A song starts out and you’re totally open, ready to get your mind around the rhythm of it, the main tune of it, and soon after, to identify where the harmonies lie and where the other textures will start to fit in.
What happens if, within the first few bars, you get hit with an outlier, an unexpected chord change, that stops you in your tracks? You pay attention. Sometimes that’s the intention; the music is trying to say something to you, challenging you, pulling you inside its story.
So it is with the lead track called “This is the Thing” from the upcoming CD “Into the Light” by San Francisco Bay-area vocalist/pianist/composer Amanda Addleman. The song’s calming thrum drops a surprise chord modulation in your lap, and you stay to find out how it’s going to resolve.
This is the beauty of Addleman’s compositions. They make their way into your heart, then your mind takes over to get a full look around. Her piano is subtle, supportive of the melody, and her voice is simultaneously rich and clear, with no unnecessary ornamentation, even in the higher elevations like on the track “In My Mind.” She imbues an ethereal feel into “I Wish I was a Bird” which thematically becomes more than a desire to flee from life’s daily concerns (“I wish I was a bird,” she writes, but then, “I wish you were someone I could rely on.”). “There is no Greater Love” lifts and falls like a leaf on the wind; with her rolling piano, gentle backup from guitar and percussion and a sweet contribution from the bass on solo, this song fans out, for all to see, the relief and joy of coming Into the Light.
Growing up, did you have a favorite vocalist?
I loved Ella Fitzgerald and the jazz greats like Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and Billie Holiday but I also am very inspired by some of the more modern singers. As a young person I was really into Tierney Sutton and how she used her voice as an instrument in her band. I loved her arranging techniques and vocal quality and how she used them to express swing, harmony and improvisation.
I also learned a great deal from Jane Monheit. Her concept of swing combined with her seamless vocal technique was and continues to be a major inspiration for me. She is a true master of the jazz art form.
Biggest plus in being educated at Berklee?
Berklee was great in so many ways. The education was overall very impactful and positive. I loved many of my teachers and the emphasis they put on learning jazz in a deep way regardless of instrument was very important to me as a developing musician.
I also appreciated the community I found there. The students there had wildly different perspectives on music which I think is pretty unique to Berklee or at least it was at the time. We were all working on our own thing while studying a “common core” of harmony, theory and technique simultaneously.
I remember walking around campus and feeling like I’d truly made it, simply seeing the signs on the street while the freezing wind whipped my hair around my face. The energy there was exciting and propelled me forward even in the most difficult of times.
Most useful career advice you’ve ever received?
I have a few mantras I have been trying to live by in recent years:
Be gracious and courteous but only take feedback (both positive and negative) from those you trust or seek out.
Support your community if you want your community support you.
Mindful time off and self-care are critical to productivity and creativity.
How would you describe your voice?
I would qualify my sound as mezzo soprano with a warm brightness throughout. It’s flexible and has a wide range of sounds which I draw from to express different styles.
As a composer/arranger/vocalist/pianist, do you feel that what you play or sing comes basically from one instrument (you)?
I love the way this question is worded because it feels like insight directly into my experience. I wear many hats as a musician but yes, I feel like one artist using different colors and sounds to express different things. I’ve been experimenting recently with isolating one instrument at a time during performances to really stretch the bounds of each independently. Multitasking is challenging but in the right headspace it feels like I have an extra set of hands or a larger range than I would if I only did one thing.
How did you decide on which musicians to work with?
The musicians I work with now, I’ve worked with for many years. When they can’t play the gig, I will ask for their recommendations because I trust in their substitutes. The musicians I hire for my groups are extremely musical, skilled, friendly and fun.
I’m notorious for hiring the same musicians over and over again. I really value the relationships I’ve built with them through music. They are my friends and have contributed so much to me and my sound that I just love playing with them.
I do want to work on branching out, though. There are incredible musicians in the Bay Area and beyond, so this is a goal of mine.
What does each musician bring to this CD?
The group I chose for “Into the Light” played a major creative role in the music itself. Lee Dynes, the guitarist, is not only a powerhouse soloist but also brings a strong rhythmic feel to the group. Being a pianist and a vocalist, I sometimes get heavy-handed with notes, melodies and chords where he will add strong rhythm and time-feel to a piece to help create balance.
Ryan Lukas, the bassist, is incredibly steady and strong. He creates very melodic but forward-moving bass lines that complement the mix of styles perfectly. He’s experienced in a variety of genres but certainly rooted in jazz so the genre blends come naturally to him.
Drummer Ben Lauffer is also experienced in many genres and has many influences, but his jazz concept and style are so solid he can flex in and out of different genres effortlessly. He has excellent taste and understands when to power the band forward and pull back with a strong dynamic sense.
I’ve played with these guys for so long that we’re good friends. I trust that they want the music to sound its best and that they are dedicated to playing creatively and supportively.
Has the band evolved since forming in 2009?
Yes. I think the biggest changes are how we approach our instruments, our musical voices and our personal relationships. We’ve settled into our playing styles with different influences so that when we come back to play together, we breathe new life into the tunes both new and old.
I also think we’ve grown as people and are more comfortable communicating both musically and personally.
What direction do you envision for your music?
