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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."

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