A Cloak of Passion with Baritone E.J. Decker

EJ Decker featured

Oozing with insinuation and dripping with testosterone, the smoldering voice of baritone E.J. Decker is something unusual these days. Many excellent tenor singers make the jazz circuit, but to intentionally and prematurely train one’s naturally bari voice to stretch even further into sub-woofer territory and do it with class and sass requires a rare talent.

A devotee of the great low voices, one in particular has held Decker’s fancy more than the rest: Arthur Prysock. Decker has devoted a whole lot of research and love into his latest project, a CD called “Bluer Than Velvet: The Prysock Project,” which will be released this April. Whether shadowed beautifully by a hot and sultry trombone or a passionate bari sax, Decker gives songs like “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance” or “Since I Fell For You” new spark and more than a hint of lust.

When did you know for sure you wanted to be a professional singer?

Oh, since early childhood. I first sang in public at age five. I saw all the colored stage lights above reflecting off the gleaming stage floor, the darkened windows and the packed, hushed audience. I was in a magic palace; then I sang, and everyone laughed and applauded. I was done for. I’d found my home.

Despite being really shy, I still sang in high school. At 16, I ran away from home and naïvely ended up in Nashville since “that’s where you go to sing.” Even joined the glee club in college; hated it, but at least it got me on a stage. In sophomore year, I actually thought seriously of joining the Up With People! group who held auditions nearby, but they were “Pat Boone-esque,” to be kind and I was a long-haired hippie activist.

But boy, the chance to go on the road and sing — even with them — was so tempting. Once I quit college, though, I ran straight to the music scene. Been in and out of it ever since.  

What did it take to switch your head from singing rock music to jazz?

Patience. And creating and maintaining vocal control without losing the feel.

Rock’s more free form, just land on the beat and let ’er rip. Jazz is more disciplined, even as it’s looser. A song in jazz also has to tell a story or there’s no connection; in rock you’re singing something around a riff or beat.

Also, in rock it’s “establish, then repeat and repeat.” Structurally, in jazz, I now had to think of setting up a song and building the entire piece in layers and not singing the second time through on the first chorus. Establish, then build on that. And to think of where you want to take it and how to return smoothly. Build an entire structure on the fly, instead of just hitting the beat over and over as I’d done before. That transition took me years but it was a cool journey. 

That said, there are influences from everything we’ve done in our lives, so there will always be rock and folk touches throughout my jazz work as that was my foundation. Plus, it gives my sound a different feel in the marketplace. After I’d swung over, someone once referred to my music as “Biker Gershwin,” which I found rather fitting.

What was the best thing you learned in your formal music education?

I never had any formal training. I learned by ear. My Catholic schools were too broke for music programs.

My dad, a former big band singer who’d sung briefly with Tommy Dorsey, watched my older brothers waste scarce music lesson money, so when I never asked, he never offered. He did coach me some around the house or in the car as I got into my teens.

But at five I was already hiding in the basement with my dad’s or brothers’ records and singing along. It was the challenge of trying to sound exactly like the singer on the record, no matter who they were or what gender or genre or style, that excited me as a little kid; every curve, every nuance. I got to be really good at mimicry, which later evolved into my own voice and style.

Without realizing it, all those years in the basement stretched me out incredibly much, stylistically, and got me listening intently in a much deeper way than I may have learned any other way. And it’s also left me with really good ears.

What is the “filter” through which you consider music before deciding to take it on?

Does it move me, or say what I need to say? Does it stalk me and not let me go? Also, is it in my wheelhouse; sadly, a lot of tunes I love aren’t. So, it’s learning who you are.

I know hundreds of thousands of songs. But some songs lay naturally in my sensibility, my rhythm, and some don’t. There are many tunes I love, but they’re just not meant for me to do, they’re for someone else’s rhythm to sing. And I’ll enjoy hearing those versions.

When I’m considering a project, I’m playing songs over in my mind, where they all compete for space. Soon, one or more start rising to the top and I can’t get them out of my head. So I’ll work out arrangements for them — start playing with the feel, what each is saying to and for me at that moment. If a song hangs in, then it gets put down on paper or recording, and I’ll sketch it out for my band mates and we’ll work it up.

