Every so often, one runs across a “jazz” album that defies description. Such was the case, a few years ago, with Sophie Dunér’s album of jazz vocals with string quartet, The City of My Soul, and such is the case of this new album for voice and solo jazz cello, The City of Dizzy. Dizzy, as it turns out, is not a reference to the great, famous trumpet player but to Dunér herself. But embedded in these nine glorious and heart-stopping performances are jewels of duo improvisation—and more importantly, stunning vocal excursions that almost defy verbal description. Thus I was eager to ask Dunér a few questions about the album’s genesis and her method of performance as a prelude to the review.
Art Music Lounge: Sophie, to put it in just a few words, this album is a killer. Nearly every track comes at you like an assault of rhythm in which the twists and turns of the music keep you on the edge of your seat. I have to begin by asking you…how on earth did you put these pieces together? The whole album almost sounds like a jam session.
Sophie Dunér: I compose a lot of music all the time. For this recording, I simply picked the compositions that have a certain personality, speed, rhythmic intensity and energy about them (that would fit in The City of Dizzy ;-). That’s all. And of course, making arrangements with the same philosophy as well. It’s sort of a “chemical process”—I choose what I need. I wanted a lot of angular stuff for this record. I enjoy singing angular melodies because it’s challenging, and I need that to feel I am alive when I sing. The lyrics also have a bit of a drama, and that goes well with the ups and downs in the melody! It was still a new experience as my tunes were “dressed up” by an intense cello (that also could improvise and supply me with many sounds and other craziness)! An instrument I never recorded with before, Jeremy Harman on cello.
How I put the pieces together—well—making an “order” of these 9 pieces has been for me like composing one entire piece. I am very concerned about how they contrast to each other; they’re all connected. Depending on what comes before and after each one of them makes them what they are individually as well.
AML: I noticed that you have seven originals bookended by two earlier jazz classics, Weird Nightmare and Blue in Green—very different kinds of tunes, one an edgy, borderline atonal song and the other a piece of modal jazz played by the Miles Davis group. How did these particular songs make their way into this grouping?
SD: Weird Nightmare, because of the melody. I love Mingus melodies in general. I’ve sung this tune on various gigs during the last few years, both with string orchestra as well as with upright bass only—and again, I love the melody. Blue in Green is a fantastic angular song which gives me plenty of room and time to use both my lower and upper registers, and “remaining” there for a while (as a big part of the tune was recorded in “rubato!”) But apart from these “selfish” reasons for me as a vocalist, they are highly spiritual and deep tunes…I feel something for them – they are not just “another couple of standards” to “squeeze into the repertoire”—so Yes, they are particularly chosen for a reason.
AML: How did you select Jeremy Harman for this project? He’s so extraordinarily versatile in his approach.
SD: I happened to meet Jeremy while he was on tour with the Sirius Quartet some years back in Germany. The following summer, there was an opportunity for me to perform at The PARMA Music Festival outside Boston. Initially, I wanted to bring the Sirius Quartet however, as it wasn’t possible, I asked Jeremy only as he was based in Boston. I was intrigued by the sounds he could produce with the cello—much of my compositions could be played in a quite complete way by only one person (that including the loops with the help of a small recording machine, counter lines, pedals, percussion, harmony, bass and not to forget – improvisation.) Also, he is stylistically very versatile which I need for my music.
AML: I hear so many different influences in your singing, jazz as well as flamenco style, but above all I am deeply impressed by the way you control your voice at all times. Did you ever take formal voice lessons? Your tonal placement just sounds so well trained to me.
SD: Yes, I did study voice (jazz & classical as well as improvisation) at Berklee College of Music in Boston, from where I earned a Degree in Performance. I also studied with Hubert Mayer at The Stockhausen Music Courses in Germany during two summers. And I do have many different influences in my jazz singing. First of all, I’ve always listened more to instrumentalists than to singers. However, when it comes to jazz singers, I´ve especially listened to a lot of world music influenced (jazz) singers because I like their dynamics and the way they “attack,” rhythmically speaking. However, the “regular” jazz singers who have inspired me have been the ones with a “raw and honest” expression. I should also add that I have—during selected time periods in my singing life—been collaborating & invited to perform with many classical contemporary ensembles as well. And I have always been a big listener of a lot of contemporary music, with or without singers.
AML: I know this is going to sound like nitpicking, but I felt disappointed that the album only contained nine selections. Was there a problem in extending it by two or three more songs?
SD: Funny you say that! I was actually advised some years back not to have too many tracks on my CDs, hehe! And now you ask for more, I feel honored ;-)! I´d hope for people to hear the rest of my songs (which are LOADS, I write new music everyday!) if they come to my concerts!
AML: I’m curious to know how much, if any, rehearsal time or pre-planning went into these performances, or were they pretty much worked up on the spot in the recording studio?
SD: Possibly the final choice of “sounds” were decided when we were in the studio. Some (final) decisions about form and structure as well as the use of acoustic or/and electric cello was taken in the studio. Sometimes you actually need to do hear a bit of it recorded before actually knowing exactly what you want. Though when it comes to my compositions as such, I sent the arranged charts to Jeremy beforehand. We discussed them over Skype. And then we rehearsed the pieces during the day before the recording in Boston.The improvisational part was of course added on the spot in the studio.
AML: After hearing The City of My Soul, I wasn’t really prepared for what I heard on this album. I’m guessing that you have other directions in mind for future projects?
