June 22, 2024

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Interview with Olivia Foschi: The music is a greater power that is largely beyond our control: Video

Jazz interview with jazz singer Olivia Foschi. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Olivia Foschi: – I grew up in Italy in an Italo-American household and was exposed to music my whole life. I started taking piano lessons around the age of 7 and guitar lessons around the age of 12. My great grandmother was an Italian opera singer who always sang with my father at family gatherings and he passed that tradition on to me and my brother.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up jazz vocals? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose jazz vocals?

OF: – I got my hands on my mother’s CD box-set “Playboy’s 40th Anniversary: Four Decades Of Jazz” when I was 11. Those CDs became one of my most prized possessions throughout middle/high school. That is when I heard Sarah Vaughan’s version of “Lullaby of Birdland” and realized immediately that I was hooked and that I wanted to become a jazz singer.

I signed up for music theory classes and started singing in every jazz choir/vocal ensemble offered throughout high school and college and attribute large part of my jazz foundation to my high school music teacher, Roy Zimmerman.

I began “formal” jazz vocal training in 2004 when I went back to college to study music after obtaining a degree in English Literature. I signed up to the University of Music in Rome, Italy, and studied jazz voice under the guidance of Cecilia Izzi. She opened up a whole world of interpretation and improvisation for me and with her, I finally started finding my voice and building my sound. The other most influential vocal coaches I worked with are Giovanna Gattuso (Venice Voice Academy), Fay Victor and Jeremiah Abiah (NY).

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

OF: – I feel that my strength has always been in rhythm and, as a result, I have repeatedly found myself drawn to singing within a “rhythmic” context. During college I spent time in Nepal studying classical Nepali singing accompanying myself with a Madal, and subsequently found myself working with hammer dulcimer players, brazilian combos and even dubstep groups. I find that a lot of what I do essentially blends percussion and voice and feel that my phrasing reflects this. I went on to study mixed meter and polyrhythm with Marc Mommaas in New York which led me to Konnakol, a form of vocal percussion from the South Indian Carnatic music tradition. I began studying konnakol under guidance of Ganesh Kumar a few years ago and have been weaving it into my sound ever since. I have a lot of work to do in terms of tone and vocal placement and have been trying to develop technique and resonance during the past few months.

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

OF: – I do a lot of clapping when I sing and have learned to work with a metronome to stabilize my internal time and practice shifting between rhythmic patterns, odd time signatures and polyrhythm. This kind of work is also particularly easy to do and develop while walking – I like to hold a steady pulse in my step and superimpose rhythmic patterns by clapping or snapping my fingers and then singing over that – the idea for me is to make sure I always know where the “one” is and that I can break down and map out what I do. Having twin toddlers allows for little to no free time, so any practices that I can develop without necessarily carving out hours of my day are precious to me. In practicing standards, I find that I work a lot on stretching melodies and setting very specific parameters for myself (i.e.: actively shifting the starting point or ending point of phrases within the bar, limiting note value or note direction etc…)

JBN.S: – 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?

OF: – I don’t think I can pinpoint patterns that I specifically “prefer” or that I can define how much of my writing/singing stems from conscious decisions versus natural reaction. I like to try to avoid clichès but also find that in my approach to vocal jazz, I rely on a certain element of harmony and stability. I can definitely say, however, that I don’t “dare” as much as I would consciously like to.

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

OF: – Disparate influences inevitably color what I do, I’d say it’s more about finding common grounds and being able to blend everything that “goes in” as opposed to compartmentalizing contrasting elements.

JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album ​Fleeting Windows, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

OF: – Fleeting Windows​ is a direct reflection of my life since the birth of my twin sons. It’s a celebration of love (albeit non-romantic), life and motherhood, but also provides glimpses into some of the more melancholic aspects of this phase – the loss of self as I knew it, fatigue, discordance. I hold this album very close to my heart and came up with the track selection and track order rather judiciously. Every title illuminates a very specific aspect or serves/d a very specific function in my life with my sons thus far.

In terms of personnel and how the album was formed, Gil Goldstein and his wife Ellen have become a huge part of my family life in the past eight years. I turned to him to help arrange some of the material, knowing that he would be able to capture the “tenderness” and emotional connection I was searching for. I also handed over two pieces to my friend Alex Sipiagin knowing he would be able to transfer the flip side of that and help capture the edgy dissonance and tension I sought after. My dear friend, producer and drummer, Ulysses Owens Jr., helped put everything together and before I knew it, we had two rehearsals and two recording dates and the album became a reality. Billy Test is someone who I have worked with on and off for years and he put in a lot of free time mapping things out with me – he is an incredibly talented pianist and musician and an exceptional human being. I feel incredibly fortunate and blessed to have had such a phenomenal team believe in this project and help make it what it is.

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

OF: – I would probably say 75% soul and 25% intellect.

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

OF: – Not always, unfortunately. I wouldn’t say that my style or music is a “crowd pleaser” but I am ok with that. Several years ago I heard an incredible radio interview with Whoopi Goldberg. She talked about a piece of advice that her mother gave her along the lines of accepting that not everybody is going to like you all of the time in order to remain true to your calling and to your craft. This has become one of the most useful tips I ever heard – if you get too wrapped up in what people expect of you, I find that you easily lose track of who you are and what you were doing there to begin with.

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

OF: – Two pieces that I chose to include in this last album were written by late bassist Chris White Jr. He took the time to sit me down in his studio several years ago when I was working on his music for a tribute concert and walked me through the emotional connection to pulse and how to “feel” rhythm. We stretched the melody of his tune “My Life” until it got so uncomfortable for me that I began to internalize what he meant and think less in terms of what was written on the page.

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

OF: – The versatility of jazz is part of its draw – I find that a lot of standards from the 1920s are still among my own personal favorites. It’s not so much about how old the songs are – it’s more about feeling and finding the emotional connection behind great melodies, stimulating harmonic and rhythmic sensitivity and appreciating the subtleties that arise out of counterpoint and polyphony in jazz. In a nutshell I’d venture to say it’s more about tapping into how certain jazz tunes make us feel and how much power we have as individuals to work with the material that’s out there to somehow make it our own and adapt it to our calling.

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

OF: – This is a tough one. I firmly believe that music is a greater power that is largely beyond our control. It can help us give meaning to life and often provides a context through which to celebrate the infinite facets of life.

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

OF: – I definitely find that the rise of great female musicians – no longer largely limited to vocalists – is paving the way for change in younger generations and those to come. I would like to see female jazz musicians become a norm within our music community.

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

OF: – I am constantly seeking out new things and enjoy listening to as much variety as possible both for myself and for my children. A few staples I revert to a lot off the top of my head are Bill Evans and Chet Baker, but I also listen to a lot of Joana Duah, Toni Bruna, Amina Figarova, Terence Blanchard, Go Go Penguin… the list is endless.

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

OF: – In terms riding a time machine, right now, the thing I would desire the most would be to somehow travel back in time and spend an afternoon with the Boswell sisters. I would be curious to know more about their creative process, especially pertaining to their approach to rhythm.

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

OF: – As a jazz columnist, reviewer and writer, do you think the current music industry allows for jazz to grow without losing it’s fundamental elements?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. The current music industry is the same as yesterday, but the big question is how will be tomorrow. It touches from you: from the musicians.

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

OF: – The fact that my three-year-old sons talk about going to their “office” as a place where they make music and that they work as a saxophone and trombone player respectively, makes me feel as though I have successfully planted a seed – not that being a musician is necessarily the ideal profession by any means, but it does say something about how much we can shape our youth and that they can aspire to follow any calling they truly set their heart to.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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