Singing Up at Winter Jazz Fest

Singing Up at Winter Jazz Fest

Winter Jazz Fest 2017 has come and gone. And I’ve been slow to get an entry up. Instead of giving up on the idea entirely, however, and responding in the spirit of musical resistance to the tragic first days of the presidency of this hate-mongering and unfit human being, I wrote up a quick shout out to (only some!) of the life-giving singers I had the great fortune of hearing during the festival. Their music and presence is a strong undercurrent of beauty in the hateful reality in which we live.

Not surprisingly, Winter Jazz Fest’s 2017 theme of social justice, came directly from the work of the artists themselves, as Brice Rosenbloom (founder and and one of the producers) told us in the festival's panel on social justice, moderated by Siddhartha Mitter and involving the wise words of Terri Lyne Carrington and the ACLU’s Megan French-Marcelin. The power of the artists' work, we know, extends far beyond the quotes offered in leaflets and on the projector screens and the Tumblr feeds.

The five singers below (who sang over the two main marathon nights of the festival), to different degrees and in different ways, plug into the longstanding tradition of resistance through music.

Amina Claudine Myers

"Ain't Nobody Ever Gonna Hear Us?"

“These compositions, some of them are Negro spirituals, which were written by my ancestors. I wanted to honor them, by recording some of my favorites.” So introduced Amina Claudine Myers the songs from her performance at the New School 12th street auditorium on Friday, January 6th, and from her new album, Sama Rou (Amina Records, 2016).

Sitting at the piano, singing-speaking the lyrics, some of which we’ve heard time and time again. The microphone caught the smack of her lips, the breaths and gasps in between the utterance of phrases, the strain on the vocal cords that comes with years of being alive and singing.

If the words were consistent and heavy, reminding, reiterating, making sure we heard again and again what we needed to hear, the piano was new and surprising – unexpected dissonances and flourishes, hard to follow paths, notes stepping over one another. The meeting point was where the pleasure and beauty resided.

“Ain’t Nobody Ever Gonna Hear Us?,” which nestled in my ear for days after the performance, is Ms. Myers’ own compositional contribution to the tradition of her ancestors.

At the Festival: Amina Claudine Myers - piano and voice.

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Alicia Olatuja

“Everything Must Change”

Nina Simone, whose life and career we know was persistently challenged because of her identity as a black woman speaking out against the injustices of capitalist white supremacy, in this country and beyond, might be the ultimate musician to turn to for guidance (as Amirtha Kidambi (see below, too) also reminded us in the introduction to her performance in the Refuse Fascism concert on January 19th, the eve of inauguration).

Ulysses Owens Jr., the mind behind this Jazz at Lincoln Center project, Songs of Freedom, introduced the different ways in which the three women he chose to honor embody freedom for him. Abbey Lincoln – progressive lyrics; Joni Mitchell – love; Nina Simone – resistance.

“Everything Must Change” went through the bodies and voices of a number of artists (Benard Ighner, released by Quincy Jones, in 1974, Randy Crawford in 1976, George Benson in 1977) before making it to Nina Simone, who was the person being honored in this concert (and check out the recording of this incredible live performance:)

In the New School’s Tishman auditorium, Alicia’s warm voice, switching between a luxurious and comforting vibrato and a straight and clear satin, stretching between the bottom of it depths, to the heights of its potential, urged change at the same time as reminding us to take some comfort in the richness of the beauty that we are able to make for ourselves .

This song will also appear on Alicia's new project, Transform, which explores themes of vulnerability in the short-lived, difficult, and productive process of transformation - personal, communal, political.

"Everything Must Change"

At the Festival: Alicia Olatuja - voice / David Rosenthal - guitar / Allyn Johnson - piano / Rueben Rogers - bass / Ulysses Owens Jr. - drums.

Jen Shyu

“Song for Naldo”*

Jen Shyu was sidewoman for the evening, in John Hébert’s group, which opened up the nightly marathon of Saturday, January 7th, in the New School’s Glass Box Performance Space on 13th street.

I couldn’t find videos of this particular band, so here’s a link to audio tracks from their Carmen McRae-inspired record, Rambling Confessions (Sunnyside, 2015).

In the band, Jen sings and plays gayageum. At the festival, she sat down on a chair so as to play her instrument, and with her wireless headset microphone, her voice appeared in and out of the texture, sometimes with no visible trace. A ghost of a voice floating in the air and gymnastically responding to the musical moment. 

At the Festival: John Hébert - bass / Andy Milne - piano / Satoshi Takeishi - Drums / Jen Shyu - voice and gayageum.

