With a heroic grasp of both the struggles and triumphs of this life, jazz artist Tiffany Austin jumps in, both feet, with her new CD titled “Unbroken.” Her voice, not merely an instrument consisting of throat and lungs but of an entire emotional being, soars upward to stirring mountain peaks and grazes low into the depths of unknowable defeat.
Songs like the ancestrally inspired “Ain’t No Grave,” the wistful “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and the high-energy “Resolution” that features her awesomely contoured scatting and a wild ride on killer piano, add up to a richness of ideas that makes for a remarkable jazzperience.
Trained in the law but always pulled towards music, Austin finally relinquished. It’s to the benefit of all.
Why the switch from law to jazz?
Music has always been my first love. I had been in performing arts schools growing up but never allowed myself the luxury of believing that I could make my evocation my vocation. I earned my undergrad degree in English Literature, and then decided to take a gap year in Japan before I started law school. But music was tidal–before I knew it, I found myself singing full-time in Tokyo for five and a half years.
Leaving my full-time music career in Japan was a tricky thing. I took the LSAT and told myself that if I got a good score, I’d apply for law school. When I got a good score I thought, “I’ll only go if a top school accepts me.” When I was accepted into Berkeley Law I thought, “I’ll only go if I receive a scholarship.” And when I received a scholarship, I packed my bags and sobbed all the way to Narita Airport.
That heartbreak continued during my first year of law school. Granted, 1L year can be a tremendous strain, but I realized that I missed music much more than I enjoyed the intellectual interplay of the law. So, when I graduated from Berkeley Law, I crossed the stage and stepped right into planning my debut album, “Nothing But Soul.” It’s been the most wonderful and exhilarating adventure of my life.
What was your very first public performance like?
I was one of those children who sang and danced and put on a show everywhere I went. I don’t know how my parents survived it! My first jazz performance was in Tokyo, and I remember a wave a panic hitting me. I wasn’t accustomed to the harmonic complexity of the tunes, and the drummer came up to me afterwards and asked if I wanted improvisation lessons. He turned out to be Tommy Campbell, nephew of organist Jimmy Smith. Tommy was an excellent teacher, not only because he taught at Berklee College of music for many years, but also because he has a lot of soul. That experience really taught me a lot–about being a lifelong music student, and not being afraid to fail or ask for help.
How have you stretched your range to be comfortable singing in so many registers?
My classical voice training has really helped a lot. I find that the classical vocal setting is the easiest to explore my range without risk of injury. Also, transcribing horn solos has been a great vehicle. Take John Coltrane’s “Resolution”, for instance. When I learned that solo, I had to find some range that I didn’t know I had!
How do you take care of your voice?
I really listen to my body. It tells me what is needed and what is or isn’t possible at any given time. I don’t try to push if I feel vocal discomfort, I work my voice daily, and I try to stay hydrated: lots of non-caffeinated teas, ginger, and warming spices.
Also, I know that one of the greatest enemies of a lithe, free voice is tension, so I take care to warm up my voice and body and keep my instrument relaxed–even if I am going for a big moment musically and emotionally. If I feel my body scrunching up, my mind racing, I’ll meditate for a bit to get back into a more relaxed state.
What’s the backstory to “Unbroken”?
Unbroken is a celebration of the resilience of the African American spirit. That resilience can be seen our musical lineage: from the talking drum, to ring shouts and spirituals, to blues and swing, to soul, R&B and hip-hop. We have always found ways to sublimate adversity into something luminous.
I needed this project personally as a balm–having been met with headline after headline of injustice after injustice. I wanted to look back at the arc of a people who have survived and thrived despite the tumult of their times, and draw healing energy from that. And I hope that listeners can feel that same energy.
The biggest challenge in writing or producing it?
I think the biggest challenge was not in writing the material, but in finally deciding that the works were fully formed enough to release. I tend to rework and rework material, and if I had my way I’d probably do that forever.
I think there was a similar issue in producing the project: I tend to want to refine and retake and redo things. That impetus is at odds with my love of a real live sound–one with lots of energy and interplay with the band. So there were times when I had to just let go and let the take be the take.
What did you learn from the process?
I learned so much from working with the collaborators. The band was so tight that we didn’t really need many takes. I also learned that if you have great groupings, players who often work together, there’s an unmistakable fluency of conversation. The rhythm section (Carl Allen, Rodney Whitaker, Cyrus Chestnut) sounds incredibly locked.
I also learned a lot from working with Richard Seidel, who produced the project. We reaped the benefits of his long tenure at Verve Records. He knows when to push, pull, how to direct traffic, or leave things be.
How has it been received?
It’s gotten a lot of love! Four stars from Downbeat Magazine, five stars from All About Jazz, and it’s reached #16 on the Jazz Week chart. The thing I love most is the reaction from folks at shows. When someone tells me that the music really touched them, that just warms me through and through. That’s the mission of the music, and I’m so glad that people get it.
Talk about the personnel on “Unbroken.”
