Fay Victor: Opening Other Doors
Fay Victor began her career as a straight-ahead jazz singer but now makes extremely difficult to define music that embraces blues, psychedelic rock, Caribbean popular forms, experimentalism, and even elements of classical music, as well as jazz.
March 31, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
The word jazz has been used to describe music that has now been made for more than a century. (The origins of the word have been heavily debated, but its use to describe a musical genre can be traced back to almost exactly 100 years ago.) Given such a long period of time, an extremely wide range of music has existed under that moniker, to the point that defining what jazz is can be extremely difficult to do. Of course, defining anything limits it, and since one of the core qualities of jazz is that it has always been about personal expression, trying to limit it is antithetical to what it is. Still, some musical creators find the word itself to be limiting, like Fay Victor, an extraordinary vocalist, composer, lyricist, and bandleader who began her career as a straight-ahead jazz singer but who now makes extremely difficult to define music that embraces blues, psychedelic rock, Caribbean popular forms, experimentalism, even elements of classical music, and—well—jazz.
Victor’s catholic approach to music-making came from growing up in New York City, as well as spending a lot of time in Trinidad during her childhood.
“My earliest memories of music are probably hearing calypso and reggae and also Indian music,” she explained when we spoke to her at her apartment in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. “That was a big part, and also African-American music, urban contemporary music, especially of that period—people coming out of the Motown era and the Philly sound and also Aretha Franklin. And also around my house we listened to a bit of classical music, mainly Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky I didn’t really get into, but Beethoven I kind of dug. My mother listened to that a bit. And my mother also liked groups like the Commodores and I was a big fan of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Then I got into things like funk. So that was what I was growing up listening to. As it turned out, one of my closest friends as a child, her father was a serious jazz fan. He listened to a very famous radio station in the city at that time. I’d go over to their house, and I’d kind of hear sounds that I liked and that were appealing. But I didn’t know what I was really listening to. When I thought I was listening to jazz, it was things like Bob James or Earl Klugh. That’s what I thought was jazz, usually things I never admit.”
But once she became serious about music, Victor got very serious about jazz, deeply immersing herself in the music of Miles Davis and Betty Carter (who was her primary role model), and one of her formative experiences was performing with pianist Bertha Hope, widow of the legendary Elmo Hope.
“It was amazing being with her because she’s jazz history,” Victor remembered. “I learned a lot about the whole continuum of the music.”
But then Victor moved to the Netherlands and soon became involved in a much broader range of musical activities which included stints with blues bands and collaborations with members of the ICP and other pioneers of the Dutch free improv scene. Although she still acknowledges a relatively straight-ahead 1998 jazz vocal recording she made after arriving there (the deeply personal In My Own Room), the defining turning point for her was the 2004 album Lazy Old Sun on which she performs both standards and jazz instrumentals to which she added her own lyrics, plus songs by The Doors and The Kinks as well as originals she created with her husband, bassist Jochem van Dijk.
She opined, “I think by the time I got to Lazy Old Sun, I wasn’t really considering myself a jazz musician anymore, or a jazz singer; let me say that.”
Since moving back to New York City, her omnivorous musical tastes have led her to a fluid synthesis of a broad range of musical traditions in the open form music creates for her own Fay Victor Ensemble. She has also continued to turn angular jazz instrumentals into totally convincing songs, most notably Herbie Nichols SUNG, her concert presentation of material by the iconic, idiosyncratic, post-hard bop pianist which she has just returned from performing in various European cities. She also sang in Anthony Braxton’s opera Trillium E and will be featured in a new Darius Jones piece next February. Victor’s extreme broadmindedness extends into her teaching of other vocalists, a process in which she says that she uses jazz as a portal, not as an end game:
I think the whole process of trying to be a creative person is just an unpeeling of layers. You do it throughout a lifetime and I think if you’re honest, you’re trying to get deeper and get a deeper understanding of what you’re trying to say. … If I want to now, I’d do a primal scream in a performance, I feel comfortable enough to do that. Five years ago, that probably would have scared me. Even if I really wanted to, I might have held back. Now I don’t hold back.
Frank J. Oteri: I’ve been following you musically probably now for about a decade or so and have heard you perform in a very wide range of styles. But it’s always important to acknowledge how people identify themselves and why they identify themselves the way they do. On your website, you describe yourself as a “Brooklyn-based vocalist, composer, and educator.” Even though the word jazz is everywhere throughout your website and in your bio, it’s not in that little phrase.
