Destined to soar to women’s anthem status, vocalist Tracye Eileen’s upcoming release “Why Did I Say Yes” is sung with smarts and sass. Intelligent women, she croons, can still make mistakes, and she proves you can be strong, own it, then move on. Crossing her gospel gutsiness with smooth, jazzy sensibility, Tracye musters every emotion and paints like a master.
“Before You” showcases a lovely voice with lyrical twists and spot-on use of vibrato; “Lazy Afternoon” lags like its title suggests, with stunning accompaniment by the piano’s light touch and bass’s unhurried punctuation; and the subtle, swingy waltz “Every Little Bit Hurts” shines a floodlight on Tracye’s educated chops.
Her melodies feel intuitive, her pacing is precise and the lyrics leave you nodding in deep approval. This new CD should knock a lot of socks off. Go wiggle your toes and catch the groove.
What age did you know you wanted to be a vocalist?
Singing has always been a part of my life. My first performance was at 8 years old in a third-grade play of “The Wizard of Oz.” That’s when I also discovered that singing gave me life.
I auditioned for the role of Dorothy, but due to my inability to speak loud enough, most likely as a result of a childhood trauma, I didn’t get the part. However, when the faculty heard me sing, I blew everyone away! They ultimately decided to re-write the play and have me appear to Dorothy in a dream as a fairy godmother to sing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” I sang it in all three casts.
What did your music education consist of?
At a very young age, my mother ensured we all got music lessons. I started with piano, then guitar and later clarinet.
I did not keep up with those musical studies but recently started learning the piano again—mostly to support my song writing. Later in high school I became a part of my high school jazz band as a vocalist. In college, I joined the JSU Singers—a performing class at Jackson State University, and joined the JSU Jazz Band as a vocalist. I went on to get my MBA and began a corporate career, always singing in the church choir as a soloist and a couple of other performing groups, while also taking periodic vocal lessons.
During this period, I also did a 10-city gospel tour in Switzerland. Once I decided to finally pursue my dream and passion of becoming a professional jazz artist, I took a year-long course with The Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago and went from amateur to professional as a jazz artist.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you received in 1) communicating via the music itself; and 2) being successful in the industry?
1) Tell a story. Think about the character you are portraying when singing the song to most effectively communicate believable lyrics.
2) To be successful, practice, prepare, perform and write. My father, a jazz drummer, advised me to select one of my band members as my music director to help me manage the musicians in the band and assist with musical direction and leadership. This was HUGE! Understanding the business part of the music industry has also been an important lesson.
Why did you transition from gospel to jazz?
It’s always been about jazz. My father was a jazz drummer for over 50 years. I was a lead vocalist in my high school and college jazz bands. The most money I ever made before finishing college was singing on the weekends at a Mississippi jazz club with an established jazz band of older gentlemen when I was in college.
I still sing gospel, but I took a leave from the choir to focus more on my music career and my jazz band. I’ve incorporated a bit of gospel into my show. I added the song “God Bless the Child.”
Who are some of your favorite jazz and R&B artists?
Sara Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Chaka Khan, Amy Winehouse, Jill Scott, Nora Jones, Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick, Anita Baker, Sade, Dianne Reeves and Diana Krall.
What does “PTR” stand for in your band name?
Paul, Pat, Tom, Rick—These were the names of my original band members. Everyone is still with me except for Rick, my former drummer. After many trials, we finally got the right new drummer, Malcom Banks. He’s awesome and the chemistry is great with the band. Malcolm has been with us almost two years now.
Talk about your band.
I was most fortunate to have the owner of the Bloom School of Jazz put together my original band. My current band are all top-notch Chicago musicians with years of experience and tons of talent. Strengths:
- Pat Fleming, guitarist and music director—As a musician, Pat is incredible. The passion and skill come through effortlessly when he plays and he is a great soloist. As a music director he has been invaluable in helping me manage the band and introducing new music for shows. He is also producing my new CD coming out this May.
