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Janis Mann: Authentic And In The Moment

Janis Mann: Authentic And In The Moment
R.J. DeLuke BY

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At the very top of the list of the whole definition of being an artist is authenticity and integrity.
Janis Mann, a singer now based on the west coast, had made it a practice before the pandemic to periodically travel back east for gigs in the New York City area, of which she is a native. Mann still wants that, but she's waiting for the right time. Making music is a necessity for this artist.

Time—not gigs—is what musicians have had on their hands over the last year. Some have occupied it by teaching or writing. All seem to be yearning for the day they can get back to live gigs.

Mann is very ready to stand before people and share her art, singing in the fashion she prefers: completely in the moment. The way she tells her musical stories and even the way she speaks come out through her here-and-now sensibility. She is direct and honest, and also emotional, empathetic, and humorous. Emotion can spring up suddenly like a chord change.

"I just love the idea of getting my music out there and having people enjoy what it is that I love. That's a beautiful thing," she says.

Mann used part of her pandemic-created time off to cull together a new album with pianist Kenny Werner at the center. Dreams of Flying (Pancake, 2020) finds her in the company of excellent musicians—Werner, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca—performing an array of songs penned by giants in the industry like Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Webb, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Blossom Dearie, Stephen Sondheim, and others.

Clear articulation and smooth execution are the qualities that jump out when she sings. The music calls the listener inside. In a live setting, there can be twists and turns depending on what vibe she feels with her musicians or perhaps what she feels inside at any given point. On the new recording, the musical relationship she developed over the years with Werner is key. They follow their own path, which at any given time may not be on the usual map.

"I worked with a lot of wonderful musicians," she says. "I've never had an experience and a bond like I have with Kenny. It's truly amazing.

"One of the things about myself is that I'm a true improviser ... Kenny and I have not ever rehearsed. We did two albums together [Celestial Anomaly, Pancake, 2013, being the other]. Every gig we've done, it gives me goosebumps, because everything is truly in the moment. I'm spoiled because there's nothing [that compares with] that type of work, collaborating with him and other musicians. It's amazing."

They met at a weekend gig at Kitano, a hotel north of New York City that regularly features jazz. Mann had been living in the Los Angeles area for a while and made the trip back. Bassist Martin Wind was instrumental in getting the two together.

"We met at the club ... No rehearsal, no phone call. We did a sound check. He looked at me like, 'You're good. I think this is going to be great.' We just hit it off right away. That's what's happened. I adore him. As soon as he starts playing, it's fascinating because he's not like an accompanist. We have this dance that we do together. That's special. Some of the musicians I've met said I have street cred because of my relationship with Kenny."

For some music that became part of the album, Werner suggested Gress and Da Fonseca. They did a weekend at Kitano and then went into the studio in New York. Seven tunes were done including "When October Goes," "Edith and the Kingpin," and "Overjoyed." In 2019, four songs were recorded in Hollywood, California, with a live audience, including "Wichita Lineman" and "Inside a Silent Tear." Guitarist Larry Koonse was added to the west coast session.

"It doesn't always work, to put live recordings in with studio recordings. But it worked. I thought it was a beautiful balance of textures and colors. That's why I ended up putting them together," says Mann.

"I love this record because we decided to do pop tunes. This is the thing for me: becoming a jazz musician gave me the freedom to take any kind of music and interpret it in such a beautiful way. The possibilities are endless. You're not stuck in a box. And that's what I love about this record."

Her voice is commanding and compelling. Her musical connection with Werner particularly stands out on her favorite track, the duet with Werner "When October Goes"—which they did unexpectedly when Werner called for the tune while the two were playing at Kitano. "No chart," she recalls. "I didn't even know if I remembered the lyrics. I just remembered that it was a beautiful song. He said, 'Let's just do it.' This is what I'm talking about. Diane Schuur would do that stuff to me. 'Let's just do it.' So we did it. It was a miracle. I remembered the lyrics. Who knew? I just did. We did it and everyone was in tears."