* For the visually inclined and to continue the theme, here is a video of a solo piece of Jen's, “Song for Naldo,” which has been playing in my mind's ear since I heard her perform it a few days ago at the aforementioned Refuse Fascism concert (although, if I’m not mistaken, with slightly different lyrics), and is taken from her piece Solo Rites: Seven Breaths (2014).

Mind you – yesterday Jen had a show at The Jazz Gallery, with her project Song of Silver Geese, and donated all of the proceeds to the ACLU.


“We are not strangers

We are not separate beings

We are brother and sister, only.”

"Song for Naldo"


Amirtha Kidambi

“Dvapara Yuga (For Eric Garner)"

Immediately following, in the same venue, was Amirtha Kidambi’s group Elder Ones, performing pieces off of their recent album Holy Science (Northern Spy, 2016).

Amirtha encouraged us to go beyond the theme of social justice as marketing, and to continue to do activist work and to strive to use the platform of the festival to its full potential. The band had CDs for sale, and Amirtha told us all proceeds would go to the NAACP, whose six member had recently been arrested at a sit-in in Jeff Sessions’ office.

Amirtha’s powerful voice combined with the cutting tone of Matt Nelson’s soprano, and the solidly woven web of bass and drums, all of this over the drone of the harmonium, produced innumerable moments of forceful sound through collective improvisation. There was one particular chilling moment, when through the density and intensity of the playing on “Dvapara Yuga,” a piece written for the memory of Eric Garner, a police car (or multiple police cars), came rushing down 13th street, sounding out its stress-inducing siren, and projecting its migraine red and blue strobe lights into the glass windowed room, invasive and piercing.

At the Festival: Amirtha Kidambi - harmonium and voice / Brandon Lopez - bass / Matt Nelson - soprano sax / Max Jaffe - drums.

Becca Stevens

"Queen Mab"

Back in the 12th street auditorium Becca Stevens, her band, a string quartet (-1), and guests Michelle Willis and Michael League, performed songs from Becca's most recent album Perfect Animal (Decca Records, 2015) and debuted songs from her forthcoming album, Regina (GroundUp, 2017). Regina, “queen” in Latin, is the album of queens, Becca told us, strong women reimagined, explored, emphasized. Becca, flexibly and comfortably switching between charango, ukulele, electric and acoustic guitars, stopped in one song-switch to explain to the audience how her capo had a hole in it which means she can still play some of the strings below it, lest anyone think she was “guitar lip-syncing,” as she called it. She did this to fill in the tuning time with chitchat, but also should anyone have been wrong enough to contest the point that she herself is a bit of a royal badass. 

At the Festival: Becca Stevens - vocals, guitar, charango / Jordan Perlson – percussions, backing vocals / Chris Tordini - bass guitar, double bass, backing vocals / Michael League - guitar, vocals / Michelle Willis - keys, vocals / Amy Schroeder - violin / Keiko Tokunaga - violin / Andrew Yee - cello.

The first song from Regina, "Queen Mab," was just recently released to the public: 

Two by Two: Reflections on a Couple of Duos

Two by Two: Reflections on a Couple of Duos

Last weekend was the weekend of voice and piano duos in New York. On Friday and Saturday (December 9th and 10th), Ran Blake and Sara Serpa got together at Kitano Jazz Club in Midtown for two nights and four sets. On Sunday (December 11th), Gretchen Parlato and Shai Maestro held together a master class in the hours just after dusk of the day with the first teasing snow of the season at Mezzrow in the West Village, followed by two sets of music.

Sara Serpa and Ran Blake met when Sara was a student in New England Conservatory (NEC), about a decade ago. Studying with Ran meant getting together with him on a regular basis and singing standards for hours. Sara, who grew up in Portugal, tells that it was through these sessions with Ran that she began exploring what it felt like to sing in English, developing her own way of relating to these songs from another era and in a foreign language. Since the days of the lessons, Sara and Ran have recorded three albums together (Kitano Noir, Sunnyside 2015; Aurora, Cleanfeed 2012, and Camera Obscura, Inner Circle Music 2010). Outside of her work with Ran, Sara has multiple projects, including duo work with guitarist Andre Matos; they recently released their latest album together, All The Dreams (Sunnyside, 2016). Ran is a mammoth pianist figure and legendary NEC teacher and is particularly known for his enormous portfolio of work with singers over the years. Sara Serpa is one. Christine Correa, and fellow NECer Dominique Eade are two more. The legendary album with Jeanne LeeThe Newest Sound Around (RCA-Victor) from 1962 was the source of it all. This history loomed large and profound in the dining room at Kitano when Sara and Ran came together once again. 

