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Chris McNulty: A Global Voice

Joao Moreira dos Santos By

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To perform with and to people from different cultures is one of the most rewarding aspects playing music has to offer
Chris McNulty may well be regarded not only as a fine jazz singer but also as the epitome of jazz globalization these days. Born in remote Australia, she made her career in the USA and in 2003 performed in Russia at the White Night's Jazz Festival to celebrate St. Petersburg's 300th Anniversary. How far McNulty wants to go seems to be the million dollar question to ask the author of one of the finest vocal recordings of 2006: Whispers the Heart (Elefant Dreams).

All About Jazz: First things first... How does an Australian lady get to sing jazz?

Chris McNulty: Much the same way a Dutch, Italian, Swedish, German, British, Irish, Scottish... person does. I was introduced to jazz from just being out there on the road at a fairly early age. I may not have heard music of the likes of Coltrane and Parker on the radio or turntable when I was a kid, but I did hear Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis all the time. There was great music on the radio everywhere in the late '60s, so as a teenager I was listening to all that stuff.

AAJ: How did it all start for you as a singer?

CM: I started singing professionally at age 16, working six and seven nights a week, cutting my teeth on pop, rock standards, R&B and funk. I went out on the road a few years later, and was introduced to jazz by way of the recordings of Herbie Hancock (Head Hunters, Man Child, Thrust) and also Chick Corea and Weather Report. In that environment you are immersed in music 24/7 so I started meeting a lot more musicians, sharing music, hanging out and listening, although I hadn't heard much of any earlier acoustic music. That happened a few years later.

AAJ: But I guess you and jazz were destined to meet...

CM: Looking back now I can see that we [jazz] were clearly on a collision course. By the time I got the jazz bug I'd already had two long stints on the road. There was still only one forum for presenting music, the live arena.

AAJ: How was your learning process?

CM: There were no jazz schools to study in as there may have been in the States, so everyone learned about the music through listening to records, playing the music from those recordings, learning the tunes, the solos, the vocabulary. Then you had to create an environment to hone your skills professionally. I got off the road the second time and within a month or two discovered Billie Holiday, Sarah, Carmen, Nancy and Ella quickly followed.

The interest for learning more about improvisation and in particular bebop, was also triggered by musicians I was gigging with. They were already passionately immersed in the bebop thing, so I had people to play with, musicians such as Paul Grabowsky, Gary Costello (who recently passed on) and many, many others.

I remember we would be traveling to or from gigs and each musician would take it in turn, scatting Charlie Parker solos over rhythm changes in the car after a gig. I'd come off the road from singing pop, R&B and funk so at the time the inner workings of improvised jazz was completely foreign to me.

I would sometimes have to do cabaret shows singing some pretty awful music just to pay the rent during those first few months/years after coming off the road, but I'd come home every morning at 2 am and stay up listening to those recordings—so those young players also learned some things from hanging out with me till the early hours.

Listening to Sarah's Live in Japan or Carmen McRae's Bitter Sweet or Nancy & Cannonball. I had some excellent teachers even though we were never formally introduced. I learnt so much from listening to their recordings. They were the very best

AAJ: I know you had a very particular bond with Carmen McRae.

CM: I was really thrilled to be able to tell Carmen McRae in person just before she passed on, that even though we'd never met till that very moment, she'd been my teacher for a decade or more starting way back in the '70s. I still recall her haughty, hearty laugh. She was a great teacher!

AAJ: What happened then in your career?

CM: I had a fairly well established career by the time I was 25. I am not exactly sure why I was able to change course and develop my own style as a jazz vocalist. I do know that I was able to sustain the pursuit because I was lucky enough to get brought into the studio and session scene by another fine singer, Linda George.

Studio work enabled me to make a good living in both Melbourne and then in Sydney where I ended up moving to in 1980. During that period there was plenty of work so I was able to concentrate on music full time and also develop my vocal style and jazz vocabulary. The studio scene started to crash by the late '80s but it was a great sustainer through those early years.

AAJ: When did you decide to come to the US?

CM: Musicians such as Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach and Phil Woods among others begun traveling and performing in Australia on fairly regular basis and in the process started giving clinics. My appetite had been well and truly wetted by then. Attending Liebman clinics not only fed my yearning to get to New York it also challenged me to start thinking about improvisation and ear training in a more vertical and linear way Up till then I was listening and learning everything by ear.

