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Maud Hixson: Studying Scores and Moving Forward

David Bittinger By

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That's what's exciting about any journey--you can plan it out, but taking the trip is never the same as looking at the map. There is so much to discover beyond just listening to other singers' recordings of a song. —Maud Hixson
Maud Hixson has built an accomplished career as a performer and recording artist out of unlikely circumstances. She grew up far from the capitals of jazz and vocal music, in the Twin Cities area. Doris Day's performance in the Ruth Etting biopic "Love Me Or Leave Me" served as a primary inspiration for a young Maud to become a performer. In her twenties, waiting tables at a diner, she met another future jazz singer, Nichola Miller. With no glamour and lots of hard work, Hixson began spending long hours researching scores and studying the recordings of such greats as Blossom Dearie and Ella Fitzgerald.

Hixson began performing professionally in 2002 and quit her job as an airline French interpreter in 2003, committing to singing full-time. The strong following she began to develop in the Twin Cities led to increasing national attention, her first New York cabaret show in 2008, and her theatrical debut at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater in 2010. Fabled New York composer Michael Leonard chose her as the vocalist heading an all-star combo for a definitive CD last year.

Singer/songwriter Amanda McBroom describes her as, "the new Peggy Lee," while Lydia Howell wrote in The Minneapolis Observer, "she sounds the way Grace Kelly looks."

All About Jazz: First, how do you feel about the state of vocal music today—the material, the audience, the general direction of the music?

Maud Hixson: The material, I think, reflects the values of today's society, as it always has, the audience is bigger than ever, and the general direction is focused on innovation.

AAJ: Are you concerned about how vocal music is often poorly identified now? When I see the work of serious vocalists listed as "Middle Of The Road" or "Easy Listening" music, I cringe. Do these category conflations seem to reflect a reduced appreciation of the sophistication of the compositions you and your peers perform?

MH: I think of "middle-of-the-road" and "easy listening" as terms that were invented for radio audiences in the last decades of the 20th century. I think these kinds of labels, invented to help the consumer, will keep changing as the ways we consume music continue to change. And there isn't much sophistication in a label.

AAJ: I won't ask the obvious question about whether the TV singing competition shows have lowered and coarsened general standards for vocals, but do you see any resurgence for artistic jazz vocals coinciding with the apparent demise of that televised hype?

MH: I've never watched any of those shows, as my career really started around the same time they first appeared, so I would be working in clubs when they were on. I wouldn't think that the audiences interested in that type of reality/contest show would become jazz audiences once those shows end.

AAJ: You work out of the Twin Cities. I know there's been a reduction in performing venues for jazz there (as most everywhere else). How are you working to maintain and expand your audience in an era when the economic model of clubs seems so tough?

MH: Clubs haven't provided a living for musicians for quite a few years now, so my focus is on concert and cabaret venues, with some private work on the side.

AAJ: Your most recent CD, Don't Let A Good Thing Get Away, collected compositions of Michael Leonard, whose work had long been well respected in the music business but was not generally well known in the mainstream. What would you say about this composer and why you felt it was important to make this recording?

MH: I wanted to have the experience of working directly with a living composer, while surveying their entire output, and learn as much as I could about how they had done their work before I started on my job as an interpreter. I also wanted to learn the life story of each song, how it was born, how it grew and changed, how it was used, how it was performed in its lifetime. Michael Leonard was an ideal choice to work with because he had written songs with several different lyricists for many different settings, after the body of the Great American Songbook had been written. I also felt freer while recording these songs, knowing that my interpretation would be more likely to be heard on its own merits rather than compared with a famous version from the past.

AAJ: Would you outline your major musical influences?

MH: I have an enormous amount of influences, as music has always been like food to me. I have a couple of guiding voices, however, that have stayed with me since I became interested in singing as a child. The one I hold closest to my heart is Judy Garland's. Our instruments are not alike, and my style is nothing like hers, and yet listening to her still tells me more about how I should be singing than anyone else I've ever heard. I have a lot of favorite voices who keep me company, but she's also the only one that makes me feel like I'm spending time with a friend who understands me, as if it is somehow reciprocal. The other big guiding voice is Frank Sinatra's. It was in his recordings that I first heard swing, and experienced it like an electrical shock; I felt this instant need to understand it, and now, I still go to him to show me how it's done. His deep understanding of singing is seemingly bottomless, as every time I learn something new about singing, there it is, just waiting for me to hear it in his records.

AAJ: You do a lot of primary research in choosing and performing songs. Have you very often been surprised or inspired by finding unexpected elements in scores or background material?

