Tag Archives: detroit

Confessions of a Closeted Jazz Cat

In rehearsal for a show in Plymouth, a good friend and fellow singer-songwriter noticed my jumpy syncopations on the keyboard and felt compelled to say something about it. In her other life, she is a therapist, so she has a finely honed practice of noticing things in other people that they normally wouldn’t see themselves.

“You are a jazz musician.”

I froze. An embarrassed grin spread across my face, like I was caught denying something. “We need to have an intervention,” she said.

“I’ve NEVER thought of myself as a jazz musician. Never ever,” I said. She just kept looking at me like there was no escaping it anymore.

And it wasn’t the first time this was said to me. A highly respected producer and recording artist in Detroit listened to my debut album and observed that I could market it as jazz, at least partially. And I abruptly denied it: “What? Are you kidding? Maybe in the Norah Jones sense, but…naaah!”

It’s not that I wouldn’t want to be a jazz artist; I get a good share of vibes and inspiration from jazz. I’ll listen to everything from Frank Sinatra to Ornette Coleman. It’s just that I admire jazz people so highly for their skill that I could never imagine counting myself among them.

Perspective: My first real exposure to live jazz was a blow-the-roof-off solo performance by Herbie Hancock twenty years ago. He and I both went to the same alma mater – Grinnell College. So for the college’s sesquicentennial, he played a private performance in Darby Gym, sharing exalted versions of old favorites like Watermelon Man and Dolphin Dance. I was in the fourth row, where I could see his hands in action, and I had never seen anything like that before (or since).

The very next day, I and the rest of the music majors got to have lunch with the man, a real treat. Not just a great musician but a great guy all around; it was an interaction I’ll never forget.

So that experience set the bar miles above my head for jazz performance, as it was the closest encounter with a jazz juggernaut I’ll probably ever have. There’s no way in eternity that anyone would include me with HIS ilk! Being around and hearing someone like that makes you feel like you’re hardly good enough to play Hot Cross Buns.

Hence my dismissal of jazz as part of my own performance.

But as soon as I started sharing my friend’s recent comments with other folks around me, more and more confirmations came back – I’m a closeted jazz cat. Musicians, listeners, friends, and even my parents wondered why I haven’t figured it out sooner.

But could I ever go down to a jazz bar in Detroit – like the Dirty Dog or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge – and be taken seriously?

Then came the cherry on the cupcake: Of all the free Reverbnation opportunities I signed up for in the last three months, the ONLY ONE to accept my submission for airplay was…a jazz station.

Ok, I give up!

The first thing I gotta learn is that jazz, as a genre, is much broader than I think. Herbie, for all his mastery and genius, only occupies a small portion of the realm, which includes hard bop, lounge jazz, big band, and show tunes, among other things. I’m also reminded of Louis Armstrong’s answer to the perennial question of what is jazz: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Now, I’m not claiming to be a jazz scholar of any kind, but that’s precisely the point – jazz was not born out of scholarly investigation but out of radical self expression. And who can’t claim that as a musician? That’s where all the best music lives, regardless of genre. Ergo, if I’m resisting calling myself a jazz artist, it could be that I’m resisting my own self expression.

And that’s the crux of the matter. Any person who resists the beauty that others see in her needs a little wake-up to reality, and it seems I just had mine.

So now I’m going to start dropping my resistance to jazz as a performer, and to see what’s possible with it. I think it’s just a matter of embracing the process, and not worrying about the product. Whether jazz listeners take me seriously is not the point; it’s about me taking my own self expression seriously. I once told a jazzy friend of mine that jazz was a method, and he nodded in agreement with me. If that’s all it is, why not make use of it?

Wish me luck.

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Remembering Voices of Light

At the end of Rackham Symphony Choir’s 2012-2013 season, a couple weeks removed from my last gig with them, I gotta say my fondest memory was performing Voices of Light at the Detroit Film Theater in March. It was just…wow.

Voices of Light is a choral/orchestral piece written to accompany one of the greatest silent films of all time: The Passion of Joan of Arc. Composer Richard Einhorn went to France and had an epiphany watching Joan; he saw the possibility of composing a whole new soundtrack to the film. It reminded me of Philip Glass’s soundtrack to the old Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast, only Joan was a silent movie, and there was no need to sync up vocal music with dialogue. For that, Voices of Light stands on its own (for now – I can see this setting a precedent for other composers to let themselves be inspired by classic film and see what’s possible for multimedia presentations of their work).

And among large-scale choral pieces I’ve sung, this certainly stands alone, at the top. Most of the text I’d never heard of; I’ve sung plenty of Hildegard von Bingen before, but none of the other Latin and Middle French texts that make up the libretto – certainly not the letters of Joan herself. There are also bits of inspiration from Medieval mystics, some of whom were heretics like Joan, others more accepted by orthodoxy, like Hildegard (although I think if you read deeply enough someone could call at least a little of her stuff heretical). So the text was unique. Also, the flow of the music had to fit the flow of the movie. It exists in movements, but the divisions are seamless, and within a movement you could experience a thousand different moods and ideas, all flowing with the story.

But beyond all that, the performance experience was the most unique thing I’d ever been a part of. We performed at the Detroit Film Theatre, a place not particularly known for musical concerts of any kind, though it has hosted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other folks presenting multimedia work. We sat in risers a little bit behind and under the giant screen, able to see only the orchestra pit and a fraction of the sold-out audience. We were in semi-darkness; some hardly able to read our scores – at least one did the smart thing and put the score on her iPad. The acoustics were dry and dead; one could only hear the singers immediately around them if it weren’t for the monitors backstage. It was like singing in a sensory-deprivation chamber.