Gretchen and Shai are fresh collaborators. Gretchen, who was, famously, the first singer to enter the Thelonious Monk Institute and who’s been releasing her own albums since 2005, has in the past worked closely with pianists Gerald Clayton and Taylor Eigsti. On his end, Shai, who is a few years newer to the scene, has been playing in duo with singers including Theo Bleckmann and Camila Meza. Gretchen is also featured on Shai’s newest album The Stone Skipper, along with a number of other singers. The two did a show together for the first time at Mezzrow in September, and packed the house for both sets. This time, they prefaced their sets with a master class hosted by the venue. In attendance were fans, professional and student singers, and a handful of pianists. There was a lot of excitement in the cozy listening room, as people confessed to have traveled from Westchester county and Philadelphia to catch the two together.

Through their performances, both duos offered insight into the art of collective improvisation. In their master class, Gretchen and Shai eloquently opened up and riffed on what it means for them to play in duo. One of the themes that immediately became central is that of trust, and the role that listening plays in cultivating and expressing trust for one another. When I asked Shai and Gretchen whether taking a solo in the middle of a duo piece produces a jarring difference, Gretchen responded that when things are open, form can’t be assumed, and so the person not playing needs to be listening intently and open to coming back at any time. Shai responded that it isn’t only about needing to know when to come back in, but that one’s very presence on stage remains important even when not playing. He added that he knows how Gretchen listens, and then even when she’s not singing, her ears and her “energetic presence” are with him and actively impact his playing. 

That insight into knowing how somebody else not only plays or sings but also listens is so compelling. And indeed, I have to admit some of the more potent moments for me in both duos were the chance to see the musicians actively listening to one another. Experiencing, through their eyes and bodies, and (to use Shai’s words) “energetic presences,” their trust in one another. For Sara and Ran, seeing Sara perch by the amps while Ran did his wonderfully concise rendition of Abbey Lincoln’s composition “Throw it Away” (and how great to hear Ran give his homage through the piano, to the great singer Abbey Lincoln), and seeing Ran clap enthusiastically after Sara’s acapella performance of the strong “Mãe Preta” and a dexterous piece by Messiaen. And after all, this is something that we can identify with as listeners, too. A performance space as one in which it’s not about musicians musicking and listeners listening, but one in which we all have some shared purpose and presence.

Of course listening doesn’t have to come in the form of silence. In Shai’s and Gretchen’s performance I heard a sort of flooding to the surface of sound and a reveling in one another’s sound. In the master class, Gretchen offered that in duos, the saying “less is more” becomes “less and more,” that there are so many more possibilities that can happen precisely because you’re only interacting with one other person. The abundance of possibility was there throughout the two sets. Shai’s playing is richly textured, and he floods the room with the full range and warmth of his instrument. Gretchen, whose voice is honey nasal and calm, has been described on more than one occasion as sounding like an instrument (and indeed this was part of the fascination of many of the singers who attended the master class), and she functions in a multiplicity of ways in her singing, skipping and weaving in and out of the melodic line, a percussive pulse, a riff. In their performance of Lionel Loueke’s arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”, Shai and Gretchen did this kind of flooding stretching and skipping. Shai played parts of the tune by dampening and plucking the piano strings, making him sound uncannily like Lionel’s intricate guitar playing on the same tune in Gretchen’s first album. Add to the mix Gretchen’s signature percussive clapping, and all together the sound present becomes much more than what you imagined you might be able to hear.
Sara and Ran’s show was full of moments, gems of collective improvisation gathered throughout the evening, small and very precious. A note offered by one person and immediately repeated by the other. A silence exactly at the moment at which it wasn’t expected.  An ending exactly a beat before it might be. An articulation of a syllable within a word that is miles away from the articulation of the syllable just before it. A heart-wrenching dissonance that induces a visceral response. A final and triumphant high note and chord of a song at an almost inaudible dynamic. Their performance of Ran’s “The Short Life of Barbara Monk” was a deconstructed study in pointillism, a protein chain forming in real time. One note on the piano generates the next from the voice, which signals the next chord on the piano, and so on.

Zooming out, some of the moments wove together to create threads that suggest a greater web of commentary. Sara sang an acapella version of “Mãe Preta”("Black Mother"), a Fado song (unusual for Sara) whose original lyrics, which talk about an enslaved black woman and juxtapose her care for the children of the white family enslaving her with the emotional and physical violence they subject her to, was censored and outlawed by the dictatorship of Salazar. The melody had become so popular that Fadistas like Amalia Rodrigues were still recording it, but with a new set of lyrics, until the original lyrics were almost entirely forgotten. Sara’s resuscitation of the old lyrics, suppressed by an authoritarian government whose aftereffects she has lived through growing up in Portugal, was a powerful statement. 

A few songs later, Sara and Ran played “Mendacity,” originally played by Max Roach’s nonet on Percussion Bittersweet (Impulse! 1961), lyrics by Chips Bayen, including Abbey Lincoln singing. 