How has your activism fueled your music?

Music is the soundtrack to our lives. The passion of your cause gets poured into the music; the music becomes the anthem for your cause.

I’m a ’60s guy, so was socially conscious since my early teens. I was surrounded by music reflecting our world. Folk and rock, especially, but even jazz, were always political. I was stunned by how vapid and tame it eventually all became. That’s why I released “A Job of Work (Tales of the Great Recession)” in late 2013, to finally put a political statement out there — to musically address a wrong — when I saw none being made.

As artists, we have to use our art to impact our world; that’s part of our job. I was among the first of this recent era to do so, but was thrilled shortly after to see a slew of political statements being released by various artists, first in late 2014 and more into ’15 and ’16, mostly in the African-American community. Now political statements are embraced across the board.

What does it mean to be able to say you are from the Eckstine/Hartman/Prysock School?

It’s a fraternity I’ve always longed to belong to, a group of “manly men” with deeper voices who were always resonant; who always projected what an adult “man” was to me when I was a kid, rather than the more juvenile sound of the tenor range. Those three, along with Joe Williams, Brook Benton, Ben E. King, Freddie Scott, Bill Medley, Lou Rawls, even Jim Morrison of the Doors all fit in there.

Highlights of making the CD “While the City Sleeps”?

It was the first time I was arranging, orchestrating and putting my ideas to the test. Being nervous, I hired all close friends to create a comfort zone around me; then in the studio, I looked around and suddenly realized the world-class talent in the room (Randy Sandke, Bob Kindred, etc.) and had to laugh, “Damn! I’ve made some pretty good friends!” Then I relaxed and could get to work.

The communication was a joy. I threw out ideas, they caught them, built on them and we wove them in and had a ball.

I had a specific sound in my head I needed to capture. On the post-production side, I kept pushing for it, never fully trusting my ears or believing that I could get it. But the moment we turned that last knob one last tick and I “heard it” — that sound I’d been after — it’s a thrill I’d never experienced before. Happily, I’ve learned to trust my ears and my skills and I’ve been able to replicate that process of transferring what’s in my head to the finished product on the next two albums. So, I’m very lucky that way.

The release of it, sadly, is where “While the City Sleeps” suffered. We had a serious apartment fire right after I got the final master back, which nearly wiped us out. My wife saved the cats; I saved the master. So, the schedule, the release, the budget — all of that was wiped out as it took us nearly a year to recover. I finally got it out in a small way, but it never got its due. I always felt it was the Best Album Very Few Folks Have Ever Heard because of all that trauma. Sad.

What’s your favorite track on “City” and why?

It’s “How To Handle A Woman.” My paean to Chet Baker. Shift the structure. Play up front, sing later. I’d had the idea for a while, so asked trumpeter Randy Sandke to blow at the top instead of laying down the melody line clearly and then waiting for the solo breaks. Everyone thought I was nuts. But he did it, he nailed it and it set an amazing mood. Les Kurtz entered on piano and laid down a gorgeous interlude playing off of Randy, and by the time I came in, this emotionally magical landscape was already fully realized and I could just glide over it. It’s really a sweet, gentle gem, the whole thing.

What inspired “We’re Strangers Now”?

I saw an ex-flame walk by whom I’d pined over for a full year and she had changed utterly. Everything. Nothing about her looked the same. I realized suddenly that the woman I’d known was gone and that I had no idea whatsoever who this woman was. It popped into my head that we were strangers now. Et voilà! A song was born in 20 minutes.

Musically, it was the “a” in the word “strangers” stretching out a few beats in my head that set the song up for me. As per usual, I just “heard it.” At that point, I was just following the logic of it as it worked itself out.

I’ve written hundreds of songs and that’s how the process always works. My songs are always my own from the start; always autobiographical, always lyric-based. The melody always serves the words and the story comes first. I started off writing poetry as a teen; then one day a poem came out with a melody attached and I was off and running.

I never consciously incorporate compositional elements into my original work, as I just don’t have that training. Not only do I play by ear, I write by ear. I’ve been listening intently to all manner of music since infancy and I’ve had a sponge for a brain all my life. So I just absorbed everything, and it all got reordered in there and came out as mine. Which is also how the ideas for arrangements come to me as well.