Fay Victor: I stopped identifying myself as a jazz vocalist quite some time ago. When I started out, I was a purist. I really wanted to be specifically a jazz vocalist. I wanted to follow in the sort of continuum of the great jazz vocalists. And I felt that I might be able to do so with enough work and time put in. Then, at a certain point for me, things started to change and open up. I started to experience other musics that I found really compelling, so I wanted to investigate those musics. I also began to improvise as a vocalist. Around the same time I started to reconnect with music from my youth, which was not jazz. I came to jazz very, very late. So I started to realize that perhaps jazz might be a limiting phrase for what I was doing and beginning to do. Certainly with the original music that I write with my husband, I think jazz is just one component of that. It’s interesting that you say around my website the word jazz is everywhere. As much as I feel like I do a lot of different things, I do feel out of the tradition of jazz, but yet not a jazz vocalist. How confusing is that for an answer?
FJO: I’m going to make it even more confusing. Why is the word jazz limiting? What does the word jazz mean to you? What are your associations?
FV: My association is sort of a swing feel and improvisation within accepted structural boundaries, and the idea of personal expression which is what attracted me to jazz in the first place. It was a place to figure out your own voice. That was the point of becoming a jazz musician, so you could do that. Even though the materials all have a similar structure, the idea was you would sound like yourself. And people should be able to recognize you after hearing you for 30 seconds or something. That was something I found really desirable, as something to work towards and attain.
FJO: To further pick apart that phrase “vocalist, composer, and educator,” you put vocalist first. I imagine before you even thought about creating your own material, you were singing.
FV: Well, yes and no actually, because as I child I wrote a lot. I wrote much more than I sang. I sang more for fun and was sort of separated from it. When I sang what I wrote, it was more because it was kind of necessary to explain it to other people and to share it with other people. So in a way as a child, I saw myself as a songwriter first. But later on when I came back to music in my early adulthood, I saw myself as a singer first. But it took a couple years to actually call myself that.
FJO: So was there a time when you were creating music that you weren’t singing? Were you playing an instrument other than your own voice?
FV: No, but when I was writing as a kid, I was writing a little bit with guitar and also from my ear. I put together for fun a little band to kind of develop some ideas with. I’m talking about like pre-teen years, and then I kind of gave it up and actually went into dance for a while. And also I was athletic. So I ran track and played basketball and did a lot of other different things. Then, later on, I came back to music.
FJO: And you said growing up that jazz wasn’t really what you were listening to.
FJO: So what were you exposed to? What was the first music you were excited by and why?
FV: Well, my people are from the Caribbean, from Trinidad and Tobago, and I guess my earliest memories of music are probably hearing calypso and reggae and also Indian music, because there’s a pretty sizeable Indian population in Trinidad. I wasn’t born in Trinidad, but I spent a lot of time there as a child. So that was a big part, and also African-American music, urban contemporary music, especially of that period—people coming out of the Motown era and the Philly sound and also Aretha Franklin. And also around my house we listened to a bit of classical music, mainly Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky I didn’t really get into, but Beethoven I kind of dug. My mother listened to that a bit. And my mother also liked groups like the Commodores and I was a big fan of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Then I got into things like funk. So that was what I was growing up listening to. As it turned out, one of my closest friends as a child, her father was a serious jazz fan. He listened to a very famous radio station in the city at that time. I’d go over to their house, and I’d kind of hear sounds that I liked and that were appealing. But I didn’t know what I was really listening to. When I thought I was listening to jazz, it was things like Bob James or Earl Klugh. That’s what I thought was jazz, usually things I never admit.
FJO: You just did.
FV: I know. It’s documented for posterity.
FJO: Well, in one of the interviews I read with you, you talked about hearing Miles Davis for the first time, but it was his ‘80s stuff, not his ‘50s stuff with Coltrane or Bill Evans.
FJO: But on the earliest album of yours that I know, you do a vocal version of one of the pieces from Kind of Blue.
FV: Right. Yes.
FJO: So Miles Davis was a formative influence on you.
FV: He was, and in that period when I was sort of really a jazz singer and going after it in that way, Miles Davis became really important as a way to phrase because, again, the way I understood the tradition was I had to find my own voice. I had to honor the masters and honor the leaders of this music, but at a certain point, I had to figure out what I wanted to say. There are all these people to listen to, but Miles gave me an opening on what could be vocally done in an interesting way with standards at that point. So he was a pretty strong influence at that point.
FJO: What I find so interesting is that in hearing jazz for the first time, there seems to be this dichotomy. There are people who lead groups, whatever instrument they’re playing, and they do covers of standards and do their own material, and they’re the leaders. Then you’ll have singers who work with a group, but they’re rarely given that same level of leadership. There’s usually some arranger, and they’re doing other people’s material. They almost never do their own material. Somebody like Abbey Lincoln was such a force because at some point, she turned around and said, “I’m not doing these misogynistic songbook songs anymore. I’m going to create my own material. I’m a composer. I’m the leader of this group.”
FJO: As a singer, as a female singer, that was a really big statement to make.
