For four decades, Judi Silvano has been one of the most prominent and forward-thinking jazz vocalists in New York. With her unparalleled scat agility and wide aesthetic range (from avant-garde experimentation to straight-ahead standards), she cleared a path for many of the shapeshifting jazz vocalists of today.
This Tuesday, September 27th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome Ms. Silvano to our stage with her band Zephyr. The group takes its name from a tune that Silvano wrote for a recording session with piano legend Mal Waldron and features many longtime associates—guitarists Kenny Wessel and Bruce Arnold, bassist Ratzo Harris, and drummer Bob Meyer. Wessel and Arnold work as a sort of yin and yang, coloring Silvano’s original compositions with a wide range of contrasting sounds. Just check out Arnold’s use of digital effects in the groups performance of their namesake tune.
We caught up with Silvano over the phone and discussed her recent tour and performance schedule, as well as her upbringing in a world of sonic and visual beauty.
The Jazz Gallery: You recently returned from Cleveland where you performed with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. What was the occasion for the concert?
Judi Silvano: It was a celebration of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on his 90th birthday. I sang “Equinox,” which incidentally was close to the actual date of the equinox. It was an arrangement by the director Paul Ferguson, which he wrote just for the gig. I wouldn’t consider myself a big band singer, but I’ve done a lot of work with big bands through the years, and I love feeling like a part of that horn and woodwind section. I started to develop my singing concept by listening to those big band horns, and later on in life, I began studying many of those standard songs which are often used to feature a vocalist with the big band.
TJG: So the band you’re bringing to The Jazz Gallery is called Zephyr, and uses two guitars, yes?
JS: Yes, this is what I call the Zephyr Two-Guitar Band. It includes Kenny Wessel and Bruce Arnold on guitars, Adam Kolker on on reeds, Ratzo Harris on bass, Bob Meyer on drums, Todd Isler on percussion, and Joe Lovano on saxophone. This band that I’m bringing to The Jazz Gallery is very exciting for me, because it’s a culmination of all of the work that I’ve done thus far. We recently recorded an album of originals and are in the process of releasing it. I finally went into the studio last fall with them, and the experience was great. Since then, we’ve been touring. I’ve been playing with these particular cats for about five years. We’ve developed a rapport, and my material has evolved.
TJG: You brought your Zephyr band to the Red Hook Jazz Festival in Brooklyn this June. How did it feel to bring this two-guitar sound to Brooklyn?
JS: Oh, it was so much fun! The festival was great. It’s a grassy little corner lot right near shipping containers and other industrial stuff. In the park, it was its own little world with its own little stage. It was a windy day too, so the canopy was blowing all over the place. It was wild. Everyone who came to the festival was listening. I mean really listening. There were a lot of great bands and some serious jazz appreciators there to enjoy the day.
TJG: What’s it like to sing on top of two guitar players?
JS: For many years, I’ve been sharing my vocal range with soprano saxophone. I most often sing and play with pianists, but I love the sound of the guitar and voice. Instead of singing on top of the guitars, I think of it as sharing the same space with them. Sometimes, if our tonalities are in the same range, it’s an exciting kind of sound and feeling. We respond to each others’ musical statements without stepping on each other. There’s something about singing lyrics that becomes important as well. The first time the words come through with the music, they need to have space, so the audience can hear the words and comprehend what the story is about before the piece begins to evolve. For this reason, I love to play with people who are both dynamic and sensitive. There’s always some open space, and this goes for the two-guitar band. The musical tapestry gets created around the bare bones of the story. I’ve been writing more lyrics and stories to the songs these days. I’ve put lyrics to some of my older songs, and it has been an exciting new development and evolution for me. I have a song that I’ve been playing since the 1980s called “Bass Space.” I recorded that with no lyrics, and Joe Lovano recorded it a few times. I decided that I wanted to put words to it, and the new version is called “Our World” on “My Dance” with Michael Abene.
I love working with Kenny and Bruce. Some bands have a woodwind section, some bands have two drummers, so why not have two guitarists? And the truth is, they’re having so much fun, they dig each other too! They play together in a responsive and respectful way. They contribute a different color and feeling to the music. It’s orchestral to have two guitars like that. We share being lead instruments, and I don’t feel like I have to be front and center.
TJG: Your newest record is “My Dance,” a series of duets with Michael Abene. Is the title a nod to your upbringing as a dancer?
JS: Absolutely. Dance has been a very important part of my life. When I play music and sing, I never sit still. I’m always dancing. And the people I play with allow the musical dance within them to become visceral. When people listen to music, they move and dance and respond to the music. The idea of music as dance and interaction comes not just from my playing with Michael, but from my approach to all the music that I work on. Working with Michael Abene is a unique kind of dance. He’s a special pianist. Pieces that I’ve been playing for years feel new under his fingers. He’s a great arranger. He plays like an orchestra. It’s a different kind of dance. There are a number of songs that I played with him that were surprising for piano and voice. There’s a lot of trust between us, which I could hear even while we were recording in the studio. We allowed the arrangements to evolve so organically. We practiced some of the melodies and musical movements, but didn’t make specific arrangements, allowing a sense of improvisation to infuse the music. When you play with people who are really listening, anything can happen, and it’s exciting when nobody knows what’s coming. That’s what I love about improvising and being a jazz musician.
