Interview with Laurie Antonioli: That’s where the magic and artistry reside: Video

Jazz interview with jazz vocalist Laurie Antonioli. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Laurie Antonioli: – I grew up in the Bay Area of California during the 1960s when San Francisco was the hub of a lot of great rock bands.  Groups like the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin had a real presence in this region. I got my first guitar when I was about 11 years old – there was a music teacher at my school that helped us learn songs from James Taylor, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Carole King. As soon as I knew a handful of chords, I started writing my own songs. I was really into the singer-songwriter music of people like Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, and I also loved Jimi Hendrix. These were my early influences from 12 to 14 years old. Then, when I was 16, my maternal grandmother gave me a stack of ‘78’s—vinyl records – which changed my life. The music was from a singer and pianist named Nellie Lutcher – I fell in love with her swing feel. I started imitating her and learned her songs by ear on my guitar. Ultimately, I got obsessed with jazz around the age of 16 and would stay up all night listening to the radio. At 17 years old, I heard Count Basie, which was the first live jazz I’d ever heard.  I was in the front row about 15 feet from the piano. I was crying through the whole concert with excitement.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

LA: – I went from singer-songwriter music to instrumental jazz. Once I heard Charlie Parker things really changed. At 18, I started singing instrumental songs and bebop lines. There was a record from 1948 from a group called “Charlie Ventura and the Bop to the People Band,” and it featured the husband and wife vocal duo Jackie and Roy. They sang wordlessly with the horns – mostly in unison – which inspired me to no end.  I became a pretty good bebop singer. Mark Murphy heard me and invited me to sit in with him regularly when I was 19 and 20 years old. Then the bebop alto saxophonist and singer Pony Poindexter started hearing me around town in San Francisco and by the time I was 22 I was out on the road with Pony. We sang together much like Jackie and Roy did – a male and female voice singing in tandem. We did very up-tempo songs, and there was a lot of improvisation (scat singing!)  – the European audiences loved it, and we stayed on the road in Europe for about eight months.

I was also moved by more contemporary music.  I met Mal Waldron when living in Munich and he gave me his song “Soul Eyes” with his lyrics – I was the first singer to record that song – of course, John Coltrane had recorded his gorgeous version some years before that.  My first record, released in 1985, was entitled “Soul Eyes” and was a duo with George Cables on piano.  On this album, though bebop and standards were represented, I was looking for unusual material.  I had discovered the composer/lyricist Larry Gelb and recorded two of his songs – one was called “I’d Like to Melt Your Ego for Dinner,” and there’s also a through-composed piece that started as a poem I wrote for Joe Henderson.  It was called “Weaving Patterns on You.”  The dreamy, expansive nature of that song led me into my work with Richie Beirach.  Richie and I understood each other musically.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability, especially pertaining to rhythm?

LA: – The first thing is listening.  Everything starts there.  I’ve always had a lot of natural ability and to be honest, I’m more of a natural musician than an academic. That doesn’t mean I didn’t practice a lot; rather, some things came easily to me, especially bebop music and scat singing. I now make a living in academia, teaching others about jazz.  It’s through teaching that I’ve developed ways to work on rhythm and time.  It’s probably the hardest thing to teach – not actual “rhythms” but the “feel” of jazz or swing. Slowing things way down helps. Clapping, walking in time, using a metronome are all simple ways to work on this. There’s a great new app called “Drum Genius” that I have all my students get – it has rhythmical loops as played by famous drummers from Elvin Jones to Max Roach – from Jack DeJohnette to Brian Blade. You can listen to ten different versions of “medium swing” which is fantastic – it sounds like trap drums and even the cymbal sound is sampled to sound like these drummer’s kits. I find using this app a great way to demonstrate different feels and tempos, and it’s more fun than a metronome.

JBN: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

LA: – I can hear harmony and make creative choices in the moment when interpreting a lyric or improvising. If it’s particularly complex, then I have to sit at the piano and work on guide tones, roots, and intervals.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

LA: – I’m not sure I understand this question. Perhaps you mean am I influenced by other artists and therefore not able to have my own voice?  If that’s the question, the fact is, I never intended to sound like anyone although I am heavily influenced by the vocal sound of Joni Mitchell, Annie Ross, and Betty Carter. Bits of those singers certainly show through from time to time. I’m also very influenced by horn players from Miles Davis to Bird to Joe Henderson – I’m influenced by trumpet players most of all. Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw, and Kenny Wheeler, to name a few!

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

LA: – You need both of these things for music to be provocative. I find too much emotion to be overrated and overly intellectual and complicated music tiring. The balance? That’s where the magic and artistry reside.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

LA: – My philosophy:  one for them, two for me!

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

LA: – My very first European gig with Pony Poindexter involved opening for Chick Corea at the Bern International Jazz Festival. Dorothy Donnegon was also on the bill. Jimmy Woode and Ed Thigpen were in our band. That left an impression. As well, I’ve experienced some extraordinary concerts with Richie Beirach.  One, in particular, was in Leipzig at the Gewandhaus. There was a choir singing arrangements of my lyrics to Richie’s compositions – it felt like I was in heaven with angels singing behind me.  Richie’s solo piano filled the hall.  That was breathtaking.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

LA: – The thing about the Great American Songbook is that it’s based on universal stories that most people can relate to.  Of course, some songs have references that no longer make sense but, most are stories about the human condition.  The topic of unrequited love seems to be a favorite one, no matter the genre or style.   With that said, we’re all just trying to understand love, life, longing, birth, death, joy, and excitement in one form or the other and having music that documents these topics is fantastic.  As well, you can “hip up” the old songs with new arrangements, reharmonizations, unique instrumentation, improvisation, creative phrasing and an open mind!

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

LA: – Each day offers an opportunity to evolve or grow.   Music has always been a great barometer for me.  I know if I’m not being honest or real with my singing – it has helped me know myself.  When the music is authentic, then it can also deeply touch others.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

LA: – I’d like to see all the competitions cease to exist.  I understand that the industry likes awards and that people like to be on lists indicating that they are the “best” but … music is not a sport.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

LA: – I listen to jazz less now than when I was younger. If it’s jazz, I never get tired of Keith Jarrett or Miles Davis. I love contemporary artists like Nguyen Le, and a new favorite is the trumpet player Mathias Eick – I guess you can tell I’m a fan of music on the ECM label! I love Americana singers like Gillian Welch or Sarah Jarosz.   I think David Crosby has come out with some of the best music in his life and he’s using wiz kids Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis and Snarky Puppy’s Michael League. Brilliant move on David’s part.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

LA: – Again, it’s back to authenticity. The spirit of the heart, the mind, and the soul expressed with creativity and maybe some originality is the best I can hope for.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

LA: – I try to stay in the present moment, so, to be honest, my desire for another time isn’t a thing for me. Getting older is fantastic – the older I get, the happier I am.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

LA: – What have you learned about yourself from being involved with and listening to so much music?

JBN: – Thanks for answers. I am journalist and when listened to so much jazz and blues music – Jazz critic!!!

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

LA: – I try to live and love as fully as possible. My inspiration can come from my grandchildren or the beauty of the ocean. I just took a trip to Morocco that touched my soul. I hope to bring that energy into my next project.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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