free-jazz.net:

"She is fearless and concentrated, concise and loose, with a bell-like clarity and dream-perfect intonation... Her demonstration of standard intonation clears the way for free-ranging melodic explorations, bending, shading, so that you know when she chooses notes not found on the piano she's doing it on purpose. And her restructuring of the melodies sets you down, the effect being that the lyrics tell another different story than the one you've become familiar with."

This sense of constant discovery is also something Richards brings to her record, Another Spring (New Artists Records, 2022). It's been quite a while since the previous record If Not for You (New Artists, 2015), but that doesn't mean that music has been out of her life, in fact, it has been a part of who she is for a long time, and perhaps, it would be more fair to say that Richards was born a singer instead of becoming a singer.

All About Jazz: How did you get into music and what were some of the most important records and musical experiences in your formative years?

Cheryl Richards: I've been singing for as long as I can remember and there was always music playing in my home growing up. I joined a citywide touring choir [The Seattle Girls Choir] when I was about 11, which had a huge impact on my life both musically and otherwise. I have a BFA in classical voice [Cornish College of the Arts] and I sang a lot of early music, 20th century classical/experimental music, some opera, and a bit folky pop until I started singing jazz in about 2002.

There are a few live performances that I heard in my teens that still stand out in my mind: Jay Clayton [singer] with Jerry Granelli [drummer] and later Sheila Jordan [singer] with Harvie S [bass]. I loved the intimacy as well as the fact that these combos provided so much space for the singers—-and instrumentalists—-to really stretch out. I had heard choirs, singers in bands, singers with guitars and pianos, but these were the first times I'd heard singers in these kinds of sparse settings. These performances were electrifying and have definitely had an impact on my musical choices today.

Other early jazz influences include Billie Holiday—anything with Lester Young—, Charlie Parker, Carmen McCrae Carmen Sings Monk and Mingus Ah Um Later I was blown away by Lennie Tristano Intuition, Warne Marsh Jazz of Two Cities, and Max Roach's fantastic piece, "The Drum Also Waltzes." Of course I've also been deeply inspired by the many musicians I know personally and have come to play with on a regular basis.

AAJ: Was it clear to you from the beginning that you wanted to be a singer?

CR: I never planned to "be" a singer; it was just something I did. It's something that I have to do in order to feel like myself.

AAJ: So how did you end up singing jazz and what did you do to develop your vocal style?

CR: My personal process has been more about soaking up the music and getting inside the feeling rather than making a conscious effort to develop a vocal style. The pianist Connie Crothers, who I studied with for many years, was a big advocate of singing with records by Billie, Pres, Bird, Bud, Louis Armstrong, etc. which I continue to do.

AAJ: One of the tracks on your new record, Another Spring (New Artists, 2022), is a cover of a composition by Charlie Parker called "Cheryl." This is also your own name and often you hear the comparison between the human voice and the horn. Could you say something about your cover of "Cheryl" and your relation to Charlie Parker and the human voice as a horn?

CR: I think secretly—or not so secretly—I actually want to be a horn! I love singing with horn players, often without any rhythm section or chordal instruments. I love the thrill of counterpoint and unisons and I think in many ways this has to do with my background of singing acapella. The closest feeling I've found to singing with singers is singing with horn players. I guess it just happened that I didn't know many jazz singers when I moved to NYC, but there were lots of horn players around to work with.

I love that cover of "Cheryl" as well as "Barbados" on my first album because there's so much space. The distinction between soloing and comping starts to get fuzzy and it's a lot of fun! I could sing blues with Nick [Lyons] and Adam [Caine] all day. I know several of Bird's blues heads, but I had to record "Cheryl," for obvious reasons!

AAJ: You were trained by pianist Connie Crothers. Could you talk about her and what she taught you about singing?

