The Jazz Gallery’s 2015-16 Mentorship Series continues this month with the pairing of vocalist Claudia Acuña and pianist Samora Pinderhughes. A native of Santiago, Chile, Acuña is one of today’s most prominent jazz vocalists, having recorded five albums under her own name and many others as a special guest. She is a longtime Jazz Gallery regular, having performed here countless times with her own groups and with her peers, recently with bassist Alexis Cuadrado for his “Lorca Soundscape” project.
A recent graduate of Juilliard’s jazz program, pianist Samora Pinderhughes has already been making major inroads in the New York scene as both a leader and sideman. Pinderhughes has performed his large-scale Transformations Suite several times across the city, from the Gallery to Joe’s Pub to the Museum of Natural History. As a sideman, Pinderhughes has played extensively with vocalists Emily King and Jose James, and is currently playing with Branford Marsalis’s quartet in between his shows with Acuña.
Throughout their short tour, Acuña and Pinderhughes will be playing music by Mercedes Sosa, an Argentinian singer-songwriter who was a major part of the socially-conscious musical movement called “Nueva Cancion” in the 1960s-80s. We caught up with Pinderhughes by phone last week to discuss what makes a good vocal accompanist and how he expresses emotions in music without words.
The Jazz Gallery: What has been your experience playing with older musicians before this series with Claudia?
Samora Pinderhughes: I come from a generation that doesn’t get a chance to play with older musicians much. I’ve had a lot of teachers certainly, but I haven’t performed with that many people from older generations. It’s just not the same world that it was before. There are fewer of those musicians around, there isn’t as much of that type of work.
TJG: How then does this experience compare with learning jazz in a conservatory setting?
SP: One of the things that I like about working with Claudia is that I have a lot of say in the process—it’s really equal actually. I feel really lucky about that, because this doesn’t always seem to be the case in these types of situations. In the jazz community, I always hear this narrative of a sideman being on a gig and having to do exactly what the leader wants. It’s great that this series places a lot of emphasis on creating a partnership, rather than a teacher-student relationship. Claudia and I worked together to think of the concept for the group, and I was involved in a lot of the arranging of the material.
TJG: This feels more like the Art Blakey model of bandleading, where he would let the players in the Jazz Messengers play with their own personalities and their own compositions.
SP: Yeah. And this has stretched me as well. When playing with someone like Claudia, I feel like I have to rise to the occasion and really play at a high level all of the time.
TJG: From a rhythm section standpoint, what makes a really good vocal accompanist?
SP: Listening, above everything. Then, an understanding of the material not simply from a musical perspective—you have to understand the meaning and purpose of the lyrics and how they relate to the music. I like to write things with lyrics a lot, and even when I’m playing on piano, I try to think about the character of a certain story. It’s easy to get away from that if you’re performing without words. But when you’re working with the vocalist, there has to be an understanding of what the vocalist wants to do with the songs.
TJG: Are there any pianists that you like as vocal accompanists in particular? Or certain pairings of vocalists and pianists?
SP: Hank Jones is my favorite. I really love Herbie Hancock as well, like on that Joni Mitchell record. I really like piano-vocalists who play for themselves—that gives me a lot of direction. They obviously know what feels good from an accompaniment standpoint, and how the accompaniment supports the voice, so I want my playing to feel as natural as that. I listen to a lot of Nat Cole and a lot of Ray Charles and a lot of Nina Simone. Teddy Wilson is another guy who I like a lot.
TJG: You’ve already worked with a wide range of vocalists, from Jose James to Emily King. How does working with these vocalists differ from gig to gig?
SP: Every experience I’ve had is different. With Claudia, she’s really coming from the jazz tradition and jazz performance practice, but we’re also playing the music of Mercedes Sosa, who’s not a jazz musician—she was part of the Nueva Canción movement and has no piano in her music normally. So I get to approach this material in a certain way.
I feel lucky that I’ve worked with Emily King for a long time—I think she’s one of the greatest vocalists, period. With her, the music is very, very specific. It’s like the most gorgeous jigsaw puzzle. I know what we have to create, and it’s going to be gorgeous, but you have to fit into that. If you play something different, it’s not going to work the right way.
This was a good challenge for me, coming from the jazz world. It’s easy to get away from this kind of thing as a jazz musician, because there’s so much freedom in how the music works now. That’s overall a good thing, but so much great stuff in earlier jazz, like in Duke Ellington’s music, there is a lot that’s specific to each song, and that doesn’t take away from the freedom inherent in the work. So working with Emily was really instructive for me in that it told me that there’s nothing wrong with playing a part if it is what works better than anything else. It never felt restrictive to me because I could add some things, but what I added had to work better than that musical gesture not existing. It really helped with my self editing, because when you’re able to play a lot, it’s easy to play things that don’t need to happen.
It’s funny, but I now see this idea of editing and clarity everywhere—like in the Apple logo, or the design of the iPhone. Early smartphones were so cluttered, and part of why the iPhone is so attractive is that it’s strictly bare— there’s an apple and it’s black and white and that’s it. This is what I understood from playing with Emily.
I was on tour with Jose James as well. That was more of a combination of Emily’s approach and the freedom of jazz. Jose works a lot with connecting different genres together in interesting ways. I learned a lot from him about the connection and the energy between the artist and the audience. That’s something vital for a singer, but that instrumentalists don’t always understand. In a lot of improvisatory music, the energy is between the musicians almost before it’s between the musician and audience. The experiential aspect of improvisation for an audience is very different. Sometimes, the audience becomes a witness rather than a participant. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just a very different energy. I’ve found that with Jose, there’s an art to working a crowd. He’s able to connect with the audience in a way that feels organic and genuine, not put on.
TJG: Drawing from your experiences with Jose, how do you go about presenting your personality and connecting with an audience in music without words?
SP: I’m just trying to tell the story. It presents a different challenge than performing music with words, but I like it because when I’m playing instrumental music, I’m not restricted by a particular type of meaning of the words. Working with Claudia is particularly interesting in this regard because all the words are in Spanish. Claudia’s audience is a mix between people who speak Spanish and people who don’t, so they’re going to have very different experiences of the show, both equally interesting and deep, just in different ways.
TJG: How do you express complicated emotions on your instrument without the benefit of words to explain those emotions?
SP: It’s much closer to language than many people think it is. The funny thing about language is that we think we understand it just based on the words, but we really don’t completely. If I were to say, “It’s hot out here today, huh?” that would be very different than saying [with a very different inflection] “It’s hot our here today, huh!?” You can say something two completely different ways and convey two very different meanings. It’s why texting is so dangerous—you can’t hear how somebody is saying those words and you can misunderstand what they mean! And that’s just in English, which is one of the least interesting languages from a tonal perspective. Inflection is so important to conveying emotion, and I can still get that on an instrument. But it’s not that I have a certain device or way of playing a certain emotion—I don’t think like that. It’s more of just a natural reaction based on my experience studying a lot of different music that speaks to me. Especially in this case with Claudia—doing the music of Mercedes Sosa—I just listen to the music over and over and get to know how it works from an emotional perspective that way. For me, it all comes down to listening.
Claudia Acuña and Samora Pinderhughes perform at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 19th, 2015. The group features Ms. Acuña on vocals, Mr. Pinderhughes of piano, Juancho Herrera on guitar, John Benitez on bass, and Yayo Serka on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here. The pair will finish off their mini tour next Tuesday, November 24th, at SEEDS in Brooklyn. There will be one set at 9 P.M. that evening.