TJG: Will your material at The Jazz Gallery be more focused around standards or originals?
JS: I often mix originals with standards, so this quintet that I’m bringing to The Jazz Gallery is exciting to me, because it’s all original material, with stories and words. Words have become a special focus in my life, to honor the beautiful standard songs that have become so familiar to everyone. I’m talking about singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, and more contemporary singers like Sheila Jordan and Abbey Lincoln, who have inspired me through the years. They’re wonderfully expressive and beautiful souls. I grew up with these renditions of fantastic tunes by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin songs.
TJG: Your upbringing was as a choral singer, correct?
JS: When I was young, I sang in choirs, but I studied piano and flute as well. I went to Temple on a vocal scholarship, and took the typical music classes. I was also on scholarship with the small touring choir. We got to sing with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. I treasure those experiences because to be a part of a large ensemble like that is unbelievable. We premiered orchestral pieces, contemporary and traditional alike. I sang Beethoven’s 9th, Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells,” Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. It was a great experience to work in an ensemble like that, kind of like being a saxophonist in a big band, or a bassist in a rhythm section. I also had the privilege of working with Gunther Schuller. He was a pioneer of bringing classical training into the jazz world. He respected and utilized the energies of jazz. He was one of the creators of the third stream and president of NEC, and was active all through his life. You learn how to blend with other sounds and voices. You move away from the concept of playing all alone, and see that you’re playing with so many people. You learn to develop your sensibility by learning to listen and play at the same time.
TJG: When did you discover that music would be something that filled your entire life?
JS: Music has always filled my life. I grew up in a very musical family, everybody was listening to music all the time. My big brother played trombone, I played flute and piano, my little sister played clarinet. My parents were music lovers, and we had musical get-togethers with our neighbors every week while growing up. I was dancing, singing, painting, and drawing my whole life. When I was living in Philadelphia, I was singing in every church to earn money. I was a choral singer and then became a soloist. I was in New York on a dance scholarship with Murray Lewis and Alwin Nikolais. I was focusing on the creative expression of being a dancer, which was very much informed by my musical aptitude. The best dancers can hear the music and express themselves with the music. It’s always been combined for me, at least in my conception. I’ve had teachers who have discouraged me from being so open to different forms of expression. “You have to choose,” they’d say. “You can’t do ballet, modern dance, and step dance.” But I couldn’t subscribe to that. I loved using my voice as an instrument through jazz and improvisation, creating spontaneous compositions in a collaborative setting.
I moved to New York in 1976. In 1979, I met musicians who were working with a group of improvising dancers. It was an exciting time. One of my dance buddies, a woman named Robin Feld, was dating a saxophone player named Paul McCandless, who became an oboist and soprano saxophonist with the group Oregon. Before Oregon was formed, he was improvising with a group of musicians like Billy Drewes, Joe Lovano, Kenny Werner, Scott Lee, Tom Rainey. They were wonderfully creative, and everyone was improvising. I was involved with music as a way of life, and improvising as a way of life, for a long time. I’ve been very fortunate to have met some incredible talented far-reaching seekers in the music world. So I entered the jazz world as an improvisor, but I had never sung those great standard songs that I’d grown up listening to. After I started improvising with Billy Drewes, Joe Lovano, Michael Bocian, and Dennis Dotson, I felt honored and happy that they accepted me into that world.
TJG: You seem to have quite a passion for gardening, and I noticed that one of your albums is called Cleome, which is such an expressive and explosive flower. Do you see your gardening and your music-making as part of the same creative practice?
JS: My whole life, I’ve looked at the world around me, and the world within me, with wonder and amazement. As I’ve felt connected with dance and music, I’m also connected with the visual, with the world of flowers and nature. I must have been a flower in a previous life, because I love wearing all different colors at the same time. My mother must have instilled that love in me, because I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and my mother kept gardens all around. I have a number of other songs that are flowers as well. “Cleome” is just one of my flower songs. I have a samba called “Bougainvillea,” I have another called “Coreopsis.” I have a number of songs written after flowers. I’ve recently began taking watercolor classes and painting with oils and pastels. I’ve been painting since I was a kid, but only recently began studying. There’s so much beauty around us.
TJG: Thank you for your time, Judi. We’re all looking forward to the show.
JS: Thank you so much. I’m looking forward to this show at The Jazz Gallery, it’s a great space. I’m looking forward to playing with my band; They’re so creative, each one is a virtuoso in their own right. They lend their amazing abilities to help me bring my songs to life, and that is the greatest gift that I could ever receive. I feel fortunate that in this time in my life, I can continue to be creative in a deeply personal way.
Judi Silvano’s Zephyr Two-Guitar Band will perform at The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, September 27th, 2016. The group features Ms. Silvano on vocals, Kenny Wessel on guitar, Bruce Arnold on processed guitar, Ratzo Harris on bass, Bob Meyer on drums, and Adam Kolker on reeds. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.