Tuesday, 7 October 2008
Photo by Eliot Siegal
Carrie Mann is a Cornwall-based singer whose Carrie Mann Jazz Quartet has been playing successfully around the South West for the last six or seven years. I have known her since she sat in with my band one night, not long before she started her own group, and thought she would make for an interesting interview. In fact, our conversation went on far longer than I’d expected but for the best possible reasons. Once we got started we just couldn’t stop. The results appear below and in the previous posting \if you are new to the blog, the interview starts here.
Voltarol: So you went from stumbling around in the dark to being very focused about it?
Carrie: Yeah, but then I lost my way a little bit again…because I was earning a living from it…did I want to go back to…hmm…what am I going to have to do?...an office job?...I didn’t want to do that. I was having fun earning a living singing…but…I’d left home by then. You’ve got rent to pay, you’ve got bills to pay back at home and it’s a matter of – You take the first singing job that’s offered to enable you to keep singing and earning your money that way. Or you sit tight and wait for one that comes up that would suit you better. I chose not to do that…I didn’t want to go back to Birmingham, back to temping in offices…so I eventually took the first job that was offered to me singing…so once our time on North Sea Ferries ran out went and got a summer season at Pontins with a show band. It was a good experience and I think – if anyone can survive doing every night for a year in a Pontins Holiday Camp then you’ve got a fairly good background of experience about an audience – how it works, what works, what doesn’t. So that was very much a learning ground, but it wasn’t doing music that I love at all…and if I have to do Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ one more time…well…I’d rather not! (Laughs)
V: Ha! My bête noir was…I did function bands for quite a long time…and if I ever have to play ‘Yellow River’ again…aaargh…
C: Yes…we all have those tunes.
V: There comes a breaking point! Strangely, for me it wasn’t the Birdy Song’.
V: No. Although it’s viler than ‘Yellow River’, when I started doing the function circuit we were doing ‘Yellow River’ and when I finished doing the function circuit we were doing ‘Yellow River’ and one day I just went “AAAARGH! NO MORE!” I can’t do it.
V: Whereas ‘The Birdy Song’…there’s a certain amusement…you know, you play the lowest of the low kind of gigs and their all doin’ the bit out on the dance floor…and then one year we did the Maidenhead Golf Club and I thought this would be a bit ‘up market’ but- no – sooner or later some one says (adopts upper class accent) “I say, chappie, can you do that Birdy thing at all?” (Laughs) So you actually keep your sanity that way…
C: (Laughs)…waggling the arms as they say it! It has to be done!...I was quite lucky obviously because The Birdy Song – in Britain – didn’t have any lyrics really, not officially…the song was just an instrumental wasn’t it, even though the crowds…Britain…made up its own lyrics – “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” or whatever it was…um…So – with that in mind, when the band played it at Pontins I wasn’t required. So I would run off the stage as fast as possible (Laughs)…trying to hang on to the last scraps of integrity that I had…and then come back on once they’d finished the piece. But I’d be in the wings – laughing at them. “Ha ha ha. YOU’ve got to play “The Birdy Song!” (Laughs)
V: So, when you were doing those two periods of commercial work, did the material include some stuff that you were happy with…or…?