FV: Absolutely. That’s so true about Abbey Lincoln. I’m a huge fan and she’s an influence from a band-leading standpoint. But actually for me, the person who’s really an influence is Betty Carter, because for as much as I love Abbey’s singing, it’s a much more subtle improvising with the form—more with the words and her story telling is just magnificent. But Betty was trying to be a musician and to improvise like a horn player would. So that was actually more compelling and more interesting. I also began to hear from other people that perhaps I had the dexterity to go that way. Also, the way she led her band. I saw Betty live a few times. The way she handled her band, to make them create in the moment what she wanted to do deeply influenced me. So when I got to have a band, I really made it a point that it wouldn’t be just the way singers have groups: the so-and-so trio, the so-and-so quartet. If you hear a lot of records, across the parameters, they are pretty much the same. The roles of the musicians are the same, regardless of arrangement. I wanted to develop a band in the sense of Betty Carter where I wanted it to have its own sonic universe, whatever that would become. So that became something interesting to work towards.
FJO: Did you get to meet Betty Carter and interact with her?
FV: No, I was too afraid, and at that moment I didn’t think I was strong enough vocally. I didn’t really think I was. I was not denigrating myself; I was just being real. Today, or even five years ago, I would have felt much more comfortable to approach her. At that time, I was actually petrified to approach her. But I got so much from seeing her [perform] that that’s okay. I got to see in real time how she handled things and that really informed a lot of what I do now. So I don’t regret trying. And when she died, I wasn’t even living here anymore.
FJO: That was during the years you were in Amsterdam.
FJO: Another singer from that era who really seems like the last survivor from that time of legendary jazz icons is Sheila Jordan.
FJO: Is she somebody who had an impact on you?
FV: Absolutely. And it’s great with Sheila. She’s still strong, and she’s still out there. And she has a great following of people that really make sure she’s okay, and that she’s looked after. I mean, there’s nothing wrong. I don’t want to give that impression, but you know, she is 85.
FJO: 86 actually!
FV: See, you know better than I do. But it’s great that she’s still vibrant and vital.
FJO: One thing that made me think of Sheila Jordan is that on that first album of yours, your rendition of “All of You” is just you and the bass. She pioneered doing voice and double bass duets; it’s a very wonderful sound.
FV: Oh, it’s a glorious thing; I love it. Once she heard me do a duet with another bassist. We were improvising. It was a bassist from the U.K. And afterwards she kind of mentioned that she was one of the pioneers, in a very sweet way. She was just really happy to see over the years how different people have taken the idea and run with it. And then she went on to tell us that we gave her a musical orgasm. I had forgotten she said that, and then I had a concert with that bassist about a year or two later, and we were hanging out for dinner beforehand and he goes, “Do you remember what she said to us?” I said, “I’m not exactly sure anymore.” And then he repeated what she said. I said, “Oh yeah, I remember now.”
FJO: To go back to that first album from 1998, it’s pretty much all standards. There are a few outliers like that Miles Davis composition. It had words, but most people know it as an instrumental. Overall it’s pretty much a straight ahead jazz record. And yet even within that framework, you achieved a great variety. I mentioned “All of You” just featuring bass, but throughout the album you were experimenting with different combinations of instruments. Everything wasn’t the same. You were saying before that most of the time singers have a group and it’s this formula. But even back then, even that early on, you were fractalizing the group to get different sounds out of different instruments and different places. In some places, the drums are way more prominent.
FV: Thank you for pointing that out, because at that point that’s all I knew how to do, move that around and experiment with that. They are all pretty much conscious decisions, so thank you for noticing that. And I like that record because I had made a record before, but it wasn’t really my record. I made a record in Austria that I don’t really talk about it. Somebody offered it to me. I picked the repertoire, but it was a band that was put together. What I love about In My Own Room is that I feel like I really produced this in my own way, with whatever limited knowledge I feel I had or not at that time. So it was really my own project in that way.
FJO: But now you’re going to have me looking around for that Austrian record.
FJO: In terms of stuff I wish I had, are there any secret, stashed away recordings of when you were doing duos with Bertha Hope?
FV: No, I wish. We played in Japan together. We had so much fun. I was just starting out. It was my first sort of real gig as a vocalist. It was actually the gig I decided to become a singer. I said, “Okay, I know I want to do this now.” It was amazing being with her, because she’s jazz history, and we really got along. She saw that I had a talent and had something to say even then. I learned a lot about the whole continuum of the music. I was beginning to get into Monk a lot, knowing how close her husband was to Monk not just as musicians, but also as friends. Then, the strange paradox of Thelonious Monk, Jr., recommending that I take Bertha out with me! I wish I had some sort of documentation of that. I have some old cassettes from that time; if I ever find something, I will let you know.
FJO: Not just me. I think there’d be a million jazz fans out there who would want a recording of that.
