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Jo Lawry: Singing Sideman

Jason Crane By

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I suppose my dream job is as a sideman, because I love to be in somebody else's project, and for my job to be making their music sound great.
Jo LowryAustralian vocalist Jo Lawry is quickly establishing herself among the top tier of current jazz vocalists. And she's doing it—at least some of the time—by being a sideman.

Lawry hails from Adelaide, Australia. She's been in the U.S. for several years now pursuing advanced degrees in jazz, but she hasn't spent all her time studying. She's also managed to collect an impressive list of resume credits as a performer, including performing and recording with Kate McGarry, Fred Hersch, Donny McCaslin and others.

Lawry's debut album, I Want To Be Happy (Fleurieu, 2008), features original compositions and creatively reworked tunes from the jazz and pop songbooks. Lawry stands out from the pack because of her clear melodic and harmonic ideas and her incredible intonation.

All About Jazz: Tell me about the song "Small House."

Jo Lawry: That was actually written as somewhat of an apology to my lovely partner in music and life and living, vibraphonist James Shipp, who's on the record. I'm in the midst of doing my doctorate at the moment, so study is pretty hectic. Trying to do that in a basement studio with 6-foot ceilings, living with a percussionist who's constantly playing and has a million drums, is a tough task.

One day I just completely lost it and said, "You've got to get out. I've got to study. I don't care where you go or what you do, just get out of the house." I was not very nice about it. I kicked him out for the day, and I felt so bad about the way I'd done it that I started writing this little tune. It's just all about how the quarters are close and it can be a challenge, but that it works out nicely when you're with someone you love.

The funny thing is that he came back and I thought he'd think this was such a sweet song and such a lovely apology. But he was just so cross that I wasn't studying. He said, "I've been driving around, staying out of the house, and you wrote a song? You're supposed to be writing a paper."

AAJ: What's the jazz scene like in Adelaide, Australia?

JL: It's really great. There are a lot of fantastic musicians there. It's a smallish place. It's a really wonderful place to live. Lots of great musicians come from Australia. In fact, the bassist on my record, Matt Clohesy, is from Australia. And also Barney McAll, who is on keyboards on the record. Great musicians. When I was there, though, I was playing mostly weddings and doing private teaching, so this is a really different scenario here. I love going back to play, but for now I'm definitely based in New York and loving it.

AAJ: When did you start singing, and when did you realize it was something you were serious about?

JL: It's that clichéd story of singing at the same time as learning to talk. When I was very young, about 8 or 9, I started doing gigs in churches. I come from a church family, so I was singing in churches. Then when I was 12, my mom took me to an audition for Les Miserables and I got in. I was sure that what I wanted to do for the rest of my life was to be in musicals, and that was the plan for a little while.

Then I went overseas on a trip with World Vision and decided I wanted to be a doctor. I abandoned singing for a while, but then decided it was what I really wanted to do. I did a little bit of classical study because that seemed like the legitimate thing to do out of high school, but it didn't really have the freedom or resonate with me in the way that jazz does. My brother is a huge jazz fan and I was listening to a lot of his records. I switched into the jazz program and from there it just progressed.

Jo LawryAAJ: When did you decide to come to the United States?

JL: I made the decision to come to the States when I decided to do my master's. At that time in Australia, they weren't really set up to do that. My intention had been to do my master's and then go back home to Australia to continue my teaching job in the university, because I'd been teaching there. I got a Fulbright Scholarship to come and study here, and it's just been too hard to leave. Now I'm doing my doctorate in jazz performance at New England Conservatory and living in New York and commuting between Boston and New York. It's quite a hectic lifestyle.

AAJ: With whom are you studying at NEC?

JL: At the moment, I'm studying with Danilo Pérez, which is really wonderful. I've also been fortunate to study with Dominique Eade and Jerry Bergonzi and John McNeil.

AAJ: How are you incorporating what you're learning? What differences do you hear in your songwriting or performing?

JL: I'm the only jazz major in my year in the doctoral program. It's a very small program, and the rest of the musicians are classical musicians. So the academic side of it, in fact most of it, is really coming from the classical perspective. So I'm being exposed to all sorts of music that, frankly, I dodged for so many years.

Now I'm exposed to it whether I like it or not. But it's been really wonderful. I've been trying to do some jazz arrangements of some [Felicien] Foret and a few different composers that I'd always loved. Now I'm seeing I have a right to be involved with them. I'm trying to incorporate that into my playing and arranging and writing.

Danilo is a wonderful teacher who is forcing me to write and write and write. That's been a big change. I've always been an arranger. I always feel more comfortable working with preexisting material and putting my own sound into it. Working with a blank canvas is really intimidating to me. When I see all that silence and wonder how to fill it or not to fill it. But he's making me feel more comfortable. Every week he says, "Bring me a new tune. I don't care what it sounds like, but it's got to be new."

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