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Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh: Raising Their Voices


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It's nice when people of similar interest and ambitions come together. Nicer still, when those things form the basis of a personal relationship; a partnership that results in the ultimate collaboration—marriage. For Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh—singers who are also heavily involved in education, heightened by their successful operation of the jazz vocal program at California State University, Sacramento—their journey is starting to extend more outside of the classroom and into projects for music fans to enjoy.

Enter their new recording Vertical Voices: The Music of Maria Schneider (ArtistShare, 2010), an ambitious undertaking where the sophisticated music of Maria Schneider—one of the most accomplished and important composer/arrangers for jazz orchestra of this era—is used as a basis for intricate vocal interpretation. Backed by Schneider's rhythm section (guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderseon and drummer Clarence Penn), their voices are used to bring out the colors of the music normally brought forth via brass and woodwinds. Dollison and Marsh, using layered recording tracks, are the orchestra.

It's a bold project that is pulled off in fine fashion. It's easy flow and richness of belie the labor that went into this very complex project. It's also fitting, in a way, that Schneider's music is the focus, since her music was an important part of the relationship that developed early on between Dollison and Marsh, spouses since 2005. They also had independent associations with Schneider, and later personal friendship with her that remains today. ("She's been a big part of our lives personally. A great friend. She took me ring shopping for the engagement ring," says Dollison with glee).

The pair selected five compositions from a few different Schneider recordings and set sail with their idea. It's a very sharp recording, rich with emotion and unveils a different beauty to Schneider's always-sumptuous creations. Dollison's high range and remarkable flexibility and Marsh's sonorous mid-range and low tones combine in a sublime mix. That's not only because of they possess fine voices, but because they are both greatly talented as arrangers.

Before undertaking it, they approach their friend to get her opinion of the project.

Says Dollison, "As soon as we kind of became a couple, we called her up and she took us out to dinner. We mentioned [the project] there. The idea of it. She thought we were out of our minds. We're incredible fans of her music. We wanted to do something really different. We're fans of the whole wordless vocal thing. We thought it was the perfect fit."

"It was partially the complexity of the music and the thickness of it and the really thought-out intellectual, emotionally driven way that she writes. She's so good at combining the heart and the mind in her music," says Marsh. It was that kind sophistication the couple sought out, "when we thought about what the voice could bring in terms of adding a different sort of life and a different sort of sound quality to the music. That was what was particularly so hip about doing her music, as opposed to doing just big band charts and selecting a few different writers or something like that. It's a concept artwork, this project. We wanted to have some uniformity throughout the project in that way. I think her music works well for that."

For her part, Schneider says she was skeptical at first, but nonetheless gave her blessing. "I think it came off really well. They did an absolutely great job," she says. "I thought especially 'Sky Blue' came off really well. Maybe partly because there's very little rhythm section on it. So the voices come forward in more of an a cappella sort of way."

Adds Schneider, "They mocked up one version at home and I was really impressed with what they did. So I said, 'Go ahead and do it.' I was kind of skeptical, to be honest. Because it seemed like it might be bland with just voices. I do so much stuff with orchestration. I was thinking, 'I don't know if this is going to work.' But they did different things to change up the sound a little bit. It ended up working. The music goes pretty high for voices at times. But they are very flexible. Especially Julia's range. She can sing so high, it's crazy."

"Maria was right," Dollison notes, looking back on the process. "It was definitely torturous at times. But it was so exhilarating that it was worth everything ... It helps that we're married and we live together. We'd always talk about it at dinner. All the time. It was real clear in our minds what we wanted to do." And Marsh said the project "inspired us for what is now possible in this kind of scenario. It gives us a lot of motivation to keep working like this."

Schneider says the three of them met to discuss the possibilities, but "they were mostly on their own. I was busy at the time and it was their project. They produced it. The only thing I did was give my OK." However, she actually did a bit more. She helped get her orchestra's rhythm section onboard to create the foundation of the compositions.

"My guys know the music so well," Schneider says. "And also, the way it was recorded. It was a very tricky thing for the rhythm section to play along with. I thought, 'Wow. It's important that they have those guys.' So I think it was a big thing that helped a lot ... I went to the studio to help out with the rhythm section. It was a good thing I did that. I'm used to being in the studio and I'm used to working with them and I know the music so well. I was able to help out in that way. But all the choices were theirs [Dollison and Marsh]. They're both really together musicians. Kerry writes wonderful arrangements. Julia is just an amazing singer. She writes very beautiful stuff too. They are really talented people."

