Day's Dawning: An Interview with Singer Devorah Day

Franz A. Matzner By

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That is what I wanted, to mirror conversations in the street, traffic sounds, everything that makes me think of music. When people speak to me, I hear music, so that is what I wanted to have through this.
—Devorah Day
Five years after making the original recordings, singer/song writer/conceptualist Devorah Day has finally secured the release of her debut album, Light of Day. Supported by Marion Brown's legendary saxophone playing, as well as the camaraderie and musical skill of the other band members, this stunning exploration of jazz singing reveals what happens when inspiration, honesty, and individuality meet.

An uncompromising artist, Ms. Day's personality is almost as intriguing as her music, and it was my privilege to speak with her recently about her new album. Ms. Day's openness of spirit was immediately evident, her compelling, almost sprite-like voice carrying with it a surety stemming not from the practiced manners of commercial success, but the confidence of real originality. Though many claim it, Ms. Day convinces one immediately that she's singing because of the sounds she hears inside and that moreover, the reason she places them before us is simply to offer their beauty.

Although this is her debut album, Ms. Day is an accomplished and experienced vocalist, comfortable with many styles, and in full command of both jazz's long history and its breadth of styles.

A rare talent, it is my pleasure to introduce to those who have not yet heard her music, Ms. Devorah Day.

All About Jazz: How did you get started in jazz singing?

Devorah Day: It was a rather circuitous route. I went from country music to singing madrigals, to singing folk, to opera, and then to jazz. People kept offering me different projects, saying ' Well, I know that you have never done this before, so maybe you might not want to?' and I would say, 'Oh, sure. I'll try it.' So I went from form to form, to form'and that is how.

AAJ: Are you going to keep moving around or are you stuck on jazz singing now?

DD: I think jazz is where I'm going to stay. I feel the most comfortable here, I have the most freedom here.

AAJ: Do you think that having sung so many different forms has helped develop your unique approach to singing?

DD: Thank you very kindly first of all, and yes!

AAJ: When were the sessions for this album originally done?

DD: The session was done in Sept. of 1998 we mixed it down the second week of October, and nothing was done with it'I was busy for five and half years in a life of death battle with a portion of the government'a legal battle'that I had. So I had to drop everything to deal with it.

AAJ: How did you get involved with Marion?

DD: Marion! I was feeling a little crabby one day, which is very, very unusual for me, and a friend of mine said, 'I want you to come and here this group of guys and the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.' And I thought, ' Well, I do not feel remotely charming, or open or whatever today, so I'm just going to stay home today and stay in the tub, and pray and relax and drink orange juice in the candlelight.' Then my friend said, ' No, no, no you have to come, you just have to come.' The friend's name was Will Connell, an awesome reed player and friend of mine. So I said, 'O.K. I will do it' and I said to myself, 'I will stay for fifteen minutes and then I will leave'. Well, I got in there and they had this beautiful orchestra. They were amazing. At the helm of it they had James Carter and then they had come up Mr. Marion Brown to play. I did not know very much about either one of them, just a very little, and I was of course in awe. I was just amazed. Wow. So to say the least, I decided I was going to stay more than fifteen minutes. When Marion and James were finished I stood of to the outer reaches of the room and watched them. I watched James Carter get on his knees before Marion Brown and hold his hand, and smile and talk with him. So I waited until he was through and I went over to Marion and said, 'Hello sir, I really do not know all that much about your work, all that I know is what I've heard here tonight and I think that you are amazing. Could you come with me please?' So I grabbed him by the hand and said, 'I have a present for you.' And he said, 'Oh, O.K.' So I took him upstairs into one of the rehearsal rooms and I told him, 'Go sit right there on the couch and please sit back and close your eyes, I have something for you'. Later on Marion told me he thought it was a joint! But it was not Ganja'we got around to that later on'so he sat there and he listened and at one point he jumped out of his chair and then I said, 'Are you O.K.?'

"Okay, so Marion jumped out of his chair and I asked him if he was okay. He said, "Yes, I'm doing just fine, thank you so much." And he sat back down and he said, "Please continue." I did. And he'when I finished he sat there and he put his hands together in the shape of a little pyramid or something like that, and just looked at me with those eyes for a good eight minutes of silence. A long, long time. And then he said, "What is your name?" And I told him, and he said, "Well, Lady Day, I'm going to make it my business that everybody knows who you are."

