Interview with Denise Leslie: That’s what allows for my soul to shine through on stage: Video

Jazz interview with jazz vocalist Denise Leslie. An interview by email in writing.

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

Denise Leslie: – I grew up in the east end of Toronto. What first got me interested in music was the fact that there was such a strong focus on music in my primary school. Several of the teachers there toted a guitar to class every Friday for afternoon sing songs.  Our school’s musical performances were always big affairs.  I excelled at singing and soon took part in school recitals, plays and joined the Scarborough Choir. My father came from a very musical family and adored jazz music – this was a major factor contributing to my interest in jazz.

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

DL: – My sound has evolved over time as a result of listening to the singers and bands I’ve grown to love over time –  whose sound resonates strongly with me personally. The discovery and development of my own sound was a result of just gigging, practicing constantly AND then developing a confidence. Part of the process is pulling that confidence out of myself and permitting myself to share my spirit and joy with my audience.

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

DL: – My vocal coach Micah Barnes works with me developing a series of vocal exercises to work with breath, with the hard and soft palette, resonating of sound in the skull etc. I’ve also used Anne Peckham’s vocal exercises religiously. To master rhythm in my singing it is again a matter of listening. A lot of bebop and a lot of swing. It’s got to really get into your bones.  Following along with the great scat singers was something I did and do still. There are several favourites – of course there’s Ella but also Mel Torme, Mark Murphy, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Bobby McFerrin and now we have Roberta Gambarini and Jazzmeia Horn. Memorizing their scat lines is not just a great exercise but helps develop your timing and rhythmic complexities associated with jazz. Lifting and transcribing great horn lines and learning to play them or sing them is helpful to me too. Moody’s Mood was created from a great horn solo from James Moody on I’m In The Mood For Love.

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

DL: – I feel you do have to be in a certain “stick to your guns” frame of mind. I thought long and hard about what I wanted. With my interior design background, I knew any successful project begins with a set of design parameters. So for the album, I made a mission statement with musical goals to adhere to.  It is easy to go off course.  I rejected a few very sound arrangement ideas from my team because they just didn’t fit with my parameters, but it’s important to remain open to new ideas that may enhance what you’re working on. This is what can make the journey so much fun. Little surprises and magic moments that come along the way. We had several!

Today I’m working hard on getting more and more people to hear the record and booking gigs to promote it. I’m in beginning stages of coming up with another recording which I aim to do more writing for.

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

DL: – Balance in music between intellect and soul?  Tough to know exactly how to approach that question.  You have to have the ability to read a room when performing and have to grasp the importance of preparation.  That confidence I spoke of earlier?  That’s what allows for my soul to shine through on stage and in the recording booth. That is exactly what the audience is after. That authenticity. I would say that in the time that you are actually performing, intellect gets set aside completely.

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

DL: – One of the things I thrive off of as a performer is that 2 way relationship. What I have come to learn is that all the audience wants so very much to see is who you are. They want to see the vulnerability to shine through and how much you are like them. I’m totally ok with giving that to people – admittedly some performances more than others, and if you’re a person who guards their feelings and desires, it can be challenging. It’s much more challenging when you’re singing in a bar with lots of chatter!

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

DL: – I’ve had many personally sweet moments even just at wedding gigs, when a little gaggle of people crowd around me singing a lovely ballad and I get to connect with them in that sweet little fleeting moment. Love that. One thought that prevails is just how accessible jazz musicians are. We saw the fabulous Roberta Gambarini perform in Toronto several years ago now with Tamil Hendelman and Neil Swainson.  The break between sets was going on for far longer than we’d bargained for. While I went into to ladies room to call the babysitter to say that the show was going to end much later, Roberta came flying out of one of the stalls apologizing and assuring me she would get on stage immediately. It was delightful.

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

DL: – There are young people out there – plenty of them – hungry for good music. For one thing, we dont have to always look to the Great American songbook for inspiration. We can certainly use more recent tunes to create jazz arrangements for and can write our own material to attract a younger demographic.  Music execs need to foster more respect for jazz music and for today’s young jazz talent. I feel that right now in the mainstream, things are terribly lopsided (look to all the HipHop and Rap featured at this year’s Grammy Awards show!). We have young jazz talent like Anderson Paak, Esperanza Spalding, Jazzmeia Horn, Trombone Shorty, Joey Alexander and bands like Snarky Puppy, and Vulfpeck. For years now the Jazz category at the Grammys doesn’t even get featured during the  evening broadcast. I truly believe if they pumped the money and worked the publicity machine behind any of these artists the way they do for Post Malone, Ariana Grande and Cardi B you’d see a resurgence in interest in jazz. Rap and HipHop rule right now.  Perhaps jazz musicians need to pursue and actually demand to be mainstreamed? Look to Jamie Cullum and Michael Buble.

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

DL: – I interchange the word spirit with the words energy and joy. Our spirit needs to be unleashed and shared with those around us. I truly feel it is a fundamental human need. It’s rejuvenating. Music is one of the best conduits for this. It helps us to connect with others – to become that much more in tune with others’ joys and sorrows.

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

DL: – I don’t think my sentiments are unique at all here. I would love to see the elimination of streaming (free and almost free) music.  As a result of the popularity of streaming, people value music much less. With the advancement of technology comes plenty of good but this is one of its most loathsome outcomes.  Being a musician is a tough enough way to earn a living. This just compounds it.

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

DL: – I have been listening to a lot of Gregory Porter, Kurt Elling, Jamie Cullum, Jazzmeia Horn, Bruno Mars, Charlie Puth, Imelda May, always Ray Charles, old stuff from the wonderful Blossom Dearie.  Want to delve into Boz Scaggs’ newer stuff next.

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

DL: – Message I choose to bring through my music. I feel as though my jazz is very earthy. My audience sees the sheer joy in my performance and as a result, the fun in jazz. The message is simply “you are all here in this space with me in this moment – let’s share in this glorious music. I absolutely love it, and you’re going to love it too.”

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

DL: – Where and why would I want to go in a time machine?  Why?     I’d head straight to Montreal, Quebec at the Chez Paree Night Club the night of Feb 6th, 1953 to see Frank Sinatra opening for Theresa Brewer. He was just at the beginning of his comeback. My father was at the show and spoke of it often. He and the entire crowd were on their feet screaming for him to sing World on a String, to which he laughingly replied “for Christ’s sake I’ve already sung it three times!”  He sang it again and broke down in tears thanking the Montreal fans for always sticking with him.  I would have killed to be there.

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

DL: – You are from Yerevan, Armenia. Can you tell me what the jazz scene is like there and how you yourself got hooked on jazz music?  Is it popular there?

JBN: – I come from Armenia, Yerevan, but for 7 years I have been living in Boston. Jazz is certainly popular in Armenia, every year the Yerevan Jazz Festival and many concerts, but I do not do jazz in Armenia, I organize jazz festivals and concerts in Eastern Europe.

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

DL: – To maintain and harness my creativity that I brought to a higher level through this recording experience, I have to sit at the piano and carry on with more writing.  I really enjoy it. My team is keen to record again soon so I do have to strike while the iron is hot, so they say.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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