The Art Of The Song

Bruce Lindsay By

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Singing is possibly the most universal of the arts, certainly of the musical arts. The human voice is the most portable of instruments, always there, always available. It's also the most expressive of instruments: almost every instrument invented in history has at some time or other been used to mimic the voice; none have truly succeeded.

Ask most people to name a few great musical stars of the past 100 years and the chances are that the majority of those stars would be singers—Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson—whether or not they are also instrumentalists. If I am ever called upon to name my 100 favorite tunes, around 97 of them are likely to feature singers. Without wishing to create too patriotic an atmosphere, I am also convinced that the UK's current crop of singers is exceptional. Norma Winstone, Ian Shaw, Liane Carroll and Claire Martin are all world-class vocalists and all were name-checked by the interviewees in this article as inspirational figures: Emma Smith, Fini Bearman, Georgia Mancio, Clare Teal and Gwyneth Herbert, among others, are developing their own distinctive styles.

Despite (or perhaps because) of this popularity, jazz has an uneasy relationship with vocalists. In the Golden Age of Swing singers were secondary, getting the occasional 8 or 16 bars in the occasional song. The advent of effective amplification helped to change the pecking order, to make stars of the people who "just" sang, but there are still some musicians who put the art of singing well below the art of blowing, hitting, plucking or bowing an instrument.

So what's it like, trying to carve out a career as a singer in contemporary jazz? More specifically, given the title of this column, what's it like trying to develop a career as a singer on the British jazz scene? I asked three young vocalists, Theo Jackson, Kaz Simmons and Melissa James (pictured left), that very question. Jackson spoke to me over the phone, soon after returning from performing in New Zealand. Simmons and James met me in a Soho tea room.

Why those three? They are three of my personal favorites among a growing number of excellent young singers, they are all at or near the start of their careers and, most importantly, they have very different musical styles and very different approaches to career development. What they have in common is talent, enthusiasm and the ability to craft songs that are emotionally engaging and beautifully constructed.

Musician and educator Pete Churchill, Director of the London Vocal Project, provided another perspective. In his final year as a teacher at London's Guildhall School Of Music, in 2008, Churchill was responsible for, as he happily describes it, a "fantastic" group of vocalists enrolled on a post-graduate program. After graduating, group members asked Churchill to continue working with them and they started to meet every Monday night. Churchill's aim for this group, which became known as the London Vocal Project, was to create a meeting place and support network for singers from all the London jazz courses, both students and teachers.

Four or five years after its creation, the LVP now has around 24 members. Churchill calls it a "project choir" deliberately. A core repertoire, learned by ear and including "lots of groove stuff," is augmented by specific musical projects including Churchill's own compositions, work by other recognized composers including trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, folk music and an increasing amount of material written by the group's members (which include Bearman). At the start, says Churchill, "I didn't have a master plan; mostly we concentrated on making sure that we met every week." The LVP has since worked with leading musicians including bandleader Sir John Dankworth and singer Bobby McFerrin, but each member still pays a subscription of £5 (about $8) per week: their commitment to the LVP is strong.

The LVP's debut album, due in January 2013 on Edition Records, will be a recording of Wheeler's "Mirror Suite." Churchill has a long relationship with the Canadian musician and composer. He conducts the Kenny Wheeler Big Band and first sang the suite, with Winstone and Carroll, in Berlin in 1998.

The Singers

Jackson released his self-produced debut, Jericho, in early 2012 just four or five years after graduating from Durham University. James' first recording, Day Dawns (Slickersounds), also came out in 2012. Simmons is the most experienced of the trio, releasing her debut recording, Take Me Home (33 Jazz) in 2004. Her follow up CD, Different Smile (2007) and third album, Dandelions (2011), both appeared on her own label, Fast Awake Records.

Although the three singers have very different styles, they have all performed and recorded with some of the finest of Britain's young jazz players: Jackson, with saxophonists Nathaniel Facey of Empirical and Brandon Allen; James with saxophonist Tony Kofi and bassist Larry Bartley, Simmons with pianist Gwilym Simcock and drummer Dave Smith. Collaborators such as these might suggest that all three singers see themselves as firmly within the jazz genre, but things aren't that simple.

