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Jo Lawry: Singing Sideman

Jason Crane By

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AAJ: Why is it important to you to undertake an academic study of the music?

JL: There are a lot of practical factors involved in me choosing to do a doctorate. It probably isn't something I would have chosen to do just from a musical perspective. But I love to teach. I really, really do. I always expect that that's going to be a fairly important part of what I do, regardless of what kind of success I'm fortunate enough to have as a performer. So the doctorate is going to help with that.

It's also exposed to me to a different way of thinking and to approaching art from lots of different levels. One of the really exciting things has been to widen my idea of what I think art is and music is, and how we are connected to dance and visual art and the written word. That's been a real challenge, but it's been an exciting one.

AAJ: Have you done any multimedia work?

JL: Actually, I have the first such gig coming up in a Carnegie Hall series with James Shipp and Stephanie Richards, who is a wonderful trumpet player from Montreal. The three of us met at the Fred Hersch professional training workshop at Carnegie Hall. It was a workshop in improvisation in a solo, duo and trio setting, and it was all very free and really daunting for someone like me who likes things planned out. We are going to do a concert for an exhibition opening in Jamaica

Kate McGarry / Jo Lawry

AAJ: You just mentioned pianist Fred Hersch. You're involved with his Pocket Orchestra?

JL: That's right. I'm a new member of the Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra, which is a bass-less quartet. It's percussion, trumpet, voice and piano. The repertoire is comprised almost entirely of his compositions. It's a really interesting setting. I'm very attached to the bass, so it's an exciting challenge to be away from that foundation.

Fred has the widest range of any of us. He's above me and Ralph Alessi, who's on trumpet, and he's below me as well. He's providing the entire musical landscape. When it's Fred Hersch, that's just fine. Richie Barshay is on drums. We did a couple of nights at the Jazz Standard a few months ago, and that was a wonderful success. That will be recorded in the coming months on Palmetto.

AAJ: How did you meet Fred?

JL: I've known Fred for a few years. Fred is a wonderful supporter of vocalists, and he's very interested in new vocalists. He's always got his finger on the pulse of who's singing and who is pushing the limits in the jazz vocal realm. He's certainly not someone who feels that the jazz vocalist's role is to wear the nice dress and please the commercial customers. He's interested in the vocalist being an integrated member of the ensemble, for which there isn't much of a precedent. It's a challenge to figure out how to be less up front.

I met Fred through Kate McGarry, who is on his incredible Walt Whitman record Leaves of Grass (Palmetto, 2005). And he is on a couple of her albums, Mercy Streets (Palmetto, 2005), I believe, which features his composition, "Stars." We just kept bumping into each other, then one day he said, "Hey, let's get together and play." He sent me some of his songs, and little did I know it was an audition of sorts. I just thought it was some sort of session. It turned out to be an audition, and it turned out that I passed, so I'm in the project.

AAJ: It sounds like there must be an amazing amount of listening required to play in that group.

JL: There is. It's very challenging. I'm the most junior member of that group—not in age, but in experience. It was very challenging to do those four sets at the (Jazz) Standard. The amount of energy and concentration required to maintain that level of listening was something that I'm going to have to step up to. As a vocalist, you can get used to being expected to sit back and relax when it's not your solo. You sing the head and then you get out of the way. Whereas this is very, very intense.

It's a challenge that I'm excited to meet, but it's certainly quite a task. Fred's music is so intricate, and he has such strong and wonderful ideas of what he wants. That's one thing that is helpful. He may be very demanding—in a wonderful way—but he lovingly guides you through what he wants. He gives so much more than he expects. He expects a lot, but if you're prepared to go with it, he'll walk you through what you need to meet the challenge.

AAJ: As a vocalist, how do you find rewarding situations to put yourself in? Is it harder than for an instrumentalist?

JL: I think so. I've been very lucky so far. I got to play with Donny McCaslin in a new project, and also this project with Fred. It's something that is very dear to my heart, perhaps because I don't consider myself a composer. 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. But it's not very often that somebody wants a vocalist to do that.

Jo Lawry

Sometimes that's because [vocalists] steal the show, even if they don't want to. We're so ready to connect with a vocalist, because you have that instrument. You walk around and you use it all day. We all have a voice and connect very strongly to vocalists. So it's quite hard to not immediately gravitate toward that member of the group. If that's not the focus, and the music and the ensemble are meant to be the focus, it's a challenge to try to integrate a vocalist into the ensemble. I understand the reticence of some instrumentalists to do that, but I'm grateful that some do because it's what I love to do, perhaps most of all. Being in an ensemble is the greatest joy.

Selected Discography

Jo Lawry, I Want To Be Happy (Fleurieu, 2008)

Kate McGarry, If Less Is More ... Nothing Is Everything (Palmetto, 2008)


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