Angela Kearney interviewed “Australia’s First Lady of Jazz” Penguin Guide (2006) , vocalist and pianist Janet Seidel ahead of her two forthcoming London appearances (Pheasantry October 3th/ Kings Place November 26th)
– Janet Seidel has released 17 CDs, many internationally
– She has shows dedicated to Blossom Dearie, Doris Day, Cole Porter, Henry Mancini and most recently, Johnny Mercer. Her London shows will include some of this repertoire
– In this interview she talks about her musical background
– And about her work with her regular trio partners, brother David Seidel on bass and Chuck Morgan (guitar/ ukulele)
– She talks about how she only chooses songs that appeal to her musically and lyrically
– Janet Seidel and Angela Kearney found they had a mutual admiration for Doris Day
– And, we’re told, also shared a steamed treacle pudding
Can you take LondonJazz readers through the Janet Seidel story?
I suppose it must seem a bit of an anachronism but I grew up in the bush on a dairy farm in South Australia where I’d ride my horse to round the cows up.
From playing country dances with my brothers and then onto piano bars during the ‘70s followed by 5-star hotels, touring and other stuff, here I am in London for the next eight months, excited to be performing what I consider to be some of the most sophisticated, subtle and witty music ever written.
So far, it’s been an interesting and consistent career – I’ve never really been out of work.
But for anyone going into the jazz business thinking they’re going to be rich, unless you make it like Diana Krall for example, it’s a hard slog. But…we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it. That would be ridiculous.
Australia has such a small population and what we do with our shows is quite specific… so, that’s really why we’re here. And we’re really delighted to have been invited to play at these lovely venues.
You get great reviews…
It’s fantastic to get a good reception when you perform but I just play and basically, all I do is open my mouth and sing and to make something of it… well, it feels easy for me.
I feel and have always felt that the song is more important than the singer and by saying that, I don’t mean that I sing it note for note. It’s a really hard thing to describe but I think that maybe it’s about authenticity.
Someone gave me a CD of jazz standards sung by an opera singer. She sings very well. But, it isn’t jazz. Instead, it’s all about the singer. That’s not what I’m about. I’d really like what we do to be considerably less about me and just completely about the music.
What came first for you – piano or voice?
I think singing was always in tandem with piano and as a kid, I liked singing to myself. I was in the last year of primary school, I think, when Mum bought me a Seekers songbook and taught me what to do when you see a chord symbol and how to vamp which I’d never done in classical music. Having figured that out, I started changing the key slightly and then started singing along.
Much later, I also did some classical pieces when I was at the Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide – Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and those lighter things. They realized I was never going to be an opera singer.
But recently, I met Judith Durham (The Seekers) at a concert in Melbourne and she bought one of my CDs. That was really nice.
You’re based in London for a while?
We’ve already done some shows in Scotland and other parts of England which have been really well received.
But, as for London, we’re all in a lovely house with a keyboard and PA and we’re rehearsing. It’s the first time we’ve had the luxury of doing that in many years.
Back home, the three of us are always going in different directions, managing different projects and time poor.
In the UK, we’re actually feeling a bit more like musicians. For me, it’s a breath of fresh air and we’re just working at refining the things we do.
Of course, jazz is spontaneous but certainly, we have to be organised and to have this time together away from other distractions has been great.
Mind you, we’re still enjoying being tourists.
Your material seems to feature almost exclusively The Great American Songbook.
Yes, that’s true. Sometimes when I’m interviewed about the material, the journalist will say, ”Oh, you just do covers.” I always say no, we don’t do covers and then I explain what it means to do covers… like an ABBA revival band or whatever. Actually, what we do is quite specific, fairly specialist.
But, I’m certainly never challenged by an audience asking why I’m doing all those old songs? It must mean that what we’re doing sounds right.
Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with doing the old songs. We’re so lucky to make a career performing them, aren’t we? They’re so well written.
Certainly, in Australia, not many people do the same material and we’ve become known for our repertoire of both old and newer material. When I say newer, I mean perhaps more interesting song choices that audiences are not so familiar with but have responded well to.
We certainly spend a lot of time doing that simply because there’s so much material out there.