FV: Really?! Okay.
FJO: In terms of recordings that are out in the world, I’d like to talk with you about Lazy Old Sun. There’s definitely a sonic shift between In My Own Room and Lazy Old Sun, but Lazy Old Sun is still a jazz vocal album, even though you’ve really expanded the notion of what material you could do. There’s a Doors song on there and melodies by Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean that you put words to. And the title track is a Kinks song. I really love what you did with that—just you and the electric guitar. Once again, it’s really spare, and it also challenges the notion of what the songbook is. So I thought it would be interesting to talk about what the songbook means to you. What draws you to certain material? What works and what doesn’t? Can anything be done by a jazz vocalist? Since you now shy away from the term “jazz,” at what point does it cease to be jazz?
FV: I think by the time I got to Lazy Old Sun, I wasn’t really considering myself a jazz musician anymore, or a jazz singer; let me say that. While I was living in the Netherlands I started working with some blues bands, which was an amazing experience. I realized how ignorant I actually was. I also I realized in going even further how ignorant a lot of jazz musicians are about the blues. I don’t have to tell you, it’s an incredible art form. But for a lot of jazz musicians, blues is just a blues scale and what you can do with that. You have blues in the repertoire and you know what the tune’s based on, but not everyone delves deep. So I had this situation where I was asked to be a blues singer in groups. It wasn’t racial; let’s be up front about that. I don’t think it had anything to do with that. It was more that somebody saw some talent and I tried it and I really liked it, but I realized that with blues the expression has to be real. The more complex the music is, the more one can hide behind the complexity of the music.
Blues forced me to really get serious. So I started listening a lot and that started opening up a lot of other doors. My husband is Dutch and when we got together, we started exchanging a lot of music. I started lending him all this stuff that I liked and so he let me hear stuff, and we’d have these intense listening sessions. Out of those sessions, I learned about people like Robert Johnson because I didn’t know who that was. I’m a jazz musician and I don’t know who Robert Johnson is! You know what I mean? This was not good. So I really took some time and just listened and delved in. One of the nice things about the Netherlands is they have really good libraries where you could rent a lot of CDs. You can just spend a euro and take them out. So if you can’t afford to buy a bunch of CDs, just go to the library and you’re allowed to take out ten at a time of all sorts of recordings. So that’s what I would do, from classical music all to way to blues, whatever we didn’t have, and just immerse myself and try to really understand it. That really opened me up. I also started to realize that a lot of music I grew up listening to was based on this music, or coming out of this sort of space.
And at that very same time, I started to listen to much more improvised music—I mean the Dutch musical scene, people like Misha Mengelberg and the ICP and the Willem Breuker Kollektief. I was there, so I started hanging with some of the musicians I was beginning to work with, like Walter Wierbos on Lazy Old Sun, who has been in ICP for going on 30 years. It was all happening at the same time. So I kind of felt like why should I limit myself to the American songbook; a lot of those songs don’t really make sense to me. More importantly, I started to want to write again. I wanted to sing my own words and tell my own stories and that became a really interesting thing to dig into. But there’s a record before that, Darker than Blood; I don’t know if you know about that record.
FJO: I don’t. More stuff for me to track down.
FV: It’s out of print, but I will get a copy to you. Darker than Blue is actually the very first record that my husband and I have originals on. We have three originals on that one, and we have Herbie Nichols’s “House Party Starting.”
FJO: So the Herbie Nichols fascination began all the way back then.
FV: Yeah. It’s a looong time with Herbie. But I started to want to write and then really put a band together à la Betty Carter—find musicians, rehearse on a regular basis, develop material. Then I used my brain a little bit. Because I was in the Netherlands where it’s a subsidized music scene, I figured out that if I could get myself into the scenes and get that kind of work, I could hire really good musicians. And also that would give them an impetus to stay with me. Those are very hard gigs to get as a singer. But if you get them as a singer, what I discovered is that audiences really like that, so audiences will come out. So that gave me some leverage, and so I started to use that and I started to get a lot more gigs in the subsidized scene. That’s how I was able to keep everything going for a few years until I moved back here.
FJO: Now finding those psychedelic rock songs, the Doors and the Kinks. How did that stuff wind up in your songbook?
FV: Well, in that period of listening to blues, I listened to a lot of the Doors. I’ve been a fan of the Doors actually since I was kid—“Break on Through.” But then I got much deeper into the Doors. I remember we were listening one night, I forget the album that it’s on now, but I heard “People Are Strange” and I didn’t like the song as a song, because it was kind of Vaudevillian, you know. But the lyrics, I was like, “That’s it. It’s true; it’s no bullshit.” So I came up with doing a bit of a bolero idea under it, just so the words can kind of be more stretched out to make them a little more aggressive.
