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Playlist: An Intro to Jazz Vocalists

Photo: Cécile McLorin Salvant, who performs with pianist Aaron Diehl in Ann Arbor on February 19, 2017. Photo by Mark Mitton.

What is Jazz singing? Jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant explains in an interview with NPR  just what this means to her. Salvant began her training as a classical singer, she says, but she was drawn to the deeper huskier sounds of her lower register. These are the sounds that jazz singers lean into and the ones that classical singers try to refine. In fact, these deeper sounds are a trademark of one of her early vocal infatuations, Sarah Vaughan.

Salvant says that she frustrated her classical teachers with the breathier tone quality of her middle voice, which is specifically referred to in classical training as the passage between the two registers: high and low. But this breathy tone quality also gives Salvant warmth and style that’s been compared to the qualities of the famous jazz singers that came before here, like Ella Fitzgerald.

That isn’t to say that Salvant’s classical training hasn’t informed the beauty of her tone in a positive way (listen to her crystal clear high register on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” below). Rather, Salvant explains that her goal is to sound as natural and unaffected as possible. This combination of training and creative ingenuity has resulted in an emerging virtuoso who proves to be just as capable as the legends that preceded her.

So, jazz listeners in search for a fresh voice: You needn’t worry.

You will find refreshing style, talent, and class in Salvant (she comes to UMS in February!). Though having sung jazz professionally for less than ten years, Salvant has been decorated with top accolades and honors. These include the top honor at the Thelonious Monk Vocal Jazz Competition in Washington D.C., as well as a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album for her debut studio album, Woman Child. She won in that same category with her album For One To Love.

Salvant’s voice has been described quite aptly by Ben Ratliff in the New York Times: “She sings clearly, with her full pitch range, from a pronounced low end to full and distinct high notes, used sparingly […] Her voice clamps into each song, performing careful variations on pitch, stretching words but generally not scatting…”

She applies this thoughtful articulation of sound to repertoire that is just as unique as her performances. She chooses songs that interest her, which are often minimally recorded and unknown. In this way, she is a gift to the jazz world. She breathes timeless life into the genre itself, and Ann Arbor audiences might have witnessed this for themselves when she performed at the 2014 Ann Arbor Summer Festival.

On Sunday, February 19, 2017, pianist Aaron Diehl and vocalist extraordinaire Cécile McLorin Salvant perform together for Jelly and George, turning the spotlight on timeless classics and little-known gems by jazz masters Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin.

Ahead of the performance, please enjoy the following playlist that showcases Salvant’s work alongside the work of some of her vocal inspirations.

A Taste of Czech with The Prague Philharmonia

Photo: Prague Philharmonia. The orchestra performs at Hill Auditorium on Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 7:30pm. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In January 2017, UMS brings an international musical talent—and newfound legacy— the PKF, or Prague Philharmonia. The group was founded in 1994 to revive the Czech and global music scene through top-class nuanced performances. The musicians pride themselves in their comfort with the genre of Viennese Classicism.

The orchestra describes their sound as follows: “The spirit of the art from this historical period is perfectly reflected in the PKF – Prague Philharmonia credo: to play with crystal-clear purity and a straightforward, sparkling passion that will ensure that every listener, regardless of age or profession, may understand every detail of the music performed and return home from its concerts full of joie de vivre.”

In a sit-down interview, University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and, Dance and Center for Russian and East European Studies Professor Tim Cheek, shares his thoughts on the country, the culture, and the upcoming program. Professor Cheek teaches Czech vocal literature classes at SMTD as well as serving on the faculty for the CREES.

Daniel Anthony Iammatteo: What is a unique thing about Chechia?

Karlštejn Castle. Photo by Ввласенко.

Tim Cheek: The castles are amazing. And they are actually in great condition. The Karlštejn castle outside of Prague is like one from a Disney movie. Well, with a dungeon.

DI: What is something that Czech people love?

TC: Beer! The Czech love their beer. Chechia actually has the largest consumption of beer in the world (per capita). Especially if you eat some greasy cuisine, such as duck, the beer aids your digestion.

DI: What is your favorite Czech beer?

TC: Their Pilsner is number one. It comes from the city of Pilsen. You can find this in America in a bottle, but in Czech you can get this on tap. You can’t beat it on tap and if you ask them, they can mix light and dark beer which is really good.

DI: What are some interesting Czech words audience members might be interested in knowing?