CR: I've never met anyone like Connie. She had a way of being supremely present. Connie frequently had sessions in her loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and really fostered a community of like-minded musicians of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels. Of course she was doing this for years before I met her. I have great memories of her table full of carefully curated snacks—-Connie was a real foodie—and it was always a magical time. What did she teach me? It's hard to put that into words. She encouraged me to be in the moment. To really listen. To lead with feeling rather than thoughts. To be my authentic musical self, get out of my own way, and follow my intuition rather than making decisions.

AAJ: Crothers also started New Artists, the label you're on. Could you talk about it and how you got involved with New Artists?

CR: Of course I knew Connie, as well as most of the living/active members of the company, so when I released If Not for You in 2015, she invited me to become a member. It's a cooperative label, meaning that each artist is responsible for their own production and promotion and has the freedom to create whatever they wish. That said, there is a through-line, musically and philosophically, among the group.

AAJ: Your first album for New Artists was If Not for You (New Artists, 2015). The line-up was very sparse with just you, guitarist Adam Caine and occasionally saxophonist Nick Lyons. This minimal setting works very well for the record and the lack of a piano gives more room for the voice. What were your own considerations regarding the setup and sound of the album?

CR: To be honest, I was originally planning to just record a few tracks for a demo to get some gigs. Although I do like the sparseness and intimacy of a duo, the initial choice to record with just guitar was because I wanted to get something done quickly and easily without spending a fortune. I was happy with those first few tracks and later decided to record a whole album with Adam Caine. I brought Nick in later because he and I had started working together more regularly at that time and because I wanted to include a bit of that horn/voice interaction that brings me so much joy.

AAJ: Perhaps you could also say something about your collaboration with Adam Caine and Nick Lyons, who also work with you on the new record. How did you start playing together and how would you describe the musical language you have developed together?

CR: Nick and Adam and I met through sessions at Connie's. We've played together a long time and they've also worked together on other projects, so there's a lot of continuity as well as trust there. We have a musical affinity that we don't really need to think about, and we have a shared value of spontaneous creation. Our musical language values listening, being present, taking risks, and going with where the music takes us. Also, just a quick shoutout to bassist Adam Lane, who I've also collaborated with for many years, and drummer Vijay Anderson—this was my first time singing with Vijay, but he regularly plays with the other members of my quintet. They are not a subtle rhythm section playing in the background. Their artistry, ears, and creativity really make Another Spring the album that it is. I feel really lucky that I get to sing with all four of these fantastic and truly original players!

AAJ: Was If Not for You your first official album as a solo artist or did you record other projects before it?

CR: I recorded one live and one studio album with a Renaissance vocal quartet in the mid 1990s as well as an album of original folk-pop songs with a band in 1997. All are out of print now. If Not for You was my first album as a jazz vocalist.

AAJ: Both of your albums on New Artists are dominated by standards, but you're also recording for an experimental label, known for its emphasis on improvisation. There's a recurring discussion between traditionalists and progressives who have different views on the standards. With some arguing that standards should be the basis of the educational system and others saying that focus should be on the original expression of the artist. What is your own take on this discussion?

CR: For me personally, and for most if not all of the artists on our label, there isn't a big distinction—on a feeling level—between tunes and free improvisation. We're all comfortable moving in and out of both musical worlds as well as abandoning the form and even the harmony of a standard tune if that's where the music takes us. Both of my albums focus on standards, but the tunes are all spontaneously interpreted in the moment. On a few occasions, we made some agreements about an intro or ending, but beyond that, nothing on the album was arranged or pre-determined. Sometimes when singing in this way, the meaning of the tune changes or reveals itself to me differently. For example, a song that I've previously felt as kind of cheerful might have a sad or poignant undertone depending on what's happening in the moment with the band. In this way, the tune feels new and surprising every time—not unlike free improvisation. So for me personally, and for the musicians I generally work with, there's plenty of room within the standards for original expression.

AAJ: Picking up on the former question, could you elaborate on your own relationship with the standards?

