Appearing at the Voice Mix on 28 October at St James Theatre in London, singer Emily Saunders continues her adventurous and in-depth explorations of vocal jazz and beyond. Emily explains to Stephen Graham the thinking behind the evening and her own unique approach to jazz and improvisation.
LondonJazz News: What’s the fundamental idea behind the Voice Mix? How has it developed so far and who will be guesting with you at your next show this autumn?
Emily Saunders: The Voice Mix is a platform for a mix of voices and a mix of sounds presenting both established artists and new artists. So far we have been graced by artists such as Cleveland Watkiss, Imaani, Snowboy, Elle Cato, Wayne Hernandez, Next up in London we have two up and coming artists: from Leicester, saxophonist, composer and spoken word artist Marcus Joseph creating a mix of jazz, hip-hop, reggae, plus London-based Guildhall student, vocalist and singer playing styles of soul and jazz, Renato Paris. My amazing band that I love, ESB, will also be playing with the great Byron Wallen on board as usual. We’ll be putting out there Latin mix tunes from my Outsiders Insiders and Cotton Skies albums, plus some new things to be heard from my forthcoming 2017 album release.
LJN: Thinking of both your recent albums you’ve never been averse to taking risks. How important do you think the process of experimentation is in today’s jazz vocals and how is it best achieved and developed?
ES: For me, improvisation and jazz is about taking risks. Initially I grew up in a family focussed on classical music performance, everyone playing it, listening to it. It is a genre I love, but growing up and studying classical clarinet as an undergrad I felt like a vessel that the sound had to travel through, and that the aim was to honour how everyone else thought it should sound. I chose to do improvisation as I wanted to use my own creativity and interpretation to create my own sound. For example when doing my undergrad, and I was practising the same clarinet pieces or intricate bars for days or months on end, aiming for total perfection, I would steal time to improvise on the clarinet, voice or piano, and enjoy more the freedom of expressing what I wanted to say with the skilled technique I’d developed. For me experimentation and being yourself is essential and the essence of why I do what I do.
LJN: When you first set out to be a singer, what inspired you most?
ES: I’ve always sung since I was a dot. I find the opportunity to communicate music and words that create a sound world, and that you can take people on a journey to that place, is invaluable. I love it, and I’d say Nina Simone was one of my earliest childhood influences.
LJN: As a songwriter you still find plenty of room for extended improvisation. But what attracts you to improvisation as an art and why is it so important in what you do?
ES: I’ve always improvised since I was a child, literally for as long as I can remember. I come from a family of pianists and other instrumentalists, so I’ve also always played piano and to me, floating past a piano, sitting down and improvising, then writing a song is second nature. Improvisation has always been part of my upbringing, for example singing four-part harmony on a basic song when on long car journeys as a kid was a way of life. I’d also say being a clarinettist is connected to my instrumental approach to the voice and love of instrumental composed or improvisatory lines – anyone who’s heard me play the clarinet says they can hear it in my voice.
LJN: Brazilian music has become almost a trademark part of your released albums so far. How did you first get into Brazilian sounds and if push were to come to shove what Brazilian singers would you most recommend to newcomers and why?
ES: Growing up in inner London I’ve heard Brazilian sounds all my life and love it. I remember hearing particular bands live when I was a kid – and I’d sit there or dance my head off wishing I could be that person singing away in the band. Then later when studying jazz voice someone introduced me to Airto Moreira and Hermeto Pascoal and I was in heaven – Brazilian sounds plus my love of instrumental voice all wrapped into one, for me, what was not to love? Within this repertoire, vocalist Flora Purim has been a great influence to me.
LJN: Do you think vocal jazz in the 21st century is a very different style to how jazz singers worked and performed in the 1950s and 60s? Is there more freedom now and if so how has this been achieved?
ES: That’s a really difficult question. Jazz in the 50s and 60s was clearly groundbreaking – that exploration being the essence of jazz. However, I can only fully comment on now and would say there is immense freedom musically at this time. This is both connected to online systems of communicating and sharing (which whilst good in many ways sadly also impacts on musicians financially). In addition there is more social and cultural integration which leads to cross pollination of sounds being created. I think jazz is going through a very exciting time with many new versions or definitions of what jazz is, and for me choice and variety of expression is a good thing.
LJN: Do you actually see yourself as a ‘jazz singer’? And drilling down does the term have any real value these days?
ES: When selling music my category is jazz vocalist, but I think whether I am or not is a matter of opinion. I think I am a jazz singer as improvisation is integral to me, as well as my being a band leader, songwriter, instrumentalist. Stylistically, I think the definition of jazz is a matter of opinion, for me it is both learning from a tradition and learning from contemporary music around me, plus putting my interpretation and personality into the mix. Jazz for me needs to have personal interpretation.
LJN: How do you see your radio shows developing? What kind of music are you most interested in playing, and who are the new jazz singers you’re most keen to champion?
ES: I love doing radio. I have two shows:
– One is The Latin Mix (Sat, 7-9pm), which is mainly focused on Latin, with an openness to include cross-over styles. I play the classic greats, as well as new stuff happening worldwide, plus some of the wonderful new London things out there.
– The other show is The Voice Mix where I’ve interviewed artists such as Lonnie Liston Smith, Cory Henry, Claire Martin & Joe Stilgoe about upcoming gigs. I also interview the guests for my The Voice Mix Live, it’s an opportunity to “meet the real person” on the radio who is highlighted at the shows. The shows are on JazzLondonRadio.com(pp)
The Voice Mix Live takes place on 28 October at St James Theatre London. Venue link