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Lucia Cadotsch: Whispers Speak Louder than Screams

Ludovico Granvassu By

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I believe in the strong connections that exist among certain people. When you are with them, even when you don't know each other well yet, there is no need to exchange too many explanations, and there's no need to speak or be loud.
Speak Low (Enja Records, 2017), the debut release of her current Trio of the same name, catapulted Lucia Cadotsch among the new artists that promise to write original chapters of vocal jazz while showing deference to the artists that preceded them. Playing a compelling brand of music that has been aptly described as "acoustic retrofuturism" —think of it as the musical version of Blade Runner's stunning blend of futuristic ambience and vintage elegance —Lucia Cadotsch, bassist Petter Eldh and saxophonist Otis Sandsjö take listeners on a journey which defies boundaries between electric and acoustic music; improvisation and composition; past, present and future. This is music which cannot elicit indifference, and has drawn almost unanimous praise from listeners and critics alike, including the 2017 Echo Jazz Prize, the German equivalent of a Grammy Award, for best vocalist of the year.

The Speak Low's performances at New York's Winter Jazz Festival and at the Greenwich House Music School in January remain among the best concerts of the first half of 2018 and have built anticipation for the upcoming second American Tour. We have reached out to the Berlin-based Swiss singer to learn more about the origins of this unique project, as well as about Edda Lou the recent release with Yellow Bird, her collaborative project with singer, fiddler and actress Manon Kahle, guitarist Ronny Graupe and clarinetist Uli Kempendorff.

To listen to the music of Lucia Cadotsch as well as to excerpts of this interview, play the archived podcast of Mondo Jazz (starting at 10.33).

All About Jazz: You were born into a musical home and, at an early age, you plunged into your father's jazz record collection. Sometimes being surrounded by a musical family is not enough; at times it can even be counterproductive... How did you first get interested in music?

Lucia Cadotsch: Jazz was always around. I was singing since I can remember and I used to be part of a Children's Choir. It was all very natural and I never thought of it like a future profession. I used to keep this 'wish-book' with all the things that I hoped would happen in the future and I remember writing that, as an adult, I wanted to do something with music, or become a teacher. Because the only professional thing I witnessed at that age was seeing my choir director in action. Later, as a teenager, I started dreaming about being on stage and singing.

Around that time I started going out more and I got to know some young jazz musicians. My brother is a professional trombone player and he started playing in a big band at a young age, together with other players in their twenties. That changed my perspective, because up to that point jazz was something that I associated with what my father and people of his generation did. But seeing those younger players made me think "ah... that's something I want to do myself." Jazz became something I could identify with... and it didn't hurt that there were some young and handsome guys playing jazz [Laughs -Ed.]. So when I was 14 I started thinking that I wanted to become a musician.

AAJ: What were the following steps in your musical development?.

LC: A couple of years later I started taking classes from a teacher that was a professor at the Jazz School in Zurich. She was the first person who made me realize that —if I wanted it —becoming a musician was within my reach, because I had the skills and the talent it took to become one. At that point things started looking more concrete. I was in school and still had to finish my degree, but I was already preparing for University, studying jazz, piano, music theory, ear training etc.

AAJ: What were the artists that influenced you at that time?

LC: Abbey Lincoln was very important to me. I saw her perform when I was a teenager, towards the end of the '90s. I think it was at the Zurich Jazz Festival. She performed on the main stage. I saw her on this big stage and she made a big impression on me. And then Lee Konitz, whom I saw in a small club, the former Moods [jazz venue in Zurich, Switzerland -Ed.], where we could seat very close to the stage. He was one of the idols of my father, who also plays the alto saxophone and used to listen to Lee's albums all the time at home. As a baby I was at a Miles Davis concert, but I don't have memories of that performance because I was one year old; it was in Los Angeles during a vacation with my family, driving around California in a camper, but I'm sure I absorbed it!

AAJ: Your recording career started in 2009 with Schneweiss & Rosenrot. Is that band still active?

LC: That project is not active anymore. It ended four years ago when I started my current band, Speak Low. Petter Eldh, the bassist of Speak Low, was also part of Schneweiss & Rosenrot, so our collaboration has been going on for 10 years now. Schneweiss & Rosenrot was a real collective project. We released three albums of original compositions. Each of us would contribute our own compositions which we then arranged together. They were songs which would open up and leave ample room for improvisation, and the improvisation was an extension of the composition. We always recorded the tracks live in studio together, then go into post-production, adding synthesizers, choirs, and all sorts of weird sounds to create our own soundscape. There were no limits in what was allowed. On the first album we covered so much ground, like a typical debut album. We'd have a really poppy tune with an electronic beat, and some crazy bass and synthesizer. And that would be followed by weird compositions that were all written out. That was the natural result of the fact that we were four very different individuals, and sharing our backgrounds could only turn into a strangez mashup. It was perfect for that time. We were all in our early twenties and it ended when I was 28 and I felt that I needed to do something else.

