“There’s definitely some kind of affinity for all the different styles of music that represent through the African Diaspora. So anything at all that resonates that for me, having studied formally the classical music, from the theoretical and from the vocal, all this is what becomes the challenge to excel; to do well; to share the music; to learn from all these great veterans whether it’s on a record or whether it’s actually on stage with them.” Carmen Lundy
It was back in 1995 that we first sat down with Carmen Lundy, in the Green Room within Camden’s Jazz Café. There have been many occasions over the years where the team have been delighted by Carmen on stage, but it was this year, ahead of what looks to be a very different direction with the 2017 release, that we felt the time was right to catch up on some of the last 20 or so years. It was deep. We got answers and then some.
MJE: Welcome to London. You have just performed in Ireland. How was your time there?
Carmen Lundy: It was the first concert in Dublin. I think it was born out of the Cork Jazz Festival which we played two years ago. And we were back. So that’s quite a compliment. We had a wonderful audience, they invited me to the radio station to talk to the larger public of course. That was a good thing because we found ourselves with a full house as a result of that. And the musicians are great and the promoter there Dorian was quite a nice man. So he made us feel very welcome. People really dug it. We made some new fans and reinforced the ones that we do have. There was a man I won’t forget who was there and came in from London. Afterwards he wanted me to know that he had all of my albums and had like five or six of them for me to sign. And he said I had met him one night at Ronnie Scott’s and I went over to him and consoled him. And he said none of which he remembers… [Laughs] So those are the kind of things that you remember, you know their connection that you know people are really supporting the work, supporting our journey.
MJE: We last talked during the release of “Self Portrait” back in 1995. It felt very much like a frustrated Carmen Lundy – one frustrated by record labels. Has this changed with the formation of your own Afrasia label and what does Elisabeth Oei bring to the business?
Carmen Lundy: Afrasia – So of course I am of African descent and Elisabeth Oei – Oei is a Chinese name. Elisabeth is part Chinese part Dutch. So you have the AFR – ASIA combination, so that’s how we arrived at this label name Afrasia.
MJE: What lessons have been learnt through this process, presumably taking control was a huge difference – tell us please why this approach suits you?
Carmen Lundy: Well I will say that during the time of my two albums with JVC was really kind of the first time I experienced a label that was comfortable with the idea of new compositions. So I wrote for an entire year. You know sometimes we will think of ‘shopping for a deal’ or ‘shopping for a label contract’ and I wrote for an entire year before they even approached me about seriously making an agreement with them for several albums. At one point that you know I would write I would deliver maybe seven or eight songs and then they would say, oh write some more. So I go back to the drawing board and write another seven or eight songs, and they say, “Ohhh, let’s hear some more.” So I’m sitting there thinking, we still don’t have a contract, what it necessary at this point. So that’s when I spoke to my management and said look we’ve to have a little bit more incentive.
In the meantime the creative process was very strong and was very deeply into that, but what was interesting, I learned after the fact, the reason why they were so reinforcing my original compositions was because they had intended to take part of the publishing. So it was a wonderful project in that I was able to realise certain things I had never done as an artist. For example I was in love with this recording by Nina Simone “Single Woman” – the orchestrations on there are exquisite. And they are done by the arranger Jeremy Lubbock. I mean for several years he’s worked for Luther and for years he’s worked for Barbra Streisand, I would hear that about him. So I really wanted my project to include orchestration which is what you get from “Self Portrait”. So all of that came with all the work leading up to the project. And then to have “Forgive Me” on the record to record live with an orchestra was really a dream. That and “Round Midnight” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most”. So there were a couple of standards and one of my originals. But the bulk of that album, remember there were 10 songs, I think seven or eight of them are original compositions by myself.
So I was able to realise a lot during that time but it was also a frustrating time personally for me. I was living in Los Angeles having moved from New York and not quite sure about that because Los Angeles is not really where you go to nurture your jazz career. That might be a shifting a little bit now some 20 years later. So there was a lot of ‘just not being sure’ what career my direction is taking. But the upside was that I was focused on the creative process and that’s what I think Los Angeles has provided. Space to really get my work get to my work without as many distractions as you find living in a big city like New York and just being able to really focus on that part or my artistic development.
MJE: So with Elisabeth, it helps you be more creative?
Carmen Lundy: Yes, for a partner in a relationship; business, personal, to really understand and embrace all that comes with being a performing artist and to not impose a kind of “You know you can’t do this” and there’s a practical reason to do this. In work we have to earn a living we have to make the ends meet. You’ve got to find a way to do that and if it is not music, so be it. To not have that kind of pressure, to have someone understand that, particularly in our culture as Americans where there is no support system outside of that – you really have no choice but to figure out how to stay in your artistic endeavor without the stress of how to make those ends meet. So this gave me a sense of okay there’s a way to do this, there’s a way to stay in the music, stay on the performance stage, stay in the recording studio, and manage to get just enough opportunities of performance so that I don’t have this constant weight of how we are going to make this work. So I look up, it’s 40+ years of a career, I guess I’ll tell you almost 50, and there hasn’t been a year that I have not performed somewhere on the planet pursuing my craft. And this comes with people understanding, like Elisabeth Oei, having the kind of booking agent that works towards your interest, making sure that there are performances that keep those wheels oiled and to keep your confidence level up, and you come to the stage with a preparedness. It allows me to still be able to choose from the finest musicians, those musicians that are an integral part of the expression, the integral part of how we get the music done. So kudos to her and all the people who understand and realise what’s necessary to support the artistic journey.