AAJ: Wow

DD: So, we became fast buddies ever since.

AAJ: That's an incredible story. What did you sing for him?

DD: I sang "Djindi" for him.

AAJ: I'm glad that is ended up on the album as well.

DD: He insisted.

AAJ: That was one of the pieces that really stood out to me. I love Jobim's writing.

DD: Oh, thank you.

AAJ: There's a lot of emotional content in his compositions. They've been used so many times. I actually wanted to ask about that as well. You have the six different tracks on the album. And you chose three standards and three of your own.

DD: Right.

AAJ: Is that very deliberate, to have an equal balance?

DD: Yes.

AAJ: Could you explain why you wanted to do that?

DD: Hmmn, well, "Lover Man", I love that song. That song is me, if that makes sense. The music has to appeal to me first with a song. It has to reach me in three different places, two of which I will mention'to a gentleman. It has to reach me in my heart. It has to reach me intellectually. And the other spot, I will not mention. And then the lyrics come in. And if the lyrics are true, then I can sing the song. So that is why "Lover Man" is on it. Also because Booker T. demanded that it be on it. 'Cause that's how I first met him. He came to my apartment and we were sitting on the living room floor and I sang that for him. And he demanded that it be on there just the way that I sang it for him at first, which was acapella, and then have the guys come in later. And um, then, where was I?

AAJ: You were just going through how every song got on to the album.

DD: Oh, right. So, let's see, that was "Lover Man". Ah, Djindi'Djindi had to be on there because I drove a friend of mine crazy playing it over and over again'35 times, actually, in his apartment. What was his name? Oh, no! You know it, um' I know his name so well and I can't think of it. It will occur to me later. But I played it over and over and drove my friend so crazy that he ended up leaving the apartment for the last 20 times that I played it. It was just the most gorgeous song. It made me think of my son, of holding my son when he was small, and him jumping around when he was playing and the leaps and bounds of that'it just brought me back to my son's childhood. So that had to be there. And that was "Lover Man", "Djindi", and what was the other one?

"Lover Man" was the first standard, "Djindi" was the second, and what was the third? Hold on a second, dear. So sorry, I've had so much to deal with lately, I can't remember right now. Oh, actually, "Lover Man" and "Djindi" were the only two "standards". "Leila" was composed by Jorge Silvester and Arcane Wallins . That, ah, I could not figure out how to sing that song. Jorge had me listen to a tape of a Brazilian woman singing that song and it was gorgeous. And I did not see how I would fit in it at all. And so I took it home and I thought of my son again, and it hit me that it was a lullaby. So if I was to sing it the way that I would sing it to my kid, just as a lullaby, perhaps it would be lovely. Perhaps I would be able to do it justice. 'Cause it is an exquisite piece of work, that song.

So, "Come Closer" is something that I wrote for the man that I will someday meet who will be my mate. "Our Bit of Piddling" was our audition tape, Marion and mine. And "Free Jam" was something that I came up with sitting on the stoop outside of my building.

AAJ: That's a very interesting piece. There are so many elements in there that I don't know where to start! The first is having the beat kept with the voice, and then having all the different elements of skat singing and different jazz singing all mixed together in one place is really kind of unusual and to me was really an interesting historical journey through jazz history.

DD: Thank you very kindly. That is what I wanted, to mirror conversations in the street, traffic sounds, everything that makes me think of music. When people speak to me, I hear music, so that is what I wanted to have through this.

AAJ: Not just on that piece, but on many of them there's a very organic feel.

DD: Thank you very kindly, that's what I wanted.

AAJ: Comparing that to'and not in a judgmental way'but comparing it to a lot of other styles that are prevalent right now that have a very different, very controlled, studio-driven method, I was wondering if you were deliberately moving away from that?

DD: Yes! Yes, yes. Yikes!

AAJ: (Laughs) Cause as soon as I heard this album, I was very intrigued by somebody who was willing to do something that may not lead directly to the big labels.

DD: Right.

AAJ: And so I actually did want to ask about that. How do you see yourself continuing? What's the next step?

DD: Well, I had not really given it too much thought beyond choosing the people that I want to play on the next one. I want Roy Campbell, Jr. I want my brother James Carter who was supposed to be on the first one but who was stuck in Paris.