FJO: It’s interesting that you say that you don’t think of Lazy Old Sun as a jazz record, because that Doors song in particular you really turned into jazz for me.
FV: Oh, okay.
FJO: That’s what it sounds like. It’s very different than how the Doors performed it on Strange Day; you turned it into a jazz standard. Whereas, oddly enough, your version of a song that actually is a bona fide jazz standard, David Raksin’s “Laura,” sounds less standard to me.
FV: Oh, that’s very cool! I see what you mean. I still do “People Are Strange,” but now it’s more deconstructed sometimes. I mean, every now and again, I’ll do it with that sort of feel, but now it’s a lot more open, just an open form where the words are more improvised than anything else. The words are what really got me and I love Jim Morrison. I just think it was a great band—the music, the instrumentation, the sound. I love talking to people about the Doors because there are some people that really hate them. And then I’ve always liked the Kinks as well. I’ve always been into great songwriters, and to me Ray Davies is a genius songwriter. There are a lot of songs of his I could have done, but the reason I like “Lazy Old Sun” is because of those arpeggios and how it modulates. And he’s from that similar part of the world. It seemed to be the perfect representative of that space. That’s also why we did it that way, trying to be plaintive.
FJO: In terms of creating your own material, you’ve done a lot stuff where you’ve put words to other instrumental stuff, not just the Herbie Nichols material, but also Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. Those are things you made your own by putting your own words to it. But you also create a lot of completely original material with your husband. When the two of you work on something, do you do the words and he does the music, or do you both do both? I’m curious about that process.
FV: When we first started writing together, I did the words and he did the music. Over years, it’s merged. It’s really changed. So now, depending on the piece we want to write, we have a process that we generally write from the words anyway—the actual music. What we decide we’re going to write and how it’s going unfold will determine who will do the actual musical composition—sometimes it’s him, sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s a combination. Usually he puts it into Finale, but the actual working out of that is really open. I love that about the way we write because it really comes down to what we’re trying to say. I really like that way of thinking about things, because I think it communicates our intention much better in the end.
FJO: But, to get back to your online moniker, you describe yourself as a composer but not as a lyricist, even though words are clearly so important to you.
FV: They really are. And sometimes I say lyricist, but then I think, God, that sounds so pretentious to say vocalist, composer, lyricist. I do feel like I’m a composer, but at the same time I think that when people see that on a page, they pay more attention to that than perhaps if they saw lyricist. Maybe that’s sort of the subliminal or subconscious reason.
FJO: Well, perhaps the other thing is that a lot of people have erected an artificial dichotomy between composers and songwriters. Song folks who are songwriters are intimidated by the word composer, which I find ironic given the fact that if they have written both the words and music to a song they are more than just the composer. They are two things—they are the lyricist and the composer.
FV: I think you’re the first person to ever put it that way. The word composer seems to have this sort of exaltation to it. It has a lot of value. There aren’t a lot of good lyricists. It’s hard to write lyrics that people get. And I think that it’s not respected enough, to be honest. I think people feel it’s easy. Like people think being a poet is easy. You’re just writing some words on a paper, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s much more difficult to actually sit down and write music. I’ll be honest, I have sat down and written lyrics in ten minutes. But I’ve also had lyrics which have taken almost a year to really get right.
I was in the Washington Women’s Jazz Festival earlier this month, and they asked me to submit a piece for the performance. We were all performing original music, and I decided I’d love to do that. I was literally walking from the supermarket and it wasn’t a whole piece, but the heart of the piece just came to me walking home. So I just came home and wrote out the outline of it. The other stuff I wrote afterwards, after the fact, took a lot longer. I do think there is this idea that maybe I bought into by saying composer rather than lyricist. And that is unfortunate.
FJO: Or songwriter.
FV: Or songwriter.
FJO: Although, a songwriter writes in one form, song, but a song is just one of many different things a composer might write. And when people hear the word composer, I think they associate it more with the creation of larger form works, things with some kind of through-line. Perhaps my favorite of all of your projects thus far is The FreeSong Suite, which I really hear as a large scale work. It is comprised of individual songs but they’re all connected and, when put together, form a larger cohesive whole.
FV: Wow, thank you.
FJO: And interestingly, that seems to be true of everything you’ve done since then, both recordings and live concerts—everything sounds connected and part of one, larger whole.
FV: Yeah. That group, the Fay Victor Ensemble, is actually ten years old this year. The whole idea of the free songs started with Misha Mengelberg and Walter Wierbos, our bassist in the Netherlands, doing this open-ended project where they’re coming in and out of forms. You’re still dealing with form, but just making it much more liquid. It was so freeing, but it’s tricky because everybody has to have a sense harmonically of what works well after the other and no one knows where things are beginning and ending. It’s like a film where you have these moments where things are kind of random and then there’s this moment of clarity and then things go back. For that record, we really recorded in real time. There are only very tiny edits, but everything [we recorded] is [a suite of] four songs. It was really scary to record that way because if there was one major mistake, we had to do a whole sequence all over again.
