British musician Teena Lyle plays vibraphone, congas, percussion, electronic percussion, timpani, piano and synth, B3 Hammond organ, recorders, acoustic guitar and also sings. Before doing a gig in San Francisco, on tour with Van Morrison’s band, she spoke to Alison Bentley by phone about how she became a multi-instrumentalist, working with Morrison and John Lee Hooker, and how women should never question their belonging in music.
London Jazz News: You started on traditionally “female” instruments – violin, cello, piano and so on?
Teena Lyle: We had a piano in the house, so it was the first instrument I saw. I used to strum the strings underneath before I could reach the keyboard. I didn’t start lessons until I was about seven, but until then I was training my ear, picking things off the radio and learning them. When I got to school, they just put you on the first instrument they had to hand, which in my case was the violin. It never suited me; it just didn’t fit and I didn’t like the sound. Then they moved me on to the cello – again, it just didn’t suit. I think they were stereotyping little girls and what they should play at that time.
When I got to secondary school, the music teacher put me at the back of the orchestra to play the triangle. I loved it. Then I saw all these other instruments, guitar and percussion, that seemed to fit me and my character so I started to take those up. It was like a steam train after that, no one could stop me.
LJN: Does the rhythm come first for you?
TL: I think melody comes first for me. That’s why I love the vibes so much. But having said that, I can’t live without a groove. I’m very much a groove player when I play percussion.
LJN: You started off in church choirs and played the organ, so very much rooted in classical music. Was that your choice?
TL: It was just what was available at the time; at school there were orchestras and choirs. But I was able to improvise and picked up bits of pop and jazz. There was a guy running a big band after school for older kids. I sat down at the piano and played The Girl from lpanema for him and he put me in the band on piano, later moving onto vibraphone and congas.
LJN: Have you always been into jazz?
TL: Yes, I’ve liked jazz ever since I was a little girl. But I’ve played in so many different styles that I can’t settle on one. I’d be bored if I just played one instrument or one style of music. I have to feed my musical soul – that sounds very pretentious!
LJN: Which jazz musicians do you especially admire?
TL: The ones that really turned my head when I first got into playing jazz for real were Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. It was to do with the sound of their music – to me it was more a state of mind than a style.
LJN: In an interview you said: “Aim for loving the way playing makes you feel.” Is that what it’s about for you?
TL: It is about how it feels. You’ve got to communicate with people’s souls. It’s what drives them to like the music. I’m not a clinician – I can’t just play a load of notes that have no feeling. That just leaves me cold.
LJN: Do you think things have gotten easier for women in the music business since you started?
TL: I think it’s always going to be a challenge. We’re looking at thousands of years of it being hard for women to be heard, speak, work, get equal pay. But I think it’s dangerous to put the idea in your head that it’s going to be hard for you. The important thing is to think, “I’m gonna do this because I belong in this, and this is what I want to do.” I don’t think that men think they’ve got any more right than we have, it’s just been the norm. But it doesn’t mean we can’t succeed, or can’t just look at ourselves as a set of hands, or pair of lungs. I know there are times when sexism is involved, but I think we’re bigger than that. I just go in with the feeling that I belong, and if anyone wants to question it they can come and see me after!
LJN: What do you mean when you talk about developing a “brass neck” for rejection?
TL: I think it’s important to hustle for work. If you don’t ask, you don’t get – and if you lie on the floor dealing with rejection, you’re not going to get anywhere. You’ve got to brush yourself off, move on and pick the phone up again. Rejection isn’t necessarily personal. It could just be that you’re not the right sound for that month.
LJN: Are there any female musicians who’ve inspired you?
TL: Eliane Elias – I think she’s incredible. Norma Winstone, Nina Simone – now there’s some mettle. Just listening to her lyrics empowers you. Recently I’ve been working with Issie Barratt. She’s another of these warrior goddesses! She just ploughs on through it all and makes it happen. I admire what she does, I love her writing and playing. Michele Drees – I’ve played with her over the years and she’s very inspirational to me.
LJN: How did you start working with Van Morrison?
TL: I was playing with another band in Germany called Latin Quarter. Van saw me and invited me over to have a chat, but I had to go back with the band and couldn’t stay to talk to him properly. Two years later I got a call asking me to come and rehearse – apparently he’d been trying to find me ever since that gig! I actually went in on kit, but he spotted my vibraphone and percussion in the back of my beaten-up Renault 5 and said, “Do you play these? Play ‘em!” Then he saw all the different recorder sizes and made me play those like Irish pipes. And he got me singing. I wasn’t a confident pop singer before that. He decided he wanted to make the band into a smaller unit, so I started playing piano as well.
LJN: Do you find there’s a lot of jazz in Van’s playing?
TL: There is. Right through from rock and roll to soul and blues, there’s always been a thread of jazz. He likes to work with all sorts of singers, but especially jazz singers. In fact, we’re here in San Francisco doing three nights at Yoshi’s jazz club, which is very similar to Ronnie Scott’s.
LJN: How has his music influenced yours?
TL: Incredibly. He’s got this way of finding what you can do before you even know it. His music is what really made me love the blues – he’s probably the greatest living blues and soul artist. He gave me an understanding of those styles, a bit of a Celtic influence here and there, and a confidence in how to produce your voice.
LJN: You played with John Lee Hooker when he guested with Van Morrison; what was it like?
TL: He was such a calm presence. He was one of those people who grow up within a certain genre and was so confident. We all just fell in love with him.
LJN: Do you have any future plans for your own music?
TL: I’ve got some gigs of my own coming up with various combinations of musicians. I’d also like to get my band Vibes in Motion back out there, and to do a few more jazz venues. I’ve also started doing sound therapy, which is different to music therapy. It uses gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, voice. It’s very much a healing energy tapping into frequencies. It can energise as well as relax you. I’ve formed the Aurora Sound Meditation Orchestra and I’ll be taking that around large spaces in the UK, cathedrals for example, where I can get lots of people to lie down on mats and benefit from it.
LJN: Any comments you’d like to make on International Women’s Day?
TL: Celebrate yourselves, celebrate the music. We’re glorious!
I’d also like to give a shout out to MEINL percussion – there aren’t many brands with female endorsers out there still but they’ve supported me since the 90s and I’m proud to be part of their family.