We particularly like to pepper an evening’s entertainment with quirky, satirical tunes such as… Ballad of the Shape of Things as performed by Blossom Dearie and written by Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof). It was actually recommended to us by Dominic Alldis who was a friend of Blossom Dearie. It’s not a jazz song and because it’s called a ballad, it has simple, repetitious harmonies. It’s quite fun.
Tell us about the London performances.
Before we left Australia, we launched a new show: That Old Black Magic – The Songs of Johnny Mercer at the Melbourne Recital Centre, a knock-out venue. We’ve performed the show on this tour in Scotland and we’re doing the same show in some theatres, which is unusual for jazz musicians but we do a crossover thing and that’s what has enabled us to work in the cabaret world as well.
That’s what really led us to create these themed shows that have been so popular in Australia. It gives you the impetus to work on a really focused, tight show. It’s still jazz but more emphasis on the story, either the songwriter or the artist. Certainly, it’s not a tribute show.
The London dates will definitely feature bits and pieces from various shows, the Mercer set, of course. Blossom Dearie also and although I never specifically target a Doris Day song when I sing a compilation of my favourites, I should. It’s a good idea!
And the other members of the trio?
My brother David Seidel is on double bass, and a very good bass player. He taught himself how to play guitar as a kid, then electric guitar, electric bass and finally to double bass. From the moment he played it, it felt right. That’s his thing.
Chuck Morgan plays guitar (and ukulele). He’s a brilliant guitarist and very creative with arrangement ideas and making things better which isn’t always easy with two chordal instruments. But, the ego sometimes needs to be subjugated. It’s a bit like trying to write a book without an editor. There’s a very good reason why you have them.
In terms of the musical performance, I suppose that really, Chuck waits for me to play something and just fits in because he’s never really sure exactly what I’m going to do. He’s a very, very talented improviser, very musical – 10 out of 10. And, to sing with the guitar is very nice for me.
Selfishly, it also gives me some relief, especially during the Doris Day show, which is exhausting. When he takes a solo, I think Thank God! The attention is off me!
Of the themed shows, what are your favourites to perform?
The Johnny Mercer show has really given me a kick up the backside. When we performed it for the first time in Melbourne recently was like: Oh! New stuff!
The Doris Day show (Doris and Me) has been a winner since 2000. It’s the show that people really want to see. I have my 1950’s cocktail frock, my white gloves… It’s a tight little show and it’s fun. She was a very, very good singer.
Who do you think have been your greatest musical influences?
I’ve long been a champion of Blossom Dearie – the whole package of her, the humour of her, the really lovely way she played… and I do love her voice, the timbre is so caressing.
Do you write any of your own material?
I only ever write a song if someone forces me. My brother David said “Janet, you have to write a song” and he came up with the title, which I thought was very good – the title of the show and the song: Dear Blossom.
The lyrics were easy to write but I also felt that I had to incorporate the fact that when Blossom wrote music, it was always very well written, structured and very musical with really interesting chords. I wanted a little bouncy, catchy tune and I think it works. Yes, I think we’ll do that one in London.
If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?
Bill Charlap (pianist). I just love the way he plays and I’ve heard him accompany other singers. I’d love the luxury of not having to worry about playing piano and just have a really good rhythm section led by Charlap.
What tunes do you never tire of performing?
I’ve got thousands of songs that I love doing but I still especially love the excitement I feel when I’ve got new material to play. You’ve got to have a good repertoire not only because when you’re a jazz musician, people love to make requests but also for your own sanity.
I still feel really good about Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home (Mercer). I’ve heard Judy Garland do it, Barbra Streisand and so on. There’s something about it that just gets under my skin and being a bit of a traveller, I particularly love that song.
And another that I have absolutely never tired of – and I’ve done it so many times – is Begin the Beguine. When we do the Cole Porter show, we do a little arrangement of it and it always gets to me.
I get a kind of tingle. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how sometimes the familiarity of something can make it less interesting? But it’s such a quirky song, it’s written in an unusual form with so many different parts to it. It’s ideal really for doing just once because it’s so long but… but I love that it tells a story of when they begin the beguine and then the setting… and the orchestra playing and something goes wrong and they’ll never play it again. Then… play it again! I want it hear it.
It’s just a perfect journey. I’ve actually never said that before – that’s an exclusive!