Tianna Hall: Sid, Barney, Duke & Billy

C. Michael Bailey By

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Jazz vocalist Tianna Hall calls Houston, TX home. At first blush, one might consider Houston a hub for the oil industry, barbecue, and country music, but not one for jazz. However, Houston has a long history with the music dating to the age of the territory bands and the "Chitlin' Circuit" existing between the late '20s and early '50s, a period ruled by the infamous impresario Don Robey.

The modern Houston jazz scene is dominated by a more benign but no less talented "mafia" that includes Hall's fellow vocalists Bryan Anthony, Yvonne Washington, Melissa Darragh, Jacqui Sutton and Danielle Reich; saxophonists Alisha Pattillo, Larry Slezak and Woody Witt; pianist Gary Norian; multi- instrumentalist Henry Darragh; guitarist Paul Chester and trumpeter Carol Morgan (since transplanted to New York City). That is a critical mass of talent to be located in such a humid clime...no wonder good things grow there.

Hall has just released her fourth recording, Two For the Road (Self Produced, 2012) and is expecting her second child with husband, software engineer Matthew Hitchens. She remains busy in the Houston area, performing in a variety of venues'

All About Jazz: Houston is a rich incubator of musical talent, from Rodney Crowell to Wilton Felder and Billy Gibbons to Beyonce Knowles. What music did you listen to growing up and who do you charge as your greatest inspirations once you began singing jazz?

Tianna Hall: Growing up, I was a self-confessed nerd. My first two CD purchases were together: a compilation of Luciano Pavarotti performances and the original broadway cast of The Who's Tommy (RCA, 1993). I loved musical theater and opera and poured over both genres nearly obsessively. I was also exposed a great deal to big band era music and the crooners of the Frank Sinatra, age thanks to my grandparents. I think my greatest influences come not from specific artists but from these genres and it wasn't until I started studying jazz vocal greats like Shirley Horn, Jimmy Scott, Nancy Wilson, Ella Mae Morse and others, that I began to develop a jazz vocal style of my own.

AAJ: Your community of jazz musicians in Houston seem a tight-knit bunch. Besides the obvious, how do you support one another in what has to be a challenging market in which to work?

TH: We are blessed to have an amazing online social network and jazz community through JazzHouston.com. I happen to also help run the site along with fellow jazzers Andrew Lienhard and Henry Darragh, and our friend and jazz photo journalist Pin Lim. It allows us to help promote each others shows, support live jazz venues and interact socially online. I don't know how I would have ever gotten so involved in the community here in Houston without it.

AAJ: Your recordings, including Two for the Road, focus a great deal on standards from the Great American Songbook. What things do you consider when selecting a standard to perform or record? What composers of the American Songbook speak to you loudest?

TH: I nearly always center the selections around a special ballad that rips my heart out. They are most definitely my favorite songs to sing. The rest of the tunes always seem to fall into place based on what I've been performing on the bandstand night to night. I'd have to say that the composers that speak to me the most would be tough to narrow down to one: Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn compositions have so much meat, Henry Mancini's are brilliant but Cole Porter seems to dominate more than any other composer on my four records. His lyrics are witty and/or heart wrenching and the melodies are capable of being both haunting and strange and/or uplifting and light. I think he was probably quite the odd duck and I have a feeling we would have been kindred spirits.

AAJ: On Two for the Road, you go beyond the "standard" standards, addressing more recent and disparate compositions. Radiohead's "Creep," Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" and 10cc's "I'm Not In Love" are not jazz business-as-usual. Do your regularly incorporate newer, non-jazz songs in your recitals and how do you choose them?

TH: With the first two selections, I finally felt brave enough to give a musical nod to some of the popular music from my high school/middle school days. There was very little on the radio or of the music my friends were listening to that I had even a remote interest in. These were two songs that I always found very interesting and the 10cc song was a suggestion from my bassist on this album, Agustin Bernal. He had a great concept for it and I immediately loved it.

AAJ: You are a recent mom about to become a recent mom-times-two. Has motherhood changed the way you listen to music, particularly in what you might consider now as possible material that you may not have considered before motherhood?

TH: I actually recorded my third album while very very pregnant [laughs]. Being the mother of a toddler has certainly changed a great deal of what I listen to since he's more interested in Sid the Science kid, Barney and Kipper the dog than Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Thankfully, he can dig it most of the time, though. He did, after all, go through the entire first nine months of his existence on the bandstand with me. I've been getting a lot of requests for a lullaby album with jazz roots lately. Perhaps one day.

Selected Discography

Tianna Hall and the Mexico City Jazz Trio, Two For The Road (Self Produced, 2012)
Tianna Hall, Never Let Me Go (Blue Bamboo Music, 2011)
Tianna Hall and Danny McKnight, Ballads and Bossas (Self Produced, 2010)
Tianna Hall and the Mexico City Jazz Trio, Lost In the Stars (Self Produced, 2007)

Photo Credits

Debora Smail

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