Picture-painting comes easily to Nicolas Bearde. Listening to “Lush Life,” for example, puts you in the center of the emotional agony of an out-of-grasp love. The ups and downs and mid-tones of Bearde’s vocal range are applied with authenticity; in a comfortable story-teller way. The thrilling minor-keyed chestnut “Nature Boy” is another that is so aptly suited to his voice and here he doesn’t disappoint.
These and the other classics he favors are way too easy for a vocalist to over-sing, but Bearde approaches them with TLC and high respect; in addition to delivering a voice to wrap yourself into. The small but mighty ensemble that backs him up does its job glowingly and with style. He’s in the midst of producing a new CD that will be released in early 2019.
How has your voice evolved through the years?
I’d have to say that my tone has mellowed. It’s kind of that good worn-in coat sort of thing. I know what I can do and I’m not trying to shatter glass or out-riff anyone per se. Though I enjoy improving on my technical abilities, I don’t stress my voice much these days unless it’s for a particular effect.
How do you take care of it?
Getting sufficient sleep, vocal rest and hydration, especially when flying a lot, is immensely helpful and restorative. Those days of seemingly endless late nights and early mornings along with too much “recreating” along the way don’t happen as much anymore. We are not “bullet proof” after all and I’ve had to learn how to pace myself much more than I ever did as a young singer.
Warm-up regimens and utilizing supportive vocal technique helps things stay aligned. Though I don’t necessarily do the same routine every time I sing, I always do some sort of prep, including a brief meditation, before stepping to the mic.
Which musicians have inspired you?
I’m inspired by a great variety of musicians and I’m going to give you this longish list, because I so often have to edit it and one doesn’t get the full picture of how wide-ranging my tastes and influences are.
I’m talking everyone from Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Jon Lucien, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughn and Carmen McRae, Johnny Hartman, Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and Johnny Mathis, Burt Bacharach (especially his work with Dionne Warwick), Luther Vandross, Nat Cole and Lou Rawls. Abbey Lincoln, Shirley Horn, Nancy Wilson, Dianne Reeves and Milton Nascimento and Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass, Carole King, Al Green and Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and on and on… I mean, the list is so long! And let’s not forget the classical composers Debussy and Puccini. I love Debussy and Puccini! And Beethoven, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Leonard Bernstein!! I know… exhausting right?
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg so to speak. You might notice that there are a lot of ladies on that list; I’ve learned so much about jazz vocal stylings from the amazing technique of female singers. The late Aretha Franklin is one of those at the top of that list of female singers, though she was considered later as an R&B singer, I first heard her singing jazz when I was a youngster. She never changed or modified her talents, just changed the material she sang. I recently heard a recording of her singing gospel at the age of 14; she was phenomenal! Already a master vocal stylist at that age!
How would you characterize your music?
My music has a certain eclectic element to it. I’m constantly in search of something unique in each lyric and melody; something that touches me in a particular place. That might be different for each song and I’m not sure I can always tell you what it is that moves me, but I know it when I come upon it.
I also strive for arrangements that aren’t completely predictable, with a few surprises in the approach. I don’t seek out material that’s necessarily the most popular piece. One of the things that I’ve always admired in both Shirley Horn and Abbey Lincoln’s work is how they managed to find these unique, undiscovered songs and bring them to the light. Of course Abbey’s original material is always something to behold as well. Her “Living Room” has been a recurring piece in my shows for some time. I’m looking for that beautiful melody and lyrical construct that makes my approach a little bit different. So it’s a joy to come upon a piece such as that, with its unique form, lyrical relevance and a universal message of hope.
What is your favorite band configuration?
I usually work with an acoustic trio or quartet. It depends on the budget to some extent, and on the program that I want to present on any given night.
What do most people not know about singing jazz?
I’m not sure how to approach that…what I can say is that you have to have an open mind and be prepared to accept the consequences of any given outing onstage.
Bobby McFerrin would say “prepare to improvise.” That’s pretty much a code to live by as a jazz singer because if you’re truly approaching jazz singing as I understand and approach it, you’ll want to set the parameters: time, tempo, key, etc. of any given piece, and then be prepared to go where the collaboration takes you. Organized improvisation in a sense. A beautiful, frightening and joyous thing when it works.
Talk about 2016’s “Invitation” and the most exciting parts of making that CD?
I think it was working with Nat Adderley Jr. on the arrangements and seeing the whole thing take wings in the studio. It may be the first project where I just basically gave over control to the producer (Nat) and let him handle that chair (with a couple of exceptions). Otherwise, working with these very fine players was just a continual thrill. No egos anywhere, and I felt that everyone, from top to bottom, East and West Coast rhythm sections, was 100% committed to doing their finest work.
What track do you feel is the most outstanding?
I don’t think I can single any one out, because each track is coming from different places in my mind.
Having said that, we tracked “Come Back to Me” first and I was so happy because it gave me a strong sense that everyone was “in it,” you know? And it just told me that we had the right pieces and we were on the way to something special.
Give a peek into your upcoming project. What’s different – new – fresh about it?
Well, this “baby” has yet to be born and is right now in a “fetal” stage if you will. We’ve only recorded two tracks so far with more on the way. I can’t give the source for those pieces yet, but I’ve got a few originals that will be included on this project as well and I am excited to get more of that work out into the world.
Who’s on it?
I’ve been working with pianist/producer, Josh Nelson (Natalie Cole), bassist, Alex Boneham and drummer Dan Schnelle to date.