Where do you live and what is the scene like there?

New York City. Always evolving. Any time you land here, you’re equally likely to hear chatter about all the great new joints opening up, or constant whining and moaning that the whole scene’s drying up, no one’s hanging out anymore and that jazz is dying.

It’s always swung between the two. It’s a scene that’s constantly molting, constantly dying and being reborn, reinventing itself. I’ll periodically lay low for long stretches, out of the loop; when I come back, I often don’t recognize it and have to start from scratch all over again. Exciting and frustrating, all at once.

Some of your favorite past collaborations?

All the men and women I’ve recorded with, of course, and the engineers on them.

Pianist Les Kurtz is someone who should be better known; he swings hard and can break your heart in eight bars; we think alike and, like me, he slides easily among a dozen styles and genres.

A concert one time with a nonet behind me, including Dick Griffin, Roni Ben-Hur, Hilliard Greene and others, was a trip.

But the best was the 160 men and women with whom I shared a stage over the course of 10 years in our annual free 9/11 concert, The September Concert: The Heart of Jazz for 9/11 — that would be the favorite. Each year, 30 to 50 of NY’s top jazz artists stepped forward to try using improvised music to fathom the unfathomable — what happened to us on that fateful day. Mark Murphy, Benny Powell, Sheila Jordan, Bill Goodwin, Claire Daly, Ted Rosenthal, Roseanna Vitro, Luis Perdomo and so many other huge talents appeared from year to year whenever their schedules allowed, many playing in multiple years. I had the honor to produce it and appear in it as well. “Autumn In New York,” on the new “Bluer Than Velvet” album [see below], comes directly out of that decade of concerts.

How do you take care of your voice?

I’ve been blessed with leather lungs. I abuse my voice horribly. Today’s newer singers are pretty careful about doing all the right things. I’ve just always opened my mouth and cool stuff comes out.

The one key was learning how to work on my breathing. If I’m breathing well, I can sing well for hours. If not, I’ll blow my voice out in two songs. 

The second CD, “A Job of Work (Tales of the Great Recession)” – how does your choice of songs address our post-recession world?

The takeaway, I realized after I was done, is HOPE. But the album’s components are anything but hopeful, by design. It’s journalism. It’s a direct response to the ’08 crash and its bloody aftermath we’re still feeling today. I kept looking at our world and saw the range of impacts that the catastrophe had on us all.

That sea of foreclosure signs; those formerly middle-class folks now suddenly nomads living in their cars, seeking work; the lucky souls who skated past it, but still looking over their shoulder. That’s what I attempted to capture, to tell all of those stories: those folks who were devastated by it, those who were ruined though uncomprehending, those happy souls whose experiences forged a stronger framework for themselves and their families. All those stories were out there, and this album is for them. 

How did you dig deep, creatively, for this CD?

I’ve always been an observer, often on the sidelines, watching. Then, reporting. That was my original idea here, too.

But right after we got the core tracks down, the Recession wiped me out, too, so I couldn’t complete it. In the many years it took to finally afford to finish it, everything had changed. It was no longer my commentary on these events; it was now telling my story as well. Every vocal idea on there is radically different from my original thought. And all the better for it, I believe. 

How has it been received?

I was nervous, to be honest, being the admitted odd duck. I was a tiny part of the industry taking a huge leap. I offered the marketplace a “singer” in a player’s world; then a “male” singer rather than the expected female; then a “baritone,” not a tenor; then making a “political” album when that just wasn’t done. But I was shocked. It garnered great reviews and received a lot of solid airplay by jazz radio, both domestically and overseas.

I hope folks are entertained by the singing and playing, first off. But I also hope that they can recognize something about the human condition buried in a song or two on there, somewhere. Maybe even hear their story being told. These are human stories and we all have one. If someone feels less alone, I’ve done my job. 

Who played sax on “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues”?

Claire Daly. We’d been talking about getting the chance to play “low notes” together, and look! We got two albums out of it, as she’s also on “Bluer Than Velvet.”

And the big news is your upcoming release, “Bluer Than Velvet: The Prysock Project.” Talk about your first memory of hearing Arthur Prysock’s music.