Mendacity mendacity
It makes the world go round
A politician makes a speech
And never hears the sound
The campaign trail winds on and on
In towns from coast to coast
The winner ain’t the one who’s straight
But he who lies the most.

Now voting rights
In this fair land
We know are not denied
But if I tried in certain states
From treetops I’d be tied
Mendacity mendacity
It seems is everywhere
But try and tell the truth
And most folks scream – not fair.

The aggregation of these two songs, and their placement in between other pieces in the sets, was like a formal imprint of the persistent monster of systemic racism rearing its head, a reflection of its long intertwined global history, from fifteenth century Portugal through present-day US. The two songs in combination stitched together various points along the global timeline – the Atlantic slave trade started by the Portuguese empire and expanded by European colonizers throughout the Americas and beyond, the censorship and silencing by the nationalist authoritarian Portuguese dictatorship, voter suppression in the US through various mechanisms including violent hate crimes and murders of black people, all the way to voter suppression of people of color in the US today, and the violent white supremacist rhetoric of the United States’ president-elect. The lines “The winner ain’t the one who’s straight/ But he who lies the most” certainly ring true in the days after November 8, 2016, and the lines, “A politician makes a speech/and never hears a sound” seem to remark exactly on the consequences of being inattentive not only to what other people say but also to what we ourselves say, and confront us once again with the challenge of critical and meaningful listening. 

This  is where I found the image I worked with here (public domain), of the sheet music cover of a  song entitled "Fine and Dandy" (though apparently not the same one as discussed in the post.)

This is where I found the image I worked with here (public domain), of the sheet music cover of a  song entitled "Fine and Dandy" (though apparently not the same one as discussed in the post.)

Through this web, too, Sara’s and Ran’s reimagining of the standard “Fine and Dandy” received its layers of meaning (they’ve recorded this before). This is not necessarily one of the flashier standards out there, especially with its relatively trivial saccharine lyrics, “Gee it’s all fine and dandy, sugar candy, when I’m with you.” In last week’s performances, Ran’s dark dissonant clusters of harmony played on the bottom end of the piano, along with Sara’s steady unwavering piercing melody, threw the whole thing off balance. Have things ever been “fine and dandy”? Could they ever be? What does that even mean? What do we have to do? Sugar? Candy? Do you mean corn syrup pushed by the subsidized corn industry and killing people? This is the potential strength of standards in a way, being there forever and allowing musicians to mess them up as they see fit, and throw into question all acceptable knowledge. 

And also not. Shai and Gretchen, too, played a not so frequently visited standard. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” which used be “her face” when sung about Eliza Doolittle in the musical My Fair Lady. In their performance of the song, they climbed into it and nestled. Rested into the song, getting into it in a personal level, Gretchen singing the words as though speaking them to a friend, and Shai playing pedal underneath the harmony for the better part of a chorus, until he felt ready to open it up. They weren’t necessarily performing the song, they were entering into it and inhabiting it in the way that felt most quotidian. In the master class, Gretchen mentioned that it took her a long time before she started composing her own songs, because she felt a little paralyzed by the perfection of what was already out there. Many people are glad Gretchen started writing, but this song certainly seemed to remind of the fact that in the world there are elements of beauty, and it is within our fortune and capability to momentarily revisit them.


Correction: December 30, 2016

An earlier version of this piece misstated that Sara's and Ran's performances at Kitano were recorded to be released as the duo's fourth album. Two of the performances were recorded, but not for commercial release.

Prelude: Welcome

Prelude: Welcome

Hi everyone, I'm happy to welcome you to "Voice Talk," the "blog" component of this website. This is where I hope to update, with some regularity and frequency, the goings on in my emerging music spheres while residing in New York City, spheres that follow my commitment to the space and excellent work of singers and women in jazz. Updates may take the form of concert write-ups, excerpts from my conversations with musicians, narrations of ordinary and extraordinary events, and exploratory musings on the state of things. Above all, and drawing inspiration from the great lineage of music writers in New York City and beyond, as well as my contemporary jazz bloggers out there, my aspiration is that in these pages and through the medium of the written word, musicians and listeners may find a meaningful musical contribution. Since this is about a creating and joining conversations, I'd be so happy to hear from you, so please do add your writing, comments, critiques to the mix. 


Here is what I look like going to shows. It's very fancy. Here I am at Birdland, catching Tierney Sutton's band on Thursday, Nov 10, with the one and only Lisa Conlon. (Photo credit Lisa Conlon).

Here is what I look like going to shows. It's very fancy. Here I am at Birdland, catching Tierney Sutton's band on Thursday, Nov 10, with the one and only Lisa Conlon. (Photo credit Lisa Conlon).