"I love music. I love all of it. My mom loved jazz. So when I was a kid, I listened to that a lot. I studied piano for a while. I taught myself guitar. Then I ended up traveling all over Europe for a year playing Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and all that," she says. "Then I was in an R&B band in New York. I loved it."

She says one of the things she values is "you have so much freedom with jazz. Because you can take just about anything and be very creative with it. With Kenny, no matter what it is that we do, it's very exciting. I have no idea what we're going to do when he sits down to play. It's like, okay, here we go. You can hear it too. You know what's cool? People always ask me, 'So, who does your arrangements?' I go, 'There are no arrangements. It's right there. Head charts right in the moment.' It's pretty cool."

Proceeds from the CD go to an Alzheimer's group, the Alive Inside Foundation, dedicated to expanding human connection. "Music touches so many different parts of your brain," says Mann. "If you do get Alzheimer's or dementia, music connects emotionally to so many parts of your life. The music actually helps you."

Music entered Mann's life at a young age. Her mother was passionate about it and there was always music playing in the house. She would watch old musicals with her mother and grandmother. "I was always singing. Music is my first love. I've been singing forever and ever."

Mann was playing piano by ear at about age three. When her mother first heard the sounds being created, she thought it was Mann's older brother at the keyboard. She later took some piano lessons, but they didn't have much to do with jazz. She later taught herself to play guitar.

Her father, with whom she was close, owned a bicycle shop on Long Island. When she was 16, he was robbed at the store, struck in the head by the criminals, and left for dead. Customers found him and called for help. It saved his life, but he required surgery and was never the same.

"When you're 16, you don't need any trauma. You're trying to find yourself. It's traumatic enough just to be a kid. I was very close with my dad. It changed my life." Needing something to help her cope, and perhaps not exactly knowing what, she grabbed her guitar and went to Europe. She was 17. "I needed to get out of there ... It was a blessing. It helped me, through all my trauma, to have confidence in myself, to show myself that I could do something."

She made money by playing cafes and busking. After about a year, she returned to New York. One night she went with a friend to see an R&B band. Sitting in the club, she sang along with the music and the drummer heard her. The band happened to be looking for a female singer and Mann got the gig. When that gig ran its course, Mann got away again—this time to California. "I just wanted some sunshine. And I needed to get out of New York. It was too traumatic for me. I needed to get away. That's how I ended up in Los Angeles."

She sang and played guitar at places in the LA area. In 1989, she met her husband and they moved to Seattle, Washington. She began taking jazz more seriously, and they married in 1993. Their stay in Seattle lasted 13 years. She also met vocalist/pianist Schuur for the first time and performed with her. "It was fate that put me together with her." Her career began picking up speed. "I was very focused on working on my chops and getting as good as I can get. Continuing to grow. I will continue to grow even after I'm dead," she says, chuckling.

She was awarded Northwest Jazz Vocalist of the Year honors in the Earshot Jazz poll of fans, musicians, and critics. She recorded her third CD, So Many Stars: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan (Pancake, 2001), live at Jazz Alley in Seattle. Eventually, the couple returned to Los Angeles.

"I have about 10 recordings I've done. They're all different," she explains. "My other favorite is one I did with Tamir Hendelman [A Perfect Time: Drummers and Other Friends, Pancake, 2008]. It's a tribute to jazz drummers." Peter Erskine, Joe La Barbera and Roy McCurdy are among those that provide the percussion. "That was the extreme difference from what I do with Kenny. That was my one highly arranged album. I worked with Tamir. He's a fabulous arranger. I had a great time doing that project with him."

Another special relationship she developed was with drumming icon Roy Haynes. "I cannot talk about him without getting goosebumps."