MJE: Collaborations – There has been a healthy back catalogue of albums featuring Carmen Lundy – from Fred Wesley to Terri Lyne Carrington – are there any others in the making?
Carmen Lundy: Collaborations… Well, everything I do is a collaboration, because I don’t go to the stage and just stand there on my own [Laughs] and do a capella. Everything in some form is a collaboration. Sometimes I think other… like you mentioned Fred Wesley, Kip Hanrahan, Terri Lyne Carrington… other artists, they hear, they have a certain concept of what they want to express. And those of us who are vocalists represent what they’re trying to pull off, what they want to do for their own statement. What they see in their mind’s eye. So it’s kind of wonderful when they choose me. You know, that something about how I approach the music, whatever my sound is, the way I deliver the music somehow satisfies what their hearing, and also they allow me to be myself.
The collaborations in the works… There’s one that keeps coming up when I mention this to you – And it’s the wonderful Simphiwe Dana, who is a South African vocalist…
MJE: Which was going to be my next question…
Carmen Lundy: Yes, that’s the collaboration in these past few years that has had the most resonant celebration of a magical meeting of the minds and hearts and souls. That story of meeting her will always be one that I can tell over and over again of having been invited to sing over in Johannesburg, meeting all the wonderful people who made me feel so welcome. Great concert. Great jazz festival… and then to find myself back at home and hearing from these friends now I’m in Los Angles and “We’re coming to Los Angels”… really, you are coming to LA? So then to be on my end of the spectrum, at a concert, an inaugural film/music festival of South African culture and there’s Simphiwe! I had never met her or knew of her work until that performance in LA. And as a result of that concert we spent several days after kind of… exchanging ideas. While I’m learning more and more about her culture. How they approach the music. And I’m sharing some of the work I’ve been doing, some of the ideas I have, just sitting there, I just could not move forward with whatever it was I felt was inside that just wasn’t coming out and I shared one particular idea with her and after telling her about the inspiration for the song, it just seemed to float in. There was no stream, there wasn’t even a current, it was just like ‘sitting there floating’, and after I told her what the inspiration was she came up with this amazing set of lyrics and then ask me “where’s your record button?” in the studio and she began to sing and what she was saying was so moving, so powerful that in that same moment I began to sing. Meanwhile, the recording is going. The button is going, the tape is rolling. And what came out of that was so strong and so powerful. There we had a song. We had something really magical. And then of course she goes home, she leaves to go back to Johannesburg and I’ve got her on tape with these ideas and I’m thinking… well we’ve got to make something of this in-house, so what we end up with is what you hear on track seven of ‘Soul To Soul’, and we call the song “Grace”. So that collaboration is profound in that, here we are, two women from two walks of life, but with a very similar experience in understanding how to express part of what it is to be of a certain people. Of a certain understanding of oppression, of liberty, of the realisation of one’s freedom, and all of that in one idea. But it took two of us to say that.
The next collaboration is unique in that in many of my recordings you hear saxophone, you hear flute, you hear trumpet, you hear big bands, you hear strings and all these things you know. And I discovered the guitar as another accompanying instrument, and I’ve always been fascinated with it, but I began to play it; oh maybe five or six years ago. So a lot of my compositions are now coming from being supported by the guitar as well as the piano. So the new recording is my first record, I think maybe the first time I have done a record with simply piano, bass, drums and guitar. That’s it. No strings except for string programming that I’ve included.
I’m playing the guitar on a lot of the new record as well as “Soul To Soul”. And that’s a different kind of collaboration. It’s more of focusing and dealing with the nucleus; a nucleus core rhythm section, and if there are any solo performers – if there’s any space for soloing – it’s only from the piano or only from the guitar. So this is great to have another chance to work with Patrice Rushen, who’s doing all the piano work this time, and a young guitarist whom I met, originally from Chicago, lives in Los Angeles is Jeff Parker, and Jeff brought a unique approach to playing the guitar – you think a jazz guitarists, a single line in some accompaniment, we say, and a along a single line kind of a way of soloing. But he had another something on top of that which I found really interesting from the guitar to able to sustain beyond what you would associate with guitar playing. That brought another colour to my ideas. So there is a collaborative thing where I got someone who already has a new concept. So I can say to him “Jeff, you know that thing…just give me that on this particular track, let’s approach it from that. Give me that thing that’s so fresh and so different”, and then to have the drummer Kendrick Scott… WOW! So powerful, and so full of ability and a way of making things so colourful and yet supporting from a rhythmic. And last but not least Ben Williams, who maybe the youngest kid in this new project. Where he’s playing electric bass and he’s playing acoustic bass, both with an equal command, sonic values and a really inventive way of approaching the instrument. So what we have now is all new compositions and a wide range of issues – I’m dealing with social issues on this next record and very romantic and introspective, so I think maybe some people will call it a continuum [Laughs] “Oh, that’s Carmen being Carmen”, which is great. So we’re hoping to release that early 2017.
