"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" Carmen Lundy
Since launching her career in New York with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra in the late 70s, Miami born vocalist and songwriter Carmen Lundy has been a groundbreaking, multi-faceted force of musical nature. In addition to recording 14 solo albums (starting with 1985’s Good Morning Kiss, which was #3 on Billboard’s Jazz chart for 23 weeks), she’s performed and recorded with her brother and bassist Curtis Lundy and a powerful array of pop and jazz greats, including Kenny Barron, Bruce Hornsby, Mulgrew Miller, Courtney Pine, Roy Hargrove, Ron Carter, Marian McPartland, Regina Carter, Robert Glasper and the late Kenny Kirkland. Teri Lyne Carrington’s The Mosaic Project, Grammy winner for Best Jazz Vocal album of 2011, featured Lundy’s composition “Show Me A Sign,” with her original performance from her 2009 album Solamente reinvented on the arrangement.
Acknowledging her wide-arranging musical accomplishments in addition to her many other creative and educational endeavors, The Kennedy Center’s website has called her “a women of many faces: composer, arranger, producer, actress, painter and sophisticated vocalist well known for her progressive bop and post-bop stylings.” Lundy played the lead role in the European tour of Duke Ellington’s Broadway musical “Sophisticated Ladies,” and portrayed Billie Holiday off Broadway in Lawrence Holder’s “They Were All Gardenias.” She has given Master Classes throughout the U.S. and world and has participated in Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Program at the Kennedy Center as resident clinician and guest artist. She has also worked with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz as guest artist and clinician. A celebrated mixed media artist and painter, her works have been exhibited in both New York and Los Angeles.
Lundy’s latest recording Soul to Soul marks a vibrant return to and an exploration of her roots featuring Patrice Rushen, Geri Allen, Randy Brecker, South African vocalist Simphiwe Dana, Bennie Maupin, Carol Robbins, Warren Wolf, along with her core rhythm section of bassist Darryl Hall and drummer Jamison Ross. Further showcasing her vast talents as a musician, she plays guitar on all tracks, piano and Rhodes on many of them, and drums on two.
JazzMonthly: I detect some very powerful spiritual elements running through Soul To Soul. Did you have an overriding concept for the album coming in, or did these songs individually take on those transcendent qualities?
CL: It’s rare for me to go into any project with a specific concept that I try to fulfill. Music usually doesn’t come to me that way. It’s interesting that you mention a spiritual element because I wasn’t aware of it as a conscious decision but I could feel it while working on the music. I went through a lot of different title ideas, but I didn’t choose Soul To Soul because of any specific spiritual themes. I always bring to my songs elements of my life experience and the wisdom I gain through my own daily life and observing the lives of others while wondering how I might deal with different situations. I think the spiritual element has to do with observing the way people handle tough situations and realizing that by going through those you can appreciate life and its potential joys much more. I’ve always used these observations to reflect on my own life, and this has allowed me to be objective rather than just subjective as an artist. It helps me go beyond myself and my own resources to explore different emotions in my music.
JM: How do you feel the album reflects who you are as an artist and person right now in your life and career? From your perspective, what makes it unique from Changes, Solamente and Come Home, your last three on Afrasia Productions?
CL: I spent the last year and a half of my life getting to the point where I could take objectively about Soul To Soul, which I’m so happy that everyone seems to be enjoying. The composer in me is always being creative, working to flesh out new ideas. The approach I took to the project started with Solamente, which was my intro to being a writer conceiving songs away from the piano. I have a lot of experience understanding music theory and have always played and arranged on the piano. The guitar, my second favorite instrument, is very different. I grew up listening to a lot of blues, and with one pull of the string, there’s something really raw and understated and powerful and filled with emotional truth. I just love the whole tonality of the instrument. So I began to collect guitars and through this fascination I decided to learn to play. I wrote many of these songs on the guitar and found that the melodies floated up in a realistic manner. Something about the instrument took me in another direction melodically. I began to record all these ideas and played the drums and upright bass to help guide the melody. I wanted to play those parts so that when the other musicians came to these songs, they wouldn’t be dealing with machines and sequencers. I also left in all of my original piano parts. So in essence, I made the album myself, and that’s probably why there are so many subconscious spiritual elements in it.
JM: You played a lot of the instruments yourself but also have some excellent high profile guests, including Patrice Rushen, Geri Allen, Randy Brecker, Mayra Casales, Carol Robbins, Bennie Maupin and others.
CL: These are all great musicians that I visualized when I started tracking live and playing these instruments myself on the original tracks. Patrice and I started playing together in the last year or so off of the success of the Mosaic album. After one of those tours, I told her how strongly I felt about her music and that I could hear in my own music the sounds she makes in hers. It was amazing to go from just talking about having her on the album to being in the studio actually doing it! I knew Darryl Hall would play bass because we had toured Europe together the last seven year but ironically had never recorded together. I had him in mind from the start. Randy played on my 1997 release Old Devil Moon and we had done other things together throughout our history, and I knew the trumpet sound I wanted was his. I had worked a bit with Bennie as well and there’s something about his vibe that’s intense and gentle, a lot like Joe Henderson. It was the same with Carol and Geri. The reason I left all of my own guitar parts on the album was that I had some players in mind but they didn’t call me back. Now I think that worked out okay.