AAJ: Another eclectic project you've been involved with is Yellow Bird, an interesting blend of Americana and forward looking jazz, which has recently released a beautiful new album, Edda Lou (Enja Records). How did you get involved in this project with singer and fiddler Manon Kahle, guitarist Ronny Graupe and clarinetist Uli Kempendorff?

LC: Yellow Bird started like a fun side project, focusing on Appalachian country standards. It's centered around two-voice harmonies, so it's Manon, who comes from acting and grew up in Vermont in a musical family, and myself. At a young age Manon started playing violin, banjo and ukulele, together with her family at home, always making up new songs. That's how she got into music, not through formal education. Some time ago, I heard her sing and I was really touched. I immediately wanted to sing with her because she has this very natural approach to music and keeps coming up with hundreds of songs very easily. After we started singing together and discovering that our voices blended very naturally, we founded Yellow Bird with three jazz musicians here in Berlin, Ronny, Uli and, later, also drummer Michael Griener and Ludwig Wandinger.

Our first album, Sing, featured all traditionals, which we interpreted in our own way. The new album, Edda Lou, continues to be centered around our two-voice harmonies but features originals, most of them are compositions by Manon that we arranged together as a band. The feel, however, is still that of an Americana or folk album, that would work well as the soundtrack to a Western movie.

AAJ: You also have a successful collaboration with Hayden Chisholm and the Lucerne Jazz Orchestra.

LC: I have known Haydn for many years. He had heard me sing standards way before my Speak Low project. For many years, I wanted to find a band where I could play the standards my way. So I went through different experiments. It was a long process. I started out transcribing the original recordings by Billie Holiday and play them in an octet. But it was too close to the originals and I felt like a bad copy of Billie Holiday so I stopped doing that. But Hayden heard me sing those tunes and he wrote a whole new programme for the Lucerne Jazz Orchestra with my voice in his head. They're all original compositions but they sound like old standards. However, since it's a big band we don't tour so much.

AAJ: With your current project, Speak Low, you've done the opposite: you've taken old standards and make them sound like brand new tunes. How did you start your collaboration with the other two members of this trio, Petter Eldh and Otis Sandsjö?

LC: As I mentioned, for many years I wanted to do something different with the standards. I didn't want to make a copy of something that is already there. It took me many years to figure out the right context to put my voice in. And then I suddenly did. I was invited for a "carte blanche" by a Festival in Berlin called Kollektiv Nights, but it was asked to bring something new. It was perfect timing because Schneweiss & Rosenrot had just ended and I had no band. So, I needed an incentive like that. It took me five weeks to put together a new band and a new programme. I tried a few sessions with various musicians. My initial idea was to strip everything down to the basics, with a two-way harmony with bass and voice and I knew it would be strong with Petter Eldh, because he is such an original musician and he would never slip into something that just works because that's the way to do it. He has a strong personality. We both love songs but also share the same goal of searching until we find something fresh and new. So, I asked him to play duo. His initial reaction was "this is fucking scary, but yeah, I'm in." However, the next day he called me up and told me he had just seen a dance performance for which this Swedish saxophonist, Otis Sandsjö, had written solo saxophone music. And he thought that a trio with Otis would sound amazing. So the three of us we had a session and, from the first note, everything was clear. It was a really intense moment. We didn't need to talk about anything, just play music. We all had goosebumps. It was such a powerful encounter of three people coming together, and making music, and understanding what being a band is all about, from the first tune. It was a very significant strong moment for me because it marked the end of my long —and at times very uncertain —search.

AAJ: What were your guiding lights while you were searching for originality while playing a well established repertoire?

LC: Billie Holiday has always been an idol for me. After her, Nina Simone represents the next generation that took some of the same tunes and turned them into something completely different. Any of the Billie Holiday tunes she sang simply sounded like Nina Simone. You don't even think of comparing her to Billie Holiday because she made something so different and personal out of them. What I particularly like about Nina's work is that the music that surrounds her voice and piano is like the extension of her singing and playing. As a result, the borders between composition and improvisation become very fluid. Her music was not like "here's the arrangement, then comes the solo, then another solo, then we go back to the head." In that respect Nina Simone's process resembled what I was trying to find for my band.

AAJ: And indeed, when listening to Speak Low one would be hard pressed to distinguish the solos from the written parts. There is a seamless connection between written sections that sound very wide open and improvised passages, which are so flawless to appear as if they had been written down note by note. Is this the direct influence of what you've just described?

LC: Yes. I intended to make it so that it would not be possible to distinguish between written parts and solos. That's something that I've been looking for a long time. And, also for that, Nina Simone was always in my head. She kept me searching for my own way. But it only became clear when Petter, Otis and I first played together. It's then that I realized that, indeed, I had found something. Up to that point my search was like going through a fog not knowing exactly what is the shape of what you're looking for. And I now understand why it was like that. What we have is something that I could have never found alone, because it's not something I could ever have composed. The music came from those three musicians putting their ideas together.

AAJ: What lead you to choose Speak Low as the name for this project?

LC: It was my belief in the strong connections that exist among certain people and the consequent fact that when you are with them, even when you don't know each other well yet, there is no need to exchange too many explanations, and there's no need to speak or be loud. With other people you may try for years and this connection never happens. Of course, this is true not only in music.