C: Yeah. When I was working with Dave Meadowcroft Junior, on the boats, with the piano…he was the one who…He introduced me to some new tunes. Also, I introduced HIM to some tunes. He used to play saxophone in a big band in Jersey so he knew most of the big band tunes…but I was picking out tunes like ‘Cry Me a River’ which I was hearing because I was listening to music at the time but I wasn’t listening to standards – to what we call ‘jazz’ singers, I actually got that – the first time I heard that song and fell in live with it was by Crystal Gayle. She recorded it. I didn’t know it was a standard. I had no idea it was a jazz standard, I just thought it was a gorgeous song. So I took that to Dave and said “How do you fancy doing this one?” and he said “Oh yes. I’ve heard about this”. You know…he had heard of it but never actually played it. So we put that one in and then…Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind’. So we had a chance to do some really nice…what we thought were nice songs…hmm what else did we do…Oh! ‘Crazy’ – Patsy Cline, but that was kind of more commercial, pleasing the audience rather than ourselves – but it’s still a nice tune…what else did we do? Oh, and then we did a lot of kinda – the audience pleasing…which I still like…Nice ballads, some Neil Diamond –‘Love On the Rocks, that I’d sing, which is typical ‘piano bar duo’ stuff. Then some jazz tunes like ‘As Time Goes By’ and ‘Cry Me a River’, ‘All Of Me’ and things like that we’d put in. So I guess that was the first time I had a go at singing those songs. But I didn’t at that time understand the concept of a ‘jazz singer’ and what was different about a ‘jazz singer’ to a ‘normal singer’. I still don’t think I’ve truly got it…(Laughs)…but I certainly didn’t then…I didn’t understand when Dave said “You know, you can sing it differently if you want to”. I’d say “What do you mean, ‘sing it differently’?”, ‘cause I’d never heard it. I’d never heard singers pull the tune around and um…improvise with where a melody should go. I’d never heard that at that point. That’s something I’ve only heard about in the last six, seven years.
V: Yeah, mind you, I think that I’m not at all sure that I actually like ‘jazz’ singers…I like singers that are comfortable within the jazz framework. I mean…we’ve talked before about Stacey Kent…
V: Stacey Kent isn’t a ‘jazz’ singer…
V: …but her timing…
C: She delivers it straight as a die, doesn’t she?
V: Her timing is beautiful…and her phrasing is beautiful…and sits very comfortably – which is what you do – You sing as part of that unit. It’s not a voice on a stick out front. The whole thing fits together…and then out of that comes solos as well, but, er…you know…is a bass player that never takes a solo – for example, Claudia [Claudia Lang Colmer: ex Ivy Benson band and a former member of both my band and Carrie's quartet], is she not a jazz musician?
C: She’s still a jazz musician!
V: Exactly! Because it’s all about imparting that feel!
C: Yeah. And there’s also a very strong part of me that feels that…these songs were written by amazing songwriters, people who…the names that we know! Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter…or Ray Charles – going more recently…and they knew what they were doing when they were writing the melody. They knew what they were doing when they were putting the words – or working with somebody to put the words to it…and it was a serious business to them…and it was like a polished art that they had, and so I sometimes think…”Who the hell am I to think I can make it better?” You know…if I pull a tune around…I sometimes stop and remind myself – if I feel that I want to pull the tune around, why am I doing that? At the moment, the way the musicians are playing it, that’s where it’s leading to naturally – you know? It’s like a teamwork thing. Or is it me wanting to show of my ‘vocal acrobatics’? – which I’m not very good at doing anyway…I do think that ‘vocal acrobatics’ can sometimes take away from what may have been written as a very simple melody on purpose, by these master song writers…
C: …and take away from simple, moving lyrics. That’s why I like the style of music…the lyrics are worth singing. I mean…Stacey Kent…her pronunciation is amazing. You never have to rewind and say “What was that word?” You hear it. You hear every single consonant and there’s no mumbling – and there’s no guessing what’s first…what she’s talking about first…And the lyrics are great…Some of them are cheeky and teasy and they rhyme spectacularly. And I don’t find that from recent music…from today’s music…If they’re a bit scattered, I do…sometimes I think “Ooh! I like that!” The latest one I spotted was a Norah Jones tune called ‘Turn Me On’…and I love the lyrics to that…but I think it was written in the sixties, anyway, by…Loudermilk?
V: John D. Loudermilk?
C: Yeah…so Norah Jones has just done the same as I would and heard a song from way back and thought “Ooh, I’ll do that now.” I’ve heard it and thought “Oh, is that a new one?” and then found it’s not.
V: So. Favourite singers?