CR: The thing about standards is that they allow musicians to easily jump in and play with one another. It's a shared body of knowledge that makes it easy for me to instantaneously have a connection point with musicians I've never met or with a band I've worked with for years. This sort of thing wasn't available to me as a classical singer where the material has to be learned and practiced and it's one of the things that I love most about singing jazz. For many of us, we've spent years or even decades coming back to the same standards again and again. We're improvisers so things are different every single time. Some of the tunes on my albums were new to me—-"Love Me or Leave Me," "All About You/How About You" but others, "Melancholy Baby," "There Will Never Be Another You" are tunes we've all been playing for many years. Singing them feels like hanging out with old friends and discovering new things about them. I am comfortable with free improvisation as well, but standards can give a focus to the band. It's also tough, for me anyway, to improvise lyrics on the spot. So I enjoy the fact that I can connect with and interpret the meaning of the words that someone else has written. Sure, sometimes the lyrics of the standards can feel a bit corny or dated, but I find there's often some deeper and universal feeling there that is still relevant today.

AAJ: What about your process of choosing songs for an album? Perhaps you could also say something about some of your favorite songs and the versions you have recorded on your albums?

CR: I wish I had a scintillating story about my process for choosing songs for an album, but it's mostly about which tunes I'm feeling a connection with at the time. My favorite tunes are always changing. I'm drawn to different standards for different reasons, sometimes it's the melody or harmony, sometimes it's how the lyrics hit me at the time.

AAJ: It has been seven years since the last record and now you have a new album out, Another Spring. Could you talk about the time between the records and the circumstances that led to the new record?

CR: I was busy with life and raising a child and then there was a pandemic, so those seven years flew by quickly! Throughout that time, though, I still played lots of sessions, learned new tunes, and played gigs when it was possible. In terms of this album, there was a moment in the spring of 2021 when the pandemic looked like it might be close to over but was still dragging on. I just felt like I needed to have a project to look forward to and a focus of learning some new tunes and going more deeply into some tunes I already knew. I got in touch with the guys in the band and asked if they were up for a recording project when it was safe to do so. They were game so we booked two sessions at Big Orange Sheep studios in Sunset Park, Brooklyn for the fall of 2021.

AAJ: The interesting thing to me is how close the connection is aesthetically between this record and the previous, for instance, there is also a Parker tune on If Not for You—"Barbados")—and yet the new one is also different and has more instruments, bass and drums. Especially the dialogue with drummer Vijay Anderson on "Love Me or Leave Me" is thrilling. How did you envision the role of the instruments this time?

CR: For this album, I knew ahead of time that I wanted to mix up the texture and density from one tune to the next while also giving each instrument some special moments to be featured. After the first rehearsal, I thinned things out even more, and less than half of the final tracks include the entire quintet.

AAJ: Which of the tracks on the new record stand out to you?

CR: My favorites—at the moment!—are "Mood Indigo" and "More Than You Know." Sometimes in a recording session, there is a moment when I know for sure that something will be the final take—most often I don't know, and have to listen back later. These two felt great in the moment. I particularly love Adam Caine's playing on "Mood Indigo" and I feel like it transports me to a lazy afternoon on a porch in the late summertime. I am also really happy with "More Than You Know." As I said, I love singing with just horns, and I think the vulnerability and space of playing the intro to the tune with just alto really brings out the feeling and the meaning of the lyrics.

AAJ: Finally, how is life as an independent musician these days? Has the digital age made it easier or harder to spread the word about the music and create a community around it?

CR: The digital age certainly makes it easier to get the word out about things and streaming services make it possible, in theory, to reach a wider audience. But everyone is so inundated with digital information; I am not sure if it ends up being a net gain. To me—and I know I am not alone—the business end of things is the least interesting part of being a musician. I'd much rather be playing sessions or learning new tunes than spending time expanding my social media following or hustling gigs. I've also been cautious about getting back into regular live performances while we're still dealing with COVID. So, I'm just going to keep playing sessions with musicians that I love, playing gigs when I can, and recording more often than once every seven years.

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