'[T]he thing is to sit and talk with all of the components, all of the people who are supposed to play on it, and to smell them, as strange as that may sound (laughs) and feel them, and then go from there. 'Cause it has to be a conversation, and we all have to be able to listen to one another, and to respond fully and freely. And you can only do that if you have a great deal of comfort. So the next time that we do something else it will happen in the same way that this one happened. We will have one rehearsal that probably will not be much of a rehearsal. The one rehearsal for Light of Day was done on the last day of the World Series of that years, so we were not very much into the whole rehearsal thing. Basically, 'Do you know the standards?' 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' 'We will go through these different pieces'the extra pieces'one time only. Give you a feel for it. Here you have the sheet music, look it over, and then burnt it. And then come and hold me.' That is basically what it is, all of them holding me.

AAJ: Does anyone in your family have a musical background?

DD: I was brought up in a family that had an awful lot of musicians, and none of them took anything I was doing very seriously at all. I was actually the family joke. So this is all really, really bizarre and wonderful. I just did this music to get it out of my system. I did not expect anyone to pay much attention to it. I just knew that I had to say it. I had all of my brothers around me and they had things to say. So we all got together, talked, and that is what the music is, all of us talking and spilling our souls out. There you have it.

AAJ: How did you get involved with Abaton Books?

DD: Abaton Books is Mark and Laurie Borsen, two lovely, lovely people. [ Here a huge crash of thunder interrupted the connection] Yeah, yeah go God! More rain. They are wonderful people they put out other Avante artists, they publish plays and other wonderful things. They are great to talk with'.

[Here, Bernhard Stohlman took over the phone for a moment to explain his role in getting Devorah Day's work released.]

Bernhard Stohlman: What happened, they came by one day, and I had just installed surround-sound. That's my most recent undertaking is to introduce a new system for processing stereo into surround-sound for the record companies. They're all foundering, they're all trying to figure out what to do, and we have a system for concerting it. I wanted to play our demos for my friends at Abaton Books. They had come by to hear the demos 'cause I had just installed this system. While we were talking they asked, 'What else do you have, what else are you working on?' I said, 'Well, there's an artist whom I've admired for a long time, perhaps you'd like to hear her.' I put on a cassette I had, and to my own amazement'because I had just bought this system'to my amazement I really heard it for the first time. I knew she was good, but I had not really heard it. We sat there enthralled, listening to the cassette and they turned to me and said, 'Are you going to put it out?' and I said, 'ESP is not really involved in reinventing itself over again.' 'Could we put it out? Do you mind?' I said, 'I'm Devorah's friend, if you will'I'll tell you what we'll do. You put it out under license from ESP that way your tiny company'the people who will listen to it will understand it is endorsed by ESP.' They thought it was a great idea, so that's what we finally did.

AAJ: Had you heard her sing before?

BS: Not, no I had not.

DD: No, not really. I had been singing for years acapella.

BS: She'd do little things for me, but by and large I couldn't say I had. That cassette on my old system was almost unintelligible.

AAJ: Interesting. You said you'd been doing acapella work, had you been singing in the club circuit?

DD: Yes, I'd sung in the Blue Note, Folk City, lot's of the clubs in the village. I'd become frustrated because none of the musicians would play with me. So I became disgusted and said, 'If you're not willing to play with me I will do this myself.' I ended up getting a lot of gigs going up there singing a whole lot of things acapella. The people seemed to like it.

AAJ: Why did you choose to reintroduce the reeds and the bass?

DD: That came about from meeting all the individuals one by one and developing a loving rapport with all of them.

AAJ: I was very interested in the effect of removing both piano and drums. All of a sudden you get a different feel, a floating sensation.

DD: That is exactly what I wanted. I love drummers, but I do not feel very comfortable singing with very many of them. Gene Jackson I have worked with before. He's an excellent drummer. I feel comfortable with him'but not for this. I needed a bassist to be the focal point as far as I was concerned in the music because the bass strikes me more as a heartbeat. It is more of an embrace to me than drums are, and I need to feel embraced when I work. So I had Booker T there, and he is my brother, and Kid Luck'as kooky and off-the-wall as it sounds it was just one big group hug.

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