MJE: So how did you discover those young guys?
Carmen Lundy: Well let me see. The three that I mentioned; Ben, Kendrick and Jeff. We were at a think tank – a jazz camp let’s call it. A place for innovative artists to just really delve in to the work and also work with young artists who are developing. So you have this combination of the accomplished player with those who are really still in the aspiring phase of developing to a point of really making their statement. What you get is all these ideas flowing. Everyone has an input regardless of the level of accomplishment. The degree to that you know their experience. We all come together – I was there for one week – it’s a three-week program and I was invited to be there for that second week and the other artists for that same week were Jeff, Kendrick and Ben, along with a trumpeter by the name of Jason Palmer and the gentleman at the helm of this whole programme Vijay Iyer. So there we were for the week and at the end having spent time with these young artists, we then spent an evening making a recording. And we were in the studio and “Oh, Carmen, do you have a song?” Sure! Let’s try this one… and it goes like this, and here is the music so let’s count it off… Take 1.
So we’re recording now. We are all in the studio – the five of us – recording. Everybody’s offered a song and I’m listening and thinking, “Wow what an amazing conversation between Kendrick and Ben! Have they played together before? Do they know each other? This is amazing how they sound.” So I’m listening to Jeff and I don’t know him at all. I mean I just met him at the airport in Los Angeles. So I didn’t know Jeff from any other great guitarist. And I’m listening and thinking what a cool way to find something else in this music echelon and just expression in general. So I’m listening, and they are doing one of my tunes, “So Beautiful” and I’m thinking wow, this is really great and I’m planning on making a record when I get back. Maybe I can do this!
So I go home. I looked at my calendar and spoke to Elisabeth about it and we said well let’s see, here’s our window, let’s just call them and see if they are available. So they all happened to have like two days between the four of them where they were all available.
So we flew in two from New York, and Jeff happened to live in California. And it was another opportunity to work with Patrice Rushen who is also based in Los Angeles. So there we were, we had two days and we got it done. We actually got it done. So all of that is about being in the moment. I’ve been writing for about a year, so the music was there but I had to come home and start to score everything. Now it’s about the music is written, my Sketches are done, but now I had to really get it on paper so that everyone could play it, because I couldn’t just hum a few notes and hope that they could play all this new music. So it became a real crunch time for me to get it all on paper, get the music to them, so when they showed up for the recording they had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do it.
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
MJE: Where exactly was that album recorded?
Carmen Lundy: There’s a studio in Los Angeles that we learned about from the great engineer Don Murray – this is the third album I’ve done with Don. I think Don was the other element that needed to be in place for us to be able to accomplish this goal. So Don knew about a studio called ‘Stagg Street’, which has been around for 30 years and I’ve never heard of it. So we go in and it’s got that vibe, you walk in and you KNOW that a lot of great music has been made in this place. It was spacious, comfortable, he was comfortable, it had a great board – just enough – a beautiful piano. Beautiful like seven foot Grand piano in its own space. So we had everything we needed to be able to just get the work done. So we recorded in Los Angeles.
MJE: Vinyl… Your last two albums, “Changes” and “Soul To Soul, saw vinyl releases in the UK via Pure Pleasure records. We are big on vinyl in the country – what is the general feeling about vinyl in the States and will the new album be on vinyl?
Carmen Lundy: I think the resurgence in vinyl has to do with quality, high fidelity. You know you’re not dealing with compressed files which is what we get with the MP3s. I think that the whole deejay/hip-hop/sampling and going to this great music that has defined our culture is on vinyl. So I think that we have a generation of young people who have taken interest and it’s taken on. It is because of your UK-based interest that my last two records are on vinyl – so thank YOU for making that happen! I think someone contacted Elisabeth, Pure Pleasure records, about them having access to the masters, and they sound great! Will the new record be on vinyl…? Well, I’m going to say yes although we’re still not quite done with the mastering phase of the new release so we still got to get that part done, which has to do with deciding your sequence – what song will you hear first. Which song comes after that. How will this play and how will the audience receive this just when you drop the needle in and listen. So we still have to make that decision. Once we get past that point into the replication phase we will know for sure if Pure Pleasure will be picking up the next project.
MJE: Collector’s Corner… Aside of your “Good Morning Kiss” album, which is deeply rooted into UK jazz culture, there are several other highlights we would like you to share memories of – firstly “Never Gonna Let You Go” on your brother Curtis’ album “Just Be Yourself” and the original Potter And Tillman arrangement of “Time Is Love”?
Carmen Lundy: [Chuckles] “Never Gonna Let You Go” – the tune that was written the first year I lived in New York, I got a great apartment. I was sub-letting an apartment and in this apartment you walk into this narrow little space and then you follow into the next room and there was a loft bed and under the loft bed was an upright piano – so that was my first apartment in New York. So I’m in there trying to figure out what I’m doing. Well my thing is, I spend the first three four five hours of my day in kind of a writing mode. That seems to be where the creative energy flows for me. This tune, which at that time I had been discovering Latin music – I’m originally from Miami, Florida – as a result of those early years of starting my performer’s life in my professional career in Miami. Now there’s the whole salsa of Cuba/Havana element that I’m being exposed to. I didn’t really know about this form of music until I was in my university studies. So now somebody is coming and he’s doing percussion; Timbales and I’m hearing all this stuff for the first time. So now there’s this Latin element that’s crept into my expression. Of course that’s coinciding with learning about Dizzy Gillespie and his ‘Night In Tunisia’ and his time with Chano Pozo and the two cultures colliding during that time, when Be-Bop meets Afro-Cuban, so all this is happening to me.