JM: Why was this mix of doing so much yourself and working with these guests so important? Have you done that before?
CL: No I never have. A lot of what I’m doing now is due to the expansive possibilities of recording technology. In the 80s, I began recording compositions with a four track machine, then later used the ADAT, which maxed out at eight tracks. For a long time, I was the last person who wanted to use computers to make music. But all of the new software opened me up to new ideas. I could use all of the new technology and apply that to my natural instruments. I really immersed myself in the recording side of being an artist rather than just the singer stepping up to the mic and singing her heart out. Because of budgets, jazz artists tend to make records in two or three days, but I had the opportunity to take my time. I wrote many of these songs with Julie Raynor, and “Sardegna” with Deborah Ash. I love to collaborate. When you get someone else’s ideas in a song, it becomes more of a universal communication.
JM: I also hear some autobiographical elements in some of the songs. What kinds of things inspired you?
CL: I think “Kindred Spirits” is one of the most important statements here. People have idea that if you’re a jazz singer it means you sing songs from 1954, then you scat them, come up with another interpretation of “Summertime” and shoobie doobie your way through a career. That’s just not enough for me. It’s great to make a career using all the amazing material that came before us, but contemporary jazz vocalists have almost been pigeonholed into that space where we are supposed to remind you of the greats. But I don’t want to just be the next Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald. After singing standards for so long, it’s hard to step up as a singer of my original songs, but that’s what is important to me. If I have learned from the best but know how to be myself when I get onstage, that’s the ultimate. “Kindred Spirits” is saying, this is who I am, there’s no need to compare me to anyone. I’m singing about the values I learned from my parents. I came from people who were very hard working, fun loving but serious, and had a few hard knocks along the way. It’s not a swing tune. I wanted to open Soul to Soul with a departure from what people typically think jazz singers are about.
JM: One of the most unique cuts is “Grace,” in which you work with South African vocalist Simphiwe Dana. What is that song about and how did that production happen?
CL: It began on the guitar, and I was haunted by a simple movement that stayed almost like a broken record in my head. But I ultimately realized I needed to get the song in some kind of form to develop the idea I was struggling with. I left it alone for a while and moved on to something else. I once heard Elton John say that he writes all of his songs as if they were hymns, and so I picked “Amazing Grace” as the form I would develop it around. The song actually has a very powerful, haunting origin. Later I went to Johannesburg to do a concert. I got to meet the former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who served after Nelson Mandela.
A few months later, I got a Tweet from the same man who introduced me to the President. He was the emcee for the Inaugural South African Film Festival in Los Angeles. Throught him I met Simphiwe, one of the scheduled performers at the event along with Hugh Masekela. She and her friend were stranded in LA for a few days between concerts, so invited them to stay at my house. I showed her my studio and let her hear the material I was working on. I told her about this “hymn” I was, then the true history of “Amazing Grace.” A gigantic swell of emotion came over here and it was like waves of beauty and sunlight enveloped the room. She began writing down some musical ideas and I couldn’t believe the sound coming out of her mouth. She sang whatever came to mind, and I sang too. The melody as we later recorded it came in a split second. It’s truly emotional because here is this person who has lived through Apartheid bringing this perspective I could never have achieved on my own.
JM: Though you’re best known as a jazz vocalist, I know you have a dynamic history as a painter and sculptor. When and why did you start doing visual art and where have you exhibited?
CL: I’ve always made it a point to go to museums in the cities I perform in, and these provide a lot of inspiration. My interest in art came originally from a fine arts dealer and major music aficionado who was a friend and mentor to me when I was a student at the University of Miami. His home had some of the finest artwork. Years later when I was on tour with “Sophisticated Lady” in Europe, I brought along a sketch pad and watercolors and spent my down time sketching and painting some still lifes. When the tour was over, I found it difficult to get back to my jazz world so I used painting as a way to rediscover myself. I went to an art store, bought an easel and tubes and a canvas and began to paint – and just kept going. My inspiration was my family, my childhood and my grandparents. I painted my memories. Considering that I trained extensively in all the other art forms I pursued, it is liberating to be self taught and just develop organically as a painter. I’ve exhibited at the Jazz Gallery in New York and the Jazz Bakery in L.A. Some of my paintings and sculptures will also be exhibited from late November this year through January 15, 2015 in Coral Gables, Florida as part of the International Art Basel festival.
JM: Finally, teaching is also a big part of your life. Why is it so important to you?
CL: If we’re lucky, we have all had great teachers and I believe it’s important to give back. Teaching is a way to share with supporters of my music an understanding of what I do and how I got here. In these interactions, even if I’m the teacher, I’m always learning as well. In the Betty Carter program, I go for two weeks to meet high school and college kids who represent the future of music. It’s all about wonderful artists learning and presenting their own compositions to the public. It’s a unique way to get a glimpse into the next generation’s vibration, and what frequency they’re on—which in turn helps me shape my own musical ideas. I met my drummer Jamison there. Recently, Patrice, asked me to come to her class at USC—where she is Director of Popular Music Program at the Thornton School of Music--and do a full day presentation to the vocal department. It’s important for young, developing artists to rub shoulders with experienced artists, and I’m happy to give them a crash course that includes a performance and an exchange of ideas.
interview by Jonathan Widran