I sold my car, saved up some money and made a short trip to New York in 1985 and was invited to perform at Blue Note's 4th anniversary celebration after sitting in every night at the jam session. I sang 5 or 6 tunes and found out later that several jazz greats were in the audience. I was most surprised when both Fred Hersch and Jon Hendricks come up to me afterwards to compliment me on my performance.

That was a great experience for me. I guess I went back to Australia with a decidedly altered perspective. The experience also convinced me that I'd return as soon as I could figure out how to do so with my son in tow.

AAJ: And you did return...

CM: Well perhaps not everyone knows that I have lived full time in NYC for 20 years. I arrived here in 1988. I think raising my son here as a single parent pretty well made me a citizen of New York City by default.

AAJ: Going back to Australia: how is the jazz scene down under?

CM: I'm not that savvy about the "Australian" jazz scene anymore, although I just performed at the Melbourne Jazz festival for nine nights with my band (Paul Bollenback, Ugonna Okegwo, Mark Soskin and Jeremy Clemons), as well as in Adelaide. We played one concert every night and then ran the jam session that followed. It was fun to have so many musicians from all over the world sitting in.

AAJ: Anyone we should keep an eye on?

CM: There are some great players over there. I was struck by several. One in particular, an alto player from Melbourne, Dave Rex, if he comes to NYC he will definitely do well. Actually I just found out he's already here... so keep your eye out for him.

Mike Nock (originally from New Zealand) made significant inroads while living here for over 20 years and has left an indelible impression on all who have studied and worked with him since he returned to Sydney in early '80s. Last time I checked he was still teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium. Mike is amazing. He has managed to carve out a unique niche for himself in the global market place while remaining in Australia. That's real hard to do. I think he still tours internationally, puts together great bands and I'm told also has the creative energy of a 20 year old (he'll like hearing that, I'm sure). Having young players around also keeps you young and vibrant and keeps the music interesting, they listen to everything, so they bring a lot of new stuff to the table.

Another great pianist is Mark Fitzgibbons who I also hear is coming to NYC. I've played with him a bunch when I've toured in Australia and plan to have him join me for a tune or two on my next recording as will Paul Grabowsky, another great player and composer. Paul has just landed the highly prestigious position of Program Director for the Adelaide Arts Festival.

Graham Wood heads the jazz program and WAAPA in Perth and performs with many international musicians touring through and will perhaps also join me on this next recording project. Paul Bollenback and I will be performing with Graham Wood, among others this September when we tour Australia.

AAJ: Do you think it's almost mandatory that Australian jazz musicians sooner or later make their move to the US?

CM: Players have been coming over to the States from Australia for more than half a century and they will continue to do so. I think most understand that to develop in certain areas it's essential to come here for a time to explore, study and play. I think players such as tenor saxophonist, Bernie McGann, pianist Chuck Yates, bassist Murray Wall all came here way back in '60s and '70s. Chuck actually played with Carmen McRae for 6 months. They were all able to make some cool things happen while they were here. Murray, along with more recent arrivals—Barney McAll, Sean Wayland and Mat Clohsey among others—has managed to stay here and make NYC his home.

AAJ: It's not an easy job though to make it in jazz in NYC.

CM: I think sustaining a career in jazz in New York in general has never been that easy, but back then you had the added advantage of the music presenting mainly to a live audience, so in a way you went wherever the work took you. Now the possibilities for education appear endless though cost prohibitive for many.

AAJ: Is it easy for an Australian to come and study jazz in the US? Based on your experience what advice can you give to your compatriots?

CM: In Australia there are small and substantial grants available for young players to travel to the States or Europe. Unfortunately it's after you get here that the struggle really begins. There's no longer a down town existence at low rent available to artists of meager means, coming in from out of town, be it from Wisconsin, Idaho or Australia.

When I arrived in NYC there were a ton of great jazz venues open and many great listening environments which also supported the community of jazz musicians, Bradley's in particular. Maybe things will pick up again, but it's definitely turned into a career for musicians who have some sustainable capital to invest for a much longer period of time or you have to do other things to sustain a creative life.

Whether or not you can create a niche for yourself in this current market really depends on how much staying power, willfulness, and across the board business ingenuity you have. Sometimes you might be better off staying in your own country and getting it to work in a less stressful, competitive environment. In Australia, that can be difficult to sustain for a whole different reason, the entire population is only 21 million. But there are some cool things happening in both environments.

Musicians who go back to their home countries, take invaluable information and energy back with them. A great example of that is saxophonist, Michael Stewart who has managed to create some very cool performances/workshop opportunities in Adelaide. Paul Bollenback and I will be performing with his big band next September.

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