AAJ: What were the criteria you applied in selecting the repertoire for this project? What drew you to those specific songs?

LC: Most of the songs that are on Speak Low are tunes that I've been singing for many years. For instance, I sang "Willow Weep for Me" for the first time when I was 14. They represent some sort of "Best of" from my repertoire. I never grow bored of them and I have a very strong emotional connection to them. We also tried a number of other tunes which ultimately we did not use for the album. So, these tunes worked particularly well with this trio.

AAJ: Tackling well-established standards, many of which have received "definitive" renditions, with the goal of saying something new is quite gutsy. Have you enjoyed the challenge?

LC: The challenge is the fun part. The way we approach these songs is in continuous evolution. Those songs will never ever sound the same because the way we play keeps developing. At every soundcheck we change something.

AAJ: One of the striking things of Speak Low is that giving old songs a surprising and compelling rendition compels the listener to pay more attention to the lyrics, to discover them a-new. How much importance did the lyrics of these standards play in your choice?

LC: Lyrics have a critical importance. I need to identify with them. This is especially true because standards come from a very different time, and not all of them have aged graceful, especially with regard to the gender roles, which were very different back then. There are songs that I could never sing today, being a woman in 2017. I could not sing something like "Tea for two and two for tea, A boy for you and a girl for me..." That's something I cannot relate to. On the other hand, a song like "Gloomy Sunday" deals with issues that remain current today, and probably will never lose interest for future generations since death is something that, at one point or another, we all have to grapple with. So, yes, the lyrics have to touch me somehow, they have to do something with me so that "I can become the lyrics" or they have to feel so close that I could have written them myself.

AAJ: Listening to your album, or seeing Speak Low live, one gets the impression of the trio as one single pulsating entity, a sum which is greater than its parts. How do you develop your arrangements?

LC: We learn the tunes together, often listening to different recordings of older or original versions of those songs. Sometimes we pick small bits from those older renditions and we start playing with them. It's almost like sampling. For example, we picked the intro of the Nina Simone recording of "Ain't Got No, I Got Life"—recorded live in London —and made that into a loop that became the bass line in our arrangement. At times we would go on and on for hours with one song searching for our parts together. The result is something that we could have never written down. The music was created on the instruments, finding the blend and arrangements together. That's a very beautiful and fun process.

AAJ: Speak Low is an entirely acoustic project but it often sounds as if it includes electronic instruments. Is that deliberate?

LC: Yes. What sometimes sounds like a synthesizer is Otis playing his saxophone with a lot of circular breathing, distorted notes and overtones, but it's all acoustic. Petter also is using the full sound-range of his instrument and has a strong rhythmical concept, his playing is very beat oriented. So together they're taking the role of the drums and harmony instrument. I wanted to hear what could be done stripping down a band-sound to the basics but then multiplying the possibilities within it, without using any electronic effects.

AAJ: However, you have also published a remixed version of Speak Low. What prompted you to do that for such an acoustic project and how has the acoustic/electronic mix shifted the music?

AAJ: I thought it would be fun and interesting to see how other people hear our music. This is especially true because, as I mentioned earlier, we have been approaching our own arrangements with a sampling mentality... And we are very connected with the musicians who did the remixes. We are one big family, even though we are spread over a number of cities and countries. I had no intention of asking famous producers to make these remixes. I wanted to have my friends mixing my music. I started asking around and then everyone was up for it. I decided that they could pick the song they preferred. With the exception of two songs for which there are two different remixed versions, everybody picked a different track. Afterwards, the challenge for me was to find the right sequence to present the remixes, to avoid that the remixed album would sound like some kind of mix-tape. The remix project then took a life of its own when we decided to present it live. We did two shows, one with all 14 musicians involved and then a second one with fewer musicians. In these shows we played new versions of the old songs, which were inspired by the remixes. So getting into this remix project made it possible to discover new angles for these songs.

AAJ: With a bass and a saxophone your line-up lacks a harmonic instrument. What's behind this intriguing and unusual choice for a vocal jazz group? What opportunities does it open and what challenges does it pose?

LC: It's a very delicate and fragile line-up because each of us has a lot of responsibility to the full band-sound. Without drums you get to hear lots of details that you usually don't hear, that's really beautiful and a challenge as well, because we really have to click in together—intonation-wise to be able to hear the chord and rhythmically of course -if we don't it all falls apart. But that also gives us a lot of freedom and space we can fill (or not) and it's fun to stretch things, go anywhere and back together. And it's always fun to challenge the common role of the instruments.

AAJ: One last question, what are your upcoming projects which will follow your North American tour?

LC: The first stop is playing with Speak Low at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, and then in New York at Joe's Pub and Greenwich House. After that, with Speak Low we're going to record a new album towards the end of the year. At the moment, I am mixing a studio album with songs I composed together with Wanja Slavin: LIUN + The Science Fiction Band. The album will be out next year. And I started a new trio with Kit Downes on Hammond organ and Lucy Railton on cello. I'm going to tour with all these projects.

Photo credits: Michael Jungblut Klein

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