My dad had a store. I was 17, maybe, closing up one night. We had an AM radio behind the register and suddenly I heard this stunning, deep voice behind me, clearly telling the story of his love gone wrong. A powerful man’s voice, standing out from the string of tenor men’s voices and women’s voices I’d long stopped listening to that day.

I stopped everything, listened as he told me his tale of woe and waited for the DJ to name him. It was Prysock. I was hooked. Years later, after I’d gone through the folk and rock worlds, I jumped to jazz. At that point, I started thinking about my sound and vocal quality and I started listening to a lot of baritones and storytellers. His work quickly stepped to the fore as he consistently told direct, honest stories of real people.

The more I listened, the more I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I focused more on bringing the clear storytelling from my folk, country and blues days to the jazz songs I was now singing, and I began to incorporate my own life experiences into the songs and to bring my own range down, attempting to be Arthur “when I grow up.” I’ll never approach “being him,” obviously, but it helped me find my own unique voice, and for that I am grateful.

EJ Decker CD cover

How much discipline is required to stretch your range to those very baseline notes?

It actually all started with the natural aging process in my 40s. My range was naturally shifting lower; I didn’t have quite the pure top end I used to have; the pure falsetto I used to enjoy was gone.

Having heard other folks desperately straining to hit notes they used to nail easily, I thought I’d beat the rush and rework my keys down to fit where I was then. Any singer who doesn’t do that is foolish, in my estimation; the fingering of an instrument never changes, but vocal instruments are always in flux, along with the rest of our bodies. Between that and hearing a lot of Prysock at that time, I naturally started thinking and “hearing” notes in lower ranges.

I’m pretty much bottomed out now; I don’t think I’m going any lower, but I enjoy where I am now. I’ll never reach Prysock territory, that’s for sure; no one will. What a beautiful gift he had.

Why do you think he’s not better known?

I dunno. Race, maybe. Our white culture naturally gravitates towards its heroes, so whenever a male singer is thought of, it’ll be Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing or a string of tenors. Or perhaps it could just be the lack of a champion keeping his name out there.

When the other male pop singers stopped working when rock pushed them all off the charts, Prysock went in and out, always trying to figure out how to be a part of it, right up until the late ’80s, with decidedly mixed results which may have hurt his legacy a bit.

There just doesn’t seem to be the obvious commercial demand for that crooning male today; although, ironically, I find whenever folks hear it, they stop and smile and want to listen to it more. So maybe it’s just underground.

Talk about the variety of tracks on this new CD?

Like “A Job of Work,” this is all Songbook material, where originals are mostly for my live shows. On “Velvet,” there are a few tunes only Prysock recorded, a few standards he had hits with, other songs he recorded that have been in my book for a while; a few he never did, but that have a clear influence on me from listening either to his approach or to the amazing arrangements he used. All of it has been rearranged and rethought, so I’m not attempting to ape him in any way, except in the storytelling arena. If folks hear clear stories in it, like the ones Prysock could tell, I’ll be happy.

What would be your favorites on this?

Oooh, that’s tough. I’d say… “Autumn In New York” is one, due to its legacy from the 9/11 concerts and my lifelong love of this city.

Clyde Otis’s “When You Walked In The Room” is a sweet, touching, big ballad, the kind we don’t get to do much anymore. It also reminds me of when my wife and I met. The arrangement on “When I Fall In Love” is a look into how my brain works, mixing fun and romanticism.

“Why Can’t You Behave” is fun; my imagining of Cole Porter having a blues period. It ended up kind of being our “Hey Jude” track. Plus, I’ve always been a sucker for a really good “3 a.m. tune,” which is what I consider “(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost of A Chance.”

What did your research consist of?

Listening to Prysock’s albums I could find, over and over and over. Then mentally trying to pick them apart for their various components. Tracking down his discography, trying to piece together his career despite a lot of his recordings being out of print and forgotten. Researching his life history, just to get the personal side of what went into what we hear.

Why do you think it’s important to bring his music out into the open again?