SD: Yes, I certainly do…;-) I am a “consumer” of the things I create and record; once I´m done, I´m done. I usually don´t record the same type of album over again. Though artistically, my music maintains a “red line” which always is my own, naturally. I like to quote the composer Louis Andriessen on this subject; “…when you are recognizable, that means you always write the same piece. I have a completely different attitude — I like to write pieces on subjects which I find interesting. That can be all kinds of different things.”
After all, isn´t that life…..? (essentially, the arts – which is the same thing) – I wouldn’t imagine anyone feeling the same way everyday, creating the same idea over and over again (??)
AML: Sophie, thank you for your time. Everyone in the world needs to hear you!
THE CITY OF DIZZY / MINGUS: Weird Nightmare. DUNÉR: Gossip. My Eternal Flame. Reharmonized Boyfriend. Addicted to Love. Purple Bossa. Rattle Snakes. The Express Train. DAVIS: Blue in Green / Sophie Dunér, vocal; Jeremy Harman, cello/el-cello / Sophie Productions (no number); available as download through CD Baby
From the very opening number on this album, which begins with soft but ominous cello tremolos played by Harman (who is a member of the Sirius Quartet), we are in a different world. When Dunér enters, her voice sultry yet also strong and dominating, we are in yet another world. This album, then, may be summed up as a true meeting of minds, one an instrument and one a voice yet both thinking in terms of pure improvisation.
Both performers take turns leading and following; the only moment one detects as a bit of studio trickery is when Dunér double-tracks herself for a few bars her and there in Gossip—and Harman likewise double-tracks himself, playing “cello ostinato” in the left channel and a high-range improvisation in the right. Both musicians quite evidently respect each other, giving each other complete freedom when it’s their turn to shine.
It also helps that Harman is a jazz cellist unlike most others. To begin with, he has a solid classical background, and for another, he knows how to push the envelope when accompanying a singer like Dunér. This puts him in a different class from such past masters of jazz cello as Oscar Pettiford or Fred Katz, both of whom were superb improvisers (and Katz, also a great jazz composer) who did not accompany singers. I’ve also heard to a live set that she sang with Harman, which included some pieces from The City of My Soul, and the effect is quite shockingly different from the string quartet arrangements despite similar tempos. Harman’s playing has far more edge to it, and as a result Dunér pushes her voice more as an improvising instrument, picking up on some of the excursions that Harman leads her into (and out of).
As a songwriter, Dunér obviously likes Thelonious Monk—Gossip is clearly based on Well, You Needn’t—and Mingus. She has also told me that she loves Stravinsky, ragtime and flamenco music. It all shows in her style as well as in her music. If anything, the pieces she has written and recorded here are even more rhythmically propulsive than those in The City of My Soul with the Callino Quartet a few years ago (Big Round Records BR 8926), but it’s also possible that she was inspired and energized in this direction by Harman, who simply does not let up in his propulsive playing behind her. They are a perfect duo: listen to the way they push each other in My Eternal Flame. Harmonically, Dunér’s music is no more adventurous than that of Monk or Mingus, but that’s pretty adventurous by the standards of most female jazz singers, who never go much beyond Ellington or Harold Arlen. Even Dena de Rose or the great Sheila Jordan, who I place near the top of great women jazz vocalists, stay harmonically tonal. Dunér likes edgy melodic lines that follow the unusual chord positions; she isn’t afraid to launch the voice in either direction, up or down the scale, at a moment’s notice, occasionally using a growl or even a semi-yodel effect to emphasize her rhythmic vitality. Yet she also varies her melodic lines, adding B or C themes at whim whenever and wherever she likes. That Harman is able to follow her in all this is a tribute to his evidently high musicianship.
Sophie’s singing style resembles almost no one else’s except perhaps one: Lee Morse, the forgotten “red hot mama” of the 1920s, whose full belted style, complete with whoops and yodels, resembles hers. But that’s about it. When you use your voice like an instrument—really like an instrument—you’re not thinking in terms of “sounding nice” or maintaining a pleasant legato. You’re improvising like a jazz horn. Many such singers have claimed this distinction, but only a handful, Dunér, Mark Murphy and Anita O’Day among them, have ever really achieved this. To some ears, this kind of style is disconcerting because the voice is “all over the place” in terms of range. The improvised lines thus produced are not soothing. They are angular, but to me they are tremendously exciting and vital. There’s an elemental, animal excitement in everything Dunér sings that grabs you by the throat and pulls you out of complacency.
Perhaps it’s because she is working with a cellist, but it seems to me that Dunér’s voice has grown in richness and range since The City of My Soul. It has certainly grown in her assuredness of improvisation and in her English diction, which is far clearer here than on the earlier album. My only two regrets regarding this amazing recital are that, by ending on Blue in Green, she finishes the album on a modal ballad and not on an uptempo jazz piece, and that there are only nine tracks. The album is so good that I didn’t want it to end so quickly. Otherwise, this is a stupendous tour-de-force for both musicians, well worth hearing and owning.
Postscript: May 10, 2017 – Sophie has uploaded two thrilling live performances on YouTube with the O/Modernt Chamber Orchestra. The first is an expanded version of her string quartet arrangement of Hey, Doctor from City of My Soul. The second is a splendid orchestral arrangement of Mingus’ Weird Nightmare, done by the O/Modernt Orchestra’s violinist. Click on the titles to hear them!
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley