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Take Five With Sarah DeLeo

AAJ Staff By

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Meet Sarah DeLeo:

Jazz vocalist Sarah DeLeo takes the best from the masters and combines it with her own signature style to produce a sound that is both timeless and fresh.

One hears her singing and is swept away to another time, and yet her powerful presence as a musical storyteller is thoroughly in the here and now: No matter the song, she delivers each lyric in such a personal way that the listener feels as if they are hearing their own stories. Her tireless exploration of many different styles of music yields fascinating results when it comes to song choices and arrangements, and her inventive melodic improvisation makes every restatement of a tune's melody thoroughly engaging—nothing's ever the same twice.

In October 2005 Sarah released her debut CD, The Nearness of You, which garnered critical acclaim and introduced Sarah's work to both national and international audiences. Her follow up to that release is 2009's I'm In Heaven Tonight, another inspired collection of songs that combines the old and the new.

Instrument(s):

Voice.

Your sound and approach to music: I view my work as a reconciliation between the rock, R&B, and pop genres, which have been mainstream music during my lifetime, and a calling to sing standards and a propensity towards jazz. The singers who influenced me the most when I was younger were pretty high energy—Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin—but my singing tends to be mellow, because that's how I am.

I approach every tune the same way, regardless of its originating genre. I break down each song harmonically and rhythmically. I also speak the lyrics. I once read an interview of Cassandra Wilson, in which she described her approach to music as a "jazz approach." I thought that term was an apt way to describe what I do as well.

Road story: Your best or worst experience: Last year, I got a call to do an event on Make Music New York day for NYC Councilmember, Gale Brewer. I accepted, but I really had no idea how this event would go. It was going to be held at an outdoor garden, and there was no alternate location in case of bad weather. For most of the week prior, the forecast called for rain. I was assured that there would be an electrical outlet for our equipment, but I wasn't necessarily convinced.

We showed up at the gig and what ended up surprising me the most was the audience. I generally sing for people in their mid-20s to mid-60s, usually trending younger—40s and under. As a result, when I'm singing, I'm not only entertaining people, but also educating them, since most people my age are not too familiar with standards or jazz. By contrast, the median age at this Make Music New York gig was about 65 with a number of people in wheelchairs. If I had known what kind of audience they expected, I probably would have put together a set of more traditional standards. However, I didn't, so I just did the set I had prepared—the kind of set I would normally do. I did the White Stripes tune, the somewhat non- traditional arrangements of standards that I do, and some standards and blues, which I consider more obscure.

It got a great response. People were singing along, not to the White Stripes tune obviously, but definitely to the standards and even the songs I thought were more obscure. (The guitarist on the gig, Chris Bergson, was throwing in all these rock licks; I was giggling to myself throughout).

One lady came up to me after the gig and told me how much I reminded her of Lee Wiley. I was so flattered. It has always been important for me to sing to people my own age for a number of reasons, but I never realized how much harder it was on me until then. Singing to an older audience familiar with the material was so much easier. I didn't have to educate anyone; I could just entertain. It was a very enjoyable experience, which was both relaxing and energizing at the same time! I had no idea how this gig was going to turn out, but in the end it was a lot of fun!

Also, the weather turned out beautiful and thankfully there was electricity and an adequate PA setup. What a relief!

The first Jazz album I bought was: I bought these on the same trip to the mall:

Janis Siegel, At Home;

Modern Jazz Quartet, Blues on Bach.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically? During the first ten years in which I sang standards and listened to jazz, I knew no one who shared my interests. As such, my formative years as a singer were spent isolated artistically, which at times was lonely, but which in retrospect freed me to follow my own creative path. I was like a tabula rasa in some ways. I do bear the imprint of the Top 40 music that I listened to as a child and the very melodic stuff I remember my parents listening to when I was a kid—Barry Manilow, '70s Babs, Neil Diamond. Yet, when it comes to standards and jazz, I didn't grow up with any preconceived notions about what the music should or should not be, what was good or bad, what was the right or wrong way, etc. As a result, I was able to develop my own style and sound, and bring my generational perspective to this genre.

Did you know...

I studied the flute for eight years. I enjoyed playing the flute, and was a decent flautist (At the end of my studies I was working on Hindemith.), but I was always a much better singer. It actually caused some tension with my flute teacher, because I would sometimes refer to the pieces I was working on as songs. He didn't necessarily appreciate that my mind was more on singing than on the flute.

CDs you are listening to now:

e.s.t, Seven Days of Falling (215 Records);

Greyboy Allstars, What Happened to Television? (SCI Fidelity Records);

Paul Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years (Rhino Records).

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing? More younger people need to be involved on the business side in every capacity—booking managers and club owners, radio DJs and program managers, editors and reviewers, event organizers, personal managers, publicists, etc. There are certainly enough younger people making music, but there are not enough people our age on the business side to support us. This will become more critical as today's 60- and 70-year-olds, who in my experience form the core of the business side, start to age out.

What is in the near future? I plan on fitting in one more gig before I give birth in August. I have a number of administrative and creative projects in mind for my maternity leave, and then next year, once my new baby situation is more settled, I plan on gigging more, specifically in promotion of my new CD.

By Day:

I am at home with my two-year-old son. I am expecting my second child in August!

About Sarah DeLeo
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