For many people around the world, the word jazz evokes a singer in a bar, club, restaurant or hotel, reworking the standards of yore. Vocal jazz has such a high profile, relatively speaking, because radio stations and TV stations largely balk at the idea of instrumental music, and, easy listening-as a lot of vocal jazz tends to be-doesn't scare the punters off. Few are the established singers who haven't visited the songs made standards by Ella Fitzgerald
, Billie Holiday
, Anita O'Day
, Nancy Wilson
, Sarah Vaughan
or Frank Sinatra
and their ilk. It may be partly a rite of passage, it's often intended as homage, and more often than not it's the initiative of a record company that sniffs increased sales. When a singer stamps her, or sometimes his
mark on a vocal standard, reshaping it to produce something utterly personal, then it's easy to see how these songs can endure. But how often do you find yourself yawning at unimaginative and often quite literal imitations of jazz's vocal doyens and endless stale recitals of standards?
There are of course, many courageous vocalists who follow their own muse, taking jazz/creative singing into new and exciting territory, where improvisation or personal language is central to their craft. Cassandra Wilson
, Maria Joao
, Meredith Monk
, Maria Pia De Vito
, Jen Shyu
, Youn Sun Nah
, Monica Akihary, Gretchen Parlato
and, latterly, Lauren Kinsella
all spring to mind, but everybody will have their own list, that's for sure. One name to add to the list of original voices pushing vocal jazz into very personal nooks and crannies is that of German/Afghan singer Simin Tander
. Her debut recording as leader-heading a conventional jazz quartet-Wagma
(Neuklang Records, 2011), showcased a bewitching voice and an unconventional approach to singing characterized on several numbers by her invented language.
Tander moved from Germany to Holland a decade ago to study singing, and the move has paid dividends; in just the past 18 months, she has won has won the Dutch Young VIP
award-a grant permitting her to tour throughout Holland- composed music for a popular German TV series, released her first CD, toured Asia, and been invited to the Madrid Jazz festival. Her rise as a jazz singer seems to have been fast, though as in nearly all such stories, there have been long years of grind and hard work. For Tander, there is a slight sense of wonder at her growing success: "It's amazing; in the last year a lot of very positive things have happened. Especially when I was touring Asia and I found myself in Hong Kong, I thought, wow, this is really happening."
Tander's performance with her quartet at the Hong Kong international Jazz Festival 2011
was part of a tour through southern China that also took her to Zhuhai, Shengzhen and Guangzhou, where she was enthusiastically received by young Chinese audiences. Tander does not take her success for granted, nor is it something she dwells upon too much: "I'm very thankful for everything," she says. "I'm self-critical, like any normal musician, and I don't only see myself from the outside. I don't think about it too much because if I do then maybe I lose some focus for the music. I work hard and I do my best. It's my dream to play my music everywhere I can. I'm curious as to what will happen next."
Tander's story is not the typical one of growing up in a musical family: "Nobody in my family became a musician but there was always the space for being creative and trying out things," she says. "I grew up with my sister [Mina Tander
] who was two years older than me; she became an actress. Growing up, we were acting, singing and just playing around. There was always music around and an atmosphere conducive to creativity." A German mother and an Afghan father no doubt contributed to Tander's striking looks, but her father passed away when she was just four years old: "I don't know much about his background," says Tander, "whether he was musical or not. I don't have that much memory of him."
The creative atmosphere in Tander's childhood home clearly nurtured in her the ambition to be a singer: "I knew it quite early, when I was seven or eight," she says, laughing. "I started singing when I was very young though I never dared to sing anywhere other than at home. I really wasn't a shy child, I was actually quite extrovert, but when it came to singing I think I realized, subconsciously perhaps, that it's something very personal. Singing was a place where I could really just be myself."