And then we had to put out a full-on choral sound with all the dynamics and nuance the music demanded, all while following Maestra Suzanne’s tempo, which was expected to fluctuate depending on how we flowed with the film. Maestra lifted her eyes rarely at us, mostly to see the screen and what was happening. She was entirely focused on that and on directing traffic, so she couldn’t give as much to eliciting expression from the 80-odd singers in front of her. She had to play traffic cop for an hour and a half. She wasn’t using a click track either. She went entirely on the visual cues of the movie. So we had to be totally on alert, to be self-sufficient and at the same time dependent on her cues.

Not much attention was given to the singers’ expression and extracting the emotion of the text. We were advised to keep our eyes up for sure, but not for the purpose of telling the story – the movie was doing that just fine. We were telling the story, but not as a theatrical element, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. We were more like members of the pit orchestra. Our text served to provide comment and a spiritual backdrop to the story. It was up to us to bring succor to an otherwise brutal and intense movie about Joan’s suffering and martyrdom –  the movie had a freaking bloodletting scene in it, and contortionists, in addition to one of the most famous public executions of all time. The choir is set up to be a sort of audience proxy to all this, to be people witnessing the story and trying to make sense out of it by placing it in history, among stories of persecution, inspiration and spiritual enlightenment. Similarly, the movie itself is not a biopic, nor a documentary, nor even a kind of epic film adventure like Ben Hur. It’s an isolated episode of Joan’s life, and a tiny but defining moment in French history, told with little one-on-one dialogues and extreme close-ups. It’s an intimate story, and so the music of the choir is just as intimate, a private window into the lives of mystics. And even though we didn’t have to show it on our faces, the emotion bled through with every utterance: “O feminea forma…O soror sapientiae… (O feminine form…O sister of Wisdom…).”

And so we sang, slotted in rows toward the extreme rear of the stage, behind that giant screen, in near-darkness, unable to see or hear, but with senses sharpened to feel beyond what we could normally perceive as singers. It was a very monkish sort of way to sing, like you’re in some Medieval choir stalls at Notre Dame; only here, your voice doesn’t ring in any rafters but gets sucked up into the blackness of the film theater, with no reverberation to greet you on its return. You feel alone. But Joan did, too. And I guess that’s the point of the whole performance. As part of the entertainment package, you get to be alone there with Joan as she goes through her ordeal. And so, Einhorn’s music asks: Isn’t it in moments like that where the presence of God is felt?

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Bravo to Dino’s New Open Mic Experience

Wow. I want to recommend what is possibly the best new open mic experience in metro Detroit. I had the pleasure of playing my little 15 minutes at Dino’s Lounge on Woodward and 9 mile under the gaze of new emcee Jill Jack, a prominent Detroit musician who is hugely supportive of songwriters. And after playing for Jill, it’s gotten me all geeked to play again for both her AND Chris Bentley, the other emcee on the team, because it was just that awesome.

What I like about this open mic is that it’s STRUCTURED. There’s an emcee and a separate stage manager who runs the sound and does a tremendous job keeping the musicians cozy and welcomed. Then there’s what I call a “high mastermind,” an admin assistant who keeps track of the performer list and all communications. So there are clearly defined roles, and the people filling them are tops.

Second of all, you have to sign up in advance – there’s now a waiting list going 3 months into the future for Jill’s nights – and the admin structure around this is refreshingly tight. When you sign up, you’re encouraged to send in a bio so that you’re properly introduced, and no matter if you’re an experienced pro with a national following or a local player looking for a first stage appearance – Jill will make you feel welcomed and honored in front of the audience, like you truly belong there.

And it doesn’t matter if you screw up your song and have to start again; she will rouse up some applause in the audience to give the performer some love and support.

There’s an emphasis on original songs ONLY, with minimal instrumentation – no drum sets or crazy/elaborate setups – so the focus can remain on the songwriting itself and the night can flow smoothly from one performer to the next.

And Jill also does something that I’ve never seen an open mic host do before: she will shush the audience and tell them to respect the musicians by listening. Not easy in an uppity bar such as Dino’s, but the thing is, this open mic experience is really supposed to be different – this is a songwriter’s showcase, in the same tradition as the monthly event at The Ark in Ann Arbor, where you submit your name in a drawing for the chance to play on that legendary stage. Because it is so highly refined, the Dino’s open mic allows for tremendous variety while weeding out the people who just want to cover Leonard Cohen or Bill Withers all day.

And furthermore, there’s no place for those long, boring sets where you see a whole band set up to play and just pass the mic around from person to person – that’s not an open mic, that’s a band hijacking the stage, and it’s insulting to listen to while you’re waiting your turn.

Jill understands that it often takes a reduction in the degrees of freedom to really get the variety and diversity you want in an open mic experience. She wants to see increasing support for the songwriting community of Detroit, so that the city can eventually be on the same level as Nashville as a music center. I’d say we’re not too far away from that ideal if we see more highly refined events like this to really give songwriters the kind of chance they’re looking for.

Of course, it helps if your emcee is musically talented and already has a huge following and a vast sea of songwriting friends to invite to play, but it’s not about her – the Dino’s team does whatever they can to make it all about YOU, the songwriter, and Jill knows this.

And I tell you, the experience of actually playing there was like nothing in the world. I played in front of a room packed to the ceiling and everyone was listening. And I sold a CD and passed out business cards to people I’ve never met before.

THAT’S what an open mic is supposed to be like – a place to show an audience what you’re really made of, where the audience can actually see what you’re made of, and acknowledge it.  I plan to play there again on May 7, with host Chris Bentley, and I’m really looking forward to it.

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