FJO: You described in your notes for it that the group is fighting with each other, which I thought was an interesting way of putting it. In jazz and other kinds of improvisatory music, when a group of musicians create music together, it isn’t about following a score on a page and playing it exactly as written. It’s about making it your own. It’s about the group dynamic, where one person is bouncing ideas off of another. But even though your husband is the record producer and so he’s in the studio, he’s actually not on stage with you guys. He’s not playing the music. So in terms of the auteurship of that in the jazz sense of it, he has to let it go. But you’re in the middle of it, so you’re fighting with these players that you bring on, so it’s yours, but it’s also theirs.
FV: Yeah. Absolutely.
FJO: So I’m interested about that dynamic. How much happens spontaneously in the moment, whether it’s in a recording studio, live on a stage, in a gig, how much you can plan for, and how much you really want it to be a spontaneous, in-the-moment thing?
FV: Well, like I mentioned, every piece is declared by what we want to say. So I’m going to pick a piece, I guess “Bob and Weave.” It’s a really clear structure. A lot of times within the structure, we have these points of departure where the form opens up. Let’s say somebody gets a solo, though I’ve moved away from that. Every now and again one musician will, but it’s more of an ensemble improvisation. We know we’re moving towards somewhere else. And in the case of “Bob and Weave” it’s going into “Night Ties.” Ken Filiano picks it up, so we set some cuing, just so we’re clear what’s going to happen. But when that actually happens can be varied. In other words, if we come to the end of “Bob and Weave,” Ken is supposed to pick up the bass line. But that ending can be whenever Ken feels it, and then we move on. I’m not going to look at him and say, “Okay, now you’ve got to.” We try to be as organic as possible, but everybody knows where we’re going. We have this destination.
On Absinthe and Vermouth, we have this piece “Paper Cup.” I’m on a mission going to “Paper Cup.” The idea was to play with having something really sort of punky and a little snotty and then have it lead to a very quiet open space, but have a big improvisation in between. So the fun of that was trying to have an improvisation that felt real coming out of the first piece, but also that felt real going into the second, wherever we ended up. That’s the idea.
FJO: Well it’s interesting to hear you use the word punky. One of the things that I’m hearing on your more recent projects, like Absinthe and Vermouth, but also already on Cartwheels Through The Cosmos, is a clear rock element that’s sort of psychedelic, and even like progressive rock, almost akin to Captain Beefheart.
FV: He’s a big influence.
FJO: I can totally hear that. But still, at least to my ears, you’re somehow honing it through a jazz sensibility. In fact, the way you just described Ken Filiano waiting to feel something totally sounds like what a jazz group would do, which is quite different from what a rock group would usually do.
FV: That’s true. I guess at the end of the day, I wouldn’t call Anders a jazz musician, but certainly Ken is. Ken is coming out of that space, and I am, too. So that will always pretty much inform everything. But if mainstream jazz players were to hear Absinthe and Vermouth, I cannot imagine they would think that that was a jazz record. I think they would think it was a combination, like they would think avant-garde—I don’t think it’s that avant-garde, but that’s the thing. Or maybe if they listen to “The Sign at the Door,” they would think it’s even coming out of new music, but not jazz.
That’s why it gets complicated. So I just don’t really label myself. It’s a multi-genre approach which is totally what I have on my bio just so it’s open. Sometimes I wonder if that’s smart, but it is really the way I feel. Actually I have in the back of my mind that I want to develop a Caribbean project. It’s part of me. So if I want to delve into that zone, why not. I think a lot of times we feel we’re just strictly in this thing: okay, I’m a jazz musician, or I’m an opera singer, or I don’t know, I’m a Haitian whatever. I don’t know if it’s good to limit yourself that way.
If your perception changes, or if you open up, I think you should go with that. I really feel that the music guiding me is a lot more important than me guiding the music. If I feel compelled to dig into something, then that’s where I need to go and not worry about if it falls into certain boundaries that are comfortable for other people.
FJO: Well one thing I found interesting is that even though you’re mostly self-taught, at some point you sought out coaching from an opera singer, which is really bizarre because you weren’t doing opera at that point and you’ve never really done opera, as far as I know.
FV: I have done one opera actually; I’ve done an Anthony Braxton opera.
FJO: But that’s a very different kind of opera.
FJO: That wasn’t bel canto or verismo. But you sought out that training just to expand your horizons musically. It wasn’t necessarily to sing that music, but to open your ears to another way of thinking about sound, which I thought was really exciting.