I want to try new things. I want to dive deeper into modern jazz and to begin to experiment crossing vocal and instrumental boundaries. My past has had a lot of “shoulds” and I want to move away from that.
I look over the arrangements and compositions and see so much room for growth and expansion in harmony, melodic line and vocal/instrumental expression. I want to continue to share my stories and experiences but with larger audiences around the world.
When you arrange a classic (say “Blue Skies” or “Sunny Side of the Street”) how do you honor the original feel of the piece, and then, how do you make it yours?
When arranging any piece I usually start with the lyrics and the melody. The composer/arranger Maria Schneider spoke at Berklee about her process and how her reaction to the lyrics drove many of her arrangements. This really stuck with me in that I’ll typically reflect on the feeling of the piece and begin to write from there.
“Blue Skies” was an arrangement that came from Irving Berlin’s contrast of major to minor while the lyrics are generally pretty sunny. This conveyed the idea that even in the good times we can still feel darkness. His lyrics and harmonic choices really reflect the blurriness of the human emotional experience and I chose to take this further in my own way. By creating the R&B ostinato in my cover of this song, I wanted it to feel like a dimly shaded lulling while the bridge’s more complex, angular harmony supports the melody with a beat-by-beat contrast of dark to light.
“Sunny Side of the Street,” though, is where my arrangement is pretty traditional. There are pieces like this where I love them so much, I want to honor the tradition in a very real way, without deconstructing it at all. I love the way this tune swings so I wanted an arrangement that highlighted that in an exciting way.
How would you describe the SF Bay area in terms of being jazz-friendly?
I go back and forth with this constantly because we’re all inundated with the idea that New York is THE place for jazz and sometimes it’s touted as the only place for jazz. I have struggled with finding work that actually pays me enough to hire a full band. Many of the venues here pay a standard $50 plus tips and may not even include a full meal which is really challenging especially to those who rely solely on gigs for their income. It’s frustrating that there are many musicians who continue to play these gigs even when the pay is so low.
Many restaurants have moved away from live music and instead have a Pandora station or Spotify jazz playlist in lieu of a live band and because of this, we have lost a great deal of our time-honored jazz venues.
However, I will say that there are a ton of jazz musicians here and the people are truly what make this a great scene. The California Jazz Conservatory is attracting a lot of young players and brings great people together all over the Bay. Most musicians I know and interact with here are supportive of one another. It’s a pretty cool place to be playing music at the moment.
Your favorite small club there?
I love playing the Rendon Hall at the California Jazz Conservatory. It’s a beautiful new space with a great piano and wonderful acoustics. Their mission of creating a jazz hub in the Bay area is musician-centric and they have wonderful artists coming through to play, host workshops and teach courses.
I also love Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio. I’ve sat in here on a jam and am planning to bring my group here after the record releases. They have a great space and foster community among jazz musicians which is very important to me.
Festival you have always wanted to perform?
I would love to perform at any of the big jazz festivals: Montreux, Newport and of course the San Francisco and San Jose Jazz Festivals. I’ve also been particularly interested in the Detroit Jazz Festival. They have a great energy and support for their festival, and they bring in a mix of well-known players, locals and independent artists for an authentic sampling of what people are playing all over the world. It might even be at the top of my list.
You talk about PTSD. What brought you out “into the light” to come out with your stories in a musical way?
Working through issues is lifelong and I don’t know that there is ever an end point so it’s hard to say exactly what the catalyst was.
I wrote this body of work throughout my discovery and early recovery periods so it only seemed natural to release this work as an honest reflection of where I had been both personally and musically.
A major symptom of PTSD is keeping quiet about one’s experiences and I wanted to push against that. The story is intertwined in the writing of this album both intentionally and simply just by me writing a piece or an arrangement at a particular point along the way. I’ve wanted to tell it in a real way because I want others to know they can share theirs, too. I take solace in knowing that I’m not suffering or recovering alone.
Two years in the making, so what were the biggest challenge in getting this CD out?
Balancing the work with my teaching and performing jobs. It’s been too easy to put off my creative work when there are endless emails to answer, and classes, and lessons to teach.
I’ve worked to find better balance over the last year and things are moving forward as I feel they should.
What track was the most fun to record?
I love playing “This is the Thing,” and the way the band creates texture together and the vocal provides the beacon of light through the mix. We recorded vocals separately so the driving piano line was a blast to lock in with the rhythm section. Recording the vocals in isolation was very empowering for me.
It’s a beautiful and haunting melody to sing over the interlocking cacophony and recording it allowed me to fully explore the artistic space the song provides.
Is there a unifying ideology on the album or do the tracks stand on their own?
I think it’s a little of both. There are tracks where I have thought “this one doesn’t fit” but at the same time they provide vignettes into my story with references to different genres and sounds. The theme is exploring the dark and the light and there are elements of that throughout the whole work. However, each track certainly has its own micro-climate.
What do you hope people get from hearing this album?
I hope they’re inspired to be creative in their own way.
My favorite concerts or albums are the ones where I’m not only in awe of the musician themselves but the ones where I feel inspired to get back to my own creative work.
Thank you for such insightful questions and for your appreciation of the record. I’ve had such a great time making it and I appreciate the opportunity to be featured on such a wonderful jazz blog.
For more information visit www.amandaaddleman.com.