Well, the story starts with Dr. Mitch Butler. We’d collaborated on live music projects before, and when I approached him with my originals, he’d done some beautiful arrangements. It was a given that he would be on the “Unbroken” project. He is a fiery trombone player, and a gifted composer and arranger who really understands the history and mission of the music.
Mitch introduced me to Carl Allen (drums), and when he agreed to play on the album I was a bit awed and gobsmacked. And the gobsmacking continued when Rodney Whitaker (bass) and Cyrus Chestnut (piano) agreed to join the recording. I needed folks who could take the music from the field to the church house to the juke joint, and they were perfect for it. I love how they opened up space for the vocals to sit front and center. Rodney’s soul and thump, Carl’s beautiful textures and leading phrases, and Cyrus’s exquisite comping really made it hard to let them go at the end of the session.
As for the horn section: I’d heard Ashlin Parker (trumpet) play with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and was instantly dazzled with his playing. He plays with so much fire, is passionate about the music, and his melodies and phrasing are so hip. Dr. Teodross Avery (sax) was also a must-hire. I’ve known him for a while and was always impressed with his depth of knowledge and soulful musicality.
Your very favorite tracks?
My two favorite tunes bookend the album. “Blues Creole” is an original I wrote about Amede Ardoin, the famed pre-zydeco Creole vocalist/accordion player who devoted his life to his art. Despite living in segregated times when he was expected to be a sharecropper, he instead played music with a Cajun fiddler named Dennis McGee. Those decisions were perilous during those times, but Amede still pursued his dream. I’m inspired by Amede’s single-mindedness and passion. My mother’s side of the family is also from rural Louisiana, so the song is also an ode to my heritage. Musically, I love “Blues Creole’s” heat. It’s a fun tune to scat on, with an unexpected twist on the blues form, and Cyrus’s solo still makes me leap out of my seat.
I love the intimacy of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” I was hearkening back to Mahalia Jackson on that one. The robustness of her voice and her spiritual urgency, and how that connects back to the ancestors. Rodney’s accompaniment dances in all the right places and I think the duet’s simplicity and directness was the perfect way to end the album.
How has your voice evolved since 2015’s “Nothing But Soul”?
I notice that my voice sounds younger, lighter than this one. I’ve definitely developed more robustness in my tone, and have expanded my range and styles of improvisation. I’m sure part of that is musical maturation, and part of it is driven by the gravity of the material.
How would you say the music industry has changed in the past few years?
It has seemed to be in flux for quite a while now. The biggest change that I deal with daily is the necessity for independent artists to wear so many hats. One must be a record label, booking agent, web designer, social media manager, accountant, video director, art director…the list goes on and on. And the expectation of quality remains high despite the decreased opportunity to collect royalties on product.
An artist’s creativity and resources have to be channeled not only into his or her craft, but also into the means by which one markets oneself and one’s product. And that marketing must be a daily, multi-medium, multi-platform endeavor.
What are your favorite clubs?
Wow, there are so many! As for larger venues, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles is soaring and gorgeous. My favorite clubs are intimate spaces where I can connect with every audience member. Birdland NYC; Kuumbwa Jazz, Santa Cruz, CA and SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Room are a few off the top of my head.
Festival you have always wanted to perform?
I’d love to play Monterey Jazz, the Playboy Jazz Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz Festival. So many legends have played those festivals and it would be a thrill to walk those hallowed grounds.
How do artists stay creative in marketing?
I think it’s important to observe what does and doesn’t work for other people, and also be brave enough to run controlled experiments. Inspiration is everywhere, if you look for it.
For example, if I see an ad or video that wants me to buy something, I ask myself “why?” and then try to see if it can be tweaked to be effective for my brand and/or objective. Then, I’ll dedicate a specific amount of time/money to the test marketing and watch analytics. If it’s unsuccessful, I may see if it can be tweaked again, or if the idea needs to be abandoned. My biggest advice is to stay open to new ideas, and keep experimenting!
What do you require of a song to perform it?
I have to be able to find meaning in, and connect to it. The beautiful thing about language and music is that there is room to play, stretch out, and interpret. I love the way that Nina Simone found her own undercurrent of meaning in “Pirate Jenny.” Though it wasn’t a “jazz” tune, Nina inhabited it and used it as a vehicle of storytelling. This is my central thought when I approach any song, regardless of the musical tradition from which it comes.
Country you have always wanted to perform in?
Although I do have a mighty wanderlust, I don’t have a specific country I’d like to perform in. I’d love to travel to as many beautiful places as possible and share my music.
What is the message you hope to bring listeners?
I want folks to feel into the people and traditions that went into making this project. There is hope and power in the enduring human spirit, and during these times of confusion and tumult, I hope that we all tap into the love, power and humanity that has brought us this far.
Thank you so much Debbie for taking the time to interview me. I really appreciate you keeping your ears on the music.
For more information, visit www.tiffanyaustin.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Tiffany Austin.
© Debbie Burke 2018