The wondrously happy look on people’s faces when they hear his name is the biggest reason. Over the years, I’ve found about half the people know of him and half, not. Half the time, I mention his name and get blank stares and I then sing the ‘70s beer commercial jingle he’s known for (“Tonight Let It Be Lowenbrau”); that helps a big chunk of those folks. The other half of the time, I say the name and get a wide-eyed, stunned look of recognition and an excited, “Prysock?? Oh, wow!” which is thrilling to get.

The first to give me that reaction was the late Mark Murphy when I studied with him briefly years ago and he asked me my influences. His was the wide-eyed reaction and he insisted that I had to do a tribute! I resisted at first, but Mark’s urging got me to consider it seriously. I just wish he could have gotten to hear it.

What will release day look like for “Bluer Than Velvet”?

At the moment, we’re spreading the word to the press, getting the word out in anticipation of release day, April 13th. On that day, the radio campaign begins, and hopefully the good folks of jazz radio find pieces on “Velvet” that fit into their programs, thus carrying my voice, and Arthur Prysock’s legacy, out to a wider and greater audience. That’s important because I don’t put my albums on streaming sites, and radio and interviews like this are how people get to discover what I do.

Sales will be through CDBaby.com, both for CDs and for digital downloads. It’ll be on the other downloads sites, Amazon and iTunes, of course.

The “sound” of this album is as important as any other element, and we worked hard on it: Michael Brorby on the recording and editing of it, and Paul Wickliffe on the mixes and mastering of it. They both did amazing work; we were three wonky Virgos working up something tasty that we’re proud of.

What is your favorite instrumentation when you’re on stage?

Anything… from just me on up, actually. I once played a full set in a club in California à cappella one night — and it hung together. I’m now experimenting with a voice/percussion duo, which I’ve never seen anywhere else before. But it’s very freeing, right down to the root, voice and drum.

I’ve done plenty of duos with pianos, guitars or bass. But this conga thing is cool. Then, all the standard trios and quartet formats, I love it all. I will admit, though, to a special love for the nonet I mentioned above. It was like sitting, wide-eyed, on the front of a freight train… oh, yeah, that was thrilling.

Do you prefer a small intimate club or large venue/festival?

Yes. If they’re paying, I love them all… I joke, but I love them all for different reasons. Small venues are the best for what I do, singing, telling stories for people in an intimate setting. But a large venue is great, too. There’s a power to a larger crowd, an energy that’s almost palpable, another separate being, with its own heartbeat, that’s a lovely partner to dance with.

Favorite clubs/festivals/events?

Birdland has always been wonderful to sing in, both in its current midtown location, and its former location uptown. I’m playing in The Bar Next Door in Greenwich Village these days, and that’s just a heavenly intimate room to sing in. It’s like being in your living room, but with much better wine.

I haven’t played many festivals since my folk days, years ago, but that’s where I’ll be focusing in the next year or two. 

Where will you perform this year?

I’m currently in the process of booking CD-release dates to support “Velvet,” so hopefully we’ll get to sing for you all soon! 

Biggest challenge as a vocalist today?

Finding enough places to play. Players have an advantage as they can swap bookings among one another, playing on each other’s gigs, sliding between being leader and side person. Singers are always in front. We’re the leader, period. Whether we want to be or not. That’s just the way of it. So we also have to hustle the bookings.

You also don’t have the anonymity a player enjoys when you’re always the leader, so you can go from unknown to over-exposed from an audience perspective in a flash, which makes it a bit tricky. So, if you’re a player out there, be sure to hire a singer on your next gig! Just sayin’. 

Future collaborations in the works?

I’ve had conversations with a number of stunning players whom I’d love to work with and some of that will be growing into tangible events in the near future. I also have roughly a dozen fully formed, fully realized albums spinning around up in my head that I have to get out, so I have to get cracking.

What do you most want people to know about your music?

That it’s honest. That what they see/hear is what they get. This is me. A flawed human singing for flawed humans, working through the range of emotions for those folks who have a harder time doing so than I do. That’s the artist’s job, I think. The most autobiographical song I know that I didn’t write is “Everything I Have Is Yours.” That pretty much sums it up.

Other comments?

That’s pretty much it. You’ve covered a lot of terrain here. Thanks for this, Debbie, it was fun.

For more information, visit www.ejdecker.com and you can visit the IndieGoGo page here.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of E.J. Decker.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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