In a world filled with homogenized one-hit wonders and fleeting fame, jazz artist Carmen Lundy is precious respite. She offers music built over time that is layered, multi-dimensional and complex. Hers is a talent that is both studied and passionate, seemingly spontaneous but actually carefully constructed over decades. She is both an intellectual and an artist and on her 14th album, “Soul To Soul,” she confirms her reputation as the thinking person’s jazz vocalist.
Lundy began working on “Soul To Soul” for years. She not only wrote 11 of the 13 songs and arranged them but as if that wasn’t enough to show-off her technical prowess, she also laid down the initial music tracks by playing and recording in her home studio all the instruments, including bass, drums, piano, guitar and percussion. In lesser hands, such a stretch might have felt forced, but on “Soul To Soul” Lundy achieves her lofty ambitions.
As a composer, Ms. Lundy’s catalogue numbers over 100 published songs, one of the few jazz vocalists in history to accomplish such a distinction. But she is also smart enough to know when to let go of the music so that other artists can take it to the next level. For “Soul to Soul” she gathered a who’s who of special guests. Grammy nominee R&B-jazz pianist and vocalist Patrice Rushen, for example is featured on nearly every track. (“Patrice creates these beautiful sonic palettes from which I could soar freely through the music,” says Lundy.)
Also featured on the album are Geri Allen, Randy Brecker, Mayra Casales, Simphiwe Dana. Bennie Maupin, Carol Robbins, Ada Rovatti and Warren Wolf along with Lundy’s core rhythm section members Darryl Hall and Jamison Ross.
The new album, on indie label Afrasia, invites the listener on a journey inspired by Lundy’s travels. The title track and “Sardegna” find roots in the time she spent in Sardinia, Italy. The music of her hometown of Miami can be heard on the songs “Kindred Spirits” and “Grateful.” And “Grace” was the result of a meeting with South African vocalist Simphiwe Dana. (More about this chance encounter in a moment.)
All very heady stuff. But her technique as a vocal artist is no less impressive. She is cool as bebop one moment and emotionally vulnerable the next. It’s Lundy incredible range as a musician-songwriter and an artist-vocalist that distinguishes her among her peers. She doesn’t play to the audience but rather, asks if you’re up to her task. Personally, I’m all in.
I caught up with the peripatetic Lundy for this interview just before she played two SRO shows last week at the Blue Whale jazz club in downtown L.A., part of an international tour that will take her in the coming weeks to Paris, London, Vienna, Dublin, New York and many points between.
Monsters and Critics: Let’s talk first about the process of creating the album. Can you give us a quick primer?
Carmen Lundy: While writing the album, I was encouraged by the owner of Afrasia records, Elisabeth Oei, to start by asking myself, who do I really want to play with? That simple question really crystalized the entire project in my mind. So what I did was record the entire album myself in my home studio, playing the drum and upright bass when I could, and then playing the piano and guitar, kind of mixing it together to make what I thought was a representation of each composition, which I could then take to this dream band of players that I had in mind. Fortunately, for me, everyone I approached – these incredibly accomplished jazz musicians – got where I was coming form and stepped in the roles that I envisioned.
M&C: Please tell us about your origins as a jazz artist. You were classically trained in music in that melting pot of music street sounds, Miami. How did all that affect your music?
CL: Yes, I was classically trained as a pianist beginning at the age of 6 but my mother had a gospel group, so I had that in my background as well. When I was 12 I enrolled in a choral program with a classical repertoire, so it was natural for me to select the classical music program when I began college at the University of Miami. I really didn’t know a thing about jazz, then. But after a couple of years, I thought I’d experiment by taking a jazz class and of course, I was absolutely smitten. Even though I knew classical music after years of studying it, suddenly I felt jazz was the place that I needed to go to. By 1972 I was working six nights a week as a jazz vocalist in Miami before eventually moving to New York. My first week there I went to the Village Vanguard, and they hired me on the spot.
M&C: You hear so many traditions in your music but in your own words, who were the artists that influenced your music most?
CL: How much time do you have? Let’s start with Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington, segue to Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. And I can’t forget [Antonio Carlos] Jobim.
M&C: I know there’s a special story behind the song “Grace” from the album. How did it begin?
CL: The idea developed over months but was inspired by the history surrounding the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which I hadn’t known about until I started researching it. Sometime after that I was invited to South Africa where I had the great honor of meeting Nelson Mandela in his home for brunch – for four hours! So I come home and I’m totally motivated to write the song but find myself stuck at one point. Fast forward to last September when South African vocalist Simphiwe Dana is in Los Angels to perform and I have the opportunity to meet her. One thing leads to another and she visits me at my home where I take her into my studio and play for her what I had composed thus far of the track. I had the melody defined but I didn’t have the song’s heart and soul yet, and when I told her the inspiration for the song, she totally got it. She began improvising vocals and we spent the next couple of days in the studio together. Her vocals that you hear on the final were track were from that impromptu session.
M&C: You recently made a special appearance at The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles where you taught a class of young musicians. How’s that next generation of jazz players coming along?
CL: It was wonderful. You know, I began the class by showing them tracks on my laptop, and discussing the software that I used. But I realized they were actually more interested in hearing real instruments so I switched to the piano that was in the auditorium. Yes, these kids grew up with digital technology, it’s all around them. But at the heart they are still young impressionable human beings that respond to art in a very emotional way.