C: um…Diana Krall. I like Diana Krall. (Laughs) I LOVE Diana Krall. (Laughs again). Um…Stacey Kent, Ella Fitzgerald…I’m so sorry but I don’t like Billy Holliday. I can absolutely understand that her phrasing and everything is great but, personally…her tone…doesn’t do it for me and singing is very much a personal thing. There’s always part of me that thinks when I get up and do a two hour evening of singing…I always feel sorry for somebody that might be in the audience that – for them – you know, they just don’t like my voice. There’s just something about it…it’s nothing personal. They just don’t like my voice…because there are great singers that I recognise but I say “You know what I think? It just doesn’t please me, you know, the sound. It doesn’t make me feel nice and warm. Um…who else do I like? Well, to be honest – early days – Karen Carpenter – I love the pure, rich tones that she had…I’m trying to think who else…
V: Yes, Karen Carpenter was always considered to be very uncool but she was a superb musician…superb musician…Yep…I can go along with that…
C: Right…and going back to Elvis again. He could pretty much sing anything. If you listen to him singing Gospel and Blues and…OK, there were the sixty-odd films that he made that probably didn’t show his best stuff (Laughs) but he could deliver a ballad and he could also deliver a great gospel thing…and I liked his talent. Of course, there’s that very strong American accent which you can either love or hate…
V: Yeah but at least it was his own accent…(Laughs)…and not as so often you hear – an accent that has just been grafted on – in young singers today. There was a young lass that lived near here whose parents knew I had a recording studio and asked – would I do a demo for her? She came in the studio with her piano player and started singing and I said “Whoa! Where do you live?” and she said “Well…here.” And I said “Where were you born?” and she said “Here” and I said “Well why are you singing like you come from Alabama then?” And it’s because – the songs she learnt…she was learning the noise they made, not actually how to sing…
C: Yeah. I think the difficult thing is…I mean I obviously have quite a typical sort of mid-Atlantic British accent…The difficult thing is that a lot of these ‘American Song Book’ tunes…the rhyming if you sang it…it’s like the old Chris de Burgh ‘romance’ and ‘dance’. I mean we would say ‘romance’ and ‘darnse’, that’s how us Brits would say it. (Laughs) So you would have to say ‘romance’ and ‘dance’, but you soften it off a bit. Otherwise, the rhyme doesn’t work properly…
V: Yes, but you can do that without ‘Americanising’ it…because…after all ‘dance is Northern as well.
C: Yes, that’s true.
V: I mean – ‘barth’ and ‘bath’…
C: (Laughs) Like a Geordie!
V: I mean, my friend Brenda, who comes from Halifax, would say “Would you like a bath or would you prefer a shower?”
C: Is it ‘skon’ or ‘scone’?
V: For me? ‘Skon’.
C: I can’t decide whether it’s ‘skon’ or ‘scone’…Which is the Cornish way?
V: I’ve no idea…but it’s a word that I learned from hearing my mother say it…and my mother was from Edinburgh… (Laughs)
C: Well… (Laughs)…I get confused! That’s one of the few words – I’ll always say ‘barth’ and not ‘bath’ but…I think ‘skon’ and ‘scone’ is one of those that…you know…where it fits in the sentence and what’s coming next. (Laughs)
V: Yes, I mean…I think you do have ‘moveable vowels’ sometimes, especially if you’ve trans-located as you have, from the Midlands to down here…
C: Yeah, that’s roight… (Mimics ‘Brummy’ accent)
V: Well, you’ve covered my next question which was – you know – what about singers outside of the jazz scene…so we’ve done that really…
V: Ah. Well I wanted to mention…um…actually I’d quite like a look at my CD rack, which is getting smaller and smaller because I tend to buy things on ITunes and download them to my IPod…and the CD rack stops growing, so there’s nothing very much tangible there either…um…Claire Martin, I like the sound of. Some of the tunes she chooses are a little bit too obscure for me…but a nice sounding voice though…I can’t think…Ella Fitzgerald –obviously – um…
V: Well, I think we’ve got that one covered really. Something will come to you again when it’s too late…
C: I know…yeah.
V: Now, since you’ve been working in this current…version of yourself, as it were, you’ve been working as a quartet basically. There’ve been a few changes of personnel but the format is basically the same…Is that for purely economic reasons or…well, I suppose if it was economic reasons you’d be working as a trio, wouldn’t you?