- Paul Martin, bass—Paul is also a very skilled, talented and experienced musician. His bass lines are flawless. Paul has also managed his own band for years and provided me with a lot of great insight early on in managing the band. Paul will also lead the band if Pat is not able to be on the gig. We do unique arrangements on the covers. Paul always has a good ear and great input as we create new sounds in rehearsal or the studio.
- Tom Vaitsas, keyboardist—In addition to incredible skill and form, Tom plays beautifully. His temperament is also exceptional. He is one of the most sought-after keyboardists in Chicago due to his personality and his talent. An incredible player! We also collaborate on writing tunes together. Often I have the lyrics and melodies in my head and Tom helps me get it on paper and tweak parts to pull the entire song together.
- Malcom Banks, drummer—Malcom brings the heat! In addition to impeccable timing, Malcom is a very skilled drummer and does a smoking drum solo. We tried out a lot of drummers before we finally found him. He’s perfect for the band!
- James Perkins—Smooth is the word I have for James. He was my last addition to the band and rounds out our sound. James plays soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax and flute. He adds a beautiful sound and audacious solos!
Why did you start your own label?
When I first decided to pursue my dream and passion as a professional artist, I wanted to understand how money was made in this industry so I could sustain myself as a full-time artist. I have an MBA and have been a business person for many years, so I attended an ASCAP conference and sought information from industry professionals to learn as much as I could.
Having a label and publishing are simply part of the business of music. I knew I wanted to produce, promote and distribute a CD, and I wanted to perform. As an independent artist, my label Honey Crystal Records provides all of these functions. At some point, I’d like to join a larger label.
In the beginning, I booked all my own gigs and still engage in this activity along with my booking agent Mark Maddox. I also have my own publishing company: Tracye Troy Music Publishing.
What are the challenges AND the benefits of your own label?
The biggest challenge is balancing the time necessary to manage the business of the label and the time needed to continue to develop my craft as an artist.
My goal is to ultimately be picked up by a much larger and established label that will be supportive of my career and allow me to focus for the most part on writing and continuing to develop as a performing jazz artist.
What themes inspire you when you compose?
LOVE. Relationships. Hope. Mostly love. I have always been a hopeless romantic and have pursued lasting love in my life. I’ve had many highs and lows in this pursuit in addition to two marriages. This journey continues to inspire me. I remain hopeful in my pursuit and I continue to grow. So I like writing about themes of love in all its forms. Whether about relationships that have been good or have gone a bit sideways; whether about passionate love or love between a parent and child, even the sometimes struggle over love of self.
This inspiration is also in play when identifying covers we perform. We typically do unique arrangements on these.
What is the Chicago jazz scene like? What would you like to see improved about it?
Actually, I’m still learning about it, but it seems to be very segmented like the overall population. There are players who play primarily on the North side, those who play South and downtown players. Then there are artists who play in the surrounding suburbs.
There are several venues that host live music and jazz. They range from straight-ahead venues to those which cater to more contemporary forms of jazz. They also range from venues in which jazz is more served as atmosphere at dinner vs. the performance being the focus.
I would love for jazz venues to be more prevalently disbursed throughout Chicago and the suburbs. There are, however, quite a few jazz festivals around the city and suburbs in the summer.
What is the biggest challenge for the indie artist today?
Being heard and getting gigs.
One of the first things I did as an indie artist was to build an online presence. I felt to be taken seriously as a band worthy of being booked, I needed to have a website, CD and video. Starting out, I felt this gave me the credibility as a professional artist as well as enabling me to have a site where people could hear my music.
How did your first CD do in reviews?
At the time I released my first CD, I was at the beginning of my professional career and it was a product of my year-long jazz course. I later had the CD professionally packaged for sale and to promote gigs. I played local jazz festivals, a casino and other local venues. It sold and continues to sell well at these events, but I did not get a lot of press for critical review.
I’m at a different place in my career now. With the release of my second CD, I anticipate a lot more press and reviews.