Becoming A Singer

Jackson, Simmons and James all started to sing at an early age, but followed different paths to their professional careers. Jackson studied music, but not on a specialist jazz course. "I think I was the first person to complete the course as a jazz performer" he says. After graduation he moved to London and earned his living playing piano in cocktail bars: "Which I still do. It pays the rent for me."

His attitude to singing is intriguing, as he doesn't see it as his primary activity. "I very rarely describe myself as a singer. The singing is part of the musicianship; I don't describe myself as a singer first and foremost. I feel like I'm a songwriter first. I play piano and sing to back that up."

Simmons (pictured above) grew up in Brighton, where she began to sing at the age of four, later studying classical guitar. She moved to London to further her studies on the instrument. "I went to Goldsmiths College to do a music degree but didn't know what I was going to do after it. I didn't get onto the classical guitar performance course—I was really gutted—but I did get into the jazz and pop module. It was amazing: Issie Barrett was teaching us and I fell in love with all her stories about Charlie Parker and people like that. I also took jazz singing lessons and then people started asking me to sing in their bands. A few years later I went to Trinity College to do a postgraduate jazz course; then, a little while after that, I recorded my first album. It just happened, no real master plan."

Despite her undoubted talents as a guitarist, at first Simmons didn't use the instrument while performing jazz. "I've only been singing and playing guitar together for the last few years. People would say 'Why don't you sing and play?' and I'd think 'No, don't be stupid.' I was singing standards for a long time but I started to get a bit bored, never thought about the songs. Then I discovered Rufus Wainwright. I wrote an arrangement of one of his songs and played it to my dad at Christmas. He really liked it so I did it at a gig and it went down really well. That inspired me to write songs."

James also went to university, but her chosen subject was media studies. Co-incidentally, James studied in Simmons home town, although the two didn't meet there—they actually met via Twitter.

"I did media studies at Sussex University. I was going to be a journalist or TV presenter because I had to be 'sensible.' My parents were always telling me to get a good pension!" James and Simmons both laugh at this before James continues: "When I was younger I sang when I was home on my own: my secret pleasure. Then at university I met a lot of music students and got really influenced by their enthusiasm. My first gig was actually an open mic night on campus. I got up and sang Sam Cooke's 'Wonderful World.' I thought I was terrible, thought I'd never do it again but I got the bug. That was a key moment: after a couple of weeks I made it a regular thing and started planning what I'd do. Once I came back to London I had to get serious, get a proper job, so I joined a magazine publisher. I still spent my evenings at the open mic nights."

After a while James stopped singing for about a year. Then she began to visit the Half Moon pub in Putney, where she started singing again. When her partner's job took the couple to Paris James began to spend more time on her music, continuing to do so on her return to London. Finally, with the release of her debut album some 15 years after her graduation from Sussex University, James feels comfortable being referred to as a vocalist. "Now I finally feel like I can call myself a singer. It's been quite a long process singing all the while and not really calling myself a singer."

The Art Of The Songwriter

Many great jazz singers are interpreters of other people's songs, rather than composers in their own right. Contemporary singers are more likely to be songwriters as well, a reflection of the scene's changing expectations. Jackson, James and Simmons all write their own songs; but here, too, their approaches differ in some fascinating ways.

Jackson has the longest history of songwriting. "I get the impression that some singers think it's an obligation, that it's a chore. I've never felt like that. I've always enjoyed songwriting. The songwriting preceded everything including piano lessons. I've always preferred creating music to actually playing it. Also, I was obsessed when I was very young with Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder. I would listen to their songs and try to work out how they'd done certain things. Ultimately, everything came from the writing."

While Jackson clearly gives songwriting priority, he's not planning to stop performing. "No, I don't think so. I really enjoy playing in front of an audience. I much prefer it to recording. If it wasn't a necessary part of my career I'd happily stop recording tomorrow. The idea of other people performing my music is a real thrill. I really hope to get to that point—not just people covering my tunes, but writing with specific people in mind."

Lyric writing is Jackson's problem issue when writing. "I'm constantly on the search for good lyricists. I work with a couple already. I enjoy writing lyrics but I tend to ruin songs by doing so. Half the lyrics on the album are mine (half are by Molly Hollman) but it takes me ages. If I have lyrics in front of me the musical ideas tend to stream in at high velocity."
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