Jackson brings New York jazz and soul to Scotland
Don’t give up the day job is a comment that cuts no ice with Lolita Jackson. The New Jersey-born jazz and soul singer has no intention of abandoning a 9-to-5 that over the past twenty-five years has included high powered positions with financial services giant Morgan Stanley and the New York Mayor’s office, where at the moment she is her department’s primary contact with the United Nations.
On two occasions during that time, keeping musicians’ hours might have saved Jackson from horrendous experiences. In 1993 she was working on the seventy-second floor in the World Trade Center when it came under terrorist attack. She made her way downstairs in two hours to safety only to be on the seventieth floor of the south tower on September 11, 2001 when the first plane crashed into the north tower. Again she made for the stair well and she had reached the forty-fourth floor when she felt the building being hit by the second plane. She took the remaining forty-four flights in ten minutes and escaped.
When we Skype she shrugs off these stories with the spirit of someone who survives and moves on. She has gigs coming up in Glasgow and Edinburgh while she’s visiting Scotland to chair a conference as part of her current role as Special Advisor to the Senior Director of Climate Policy and Programs in New York and she’d much rather talk about singing. She’s sung in China, Japan and Australia and is proud to say that she’s appeared onstage at Carnegie Hall in New York as well as twice bringing a show to the Edinburgh Fringe.
“I sing because I love it,” she says. “But I also love my work. I have a very active, enquiring mind and I love the intellectual challenge and stimulation I get from my day job. Not that singing can’t be stimulating but it uses a different part of the brain and I need that balance in my life where I work under pressure during the day and sing at night because singing calms me.”
She took up singing relatively late considering her achievements. From the age of nine she played woodwind instruments, starting with clarinet and then moving on to bass clarinet and tenor saxophone in high school. It was only when she went to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to study chemical engineering that she discovered that she could sing.
“There were very few black students at the University of Pennsylvania when I went there and I quickly discovered that the way to meet other black students was to join a gospel choir,” she says. “This wasn’t too difficult because gospel choirs didn’t have trials. If you wanted in, you were in. So there I was in the first week and the director homed in on me and said I had a really good voice. I knew I had a good ear because playing low instruments really helps with that but I wasn’t expecting to be given solo parts in a choir. Being a freshman singing solo in an eighty-piece choir was a big deal to me.”
In her second year at university she joined an a cappella group and that was where she really learned to sing, she says. The same group later featured singer-songwriter John Legend and had a reputation for performing high quality, close harmony versions of Manhattan Transfer and Take 6 material.
Jackson might have emulated John Legend by going professional on leaving university but she finished her degree aged twenty-two with $40,000 worth of student debt.
“My parents aren’t rich so they couldn’t help me,” she says. “So I really had no option but to get a job that would allow me to start paying off my loans. But going out to work hasn’t been to my disadvantage in terms of singing. I’ve been able to pick and choose the gigs I do to quite a large extent and having a day job hasn’t dulled the sheer joy of wanting to perform.”
Having a day job also hasn’t prevented her from rubbing shoulders with some of the jazz singing greats, including the recently departed Jon Hendricks, of the legendary vocal jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Hendricks gave Jackson pointers on the art of scat singing, where singers take on the characteristics of instrumentalists as they improvise.
“I’m particularly fond of vocalese, those jazz songs that weren’t written as songs as such and didn’t have lyrics originally,” she says. “People like Manhattan Transfer and going further back, King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, of course, are great sources of that. So when I got the chance to meet Jon Hendricks and ask him how I could improve my scat singing, I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a master, which he was. I mean, Ella Fitzgerald was the greatest but Jon Hendricks had been doing it for fifty years or more and I couldn’t have met anyone better. I told him I’d been singing Lambert Hendricks & Ross material back in college and I think he was quite tickled to hear that.”
Having begun her musical life playing woodwind she finds that she thinks as an instrumentalist.
“It’s not about standing out in front of the band for me,” she says. “When I sing, I want to fit in with the other musicians. I love to harmonise with a tenor saxophone or a trombone and when I listen to music I hear the bass line first. I think in colours when I’m working on a song and I’m not looking for brightness necessarily; I like the more subtle hues.”
Having a naturally low voice she tends to gravitate towards male singers. Jon Lucien and Kurt Elling, with their rich, almost cello-like tones, are favourites and among women singers she favours Cassandra Wilson and Oleta Adams due to their voices being in a similar range to her own. If she had to choose a sole desert island singing companion, however, she would choose Stevie Wonder.
“He has everything,” she says. “He sings beautifully. He writes wonderful songs that never date and he’s such a great musician, a keyboards player, drummer, a harmonica virtuoso, just amazing.”
For her Glasgow and Edinburgh gigs Jackson will meet up again with the local musicians who have accompanied her on previous visits, with Edinburgh-based pianist Campbell Normand acting as her band leader and soul mate.
“The first time I sang over there someone said I should go to the open mic session in the Jazz Bar in Edinburgh,” she says. “Campbell was leading the band that night and Bill Kyle, who ran the Jazz Bar and is sadly no longer with us, offered me a slot at the Fringe straightaway. So Campbell made that happen in 2016 and I came back last year. It’s great to be able to arrive in a town and have people you know you can work with. We’ll mix it up a bit, do some straightahead jazz and play some jazz-funk, Incognito, that sort of thing. It’ll be fun.”
Lolita Jackson appears at the Jazz Bar, Edinburgh on Wednesday, March 21 and at the Blue Arrow, Glasgow on Friday, March 23.
From The Herald, March 14, 2018.