Marsh has a bachelor's degree in music education from the University of Kansas and got his master's in jazz studies at the renowned University of North Texas, where he concentrated on vocal jazz and composition/arranging. He's heavily involved in education for vocal groups. Dollison has bachelor's and master's degrees from another renowned music school, the University of Miami, and also has a strong performance pedigree, having performed in New York City clubs and shared the stage with the likes of Bob Dorough, Kurt Elling, Christian McBride, and Mark Murphy and sung with symphony orchestras. She also has her own CD, Observatory (Like So Music, 2005).

The singers are grateful for Schneider's participation. "She was really advocating for that, as opposed to us finding other, very capable players," says Dollison. But she was nervous about, 'Are they going to be able to replicate it like my guys do?' So she gave us a lot of support and guidance. She came into the studio with us and helped us produce the recording. It worked out perfectly. We were very fortunate."

Marsh says, as they received word that each individual musician was able to get onboard, the excitement grew. "There was a bit if anxiety, as you can imagine. We wanted it to be complete, or obviously there would be a little bit of something missing from it if we were missing one of the guys. So we were real happy about it."

Getting the band to be in synch with the complex vocal lines was a challenge, even with the musicians being familiar with the music. Often, musicians lay down the music and vocal aspects are recorded over those tracks. What Dollison and Marsh did was the reverse.

"What we did is we recorded all the vocals first, actually, using a moving, floating click track (a series of audio cues used to synchronize sound recordings) in our home studio," says Marsh. "I created a click track in the digital audio workstation, Digital Performer. I made the click match Maria's original recordings so there would be an organic sense of push and pull to the time. She doesn't use a click while recording. She conducts live things for the band when they record. So we wanted to have that kind of give-and-take, and that breathing room, tempo-wise. We didn't want to record to a strict click."

If they'd used the cues of a click track for the band first, before the vocals, then "what you'd do is arbitrarily decide whether you go faster or slower," Marsh continues. "We really didn't know how to do that. And we weren't sure we were going to be able to get the band together soon enough to get the project started. So we went ahead and recorded the vocals first. We used a temporary MIDI-mime performance using a keyboard for the drum parts, and the feeling of the bass, and all that. Of course they're not great, but it was enough for us to sing all the tracks and get everything edited, at least roughly. Then we took all of that, with those click tracks, into the studio and the band played underneath us, sort of. And we got their performances. Then we mixed everything down, re-sang some things. We did our solos and all the mixing and mastering."

That's the technical end. But getting their voices to form a pleasing sound that replaced the Schneider horn sections, as well as getting the music as true as possible, was another matter for the singers to tackle. It took a lot of planning.

"Luckily, I am a high soprano and I have that range," says Dollison. "In singing with [Schneider's] band live, I was able to reach the highest lead trumpet part. So really we decided to break it up according to our vocal ranges. And we decided on syllables for each section. For the trumpet section to have their own sound, I did it with a more nasal sonority or resonance."

Explains Marsh, "For the low trombones I would use an 'O-H,' adding a consonant under that, like 'doh' or 'loh' or something. I would keep it a little bit darker. I could bring in a brassy sound too, with that. But it was mostly to separate that section from the brass. With the saxophones, pretty uniformly we went with an 'A-H' sound, kind of an 'ah' sound. That sort of separated those guys as well. Then in the mixing process, we utilized a little EQ [equalization] separation, so that we had everybody occupying a certain sonic space. So it didn't become a soup of sound. That's what we were worried about. That's what Maria was worried about."

there were worries that the voices would mash together and countermelodies would be lost, as well as some intimacy. "It seemed like the mixing process would be brutal. But it turned out easier than we thought," says Marsh. "We thought it would be a nightmare—a worthy nightmare, but a nightmare. But it worked out OK by using different syllables and a little bit of EQ treatment." Notes Dollison, "We were very deliberate and conscious in getting the sounds as accurate."

Marsh says they considered singing transcribed solos of the instruments, but that maneuver would have been too close to a straight copy of the original music. "We needed to do things with it and sing our own solos. And having the band get sort of a second crack at performing these songs live, they played differently on our tracks than they did on the original recordings. I think that's another reason people are liking it, because they can hear alternate takes of these pieces."

