The Jazz.com Blog
July 28, 2009 · 0 comments
Sue Russell looked at the complex—and sometime fractious—relationship between cabaret and jazz singing in a thought-provoking article, published previously in this column. Now she talks to the talented Jessica Molaskey about the vocal arts, and probes many of these same issues. Can these two camps get along? If anyone can answer the question, it is Molaskey, who makes it work at home (her husband is John Pizzarelli) and on stage. She offers her perspectives below. T.G.
Jessica Molaskey is a singer whose work has spanned musical theater, pop, cabaret, and jazz, Her clean, sure sound and musical taste defy categorization. With her husband, jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli, she hosts the popular weekly radio show Radio Deluxe, which focuses on the music of the Great American Song Book interpreted by singers and other musicians of the past and present.
Christopher Lowdon of Jazz Times called Molaskey and Pizarelli “the hippest husband-and-wife team since Louis Prima and Keely Smith.” Ms. Smith has also been a featured guest on the show, as have Margaret Whiting, Ann Hampton Callaway, Stacey Kent, and other members of the talented Pizzarelli clan. Molaskey performs regularly at a wide range of venues, including jazz clubs like Birdland and upscale cabaret spots like Café Carlyle and the Algonquin’s Oak Room. She is also a veteran performer whose credits include featured roles in City of Angels, Crazy for You, and The Who’s Tommy.
A songwriter herself, Molaskey takes a special interest in performing songs by young composers. She has premiered recent works by Ricky Ian Gordon [see below] Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, and John Bucchino. Her fifth and most recent recording is titled A Kiss to Build A Dream On. I talked with her recently about her wide-ranging musical presence and how jazz fits into that larger profile.
When you went more deeply into singing [from theater], was the jazz singing a part of what you wanted from the start…or more something that happened along the way?
Well, when I came up into the Broadway world, I was in The Who’s Tommy. You kind of had to do everything. I was in Cy Coleman’s show City of Angels, which had a fun jazz score. So I didn’t come out of the ranks of the traditional Broadway people. The world was changing. Microphones had been invented. To me, it’s the difference between making a movie and being on stage in a play. You just have to learn how to mutate things…or mute them and pull them back…or make them larger.
How do you see yourself as a performer now? Does that identity differ as you move between genres?
There’s something about people who come to listen to jazz and the way that they listen. It’s really a pleasure to perform for them. The eyeballs…as opposed to the cabaret rooms where they expect a heightened kind of set of music. But we’ve [the “we” here refers to Molaskey and John Pizzarelli—along with other Pizarellis who are often added to the mix] been really lucky in a weird way because we’re playing jazz in a high-end cabaret room, and we’re not really making any distinctions. We feel like, if you play good music and perform it well it should defy any attempt to categorize it.
When people make a distinction between jazz singing and cabaret singing, what differences do you think they’re seeing?
It has to do with the way their music is presented. A lot of times people who work in cabaret really don’t sing well at all. They might be more of the Mabel Mercer school, where one deconstructs a song or gets to the bottom of it in a way that’s more about text than music. A lot of times in jazz clubs it’s strictly about the music. So I bring a little bit of an actor’s sensitivity into a jazz club, and sometimes I think people appreciate that.
What about improvisation?
Well, that’s the fun of it. Every night it’s something different. You’ve got to listen. We would go into the Algonquin without any rehearsal. People would say to me, “Have you been rehearsing for three months?” and I’d say no, I’m working with a bunch of jazz musicians. They don’t really like to rehearse. They just like me to sing and say this is the key where we’re going to go. I think a lot of times people think that’s a diminishing return for jazz guys…that they’re improvising all the time. It’s controlled chaos. You know how many bars of music people are going to blow on and if they’re blowing really well you let them blow longer. I don’t scat, for one thing. I thing there’s way too many people out there who scat.
What singers are you most interested in listening to, and what do you take from them that goes into your own performances, in terms of song selection and styles?
It’s across the board, really. You just talked about Mildred Bailey [prior to taped interview]. I love Mildred Bailey. I’ve been singing a couple of songs by Mildred Bailey. I’m singing one called “Happy Habit” [by Dorothy Fields and Arthur Schwartz, from the show, The Beautiful Sea] that I heard her sing. It’s really about the music. I love Peggy Lee. I love Joni Mitchell.
It’s looking at a song, often, and asking if this has a beginning, middle, and end. I like songs that feel like little plays. I always take the sheet music out and look at that rather than listening to somebody’s record and copying it. Or even if it’s…like…a Paul Simon song. You have to say, I think I have an idea of what I can do with that song and then I put that record away and start from the page.
Do you feel more like a jazz singer when you have a certain kind of instrumental backing?
Yeah, a lot of it has to do with chord structures and reconfiguring chords. In jazz, I like the possibility that anything could happen. And, as I said before, the audience brings a whole other element. We’re at Birdland this week. I kept looking out last night. People just sit with their eyes closed and listen. And so, musicianship is really appreciated. Right now I’m working on a piece by the American songwriter Ricky Ian Gordon. Yesterday I was learning Ricky’s music all day, which was so dense and so hard but so beautiful. Great music is great music. It appeals to me across the board. I guess he would be characterized almost as a writer of opera now. It’s good writing.
For the singer (as opposed to actor) part of you, who’s influenced you most?
I love Joni Mitchell because Joni is a great writer as well. All of her records are so evocative and filled with feeling. Then, from a jazz standpoint, Kenny Rankin…
[SR--an aside, you know he just died…]
We have this radio show, and [when news of his death arrived] we ran a show that we did with him last year. He came into the studio, and a lot of times people don’t want to play live because they’re very specific and particular about their records. He just came and brought his guitar and sang for an hour. It was the most perfect thing you’d ever heard. The intonation was perfect. I really respond to people who sing in tune and sing in time, like Peggy Lee. She’s right in the middle of the note, right there. I’m all for those guys who at least establish the melody out front. Call me crazy.
Do you ever hear people making disparaging remarks about cabaret singing, and if so, how do you respond?
There’s so many different…There are a lot of places where people call themselves cabaret singers, and there’s just a table and a candle. There are a lot of vanity productions around, especially in New York, which is not to say…I think that any time a person gets up and sings you learn something, and there’s a lot of places where people are learning. Then there’s places you can go and hear someone remarkable like Marilyn Maye. It just depends. There’s a lot of cabaret that’s self-indulgent and self-serving that I really don’t like.
That said, I saw Rosie Clooney in her last couple of years at Rainbow and Stars, Michael Feinstein’s place, and it was some of the finest interpretation you’re ever going to see. There’s something about the intimacy and the space that’s very conducive to some type of magic happening. We don’t make distinctions between what we do because of the room we’re in. When we’re at the Carlyle, say, we do labor more intensively in getting a set that has a flow to it so that parts might make the audience feel something. We pay a little more attention to detail [than we do for a jazz club] to make it a cohesive evening. But then all bets are off. We still play the same music that we’d play anywhere else.
Anything else that you’d like to comment on for this particular audience [jazz.com]?
Coming from the theater world, where every little move of your finger is scrutinized, I’ve felt really profoundly embraced by the jazz community in being able to do what I’ve wanted to do and having people honor it. If they don’t always love it, they at least honor it. There’s a code of ethics in the jazz world that I think is quite lovely. I’ve felt happy to call myself a part of that community.
This blog entry posted by Sue Russell