Mann met Haynes in Seattle at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley doing a Sarah Vaughan tribute. "I worked on that project for maybe a year, studying Sarah Vaughan. You want to stretch your range. You really want to do it justice." After the fundraiser, she went to see Roy Haynes and approached him to say hello. She told the drummer—who worked with Vaughan many years earlier—that she had just done a Vaughan tribute.

"It was at the end of the night. He said, 'Why don't you come back [another night] and sit in with us?'" Mann was flabbergasted but went back. "I told my husband he's not even going to remember he invited me. [Haynes] came over to me and said, 'I want you to do a ballad.' He introduced me to the pianist. I said, 'Let's do "You Don't Know What Love Is" because that's one of my favorite songs.'" She summoned the courage.

"I wanted to take back my power. It's very intimidating because the guys are looking at me like, 'Who the fuck is this?' I said, 'Get up there and do it. This is one of your heroes.' This is an emotional story for me because I got up there and I went, 'I know that I can sing. I'm going to get up there and show them.' So, I decided to start a cappella."

She gave the pianist the key of B flat. "He said, 'Where do you want us to come in?' and I said, 'Just watch.' Roy is sitting behind me going, 'Yeah.' They're assuming that I'm some idiot chick singer and I don't know what the fuck I'm doing," Mann recalls with good-natured glee. "I started a cappella and I led the band in and I sang my ass off." The band was openly relieved, and acknowledgment of her musical acumen came through via the expressions of satisfaction on their faces. " Roy comes over and says to the audience, 'I haven't heard anyone like Janis in years.'" She sang again in the next set.

Years later, Mann and Haynes's paths crossed again at a music conference in New York City. Mann didn't think he would remember her.

"He said, 'Anytime you're in my audience, you're going to sit in with us.' This relationship with Roy changed my life. That kind of support and love gives you confidence in what you do. In a very difficult situation—being a woman and being surrounded by a lot of male energy—to get that kind of support was unbelievable."

The last time they performed together was in Los Angeles at Catalina's jazz club. She sang a standard in the first set. Later, Haynes was addressing the audience and talking about getting older. He asked the pianist to play a D minor sustained chord. He passed the microphone to Mann, who was now seated in the second row. He asked her what the chord "said" to her. The singer, somewhat startled, said, "'Death.' He wanted me to do something. So I started improvising on that chord, some vocal type of thing. I went up with them and we composed a song with the lyric and the melody on the spot."

"That's my whole life story. You don't need to know anymore about me," she says with a smile. "I have performed with Diane Schuur for like 25 years. She would push me out on stage and we would do shit together. Between her and Roy, it made me fearless. So when I met Kenny and he was like, 'Who is this chick?,' that's where I got my chutzpah: from these amazing artists pushing me out on stage and saying, 'Do this. Do it.' It's very emotional for me."

Mann is happy she's had the opportunity to work with so many outstanding musicians. "I never stayed in a comfort zone. I didn't want to get stuck. I wasn't one of these singers that said, 'This is how I do it. This is where I come in.' I never had people do any kind of arrangements for me. I always wanted to stretch. I wanted to be an authentic improviser, not someone who says, 'We do this the same way every single time.' Little did I know that fate would bring me together with Kenny Werner. That's exactly who he is. When you're in that zone, when you're not thinking about it ..." she says, her voice trailing off with emotion, riding that special feeling.

"There is absolutely nothing on this planet for me that is better than singing and working with people where no one is forcing anything and you're instinctively in that place where your ego is not getting in your way. You're not mind-fucking yourself. Every artist and athlete on the planet understands that. When you know your craft really well, and you're just letting it go, it's a remarkable feeling. An absolutely remarkable feeling."

"I wear my heart on my sleeve. What you see is what you get. I'm exactly the same way onstage as off stage. No bullshit. I'm allergic to bullshit. Don't fuck with me," says the singer—not in anger, but with a knowing sparkle.

Mann is also an educator. "I tell my students: at the very top of the list of the whole definition of being an artist is authenticity and integrity. That is it for me. That's how I live my life."

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