The disk has been well received and is selling beyond the couple's expectations. "Maria's been so generous in endorsing the project from the beginning," says Dollison. "She sent off e-mail blasts to her whole fan base. And it's on her website promoting it. That really helps that she donated some of her fan base to our project."

Schneider had a small role in what the couple had in comment when they met, which was in 2003 at the IAJE conference in Toronto, where Dollison was performing. Marsh was at the conference as an educator. He was urged by colleagues to go hear Dollison, "and I was blown away," he says. "I would go to her website once in awhile and check in to see if she had anything new posted. Two years later, I was at Sacramento State and my group was invited to perform at IAJE. When I saw that she was again performing—this was 2005 in Long beach [California]—I made my group go see Julia. My kids all showed up at her gig. Then we invited her to our gig. She came to watch us perform.

"Afterward," Marsh continues, 'we both looked at each other and said, 'Oh my god, we have to talk. We have a lot in common.' She was doing Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett and Kenny Wheeler tunes in her set. We were doing that kind of thing in our ensemble set . So we got together and realized we both had an attraction to Maria Schneider."

Adds Marsh, "At the end of that conference, we left for home on Sunday. On Wednesday I was flying out from Sacramento to New York to spend a week with her, after having just met for a couple days. So it was really quick. We were married six months after we met that second time. Over the summer. And she moved out to Sacramento."

Says Dollison with a chuckle, "We call it love at first listen."

Among the things they had in common was a dedication to vocal music and to education. As far as how each one sings and approaches their own vocal instrument, they have their own disparate influences.

"For solo vocalists, the closest one that resembles the way I perform on this project would be Norma Winstone," who once performed with Kenny Wheeler's big band. "She was his vocalist and did the wordless, abstract singing and improvising. But I also have a lot of more modern influences. I'm a big fan of all the vocal jazz groups. One of the more recent ones is Moss. It's two of the New York Voices, Peter Eldridge and Lauren Kinhan, along with Kate McGarry, Luciana Souza and Theo Bleckmann. If there is one more for me it would be Dianne Reeves. She covers it all. She's great."

Marsh grew up with strongly affected by Pat Metheny's music. "Pat is one of the biggest inspirations for both of us throughout our whole careers. For me the sound of those male vocalists that he has singing with the Pat Metheny Group over the years, like David Blamires, Nana Vasconcelos, Richard Bona and Cuong Vu. Some of the sounds I was making on this album really come right out of that. I've been doing it for years; that wordless vocal sound."

Marsh says "the number one influence for the record besides Maria Schneider has to be Singers Unlimited and Gene Puerling's work in that group in the '70s and '80s. Pioneering stacking vocals, overdubbing. And Julia, quite a few people have said she is sort of a modern day Bonnie Herman [a member of that group]. Julia's voice is an extension of Bonnie Herman's sound in a lot of ways. That very human, very expressive way is a lot of Julia's sound, in addition to these more abstract, artistic sounds, like Norma Winstone. And some of the ECM kind of sounds that Julia has gotten into. That European thing."

"The funny thing is," says Dollison, "we didn't really have much exposure to jazz until our college years. I personally grew up all over the United States. Spent some time in the south and sang in gospel choirs. Took classical piano lessons. I had so many different influences. It wasn't until I went to the University of Miami. The vocal jazz major sounded fun and different. I tried it."

Marsh is from s small town in Kansas where there was no significant jazz scene. "When I went to college, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a classical singer and percussionist or something. I really didn't have any idea. But I heard the vocal jazz ensemble at KU [University of Kansas] and fell in love with it. Although they didn't have a major in that, I was an honorary vocal jazz major. I spent all of my time thinking about that, about playing jazz piano and arranging while I was in school there," he says. "The school thing is a big deal for both of us. It's cool that we're in academia now and maybe having that same influence on our students. With another foot in the professional world as well. We feel it's getting more firmly planted in the professional world. But we still connect with academia and out students."

Funding for music education in California is under fire as the economy continues to struggle and, as a result, governments and educational institutions look for places in their budgets where they can cut back. Unfortunately, music programs often suffer, and the couple is seeing that at California State University. But the couple is adamant in their desire to teach others.