The project will very likely include other performers, depending on the material that winds up being included.
When will it be released?
We’re shooting for January, 2019.
What’s the single most important piece of advice you’d give to emerging artists?
Study and develop all the musical tools that you can. Keep an open mind about the music and the people you work with. It’s a collaborative art form and people and opportunities come and go-and you want them to come and go, so that you’re always in the mix. Don’t be afraid to stretch and try new stuff and work with different people. Grow.
When did an apparent musical failure turn into a win?
My musical life changed significantly when I decided to walk away from the a cappella world.
I had been singing with Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra in addition to my solo club work and theatrical endeavors for about ten years, which was amazing and SO challenging and illuminating. I am so fortunate to have been a part of it all. But when Bobby decided to “retire” Voicestra, several of us decided to continue this group work with an offshoot we named SoVoSo. It was a smaller group of singers from the Voicestra family, and I was one of the founding members.
Though we started off in the mold of Voicestra, we found ourselves moving beyond that and eventually, we began to include elements of R&B and other musical flavors in it. But, after a few years of struggle and seemingly endless rehearsals and not enough gigs (or money) and too much heartbreak, I realized that something had to change.
I think it was just the frustrations of trying to find a place for such a unique project in the industry and the challenge of finding arrangements to make the compositions work. Also, I realized that I needed the sound and support of real instruments for the type of music I wanted to sing. Though I was ready to move on, it came at a time when the group politics were in flux and I didn’t want to let the group down or see it dissolve. But honestly, my soul needed air.
It was heartbreaking to leave an endeavor that we had put so much time and struggle into but sometimes you just have to make the move. I didn’t know it at the time but it was the best thing for me and my solo endeavors. My first CD was already out in the world and I was able to focus more on promoting the work that I felt strongest about. Almost immediately, the phone started ringing and doors started to open in a different direction.
Why did you start the Right Groove label?
Right Groove was created as a tool to release and promote my solo recordings, with an eventual goal of possibly working with other artists.
How did acting benefit you as a jazz artist?
Acting work keeps me conscious and present onstage, and allows me to engage a bit more in the stories that I sing about, though I don’t necessarily approach a lyric in a theatrical sense. I tend to focus more on the rhythmic underpinnings, then the melody; but then sometimes it’s the reverse of that. It’s jazz, it changes.
Where are you based now and what is the music scene like there?
I’m Northern California-based. The music scene here, like in so many other parts of the country, is being heavily influenced by the ever-present encroachment of gentrification. Many legendary venues and excellent new ones have come and gone; fallen prey to the challenges of escalating rent and real estate prices and what feels like a lack of interest (actually, I really believe the problem is the lack of exposure to and understanding of jazz music) by much of the youth culture.
Although there’s a wealth of music education and many fine artists here, young and old, there are not many venues to support the expression of their talents. I believe though, that it will come around at some point. People need this music and I think once things settle a bit this situation will shift. I’ve got everything crossed and I hope I live long enough to see it!
Favorite concert hall?
I’ve enjoyed performing in venues large and small across the world and it’s not easy to pick a favorite one. Some of the venues were special just because of who we shared the stage with on a particular performance. Then again, some rooms have a magic of their own and you can almost “feel” the greats that have played that on that stage. There can be magic in the smallest little corner of a restaurant in front of 20 people or in a large festival venue with 10, 000 people staring at you. Having said that, I’d have to say that playing Carnegie Hall with Bobby McFerrin was a pretty special deal.
I love festival venues like the great hall at North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland or the Miles Davis Hall at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and of course, our world-famous Monterey Jazz Festival in Northern California. I’ve been blessed to be a part of some of the most magical festival performances with Bobby and others; the way he would get 5,000 people to sing harmonies, or sitting in with Lyle Mays and Jack DeJohnette at the Rio de Janeiro Jazz Festival, or working with African folk artists in Tonder, Denmark in a rain storm!
You never know what other acts you’ll see and experience. The best in the world are out there touring and maybe you’ll get to hang a little bit backstage or at the hotel. Perhaps you’ll see some act you’ve always wanted to see or some fantastic artist or band you didn’t know anything about. It’s just amazing what you get to be a part of.
Small clubs you enjoy a lot?
New York’s famed Birdland; one of the most storied rooms in the country, the Blue Whale, in Los Angeles; SF Jazz’s Joe Henderson Lab in San Francisco and Yoshi’s in Oakland. They all have great sound and charisma and have been very welcoming. But a room is just a room without a good people working it, and each of these have great technical teams and support staffs associated with them.
To what do you owe your longevity as an artist? Is it like perform-or-perish, etc.?
For me the passion was instilled from the beginning. I think for most performers, it’s something ingrained. But I look at it like this: you study, perform, record, etc. and you just keep at it. Hopefully, you learn some more and try to find something to keep it fresh, if only for yourself and you just keep doing it.
You look up one day and five or ten years have passed and you say Okay; alright? If the answer’s “yes” you just put your head down and carry on. And maybe another five or ten years from then you look up and say “OK?” If the answer is still “Yes” you put your head down and keep moving. Dig in and repeat ad infinitum.
I don’t think there’s anything Herculean about it. If you enjoy what you do, and maybe the people you play with, and the people you perform for, you just keep moving.
Thanks for reaching out and inviting me to be a part of your program.
For more information, visit www.nicolasbearde.com.