TC: Well, “Vltava” is named after the river that runs through Prague. Another one is Smetana. The name actually means “cream.” So, you can ask someone if they want Smetana in their coffee. In Czech that is actually really common. People’s last names are often ordinary words like Mr. Happy—“Vesely”—even Mr. Sad—“Smutny.” So you can say, Mr. Sad is feeling happy today, and that can be rather funny.

DI: What is popular in Czech pop culture?

TC: Well, Karel Gott can be regarded as the Frank Sinatra of Czech. He was very popular. Of rock, I know that The Plastic People of the Universe was big in the avant-garde scene of the seventies. The biggest musician I know of is definitely Emil Vikilicky, though. He was famous for taking Czech folk music and putting a modern Jazz twist on it. He was widely played on the radio.

DI: What values are important to the Czech?

TC: They love nature. They frequently go mushroom picking and blueberry picking in the forest. They prefer to get outside of the city because it taps into their ethics. The Czech are generally an extremely resourceful people. They learned from their past to be flexible and deal with any kind of shortcoming. In fact, of communist countries of the previous centuries, it was considered the most developed and richest. It was Bismarck who said, “Whoever control Bohemia controls Europe.” This was because at that time the Czech had the best army and the world’s fifth largest economy.

DI: What makes this Czech-heavy program special?

TC: Czechs are known as exporters of great hockey and Bohemian Crystal, but the main export is actually music. [The Czech have] a rich tradition of folk music, and those traditions, with some support by government, are maintained. Czech composers tapped into this wealth of folk roots, and it is these roots which put composers such as Dvořák on the map. In fact, when Dvořák came over to the U.S., he wrote home that he was shocked by how American symphonies have to rely so much on private donations and sponsors. It meant that the people had to come to concerts rather than rely on the government for support, and this meant making conservative programs, so as not to scare audiences away.

DI: Do you think the program that the PFK- Prague Philharmonia has chosen is a conservative program?

TC: Yes, it is a pretty conservative program, but great! Well, the Dvořák Violin Concerto is actually a very impressive piece. In fact, Stephen Shipps, a professor on the Violin faculty here, told me once that he thinks it’s probably the hardest violin concerto there is. But, regardless, their program will showcase soloists, orchestra, and Czech music.

Come join UMS for the performance of the Prague Philharmonia and sample a piece of the Czech music scene. It’s sure to be a night that you will Praguably enjoy! The Prague Philharmonia is performs at Hill Auditorium on Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 7:30 pm.

Expand Your Musical Taste with Kamasi Washington

kamasi washington the epic
Kamasi Washington on the cover of The Epic. Image courtesy of the artist.

If you’re a Kendrick Lamar fan looking to expand your musical taste, or add more variety to your Spotify Playlists, your search just might bring you to a new genre. Listeners of To Pimp a Butterfly are aware of the album’s passionate social message, artistry, and musical poise. Yet, what they may not know is that one of the artists who worked with Kendrick Lamar on the record is leaving behind a legacy of his own.

Saxophonist and jazz artist Kamasi Washington fuses together genres of jazz, electronic, and hip-hop in a musical burst bound to catch and stimulate your ear.

Washington has soared to stardom within the jazz community, yet hip-hop fans may need some additional encouragement to give this artist a listen. Here it comes. Last year, Washington released The Epic, a three-disc 173-minute album, to unanimous critical acclaim.

Ann Arborites can see Washington perform his masterpiece, alongside his band The Next Step, live on September 30 at the Michigan Theater.

You might also be interested to know:

#1 Most of The Epic was recorded in a 30-day binge session

#2 Washington recorded his first album with The Young Jazz Giants the summer after his freshman year of college at UCLA

#3 During his second year of college, Washington went on a West Coast tour with Snoop Dogg

#4 Washington collaborated with Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly

#5 The Epic debuted #1 on iTunes Jazz charts in US, Canada, Australia, Russia, and UK

#6 Washington has been described as “the most talked about jazz musician since Wynton Marsalis” by the New York Times

#7 The writer Greg Tate calls Washington the ‘‘jazz voice of Black Lives Matter,’’ and says that his music offers ‘‘a healing force, a place of regeneration when you’re trying to deal with the trauma of being black in America.’’

#8 Washington has recorded and performed with music icons such as Lauryn Hill, Quincy Jones, and Chaka Khan

For your listening, a playlist of music by other artists featuring Kamasi Washington:

See Kamasi Washington & The Next Step at Michigan Theater on September 30, 2016.