FV: It was also technical. I was starting to run into problems trying to execute some improvisational ideas I was having. I was really developing my ear. I was working on theory. I was studying piano. I was trying to sing certain things that I was beginning to hear, but I couldn’t sing them well—strange intervals. I couldn’t sing them, or it was very uncomfortable. So I said, “There has to be a better way.” And I found this opera teacher, Onno van Dijk. Because of that, I feel my instrument is a lot more open, plus the experience of listening. He was a very interesting teacher. We listened a bit to opera, but he was also into yoga poses. He would also go to witness throat operations. He was really deep. He really wanted to understand things from the inside out, and that was really his emphasis. Now that I teach, a lot of the way I teach is from him, because he was really about everybody figuring out their own sound and what’s the best and healthiest way to do that. Since I didn’t want to become an opera singer, he helped me to figure out my own sound without using a big wide sound but a more focused sound, because I’m singing with a mic and I want to be able to use much more nuance. Around this same time, I started listening to lots of people like Cathy Berberian, whom I’m a huge fan of. To me she is a very organic-sounding classical vocalist. She’s incredible. She makes everything sound rooted.
FJO: In that one opera you were a part of, Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E, I instantly recognized your voice when you come in. You cannot miss it. You were so you.
FV: Wow. Well, I think that’s what Anthony wanted, and I love him for that. I think it’s changed now. I wasn’t here when it went on last year, but what I have heard—and I know a bit from the vocalists—is that now it’s much more classical, really much more opera singers. But with Trillium E, he made the choice then to let people have different sounds. And I thought that really worked. I thought that was a very interesting approach, and pretty gutsy. His lines are much more rhythmic. I don’t know if someone with a lot of vibrato would really execute the words and rhythmic forms and shapes that he was doing. He really writes for much more straighter sounding tones.
FJO: Participating in that project with him was something of a detour for you, since you pretty much do only your own stuff at this point.
FJO: You’re not someone else’s side person, you don’t do other people’s material at this point. I wonder what would make you decide to lend your voice to someone else’s projects.
FV: Well, I did a record that just came out. It’s with a Dutch musician by the name of Ab Baars. He’s an incredible musician, and he has a trio that was together for 20 years. In celebration, he put a tour together, and he invited me and a French horn player Vincent Chancey. This was in 2011; it was a 15-concert tour and we made a record at the end. He wrote vocal compositions for the first time, and it was a great experience to play those pieces. I really enjoyed that project, because he’s an improviser as well. He’s also a member of ICP, so I know exactly the musical place he’s coming from. So I would be open to that. If it’s something that I really think I can be me with, then I’m very open to that. For example, I don’t know the details, but I’m going to be featured in a big piece by Darius Jones next February. He has a residency at The Stone. I know Darius’s work and we also happen to be good friends. I really admire him and where he’s going, and I know he’s going to allow me to be me. I hope that doesn’t sound too egotistical.
FJO: No, I completely get what you’re saying. It’s actually makes a perfect segue to talking about Herbie Nichols SUNG and how you found your own voice within Herbie Nichols’s music. Herbie Nichols was forgotten for many years but he’s been rediscovered. He’s a parallel figure in some ways to Thelonious Monk and to Elmo Hope, who has yet to be fully rediscovered. These three guys were doing things that were pre-free jazz post-bop already in the bop era. Herbie Nichols never got to record with a quintet, which was his dream. He only got to record with a trio. The Jazz Composers Collective did this whole Herbie Nichols Project and made some of his music really come to life. Nichols also never recorded with a singer, but I know that Sheila Jordan sang with him at one point even though none of what they did was ever recorded. So your singing music by Herbie Nichols is really kind of the first time for that music to sing.
FV: Yeah. Sheila told me, believe it or not, that she was pretty impressed that I was singing that. He was her rehearsal pianist. She said she was scared of those tunes. I can imagine if I were around at that time, I would have been scared, too. I was scared of those tunes, but since then, there have been all these people that have created [their own paths] this music. And I had Mischa Mengelberg to talk to about it. I don’t know if I could have just done it if I had nothing. What happened with Herbie was a really organic experience. Again, my husband and I were together maybe just a couple of years, and he had some CDs. I was looking through them one day and I found this compilation. I pulled it out and I saw the name and saw the face and said I don’t know this person, so I just put it on. A lot of it sounded very strange, even though I was a fan of Monk at the time, but the one song that just hit me in the face was “House Party Starting.” It just blew my mind. I listened and listened and listened and I decided I’m going to be able to sing this one day. I knew that I couldn’t sing it. I couldn’t. There was no way. But I knew I would. I felt that I’m going to work on that. For Darker Than Blue, which came after In My Own Room, I was literally sitting down figuring out what songs I wanted to do on a Saturday afternoon, and I just wrote down all the lyrics. It just came, all the lyrics to “House Party Starting.” And it so happened that the guitarist in my band, we had never talked about it before, I kind of mentioned that I was thinking of doing that and he said, “That’s my favorite song; I know it by heart.” So that’s why I did it with guitar; I don’t do it with piano. We do it in a very kind of aggressive way, but that started the journey with Herbie. And I started listening to more and started hanging out with Misha a little more because when I finally tracked him down to find out what he thought of the project, his words were, “It reminded me of nothing” which, coming from him, is a very nice compliment.