So “Never Gonna Let You Go” [vocal skit].. and then Curtis comes along and goes “Okay, I got this bass line for this tune”, and you have to get a picture of my brother’s hands – they are huge! [Laughs] So he comes up with this bass line [vocal skit]… and every bassist that plays that bass line, it’s the same expression – they go, “Hold on, wait a second Carmen” [Laughs]. So you’ve got this really swinging bass line and then I have this percussive comping in G-minor that you’re hearing on the piano. And then you add the rhythm coming from Kenny Washington, with Curtis and Hank Jones! So what you got on “Never Gonna Let You Go” is all of this history even before I sing the melody. And the melody was about ‘That’s how I felt at that time in my life emotionally’.
You know, I’m never gonna let you go, this is it for me. So you got a lot of truth and honesty come from all these different levels to get that one tune happening. We go into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, which is legendary for producing that sound that we now see with all those Blue Note records. So I’m in a great studio with all these amazing musicians and I can’t believe that I’m being accompanied by the great Hank Jones. So there it was, and my brother – isn’t that cool? That my brother allows me to present one of my earliest original compositions. What a great way to be introduced to the music. That, and “Good Morning Kiss”. Walter Bishop Jr. was one of the first veteran pianists, a composer in his own right. He played for a while with Charlie Parker – he was Bird’s pianist, and when I first got to New York I used to sing in a club every weekend with the veterans, in a club called Jazzmania.
So the first year I got to New York I sang every weekend with the likes of Kenny Barron, Don Pullen and Walter Bishop Jr. it’s a plethora of great artists, and I became like the ‘house’ vocalist. So these guys would know me, they would show up to play their gig and there I am. Walter Bishop Jr. he kind of got what this young developing singer was all about. So he went to Harlem and called up one of his old friends and said, “Look man, I want to put a band together, I got this young girl and this percussionist, Mayra Casales and there’s Marcus Miller and there’s Ricky Ford and there’s Kenny Washington and I want to put a group together” so we go up to Harlem, found this place called ‘Wells Chicken and Waffles’, literally, Wells Chicken and Waffles [Laughs], in an upstairs empty room [Laughs] – it was down the street from the famous club ‘Minton’s’, where everybody attributes the whole Be Bop scene starting.
So now we’re upstairs and we’re this thing and Walter has to make another record for Muse – “So, Carmen, I got this tune, it’s called “Valley Land” and I need you to do this tune.” So I’m thinking… Valley Land is Los Angeles, he lived in LA for a while. I didn’t even know what Los Angeles was! I’m singing about a place I don’t even know. So I’m singing about Valley Land like it’s Heaven [Laughs]. But it was Walter who created the opportunity for me. He had another kid coming in on drums and would work with him periodically and his name was Andy Potter. So Andy had this idea to make a record with a pianist named Eric Tillman [David Eric Tillman] – they wanted to start a label. Andy Potter. Eric Tillman. Potter & Tillman – Poet Records… And Andy asked me, he had heard my little song, “Good Morning Kiss”, he helped me do that. I can’t even remember if he was over at my apartment, or I had shown the tune to Walter Bishop, I can’t even remember how he learned about this song, you would have to ask Andy.
So now I’m in the studio with Andy, and I’m saying Where’s the band?, Where’s the pianist?, “Hold on there Carmen”, he said “No, I just want you to sit and play it. No, just you at the piano. Could you do that please?” So that’s what happened. I think I might remember that there could be a place down the street from my apartment on the East Side called ‘Eric’s’ and we had a gig there. Me and Eric and Myra (Casales). Myra is on percussion, Andy is playing trap drums, and I’m playing the piano. It could be that, and that’s where I probably did that song first.
“Time Is Love” was my second composition, “Infatuation” was my first song, which cracks me up every time I say it, because that tells me I was a kid. So the second song I wrote during my jazz studies was “Time Is Love”. So here I am. I’m in New York and I play that tune for Andy, so the next record he did after ‘N.Y. To L.A.: Coasting’, which is where you can hear “Good Morning Kiss”. Then he does this second record ‘Space…Rapture’, and that’s where you hear “Time Is Love”, and I’m there at the piano, again just myself. Now those are the only two recordings in my entire discography where I am at the piano. That’s it. And I have not done that since. I’m frightened by it because I play with so many great pianists – constantly measuring whatever I’m doing against all these full-fledged pianists, so yeah, that’s kind of how we got there.
MJE: You mention the man Walter Bishop Jr. Is it true that you were ‘Discovered’ by the jazz pianist Walter Bishop Jr., as he claims on the liner notes from his 1978 album “Cubicle”?
