Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh: Raising Their Voices

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."



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