2021 Vocal Jazz Summit

Two days of scheduled Vocal Performance, Workshops, and Master Classes Artistic Director: Alexis Cole (Visiting Affiliate Artist Jazz Voice Purchase College SUNY)
Presented by Zieders American Dream Theater

A Sampling

Cyrille Aimée Virtual Master Class

Aimée is one of the great contemporary jazz talents. It’s as if she’s channeling from somewhere we can’t get to. Her voice is smooth, cool, clean; appealing. Vocal transitions  are seamless. The artist exudes warmth. Phrasing is her own, including an adroit use of silence. Lyrics always feel personal. A bright spirit. Aimée tells us she likes to find as many versions of a song as possible, vocal and instrumental, then learns everything that appeals. Everything. “Writing down lyrics helps learn them. I sing on a walk, on my bike.”

“I’ll Be Seeing You” (Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal) is savored, as if unwilling to let go. Rippling scat takes its own truly sweet time.

Student Nefeli Fasouli is zooming from Greece. Alas, accompaniment on her smartphone is too quiet to buoy the vocal. Nefeli sings a mid-tempo, swinging “I Remember You” (Victor Schertzinger/Johnny Mercer). Her voice is bright with attractive vibrato, but meaning is obscured by concentration on performance. The song is too fast and untethered.

Aimée asks why it was chosen, receiving only technical reasons. “When you’re scatting, the goal is to make music feel,” she says. “There has to be a connection. What do you want to express beside cool licks? The story has a beginning and ending…Try it a little slower tempo and focus on lyrics. We want to hear your version. And take your time. You’re unnecessarily filling in the blanks.”

Fasouli tries again. The verse is not much different, but scatting, even slowed a little, is eminently better. “What challenges did you encounter?” Aimée inquires. “I really wanted to move forward and run…” comes the response. “It’s easy to hide behind scat,” the instructor warns. “Try not to make it so dense.

An audience member asks whether Aimée plans her scat? “No! What fun is that? My goal is to try more colors, to take risks. You’re in your comfort zone and you want to get out.

Student #2 is Chris, who accompanies himself on piano. The song is “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles. A tenuous vocal has frayed edges and is not always on key. Piano arrangement however, is imaginative. Chris says his scat is a work in progress. It’s suggested that he record the piano and sing on top of it to be free of coordinating demands. A good idea.

Heather Ward sings “Honeysuckle Rose” (Hoagy Carmichael) which arrives as an alto with slight, back of throat warble and an engaging lilt. Scat is melodic and original. Phrasing is good. Eyes close, nose crinkles – she’s into it. The song is a tad fast to fully enjoy, however. “Great swing. Good ear,” Aimée comments. “Most importantly you’re having fun. But let’s try an exercise. Leave a little more space. Use silence. You’re only allowed one note. You have to make it groove, so it’s either that note or no note.” The difference, one that Heather executes well, makes everything more interesting and subtle. Heather hears it.

“Keep challenging yourselves,” Aimée says in closing. “We’re a community, all on the path together. And there’s no end to the path.”

Performance by René Marie
Xavier Davis – Piano; Elias Bailey – Bass
At the Zeiders American Dream Theater in Virginia Beach

René Marie is highly personable, has a gorgeously controlled, wide-range voice that visibly courses through her body (great to watch), and interprets material with unusual flair. I don’ t think I’ve ever heard so much distinctly different scat in one show, each tailored to a particular song. Marie begins with a song of her own, “I Like You.” It’s as if she’s riding a bike down a slightly bumpy road, hands akimbo; confident, playful, exhilarating. Lyrics were inspired by a list of “natural highs.”

Next we hear Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.” “Dream of a land my soul is from…” It’s dark, hushed, haunted. Scat, if one can call it that, sounds tribal. Marie bends, dips, sways, leans, lingers, breathes. One arm floats up then curls around the mike cord, snake charming. Piano evokes hot sun on the metal and vibrant cloth of a street market. “Them There Eyes” (Maceo Pinkard/ Doris Tauber/ William Tracey) bubbles up like carbonation. It’s fast. Scat is a muted horn. Bass is resonant, articulate. A surprise ending is sexy, languid.

“The Surrey with The Fringe on Top” (Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein), is meant to be the woman’s point of view – new attitude, new modulation. Pace is ambling, approach flirty. “…for the cute, brown, cozy little surrey…” Fingers gently snap. The lady bounces, sharing infectious pleasure. “Please daddy, make it last forever/I don’t want it to stop…” Brava.

Kurt Elling Virtual Master Class

Photo by Anna Webber

Elling has a deep, elastic voice and commands a stage. He’s confident, but careful (kind) with his students. The artist doesn’t perform today.

Elif Sanchez is Zooming from Turkey where she’s returned home to wait out COVID. She doesn’t think of herself as a jazz singer. Her offering, the artist says, puts together musical influences. It’s an original composition in Spanish, called “To My Land (My Soul, My Earth)” dedicated to her mother. The groove is infectious and very much from her part of the world. Performance is expressive. Palms hover before her chest, then touch as if moving of their own will. Her eyes are closed.

“Well done,” Elling begins. “This displays the creative juxtaposition between the history of jazz and those who encounter it. I don’t have any of those little inflections…It’s very signature and very lovely.” His advice is to play with the improv section which is now a single note. Elif says she loses focus when she improvises. “Investigate the kinds of choices you can make. Also, we sing for one another. You had your eyes closed throughout. It’s still a performance…Think about how you’d present the song without singing. Do too much, then pull back,” he advises.

Justin Thomas Allison, who performs around Boulder, Colorado, sings an original composition accompanying himself on guitar. He calls it a nod to Tin Pan Alley. The song is breezy, very 1950s lounge. Guitar is muddy, singing imprecise. Justin says he thinks he’s lost his edge.

Elling comments that playing and singing solo is exhausting. “Is there anything you’d like to address?” The performer thinks his intonation “sucks.” Elling responds that it’s “within acceptable parameters.” They discuss warm-up and breathing exercises of 15-45 minutes; Justin perhaps slowing down, trying to release the tension in his jaw. “More importantly, when you’re working on new material, anything that vocally challenges you, take frequent vocal breaks until your technique can support a new tone,” Elling advises.

Gia Maulbeck also apologizes. “I’m not like really a performer. I’m just gonna do a little jazz tune called “They Say” from the 1930s – a capella. She has, alas, no technique and can’t keep tempo without accompaniment. There’s something there however, it just needs training. Elling addresses her phrasing. He points out that Gia’s singing the way the song was written – line, breath, line, breath and that “when people speak thoughts, they speak to the end of the thought, not taking a breath in the middle unless it’s for effect. It should seem organic.” He recommends Gia listen to Nancy Wilson, “an actress of song.”

The two Master Classes are interesting to observe, though one wonders why some people put themselves forward and others don’t.

Photos are Courtesy of the performers.

Event Workshops include, in part, Practical Arranging Concepts, Vocal Jazz Improvisation, Singing with Expression, iRealPro Fantastic Features…and concerts featuring Catherine Russell; Rosana Eckert, Jane Monheit, Roberta Gambarini, Kate McGarry, Alexis Cole; Cyrille Aimée, John Proulx, Nikolett Pankovits, Darmon Meader, and Samara Joy.

Pass holders have access to the event until April 30, 2021. An “Archive Access Pass” is available at $35 for those who missed the Vocal Jazz Summit, but want to watch the videos.

About Alix Cohen (1081 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.