C: (Laughs) DUO!
V: Well, yeah! (Laughs) But it’s difficult to do a jazz set-up…I mean it’s so much strain on the pianist, certainly when it comes to the improvisation and so on…but obviously it’s a sound you’re very comfortable with.
C: Yes it is, It’s the nearest I can get to a big band…and we’re talking about economy…a big band is obviously um…you know…dream come true…”Dear Jim, can you please fix it for me to sing with a big band?” Who can afford to run an eighteen piece big band? There are no venues – well, very few that would fit in a big band anyway, so…um…I’ll stick with a four or five piece. And that’s the nearest I can get.
V: And when you’re working out material and arranging…is that a collaborative thing, or are you leading the charge there?
C: I’ve started leading it. Yes, thanks to…well…Now I’ve got a better understanding of all of that and I play a bit of piano myself…I’m writing the charts for the guys. Um…There was a tune recently that I thought would work well if the verse was in Latin and then went into a swing for the chorus…um…we haven’t done it many times actually (Laughs) just because we don’t get too many chances to rehearse…and when you’ve got things like going from a Latin into a swing, you’ve got to be tight to sound good. But – I liked it. It worked, and that was an idea of mine. Often I’ll hear arrangements of other people and I think “Yeah that sounds quite nice done like that, so we’ll do it that way, so I tend to…well, it’s a bit of a dictatorship! (Laughs) They can do what they want within their solos, but when it comes to the tempo it’s set at and the arrangement and the style we do it in, it’s kind of…I put some force into that. I’ve got an idea of how I want the band to sound. We’re a small swing band and I want to try and stay true to that without going too much outside, even though sometimes I’m sure the guys would like to branch out from there…but…they have other opportunities to do that… (Laughs)
C: NOT ON MY WATCH!!!(Laughs)
V: I mean – that’s what being a professional musician is all about isn’t it? When you’re getting the work and fronting the unit, you call the…What’s that phrase? ”He who pays the piper…”
C: It’s taken me quite a few years to find what I think is my niche…and it’s not so much a matter of sitting in your comfort zone, it’s more a matter of – “I’m going to stick to what I think I can do well. What I think I can do justice to. So that’s why the format has stayed the same, no matter who’s behind me, who’s working alongside me…
V: Well, in some ways that’s as it should be really. You would expect to have a different character to the soloing, but the ensemble sound is very much under your control. It’s there for you.
C: Yes. There is…an underground change…for instance, Tom Quirk [pianist - former member of Carrie's band]; he’s very edgy, modern style piano playing…um…modern jazz…and when we’re playing the standards and the swing tunes, that would still come through - just in the voicings he would use on the introductions…exactly the same introductions but he’d add some more edgy voicings to the chords and it would add a …adding a touch of chilli to a recipe…It wouldn’t be there if someone else made the recipe…but you’re still making Shepherd’s Pie. (Laughs)
V: Again, that’s as it should be really, because if it was – this is it and that’s all there is to it – then there wouldn’t be any of that interaction between all of you, which is what making jazz is all about.
C: Right. It would just be reading dots then, wouldn’t it, as opposed to improvising and putting there own slant on things
V: OK. Granting a Wish Time. For one night only you can hire anybody in the world to accompany your Festival Hall debut! So, who do I need to contact for you?
C: (Laughs) Have they got to be alive?
V: No, I have the power to resurrect where appropriate – for one night only!
C: (Laughs) Well! It would be quite nice to get Nelson Riddle to do an arrangement for a big band. That would be quite cool…um…with my voice in mind. That would be rather nice…Probably someone like Oscar Peterson on piano, um…I do like Scott Hamilton…er…I know they’ve worked with Diana Krall and I like their style. So, Jeff Hamilton and – Who’s that bass player that she works with? Um…You can put it in later! I can’t really think who else. I guess I’d rely on Oscar Peterson to choose a nice band. I think I could trust his judgment! (Laughs) Um… and I’d like to sing a duet with Frank actually…it would have to be a slow ballad with us both sitting down on stools because I would tower above him and I don’t think he’d like that! (Laughs) But I’ve never really thought about that…your fantasy gig. Festival Hall. Who would it be? Yeah, well it would definitely be big band with – yeah – I wouldn’t mind singing a duet with Frank Sinatra…
V: With Nelson Riddle arrangements and a big band under the control of Oscar Peterson.