Inspired by the mermaids, ghosts and magic of Sandwood Bay
Duncan Chisholm is not a mind-reader but there are times when the Inverness-based fiddler is playing a melody that he would love to know what his audience are picturing in their imaginations as they listen.
Over the past ten years or so Chisholm has become increasingly inspired by places and the desire to communicate a sense of these places in his music. His multi-media project Kin, which he premiered at the Blas festival of highland culture in 2007 and for which he subsequently won a Herald Angel award during the Edinburgh Fringe, took him deep into the Highland landscapes of his forebears. This led on to his Strathglass Trilogy, which actually became four albums as he followed his musical representations of the ancient clan Chisholm lands, Farrar, Canaich and Affric, with a live album recorded in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum during Celtic Connections in 2013.
It was during the process of conceiving, composing and recording the Strathglass Trilogy that Chisholm realised that he’d caught the theme bug. So when it came to following it up he needed a project and one presented itself as he read a magazine article about Sandwood Bay. Located on the far north-west coast of Sutherland, this natural phenomenon with its mile-long beach of pink sand and 240-feet high sea stack requires determination to visit as it’s down a six-mile path from the nearest car park.
“I’d known about Sandwood for about thirty years and although I knew the area quite well, I’d never been to the bay,” says Chisholm between rehearsals and sound checks for the various concerts he’s involved in at this year’s Celtic Connections. “Reading that article, about two years ago now, made me think, I have to go. I’d no thoughts about making an album dedicated to it but on that first trip I immediately felt that I belonged there. Getting there really felt like making a pilgrimage, which is what I eventually called the first track on the album, and being there, miles from so-called civilization and feeling as if you could be living at any time in the past, present or future, made me start imagining melodies to describe this extraordinary place of beauty.”
Over the next eighteen months Chisholm made that pilgrimage another seven times, seeing Sandwood in all seasons and all weather. He read up about it and learned about the Viking longship that, legend has it, is buried beneath those pink sands and the many ships that foundered at nearby Cape Wrath and were washed up on the shoreline.
“There are lots of stories, about sailors haunting the beach and mermaids crying out in the sea,” he says. “It’s also reputed to be the site of the first Pictish settlement in what became known as Scotland. Nobody lives there now but so much has happened there over time and the topography is fascinating. Some of the most ancient rocks in the world are situated there and of course, the sea stack, Am Buachaille is beautiful.”
Each time Chisholm visited Sandwood he took his camera and returned home with images that fed into the tunes that make up Sandwood, the album.
Appropriately for a fiddle player whose style is very close to singing, when he is composing Chisholm absorbs scenes and gets to know images in the way that a traditional singer might learn the narrative of a ballad.
“I don’t actually look at the images as I’m writing,” he says. “I would look at what I’d captured on film for pleasure and then try to come up with phrases that describe the scene from memory. For me, playing the fiddle is very much like singing. I want the notes to be accurate but there has to be a human element and I find when I’m learning new music I tend to sing the melodies first to get to know the nuances.”
As with the Strathglass Trilogy, not all of the tunes on Sandwood were composed by Chisholm and his co-writer on this project, pianist-flautist Hamish Napier. The aptly titled A Precious Place comes from the pen of Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw and is given glorious “voice” by Chisholm, whose fiddle tone and technique, in an ideal world, would be, he says, a combination of Maria Callas’ perfection and the warm, golden sound of Gaelic singer Roddy Campbell from Barra. Shaw also provided Islands on the Edge and other tracks come from the writing of piper-saxophonist-whistle virtuoso Fraser Fifield, Irish singer and keyboard-player Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill in her Nightnoise era and Hamish Napier flying solo.
For Chisholm, using someone else’s composition is all part of the process of conceiving an album. He organises melodies into a linear form so that before he goes into the studio the album is planned with a beginning, a middle and an ending.
“I absolutely love playing live,” he says. “It’s the ultimate form of communication, a kind of one-to-one conversation with the audience where, especially in an intimate venue, you’re making the equivalent of eye contact to see if people are understanding what you’re saying musically. At the same time, though, and in a different way, recording is also a wonderful process, a joy. It’s like sculpting. You take in ideas and if you have the right people with you, magic can happen as the music takes on a subtly different shape to what you originally had in mind.”
Helping Chisholm to bring his ideas to fruition on Sandwood were musicians including uilleann pipes and whistle player Jarlath Henderson and guitarist-bass guitarist Ross Hamilton, both trusted studio allies from the Strathglass Trilogy. Hamilton, whose “day job” involves studio work with rock and pop bands, gives Chisholm’s music a current edge, with a canny use of electronica, that the fiddler himself wouldn’t necessarily find for himself.
“Ross has a great ear for sounds,” says Chisholm. “I often go into the studio with an arrangement idea where I’ll think, the pipes should come in here or this part needs a whistle line – and I know Jarlath will come up with a great harmony, for example – but Ross is the master at blending in something quite unexpected that enhances the atmosphere of a composition. It’s really inspiring and fascinating to hear phrases that might have started as something I hummed to myself on the beach or sitting on a rock come together into a whole album.”
The next phase in Sandwood’s life as a collection of music is to be performed live and following its premiere at Celtic Connections Chisholm takes it out on the road in late April. Beyond that, there will be more musical impressionism as, just as he says, Scotland offers limitless possibilities for a composer who likes to create a sense of place in his music.
“I’m not going to say too much,” he says, “but there is somewhere I have in mind that would be perfect for the next project.”
Sandwood is released on Copperfish Records.
Duncan Chisholm presents Sandwood live at Cecil Sharp House, London on April 19; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, April 28; Eden Court, Inverness, April 29; Perth Concert Hall, May 5; and Orkney Folk Festival, May 24-27.
From The Herald, January 31, 2018
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