Susie Arioli: Brushing with Strings


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Susie Arioli / Jordan OfficerThis summer, AAJ contributor Mary Ann Lacey interviewed Susie Arioli before and after her closing concert for the 2007 Montreal International Jazz Festival. Arioli and her partner, Jordan Officer, make up the core of the Susie Arioli Band, whose gentle jazz and swing ballads have enraptured audiences across the country and abroad since their start in 1997. Arioli sings in a soft but clear voice while playing brushes on the snare drum. Her repertoire includes jazz tunes like "Pennies from Heaven and "By Myself, and more country/popular songs like "Husbands & Wives and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix. All these songs are available on her CD/DVD release, Susie Arioli Band featuring Jordan Officer Live at the Montreal International Jazz Festival (Justin Time, 2007).

Officer is Arioli's partner in life as well as in music. He plays lead guitar and writes most of the band's arrangements. In this special musical evening Arioli and Officer were joined by the sixteen-piece I Musici String Orchestra, as well as Michael Jerome Browne on guitar, Bill Gossage on bass and Remi Leclerc on drums, with string arrangements written by Christopher Smith.

All About Jazz::Tell me a bit about your background.

Susie Arioli: My family was based in Ontario [Toronto] and we moved to Montreal when I was three. My mother comes from Hamilton and my father from Rochester, New York, and they met in Toronto. I don't have dual citizenship because I didn't get that organized when I should have. I regret that, and not getting a drivers licence. I just never thought I'd have a car. I'm a Montrealer, what do I need a car for? I wasn't thinking in the future and it is also a very handy piece of identification, all I have is a health card and a passport.

AAJ: Were your parents musicians?

SA: No, but my parents were music aficionados. Definitely they both liked to sing and were not shy to sing and express themselves, Laaaaa!

AAJ: What kind of music did you have as a kid?

SusieSA: We had lots of Beatles, and I was just thinking it would be great to just get those songs and put them all on my iTunes...like The White Album (Capitol, 1968), Revolver (Capitol, 1966), Sgt. Pepper (Capitol, 1967); also Frank Zappa, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Elton John's Yellow Brick Road (Rocket/Island, 1973). I remember when my sister got that album. I liked that album; it was really good to sing to. I remember salivating at the top of the stairs when my sister was having one of her teen parties because the music sounded so good—what a soundtrack [Elton John's music].

AAJ: Why did your family choose Montreal?

SA: We moved here because my dad got a job at the National Film Board; he's a film maker, visual artist and actor...he was a definite performer, so it must be in the genes, my stage presence comes naturally. My mother was an intellectual, great taste, liked to sing lots with good pitch, both my parents had good pitch. My mother spoke some French but my Dad none.

AAJ: Did you go to French school?

SA: When we moved east to St. Urban and Rachael it was really east end and people speak French here, before we lived on the west side. I asked my mom to find me a French school and she found me a secondaire one and two, and there were five hundred girls in the school. I had to be put back a year because they thought I wouldn't be able to handle going into grade eight in French. I disagreed; I had a feeling that I would be fine because there is not such a big difference between seven and eight, and they kinda screwed me that way because I was already older than everyone because I was born in December. It kind of annoyed me because I was seventeen when I graduated. I'm forty-three now.

AAJ: You are able to tell jokes to your audience in French and English at your concerts. How did you get so comfortable with French?

SA: I guess I knew a little French, but you really learn quickly when you have to. I think that you can't do it half way. You should go and do something you really love to do in your second language and then you'll get really good fast. I was always called "La petite tete carée, but it was a great experience being with those French girls [at school]. It was in 1976, when things were quite heated here between the English and the French in Quebec. But they [French classmates] didn't treat me badly, we loved each other. They like it when people want to learn. My first expression was, "J'suis anglephone parlez lentemant svp, and that worked for me because then they would speak slowly.

SusieAAJ: Was there a strong music program at your school?

SA: When I was a kid at St. Georges we had recorder class, then at Face [High School] I played flute traversal, because we had one at home. Never sang in the choir either. At the French school, we had another recorder class and my teacher was an angel. Eline Nadeau, the art teacher, was really great too.

AAJ: Did you study music at university?

SA: No. I went to Dawson College where I fancied myself a fine artist, but that was too hard. Then I fancied myself a potential translator, but at the time the only program was in French. I wanted to translate into my mother tongue, so that was a big waste of time. I had to be able to translate first English to French and that was too hard. That's my rant against Concordia. I would have been a great translator...I did translate stuff for friends. I was always dabbling in music but I never thought I would be a professional.

AAJ: When did you start performing?

SA: I started singing at the blues jams, that I went to with my sister, that the Steven Barry Band would host. Michael Brown was a blues player at the blues jam who would let me sing Billy Holiday tunes. It was an expansive magic jam, not like the jazz jams where guys would take endless solos and there was not the same friendly vibe at all. So I thought I would become a pop singer, but then I met Jordan at a jam and we played together and he makes everyone sound good. He compliments the other artists he plays with.

AAJ: Do you play piano?

SA: I don't play piano really but I'm going to get a piano [in the new house] and get my playing down. I can play boogie-woogie; that takes coordination. I love getting your body to do different things at the same time. That's totally why I play the snare while singing and to feel like I'm really part of the band. I don't play the whole drum kit. Karen Carpenter played the kit: she was hip.

AAJ: Has the band toured a lot?

SA: Yes we have. In Spain, we went to Madrid and we've done tours to England, Japan, Germany, and France. In Japan we played in a few places. One was a really interesting club the size of a closet that barely fit the band and five patrons.

AAJ: Do you perform at all the jazz festivals—the summer circuit?