C: Yeah. Something like that.
V: OK. I’ll get to work on it…
C: Give me plenty of advance warning because my diary’s quite busy…can’t make the 22nd October!
V: Fine! If you were able to transfer all of your musical skills to one instrument, what would it be?
V: OK. That’s logical. Short but sweet, that question…And your ultimate musical ambition?
C: (Long pause…Big sigh!) I don’t really have any…you know, I’ve no desire for fame or anything…never really have. I just like singing…and I like singing these songs…that’s about all it boils down to…
V: But if you could make a full time living…for example…would you go in that direction?
C: Yeah. I mean anyone who loves music and loves what they do…
V: Well, the concomitant of it as you well know – I mean – it’s hard enough schlepping around Cornwall. If you’re schlepping around the country…constantly touring…
C: Yeah…I wouldn’t want to be constantly touring at all. If I could make enough money to live a moderate life-style. Not big houses and big cars but just pay the bills and stay in Cornwall…
V: Yeah, well you chose the wrong thing to do for that anyway! (Laughs)
C: (Laughs) Yeah. I know! But it would be quite nice to go into a large HMV, you know, the sort that has a big stock, and be able to look at the back of one of the sections – I don’t know whether I’d fall under jazz…or probably…easy listening, knowing my luck…but just see – “Ooh! They have got my CD in. I wouldn’t expect them to have loads, but just to be able to…that’s almost a way of saying; you know, “You’re respected for your contribution”. Someone has liked it enough to market it and put it out there. And if it’s in a large outlet – I’m not talking about Lidls – (Laughs), the big ones that have lots of stock of all sorts of people... (Laughs)…yeah, that would be nice. So if I could make some money by recording and then maybe say do one tour a year – one UK tour, wouldn’t mind that!
V: Sounds good to me. All right then, finally we come to the Desert Island. I have a desert island and I’m going to cast you away on it, but my rules are a bit harder. You can only have two records.
C: Albums…two albums, right?
V: I just said ‘records’ so you can interpret that as you wish. Me, for example – I would definitely be trying to smuggle in a boxed set or a double album…well, it comes as one package. You can buy it all together…Anyway, that’s it. Two records, given those definitions. Only one of those can be from the jazz area. The other one has to be from somewhere else. What would they be? And remember – you’ve got to live with these.
C: You know what…? You know what? - It’s just struck me. Ask me this another day and it would never occur to me…From the jazz side – quite easy - A Night in Paris. Diana Krall. Lovely. I love every single track on that album…and that would satisfy me. Lovely…and…I’m just trying to think of something else that you’d never get bored of…um…and there’s a musical called City of Angels. Have you heard of it? It’s amazing, kind of Manhattan Transfer stylee…er…just so many complex tunes and different styles and different time signatures. Very clever lyrics all the way through it…
V: Do we know who it’s by?
C: I don’t. I should do. I really should have paid attention because it’s astounding. It did get on Broadway but never came over to this country. It went on Broadway and the soundtrack was highly…acclaimed…no…not the soundtrack – the musical itself. Apparently, the way it was presented on stage was too complex…the story line…it’s quite an interesting story line…anyway, because it’s so…you know, a lot of musicals have that…I don’t know – it’s also got a big band, jazzy feel about it. Not unlike the Chicago musical style. But, yes – I think I would choose that one. I haven’t heard it for ages!
V: OK. I think we’re done!
Carrie's Live Space is at http://carriemannjazz.spaces.live.com/default.aspx
Carrie is appearing at The Foundry Bar, Hayle on October 22nd and Tregony Village Hall on 24th October.