Carmen Lundy: I’m gonna give it up… It’s Walter! Definitely. Absolutely. I think at that time that I came into the New York jazz scene we had somewhat of a lack of representation of the next generation because everyone was still thriving. I mean, I can’t count the number of times I saw Dizzy, you know, bumped into Miles hanging out in a club somewhere, you know, sitting in with my first experience ever in New York was on a Monday night where I flew to New York with some gigantic pipe dream and ended up at the (Village) Vanguard with my Big Band charts and sat in with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. There was a wonderful “Yeah, here comes our next generation, let’s give ’em a chance.” Betty Carter was doing that. My brother got to New York, I think his first gigs were with Pharaoh Sanders and Betty Carter. He was with Betty for 4-5 years.
Those artists were delighted to see us coming along. I remember introducing myself to Carmen Mcrae at the Blue Note (club). There was an article in JET magazine where she was expressing concern that she didn’t see any young jazz vocalists coming up, and I went to the club that night, back stage to introduce myself, and that “yes, there are” and “here I am”, “I’m one of those young jazz vocalists aspiring to do, and “thank you for your inspiration” and all of that. That was a period in the late 70s-early 80s, where there was the space. So Walter, as I was sharing with you, and Marcus Miller was only 16 years old at that time. Kenny Washington, 16; so Walter had the presence, the desire, to put us on the bandstand and give us a chance to play and to express, and through his tutelage I studied with Walter. I studied piano lessons with him briefly during his time as well. And some of what he showed me still has a lot to do with the way I approach composition. So I gotta give it up – definitely Mr. Walter Bishop Jr.
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
MJE: We have spoken about Potter And Tillman. What if I were to ask you about Charanga 76, Kip Hanrahan, Jasmine… can you see a ‘Best Of’ album coming together?
Carmen Lundy: Listen I’m very fortunate. I have made a life and sustained a career living my dream to be a vocalist. What’s interesting about all this, with the exception of Charanga 76. Charanga is a Latin band that includes the violin and I think that’s what makes it Charanga, if I’m correct. That was during a phase where anything at all to make good music, for someone to hire me to sing to pay my rent, and to make a living and survive. So these opportunities were a way to expand, to take on the challenge of musical styles that I was not so familiar with, but was certainly an extension of my cultural interest and background – I studied Spanish, in educative school systems you must have a second language and I chose Spanish. So there was something in there that allowed me to feel connected. Something in the rhythm and I ‘may’ have come through the Caribbean through my father’s lineage, who knows?! He doesn’t know. But I’d like to think so. If the decent is indeed African for me on both sides of my family even though there may be some UK in there or something else, some French or more going on here. There’s definitely some kind of affinity for all the different styles of music that represent through the African Diaspora. So anything at all that resonates that for me, having studied formerly the classical music, from the theoretical and from the vocal, all this is what becomes the challenge to excel; to do well; to share the music; to learn from all these great veterans whether it’s on a record or whether it’s actually on stage with them. So when you look at that body of discography, it informs you of those musicians who thought that perhaps their original music could be expressed through my voice.
So there I am singing the music of Jasmine, a tune written by Roger Rosenberg, “Angelica” was for me an opportunity to sing something new. So when the public came to know Carmen Lundy they weren’t necessarily hearing Carmen Lundy first with her version of some great Hammerstein tune, or some great Gershwin tune or Cole Porter. Here I am doing something that is a first. So the very first time I heard myself on the radio, on someone’s record, was an original song written by Roger Rosenberg called “Angelica”. Walter Bishop Jr’s tune, “Valley Land” – original music. Potter and Tillman “Good Morning Kiss”, “Time Is Love” – original music. I’ve been doing that from the very beginning. So I mixed it up… standards and original music. That’s the way things started for me.
MJE: Your reissue of “Good Morning Kiss’ featured three alternative takes; “Dindi”, “Perfect Stranger” and “Good Morning Kiss”. Are there any unreleased songs from that recording session you are holding back from us?
Laughs all around…
Carmen Lundy: There’s only one and it’s “Tuesday Heartbreak”…
MJE: Stevie (Wonder)?
Carmen Lundy: Yeah Stevie… But what happened was, and you can even hear it on the take, we never got to the end of the song… So it’s not complete.
MJE: We need to rewind and you need to collaborate with Stevie on that tune… [Everyone Laughs]
You have worked with so many highly regarded musicians. Can you briefly summarise your experience with a chosen few, from let’s say your “Old Devil Moon” album – Randy Brecker and also Harry Whitaker?
Carmen Lundy: Randy, I was thinking about him last night. Harry Whitaker I think was the key to really allowing me to just break through all of these concepts and the ideology that you associate with just being a jazz singer, whatever the hell that means, and the whole scatting… If you’re a jazz singer you have to go SCAT! and go and define yourself through this improvisation scatting… But Harry had another way of getting me to look at the improvisation from a much more harmonic and creative way that wasn’t necessarily always with the swing rhythm, [breaks into scat] You know, that’s Be Bop approach to scat singing and improvisation. Harry was the guy that really opened that up, and changed the whole concept of the possibilities in that. He’s a great accompanist, amazing arranger and he had a success in pop music. I have a very strong interest and strong background and history that began actually with pop music, before I even knew about jazz – before I would discover jazz. So Harry was the perfect balance, he blended the two very beautifully. Generous spirit, very generous person, fun to be with, always looking for new ways to approach the most familiar of songs. You might hear something in the back-end of Roberta Flack’s composition “Killing Me Softly…”, when she goes [hums..] in the back-end of that – That’s Harry. Just that little kicking that forward for her in the back of that tune… “Everybody Love The Sunshine”… That’s Harry! That’s what he brought to that Roy Ayers’ tune.