What is your favorite track and why?
My favorite track on my first CD was “Lazy Afternoon.” It is a beautiful song. I had heard Barbara Streisand and Regina Belle do recordings of the tune. We did a unique arrangement of it, which is more jazzy than the other versions. It’s a love song.
What’s been the response so far to your upcoming (second) CD, “Introducing Tracye Eileen”?
From the individuals who have heard it, including a couple of leading music industry professionals, the response has been very positive and validating. Production highlights:
- There were several instruments added to the music in addition to my band which added a nicely layered sound on several tunes.
- Since the project was recorded over a five-year period, many tracks were re-recorded by me and my band. For me, during the five years, my sound had evolved.
- Five of the tunes were recorded live at Buddy Guy’s and mixed in the studio.
- I recorded a music video to accompany the original song “Why Did I Say Yes” which will be debuted at the CD Release Party in May.
What is your favorite song on it?
In addition to my original tune “Why Did I Say Yes,” my other favorite is a song written by Sting titled “It’s Probably Me.” I love this tune. It allows me to access the deeper registry of my voice and evokes a very passionate emotion. It gives the perspective of a mother singing about a wayward son.
Venue you always wanted to play?
I’d love to play the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Monterrey Jazz Festival and the Las Vegas Jazz and Lights Festival.
Do you prefer the large concert halls and festivals or smaller, intimate clubs?
I love large outdoor festivals. I love the energy of the crowd and joy of being in the sun. Everyone is just in a really good mood, ready for a great time. The feeling is mutual!
Talk about the energy when you performed with bluesman Buddy Guy.
I was one of the bands opening for Buddy Guy twice. He does a residency in January, where he appears nightly for the entire month at Buddy Guy’s Legends. I do the performance as an acoustic blues set. The energy at these events is electric. It’s always an SRO crowd and people sit for hours waiting for Buddy Guy to come on stage. The seats are first come, first served and the food is great! Buddy comes on at 11. This is a really fun gig! One of my favorite openers!
What elements of improv do you utilize when you perform?
I work to tell a story through the song. I interpret the story through the lyrics and assume a role in delivering a tune. It’s most important that the song seems believable and that the artist is believable in the delivery. I try to use movement to accompany the feeling and to utilize the full stage. This way I am able to better connect with the audience.
How do you take care of your voice?
I drink water, green tea and honey. I exercise and eat a healthy diet. I try to protect myself from getting colds and keep my throat covered in cool weather. Getting enough rest is important too and I’m most challenged with that one.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming singers?
Be committed. Work on your craft. Get training on your craft and the music business. Learn the business and identify any resources you need to ensure the movement and growth of your music career including a business partner or manager, if you lack any business sense or savvy.
Find your own voice—your own unique God-given sound. Have a ball!
How will you grow your presence this year?
The CD release this May will be a big part of my marketing efforts. We are working on radio play and television appearances to promote the CD. We also plan to send copies to music reviewers, publications and bloggers. I will also be releasing my first music video for one of the songs on the CD.
Compare your earlier work with the new CD.
My first CD was final product of my year-long jazz course at the Bloom School of Jazz recorded eight years ago. It was my beginning and I have since developed tremendously as an artist.
This CD is the result of five years of work. It has original music and musicians from my current band, in addition to several guest musicians. I recorded all the tracks twice, except for the five songs we recorded live at Buddy Guy’s Legends. This work is of a much higher quality, creativity and production level than my first CD. Night and day! Not that the first CD wasn’t good—it’s just that the new CD is next level with a much larger budget to produce. Each tune was carefully chosen and arranged. I love it!!
Monthly performances at Buddy Guy’s Legends, every second Sunday. CD Release Party on May 20th. We will also play other local venues and jazz festivals and we’re starting to book festivals around the country and, to a limited extent, overseas.
Thanks so much, Debbie!
For more information, visit www.tracyeeileen.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Tracye Eileen Smith.
© Debbie Burke 2018