SA: No, not really, that can really burn you out. We are doing a jazz festival in France in September. We haven't done the big one in Switzerland, yet we did a Django festival on the outskirts of Paris—that was really cool. There were lots of good players at that one. The thing about the festivals is there are lots of good players attending, but you don't have the luxury of sticking around to hear anyone—unless you are really well organized—but most of the bands are in and out. They really know how to treat you well in France and they are really proud. It's a pleasure to work there.

AAJ: How did your band's name come about?

SA: Originally we were called The Susie Arioli Swing Band Featuring Jordan Officer. The swing in our name was to clarify what kind of jazz we were doing. Then we got pigeonholed into the swing thing, which is more of a jive rock and roll thing, and our music doesn't really work with dancers because the dance beats that we would have are slower and more of a foxtrot. The swing dancers have a tendency to want to go crazy and dance to really fast songs. So then we took the swing out of our name so we wouldn't get stuck in the swing section of the record store.

AAJ: Have you ever gone to Nashville?

SusieSA: Yeah, it was for a showcase and we were well-received but it's not really what you'd expect, it's kind of a funny place, a business centre. It's not Rodeo Drive, more like Chabanel [Montreal industrial park]. It was cool they liked us.

AAJ: Are you self-managing the band?

SA: Oh no, we have a manager, Bruno Robitaie. We heard about him from Jordan's musician friend, Tomas Helman. He does a great job.

AAJ: How was your experience with Ray Charles?

SA: I didn't get to chat with him, but I did meet him and shake his hand. He looked great, he was 67, great body and really fit. It was a wonderful thing that the Jazz Fest gave us that break [the band opened for Ray Charles at the 1998 Montreal Jazz Festival].

AAJ: And your collaboration with Jordan?

SA: We really like what we're doing and what we do together. I'm noticing more and more about music and collaboration. I work with the people I like to work with. I listened to an interview with Jack White of the White Stripes and he was saying that he felt, right away, a connection with his drummer, and then they created an original sound together and they had been working on that themselves a long time. I like that.

AAJ: Other collaborations?

SA: I had played with piano players before but I have not had much satisfaction from that. I would like to have some satisfaction from that in the future and explore that, so I have been talking to some people. There are many of them that I admire but it doesn't mean they're good accompanists for what I want.

AAJ: What instrumentalists or singers do you like?

SusieSA: Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Chet Baker, Elvis Presley, T-Bone Walker, Memphis Slim, Lester Young, Charlie Christian, George Barnes, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Mildred Bailey, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Rushing, George Jones, Annie Lenox, and Sinéad O'Connor. I like Jody Benjamin, an Ottawa woman with a band called The Toasted Westerns. She sings and writes songs: she's a really talented singer- songwriter. I like Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

AAJ: Where did you find those male backup singers that performed with you last year?

SA: My singing teacher recommended them and we held auditions. The idea came because, after the Roger Miller CD Make Me Smile we met this band while touring and they sang backup with us in our set. We wanted to lush up the album. So that inspired us to have backup singers.

AAJ: Who's idea was it to work with I Musici?

SA: Laurent Saulnier [programmer] from the Jazz festival. We had our first rehearsal with them yesterday. It was really great, beautiful, they really sound great. I hung out after to hear them practice. It is a sixteen-piece string orchestra. Chris Smith did the arrangements. They are just so pro: they know how to read music and swing.

AAJ: Tell me more about your experience with I Musici?

SA: At the first rehearsal there was a nice chemistry right away. We really felt that there was a mutual respect, and they had a relaxed attitude towards the rehearsal that made it very friendly but, at the same time, were very professional and efficient. It was a way of working that made us feel very secure, and right away we knew the show would be good.

Also, we had the idea of rehearsing with a smaller version of the orchestra so that we could have a little extra time getting to know the charts and all that, and it ended up being at our place the day after the move. It was a perfect way to fill the new place with good vibes and beautiful music. When we started playing "Phoenix, which was the first one we did that day, it was very moving. Also, we realized that we could do these charts with a string quintet too, because it works great that way. It was also a chance to get to know some of the players better in a more intimate rehearsal setting.

align=center>Susie Susie Arioli Band featuring Jordan Officer at the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival

By the time we did the show, it didn't feel like us and them. The thing was a whole. We were connected. We knew the charts and were able to play with them as we play any other time: free. Once again the first song was "Phoenix. It's a beautiful way for them to come in, subtle but powerful. It hits you in a very soft way. It was a fun show. Might have been with a classical orchestra at the most important concert hall in Montreal, but we had fun, took risks...

At the end we all agreed. Many of the musicians of I Musici came up to us to say it as well, that there's no way this can be the only time we do this. We have to do it again. Also, it was a great way to end off the year (if you think of the year beginning in September, which in performing arts it kind of does except for festivals) and charge our creative juices by reminding us how magical music is. The experience of that show will surely have an impact on our next record in one way or another.

AAJ: Do you write your own songs or lyrics?

SA: No, but when I improvise I sing my own melodies. When I choose songs it's because the lyrics are incredibly gorgeous already and they need no improvement.

AAJ: What is your next project?

SA: I'm recording an album this autumn. I'm really ready to tackle the jazz standards. We'll be touring in September.

Selected Discography

Susie Arioli Band, Susie Arioli Band featuring Jordan Officer Live at the Montreal International Jazz Festival (Justin Time, 2007)
Susie Arioli Band, Learn to Smile Again (Justin Time, 2005)
Susie Arioli Band, That's for Me (Justin Time, 2004)
Susie Arioli Swing Band, Pennies from Heaven (Justin Time, 2002)
Susie Arioli Swing Band, It's Wonderful (Sodec, 2000)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Montreal International Jazz Festival

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