In the mid 80s to late 80s, we would do a lot of duo gigs just piano and voice. And what I learned from doing duo gigs, is you are not confined to the form of the song. When you have only the two; a vocalist and the piano, you get to go any place you like in the music. Even if you just want to sit on something and just vamp. There’s no like, “It is time to move on to the next thing,” it’s just such a wonderful liberating way to make a performance. It’s just a wonderful liberating way to make a performance. Andy when you have someone like Harry Whitaker, or a Don Pullen, for that fact, you get the sense that wherever you land you’re going to be on your feet. It’s a great way to feel. The safety net was so, you knew you were never gonna crash, in the music.
That collaboration, “In Love Itself” even when I wasn’t with Harry I still had that sensibility. I can still feel, and take those risks. That’s what he taught me. He taught me that I can also take risks in the music, that were beyond just improvising within the form of that composition, and as a vocalist, this is really important because we get our information, our messages from those great examples like Ella (Fitzgerald), who is still one of the finest – you can’t get much better than that when you get into vocal improvisation. That’s just top-notch. When you listen to Betty Carter, and her take on that style and approach to the improvisation, and the phrasing and that. Those are your examples. Not to exclude the male vocalist. Think about what Al Jarreau does, and how his approach to the improvisation was – much more percussive in that expression – in the moment. And you think about George Benson what he did, doubling whatever he is doing on the guitar with the voice that way. You know, that’s another approach. You can find your own way of saying “You” without necessarily copying to make your statement as an improvisational element in the music and then of course, first and foremost for me; it’s about the lyric. I’m a singer! I sing words! I don’t think I can make an evening of just sounds and rhythm. I love the words! So to be able to find “You” and find your own voice with all these elements being available to you. Yes. So for me, I’m going to improvise, yeah, but I love the words. I’m going to find a way to tell my story with those words.
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
MJE: When are you most creative in composing new material?
Carmen Lundy: I am always recording. We all have a work ethic. It’s something that we develop very early in life. Those of us who continue our education when we are done with the Grade school, the Grammar school, the high school. We go in to the formal education years. That discipline is partly what gets us through. So the discipline of starting your day, getting it together, hitting the pavement… Go! – That’s the way I approach my creative side. I start the day that way. The same way that person has to make that job, and get there, open the doors for everyone to get into the office – that’s what I do. I open my door and I go into my office and I record. Then I record whatever I’m doing, whatever I hear, however it happening, it’s being recorded. So this way I don’t lose the idea. I always have reference to that idea. During the course of the day the recording could start. Nowadays we have access to cell phones right? So I get a lot of ideas – I could be at a sound-check; not even my own, and I walk into the hall and someone is already playing. Now the notes flying everywhere. Certain things come from other sources. So for me it could be what somebody says in the elevator that triggers an idea – it could be what a child says, a baby asking a question about life. And it’s just their curiosity about that question that means something to them at that moment, that makes me think differently about what the answer to that question might be. So the source of inspiration could be any number of things it could just be something like watching a family member dealing with a physical condition that challenges them, now someone is really having – or myself – dealing with something that now the value of life is really…
So all of this. So there’s the melody and also trying to play another instrument. Very important. If you’re ever lucky enough for someone to say “Hold my bass, feel my bass. Now hold this and you gotta do this” or “hold the violin”. That’s hard. When you start to sense what it is, to really make sound, your sound, come through an instrument – all these things shape your ideas and your appreciation of what it takes to master the music, and lately it’s been the guitar for me. So I’m holding the guitar going, “This is not like the piano” – I now have ten extremities that each can do something, but do I have ten here? Where do these ten go, and what do they do? Well you can’t really do five here, I guess you could if you’re strumming… but what’s happening here? Right, those positions, and how close, how far apart. The bass – oh my God. Just to go “bang”, how much energy does it take to pick up a set of drumsticks? Now wait… drums, hands, what are my feet doing? So all this. All of this becomes incorporated into how ideas flow, and how I arrive at a musical thought. So the day begins ‘that way’, and the day ends that way for me; whether it’s a performance and mostly when it’s not that performance. There is as much music happening when I’m not on the stage.
MJE: What do you think of how jazz is marketed and sold by the likes of Blue Note, for instance with Robert Glasper?
Carmen Lundy: I don’t know how I feel about any of that. Kudos to Robert. Robert and I have a little bit of a history. I might be the first to have recorded him on the live recording “Jazz and the New Songbook”, where he is introduced, maybe for first time, in a documented fashion – I’m not sure, you will have to ask Robert.
