A bell-like clarity is the overriding quality in Rachel Caswell’s voice; we hear it especially when the instrumentalists pull back and leave her in the spotlight, like the song “Fragile” on her newest CD, “We’re All in the Dance.” She scats expertly in the double-time “Devil May Care,” never losing her footing, keeping the song careening forward; her band obliges at a light but dizzying pace. Caswell can swing and hit the blues, too; her dragged hemiolas in “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” pulse with sass and class. Most interesting is her intuitively brilliant use of vibrato: lovingly caressing a lyric only when it’s most meaningful to do so.
Ten tracks make up this CD and they offer a dim sum approach to the drastically different moods she is able to evoke, seeming effortless.
When did the singing bug bite?
That’s a tougher question than it seems! I didn’t necessarily set out to be a singer so my development has occurred in stages. My family is musical and I was encouraged to sing from childhood but focused my training on instruments like piano and cello.
Then I had the opportunity to sing with my high school jazz band during my senior year which probably planted a seed. While in college, I started to be drawn more and more to the idea of singing and even started taking some gigs with a guitarist friend of mine. I think it had to do with the fact that I was studying jazz and loved the music but felt like it fit my vocal instrument better than anything else that I was doing.
It wasn’t until graduate school that I made a conscious switch. That was a big change for someone like me who had always been identified as an instrumentalist. In part, it was a skills shift as I have continued to try to develop my vocal flexibility and lyric connection but also, I was terrified that people wouldn’t take me seriously. It’s been an interesting journey and one that is ongoing!
How does the music encourage you to express yourself?
I love the creative element whether it’s improvising a solo or finding the best interpretation of a song depending on the setting or particular musicians I’m working with. Things are always changing and I love how I have to think on my feet and problem-solve all while being expressive. And the interaction with fellow players just deepens the experience.
What does the title of your new CD, “We’re All In The Dance,” refer to?
It’s actually the title of the third track on the album, a song that originally appeared in the 2006 film Paris, Je T’aime. It was the type of tune that grabbed me as a potential vehicle right away. I made note of it and filed it away for future reference. The English lyric has a beautiful message of music serving as the glue of our lives and relationships. It felt like the right message for a time when so many people feel isolated. And Sara’s violin adds the perfect color to the performance!
The most difficult track to complete?
Probably either “Dexterity” or “Tell Me a Bedtime Story.” Bebop tunes like “Dexterity” are kind of unforgiving when you’re a singer. Everything has to be right, especially if you’re being doubled by an instrument. “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” has a similar issue since it was originally conceived of as an instrumental tune. It’s rangy, and the rhythms and feel have to lock in or it just won’t sound right.
Your phrasing is obviously informed by your scatting ability. How does an artist utilize this to best effect (and not over-do it)?
I suppose they are both part of a larger whole. My phrasing is driven by my desire to communicate lyrics effectively but my understanding of improvisational language and rhythm is the means by which I accomplish that. I try to make each tune my own which can mean doing some reinterpretation.
I can improvise around the tune using the lyrics but never so much as to obliterate the tune and usually more on the out head than the in head. But there are some tunes that don’t really call for that. This is where taste and personal style come into it.
What’s your favorite instrumentation in a small ensemble?
I tend to use a standard rhythm section with either guitar or piano. I like the two comping instruments for different reasons which is probably why we opted to use both on this record.
I also like to have at least one other frontline performer with me. It helps to have someone to double the heads on vocalese charts and it’s nice to have someone share the improvisational duties, otherwise it’s a LOT of scat.
Are there a lot of performance opportunities in the Indianapolis area?
Indianapolis has a few nice jazz venues which I appear at from time to time and there are several bands in both Bloomington and Indianapolis who like to hire me on vocals, which I enjoy. I’m always trying to do more or at least as much as my teaching schedule allows.
Where in the US would you most love to perform?
I think, like many jazz musicians, I’d love to be able to play some of the major clubs across the country – the Jazz Standard, the Green Mill, the Dakota, Snug Harbor, Dazzle, Scullers, the Blue Whale. I haven’t pursued those types of bookings but I hope to be able to perform in that sort of venue eventually. I also hope to be able to perform at Newport sometime.
Who are your favorite jazz composers or artists?
So many! I usually have to break that kind of question down into different influences.
Bill Evans was my gateway to falling in love with jazz and Ella was an early favorite singer. Nancy King out of Portland, Oregon, is probably my favorite singer but there’s a lot of fabulous work being done by friends of mine and younger artists. Composers is a whole other thing – I love the way Fred Hersch thinks and Maria Schneider’s writing is just spectacular. It’s really a rabbit hole – I could go on forever!
What’s the best way to keep an audience’s attention?
I find that sensible programming is one of the key elements to audience engagement. That’s something I always consider whether it’s putting together a live set or a collection of songs for a recording.
If I do five tunes in a row with the same basic feel, I’ll lose the listener. If I scat on absolutely everything or do a whole series of tunes without lyrics, that’s a lot for an audience to deal with.
If I balance things, giving them some variety, it’s pretty easy to draw listeners in.
Did you and your sister begin your careers together?
Sara and I started taking music lessons around the same and we’ve had similar paths but every career is different. We live in different cities and play different “horns” which means we’ve had different experiences. Luckily, we respect each other a great deal and always find ways to collaborate despite the distance. We have a joint record out under the name Caswell Sisters and we have appeared on each other’s solo records.
What do you like best about singing with her?
There’s an ease in working with Sara. We’ve been playing together since we were children so we have an intuitive way of phrasing together. Her sound is so clear and warm and I’ve always enjoyed the way our sounds complement each other. She’s also developed a unique improvisational voice that I love hearing on my projects.
Favorite Great American Songbook song ever; does this change?
I think it changes. I may sing a particular tune a lot and then I might set it aside for a while to let it breathe.
With the way I approach tunes, I want there to be a freshness in the interpretation and over-singing a tune can create a rut. More than anything, I view tunes differently as I age so the lyric that might have resonated with the 20-year-old me is not necessarily the same as with the 45-year-old me. Basically, a song won’t sound the same since I’ve changed over time and grown as a musician.
I love this new project and that it’s reaching people. It’s a “next level” project for me in so many ways: vocally, arrangements, production, musicians. It’s pretty much a dream band and it was a joy to explore the tunes with them.
I’m excited to see where I go from here and it compels me to keep working and growing in this industry that I love.
For more information, visit www.rachelcaswell.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Rachel Caswell. Top photo (c) Mike Lee; CD cover (c) Christopher Drukker.
© Debbie Burke 2018