MH: That's what's exciting about any journey—you can plan it out, but taking the trip is never the same as looking at the map. There is so much to discover beyond just listening to other singers' recordings of a song. I always start with hunting down the original sheet music, and there's always at least one surprise there. I've often been inspired by knowing the background of a song as well, as you never know what detail will help you tell the story when you sing it.

AAJ: How different do you feel your performing is today from, say, ten years ago?

MH: I wouldn't say I was a performer ten years ago—I was still struggling to be consistent technically, and I hadn't yet developed good habits around preparing material for an audience. So I was still mostly singing for myself. Now I can instantly connect with an audience and tell the story the way I want to tell it.

AAJ: Which composers of quality songs do you see as remaining under- appreciated? Conversely, are there any composers you think vocalists rely on too much or whose songs have become somewhat tiresome?

MH: There are too many to mention, and many of them didn't write enough songs to become household names. I don't think a great song can ever become tiresome, but I could understand listeners getting sick of hearing a standard that keeps being reinterpreted in uninspiring ways.

AAJ: Who are your favorite contemporary singers? Which ones do you think especially deserve a larger audience?

MH: Lorraine Feather and James Taylor are my favorite contemporary singers. I think they both deserve larger audiences, especially Lorraine Feather.

AAJ: Another question about the category at large: I wonder what, if anything, you think of the distinction sometimes made between "jazz singing" and "pop singing." I've read some critics call singers like Johnny Hartman and Ella Fitzgerald jazz artists, fundamentally different from even arguably the greatest singer, Sinatra, who they hear as performing popular rather than jazz music. Is that a meaningful distinction?

MH: I think Mel Torme answered that question best when he said that a jazz singer was capable of improvisation (whether they ever did it or not), and the rest fall into the popular category. I would also add that I consider improvisation to include rhythm, not just melody. I don't think the material really matters.

AAJ: Follow-up to that last question: With your love of research, I'd guess you've heard that truncated 1958 outtake in which Sinatra starts to lay down Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," a brilliant and somewhat complex jazz composition with a notable recording by Hartman backed by Coltrane. Sinatra gives it up after a take he recognizes as flawed. What do you think was going on there?

MH: In that outtake, when he starts the refrain, his delivery becomes stilted as his singing of the melody seems to clash with what he hears in the arrangement, so he stops the take and announces that not only is it a difficult melody, but the arranger, Nelson Riddle has "some flies in there," and they decide to put the song aside and move on to another. There must have been some other reason he never came back to it, as I understood that the process of singing through the arrangement and then "removing flies" was a matter of course when Sinatra and Riddle worked on a recording.

AAJ: There's another fascinating example of that process on YouTube now: two earlier takes of "The Summer Wind." They're both quite good, and you can hear slight but significant improvs in phrasing and melody leading to the great final version. Having heard your Leonard CD and "Love's Refrain," I'd guess you've developed your own version of this process.

MH: (After pausing to review "SW" outtakes) This was fascinating to listen to. The tempo finally settles into its sweet spot, and Sinatra's interpretation gains momentum as his choices start indicating the overall feeling of the arrangement, as I imagine it affected him with that great band lending its powerful slow swing. My process I liken to running down an unpaved path, barefoot. Each time you do it, your feet remember where the rocks and tree roots are and you become more agile each time you negotiate them. Finally you can run the whole length of the path with style, gracefully, and not run out of breath.

AAJ: Not many singers today perform and record with accompaniment ranging from piano only to a full big band like the Wolverines. How did you develop that range?

MH: By listening and then getting out and doing it. The learning curve is a bit steeper with a big band—if you stumble with a pianist, you may scrape your elbow, but if you do it with a big band, you get run over by a freight train.

AAJ: If you care to, I'd be interested in hearing about the best and worst gigs you've ever worked.

MH: I'm at the point now where there are several gigs in each category, but here are a couple that are particularly meaningful to me. Probably the worst (certainly for the musicians) was a gig where I sang the first line of a song and then realized I couldn't remember anything after that. I started laughing hysterically and couldn't stop. One of the very best was the concert I did with Sir Richard Rodney Bennett in New York in 2012. He was a brilliant composer and pianist and we had such fun. He had taken notice of me because he'd heard my recording of one of his favorite songs "I'm Way Ahead Of The Game," by Johnny Mercer and Robert Emmet Dolan. We soon discovered that he had recommended the song to the singer whose recording I'd learned it from. While I was singing it, I suddenly remembered that it had been exactly ten years before, when I was first singing professionally, that I'd heard this song and learned it at my dining room table, and now here I was, performing it with this man whose great taste in songs had put it in my path.
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