Blue Note has clout! They are responsible, the owners, Alfred Lion and now the owner of Village Vanguard, who was once married to Alfred Lion, Lorraine Gordon, that period in jazz, their foresight to record that music along with using their particular engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, helped define the music. The era gave opportunities for so many artists. Most of them be instrumentalists and not vocalists, if you really look at the lineage. They began taking on the vocalist’s much later in their history as a recording label. They have clout. They are responsible for the makings, and the documentation from the likes of Freddie Hubbard to Herbie and to Wayne and on and on and on. Unfortunately for Carmen Lundy they didn’t see my potential. But it wasn’t the time of Alfred Lion, it was more the time of Bruce Lundvall.
With Bruce I made three attempts to make an agreement with Blue Note, and each time they rejected that. I felt rejected, not dejected, but I was indeed rejected. Oh it could be because during that time for me there was still an association that the jazz singer must cover the repertoire that precedes my generation. You know, all the standard repertoire. I don’t know because they never explained to me the reason. I’ve always wanted to promote myself as ‘that’. I didn’t really see how I could make a real mark in the music, covering songs that were my grandmother’s tunes, you know.
With your question; the marketing. When you have clout. When you can go to that expense to make sure that the public becomes familiar with an artist, that in itself can make a career, and then artist of course, has to show up and deliver, and show that the reason they were chosen to be documented by these important entities – and there are many of them – it just hasn’t been the record you talked about, “Good Morning Kiss”. I own the masters to that, I always did. I made that record. I recorded that at Van Gelder with monies I acquired through hard work and from my own ‘pounding the pavement’. So that’s never been something that was assisted by a major label like Columbia or Blue Note, so it has been a different journey for me as a result.
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
It was a licensing deal by a company that doesn’t exist now, Black Hawk. So that’s why I was re-mastered and why I signed with a Canadian label, Justin Time. They were the ones that initially reissued my masters of “Good Morning Kiss”. To be associate with the large corporate recording label is essential to how I think the world comes to know who you are. My journey has been much more of a challenge, to sustain a career despite not having the computability and knowing that a major label like Blue Note will pick up and move forward where you yourself, the artist cannot.
But here we are, all these years later. I still have a wonderful fan base here in the UK that I think is the reason why the South Africans came to know me. I think it’s because of those South Africans that have a connection to the United Kingdom, that picked up my work some 20-30 years ago. This may not be the case, but I can remember getting those statement and saying “Look, they’re playing my songs in South Africa, how’s that happen?” That was great, and given these great corporate entities, these great music labels, that when you’ve got something to say, when the talent is there, and when you’re committed to your art form, that eventually they’ll come along. It may not start out that way, but eventually they’ll come along, and guess what? Maybe you’ll do it yourself. So you’ll have the independent label like an Afrasia, who recognises and actually identifies with the original artist that way. So the message is to be truly yourself and if you’re fortunate like Glasper is – great pianist – who has an idea and a concept, and a statement that is so strong; he’s got the support system and the audience, that is reinforcing that. I really like those guys mostly because they do have a unique voice, and they do have a strong original concept that is essential to us being able to be a part of moving this music forward. So that when we look back, it’s not simply to look back and draw from that which has come before us, but that we take that, and we can say something now, in this time that continues to make the music have some forward motion and when we can look down the road and have something to do with the way this music is taking shape for what’s to come. I think that’s really the whole point of this and that’s why we have a Blue Note in the first place, someone had a vision then, so that vision that they head is someone’s vision that hasn’t even come along yet; it’s to do with the future. That’s why I think we’re in good hands with the music that we are proud to say is jazz.
MJE: We have always known that Japan holds jazz close to her chest and renowned for being very particular when it comes to sound and packaging. How did the 1987 process go with CBS/Sony through the “Night & Day” release, which itself was part of an amazing vocal series, your album was recorded on digital two-track, and the quality is unbelievable. Your work with Alex Blake must bring back special memories?
Carmen Lundy: Alex Blake on bass, Victor Lewis on drums, Kenny Kirkland on piano, Curtis Lundy, my brother, on bass, Ricky Ford on tenor saxophone and Rodney Jones on guitar. My manager, I think got a call – Sony Japan. Japan was crazy for jazz. When Sony got involved and wanting to document jazz – I think they had an idea; but you got to remember something… you’ve got a body of tunes that maybe Sony and Columbia came into possession of…The publishing is a source of income that supports most of whoever is out here as record labels in the first place whether it’s Universal, whether it’s Sony, whether it’s NBC or whatever, these huge corporations are. The source of income is in the ownership of the composition. So now you got Sony, and they’re crazy for jazz since the 80s, wanting to now recharge all of this music, and the income as a result – what better way do that than to get a lot of singers to record a hundred – there were ten albums, and I was the tenth – I was the last vocalist to be asked to do this, so all the other 90 songs were already taken [Laughs], so I took the last ten [still laughing] of the hundred, which were “Everything Must Change”, “My Shining Hour”, “Lullaby of Birdland”, “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me”, “Night and Day”…etc. and so there we were. That’s what it was. The last ten tunes on the list I arranged some of them, Curtis arranged some of them and Kenny Kirkland arranged some of them. I think I arranged “My Shining Hour” and “More Than You Know”.