This job that we have teaching together has been the best job of our lives," avows Dollison. "The two of us have built a program at Sac State and it's been so inspiring to make the transition from 'We're not sure it's going to work,' to receiving awards and feeling like a family." Marsh agrees. "It's a really big thing for me. There really are challenging students that come to our program. I get to put them into groups and write arrangements for them and try new things all the time. To get to be standing in the middle is really cool. It's a pervasive part of my life. It's been brilliant. I've really enjoyed it. We want to keep it as a part of our lives."

He notes that while teachers are seeing their work cut back, "we've started to get more into our freelance work and professional work at the same time as we've done less and less at Sac State. It's working out OK. It's going to be alright. But we do know that we want to be teachers. We enjoy that communication."

Marsh spends a lot of time arranging vocal jazz charts on commission throughout the year and also publishes charts through his website. They do a lot of clinic work, especially through the Monterey Jazz Festival, where they visit Monterey County high schools and middle schools and introduce them to jazz. They run a clinic together through the UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival in Colorado. And they've started an online vocal clinic, which is "a thing where people can send us a video of themselves performing and we'll give them a clinic, an audio tape clinic that we'll send back. Real high quality. We'll demonstrate things for them. So we do that kind of educational outreach work as well," says Marsh.

"Kerry is the best ensemble vocal jazz clinician I've ever seen," Dollison says with pride. "He's incredible. He has so much energy. Whereas my specialty is the one-on-one private lessons. I just love that."

The couple hopes to bring the music from Vertical Voices out to the public, though there are some problems in getting the collective sound transferred to a live setting. "We've considered a lot of different possibilities," says Dollison. "After the second day of recording in New York we premiered it live at The Jazz Standard with the rhythm section and just the two of us, live. It was a little overwhelming to try to replicate it." Marsh adds, "We fought with this idea: Should we use tracks? There's an obvious, sort of immediate 'cheese' factor about it with the idea of live performance with preprogrammed tracks, or singing with a click track. We were worried about that, of course. We're not oblivious to the fact that it can be kind of corny."

He notes, "We also talked to people who said, 'Look, If I've heard your recording or if I know the concept of it and I go see you guys live and it's just two voices, I'll be disappointed. I want to hear the whole thing.' We took that into consideration. We met in the middle. We performed some with me playing piano and singing, and Julia singing. We take solos. We sing the inner lines and parts, along with tracks, with the rest of the band playing. That's gone pretty well."

They are rehearsing with a couple other jazz singers from Los Angeles with thoughts toward doing it that way, and "start singing with it in our new Vertical Voices kind of thing," Marsh says. "We're going to call ourselves that, I think. Start performing this music, and other music, live in a quartet format with all music that is similar, sort of progressive jazz kind of stuff. We'll probably still perform with tracks, but now the tracks can be thinner, with the live performance more a part of it. We can also do it live with just piano and vocals and percussion, and get a more vocal jazz ensemble happening with it. Which is something both of us have spent a lot of our lives doing. I think we're still experimenting and still coming up with solutions for how to tour it. We know it's really important so it can tip over and start to be heard by lots and lots of people."

As far as the future, the couple hopes to use the approach to Schneider's music on other projects. "We've fallen in love with the whole multi-tracking with the two of us," says Dollison. "We've gotten a lot of suggestions from fans. 'You've got to cover [percussionist/composer] John Hollenbeck's orchestra next, or Duke Ellington.' We know that we want to do something like that and make it another tribute.

"We have favorite artists in common that we think are candidates for it," says Marsh. "We're going through that list now and looking at music and making plans and thinking about it long term, while still having to keep our eye on the ball with this album too. We're definitely trying to make sure we don't take five years to do the next record. We're not sure who we're going to go with the next time, whether it will be one artist or multiple, or how we'll pull it off."

It will be interesting to see where this like-minded, attuned couple—who revel in the joy of singing—carry this style of vocal jazz. Based on the current project, it will certainly have its own panache and style.

Selected Discography

Julia Dollison/Kerry Marsh, Vertical Voices: The Music of Maria Schneider (ArtistShare, 2010)

Ben Folds, College A Cappella (Sony, 2009)

Julia Dollison, Observatory, ( Like So Music, 2005)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 2, 5: Courtesy of Julia Dollison

Pages 3, 4: Courtesy of Kerry Marsh.


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