I knew I wanted to do a Monk project. And someone suggested I do it with Misha and I was petrified. I’m like “What?” But I went to Misha and I had a meeting, and he said he would absolutely. He had the confidence that something could be interesting with that. So then we started working a little bit over the years. I have recordings with him from the Bimhuis, but we never actually got to make a proper recording, even though I’ve toured with ICP. And now he’s not in the best shape.
FJO: Talk about somebody who connects the dots between both sides of the Atlantic. He’s the pianist on Eric Dolphy’s Last Date. The first time I ever heard Misha Mengelberg was on that record.
FV: Oh man. Oh my.
FJO: And now you’re returning to Europe; you’re going to be there for a month. It’s something of a homecoming. And you’re doing Herbie Nichols stuff.
FV: Yeah, I’m doing four concerts of Herbie Nichols SUNG. One in Amsterdam, two in Germany—in Cologne and Berlin—and one in a really nice venue called De Singer, outside of Antwerp in Belgium. I have a great German pianist by the name of Achim Kaufmann who’s been a Nichols specialist for the last 20, 25 years and Tobias Delius who’s also in the ICP. They both live in Berlin. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
FJO: In terms of making this material your own, it’s certainly very contemporary. He wrote all this stuff in the 1950s, but one of your lyrics is about Dick Cheney.
FV: Yes! Ode to Dick Cheney—“Sunday Stroll.” I have to say Herbie helps a lot. Whenever I write lyrics to somebody else’s material, I try to listen because it’s just so interpretive. There’s something very haughty about the melody of “Sunday Stroll” to me. It’s like a pace a pompous person might carry. So Cheney came to mind. But it’s difficult to write lyrics, because the melodies are so convoluted and inverted and angular. They might be A-A-B-A forms, but depending on the song, an A can be 15 bars and the B 10. My favorite song of his is “Spinning Song.” That was complicated to write for, but I figured out something.
FJO: You mentioned teaching in passing, but I wanted to get back to that especially since teacher is the third noun you use to describe yourself. You described a little bit what you impart coming from this opera singer, but I’m curious about the process of what you do with students.
FV: I believe now I’m a very good teacher for someone who is interested in figuring out their own voice. I’ve run a few workshops in the city, two on a weekly basis, and I do workshops out on the road. I really always try to create a space where people feel comfortable to create—not comfortable in terms of it being easy, but comfortable in that it’s open, that if something comes out the space will accommodate it and not lash out at them. Sometimes you’re going to sing or do something that sounds horrible, but just be more accepting of it instead of beating yourself up. It’s actually mostly adults. We can really lash out at ourselves when we make an obvious mistake in front of other people.
I try to also use jazz as a portal, not as an end game. So if somebody wants to bring in different material that really feels representative of themselves, I encourage that. If it’s a private student, then we’re working on very specific things for their instrument. I’m also really good at helping classical vocalists sing jazz, talking about the placement change and all of that so that the phrasing and articulation is more what we would associate with jazz or non-classical musical expression.
I really love teaching. I get a lot of energy out of it and I get a lot of energy back from my students when I see how they become more themselves and become more comfortable in their own expression. It makes me happy that that they come to that for themselves. What they don’t like so much about me is I don’t sing a lot for them. Like when I’m teaching rubato, I sing very little. I don’t want that to be an influence. Maybe I’ll sing at the very end. I just find it great that I help people figure out what they want to say in a way that doesn’t scare them and that they can go into deeper places for themselves and not be afraid of what might come out.
FJO: How do you feel what you’ve done with them has turned back into your own creative work?
FV: It makes me less afraid, too. I think the whole process of trying to be a creative person is just an unpeeling of layers. You do it throughout a lifetime and I think if you’re honest, you’re trying to get deeper and get a deeper understanding of what you’re trying to say. At least I am. I’m trying to understand more and more of what I really want to say. It’s a continual process. And if I see my students also going through the same thing, at their own pace, it also makes me feel like I have to do it more and it makes me feel at ease to dig even deeper, to express things that maybe five years ago I would have felt, “No way. I can’t do that.” You know, if I want to now, I’d do a primal scream in a performance, I feel comfortable enough to do that. Five years ago, that probably would have scared me. Even if I really wanted to, I might have held back. Now I don’t hold back.