So there we were, recording these tunes AND it was the first, and only album in my discography made entirely of jazz ‘standards’. And you have to remember, I am six or seven years into my career in New York with my performing life starting in 1972. I could say 1970, because I was singing with another vocalist, doing concerts at High School Proms. But starting and being in my own band; that began in 1972. I got to New York in ’78, that’s five years. The first recording I made could have been 1978-1979 with Jasmine – I’m a kid. So now I spend the next… ’79, ’80, trying to get a record deal; you start with Columbia Records. I did three different demos for Columbia. The last one that I did for Columbia was turned down. I put it out myself, “Good Morning Kiss”. “Good Morning Kiss” with “The Lamp Is Low” and all those great tunes was a demo tape for Columbia Records.
So now I release “Good Morning Kiss” as a licensed product, because Columbia had decided not to go with it, and that following year… Here comes this opportunity to record the ‘standards’, which is probably what Columbia wanted. But you got to remember here is a young 20-something year old, not coming up in that era, and I’m doing all these ‘standards’. When I listen to that I can hear how young I am with my interpretations of those songs. Nevertheless what a great record. What a great record with some really fine artists and those were all first or second takes. We did that record in a day! We did the first half one night, all live, as you say, to two-track, and then we come back the next night to do the last six. All live, one or two takes tops! And that was just intended for Japan. That was what they call a Japanese import. So now the import finds its way in to the States and everywhere else, and to my surprise, all these years later, it’s part of the collector’s series of Carmen, and that’s the true story of how we got to do that.
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
MJE: The new album. Carmen Lundy – art and jazz… which came first and did you do the artwork on the new album?
Carmen Lundy: The artwork started on the first recoding with JVC, “Self Portrait”. If you open up the jacket you will see my portrait – self portrait, and that was one of my earliest paintings. I began to paint around 1989 1990 after coming back from being on the road in Europe with the Broadway shows “Sophisticated Ladies”, playing the role that Phyllis Hyman originated. They have a tour now; you have the Broadway company, you have the European company… It was like that. So I was the Phyllis Hyman role in Europe for a six month contract and I did it for four months. When I returned from that time on the road it was time to… just let go. I needed a break. I think I did like 20 countries in a four-month period. I needed a break. I needed to just give myself space. I need to rest my voice and just rest my body, and my resting did not mean that I was not in a creative state. I redirected my creativity.
I was informed by a dear friend, who was an art dealer/collector, and in spending time with him in my holidays he had a lot to do with sustaining my life as a performing artist. He sustained that emotional side, the mental side, the psychological, and as a way of connecting and feeling connected with that friendship I began to try my hand at the line drawing; the water colours, and I just kept going. So as I released recordings, I would include one of my paintings in the jacket, just something inside. All the Afrasia product, with the exception of the live CD… but if you get the live DVD of “Jazz And The New Songbook: Live At The Madrid”, if you get that product and you look at the DVD… the back-end I was exhibiting my artwork for a month in a location in New York at the Madrid Theatre, so you see some of the paintings, we do a little montage there and you will see a lot of my paintings as well as some of my work in mosaic and working with other forms. It just continued to develop and to sculpture. It’s really just a way of looking for where that expression is best represented. It may not be the oil on canvas, it just might be the sculpture. I don’t know. I just keep trying. It’s very therapeutic, very much so.
MJE: ‘Keys To The City’. ‘Carmen Lundy Day’ on January 25th. Tell us more.
Carmen Lundy: It was quite an honour. I didn’t learn about it until after the concert that night, so I missed the whole day… [Laughs] I missed the whole ‘Carmen Lundy Day’… [All laughing] But every time I got to Miami “Take Those Keys!”, yes I take those keys, I do. Just in case, I’m driving down the boulevard and I hear sirens. If I happen to run the Stop sign [Laughing], and they ask to see my driver’s license it will be “Ping!” ‘Those keys’ come out.
MJE: Did the two events happen together?
Carmen Lundy: The University of Miami invited me back to do some Master Classes, some concerts, and I was there for a full week. I think the end of that week there was a concert with my group and I also performed with some of the ensembles, the Big Bands, the vocal ensembles – it was a full evening. At the presentation they honoured me with a Distinguished Alumni Award and in addition they handed me this beautiful, wonderful Key To The City, quite a distinctive honour and very nice to receive, but I just take that key and put it with my luggage and make sure that accompanies me on every trip I take home.
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
MJE: Tonight live. Will you be focused on “Soul to Soul” or the new album “Code Noir”?
Carmen Lundy: We are focused on “Soul To Soul”, however I ask these musicians, who are not the musicians on the record, Darryl Hall is here with me, a great bassist playing the electric bass and acoustic bass – astonishingly brilliant on both. I have a guitarist, which is very important to me now, to include the guitar in my music, and this is his first time playing in London; his first ever in Europe as a performing artist. His name is Andrew Renfroe. He is with me at Pizza Express and this ‘Pop Up’ tour. A young pianist, Victor Gould. He’s been playing with me for about a year now and of course the veteran, the great Marvin “Smitty” Smith is with us on this tour on drums.
Michael: Thank you Carmen for your time and for the many stories. We look forward to your two sets at Pizza Express.
Carmen: You’re welcome.