The voice is really feeling the spotlight in Australia this year. The 2012 National Jazz Awards, with finals at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, focusses on the voice and of course there’s the television show The Voice, where Darren Percival (until now not very well known outside the jazz scene) has been shining so brightly. If you’ve been listening to jazz singers in Australia this year, you might have heard Joshua Kyle – polished, sophisticated, informed and a very enjoyable listen.
Josh sent us this impromptu message out of the blue last year:
Jazz vocal music in Australia is really going from strength to strength; there are so many young, creative, interesting singers out there really pushing for long term careers inside the improvised music scene. Far too often singers in the past have dabbled in jazz then quickly moved to more commercial music, I think singers are now blending all their influences into one new sound of contemporary Australian jazz …
Josh is performing at Stonnington Jazz as part of his national tour, promoting his CD Possibilities. The tour started last night with a sold out gig at Paris Cat Jazz Club in Melbourne. He’ll also be travelling to Perth (The Ellington Jazz Club), Sydney (Venue 505) and Brisbane (Brisbane Jazz Club). You’ll find tour details at the bottom of the interview.
We caught up with Josh this week with some questions…
J-P: Until recently, you were living in the UK. What brought you back to Australia and are you here for a while?
Joshua Kyle: I had been living in the UK since 2009 and loved every minute of it. I have already been back to London once already, and I think this will continue for some time back and forth between London and Melbourne. I’m back in Australia to release the album and establish myself on the Australian Jazz scene. Before moving to the UK I hadn’t really pursued a career here as I had only finished studying in 2008, so it’s been really great having a project that can introduce me to the scene and help build a career here as well as in the UK: best of both worlds!
J-P: Who were your influences when you started and who do you look to for musical inspiration / mentoring at the moment?
JK: I managed to start singing lessons fairly young and my teacher Jenny Marks was a great fan of jazz but also The Beatles and Joni Mitchell so she really gave me an education early on in quality music. The biggest influence she gave me was Vince Jones, I remember listening to his Live album almost every day as a teenager thinking that this was the best thing ever, I still listen to it now and can sing along to the James Muller and Sam Keevers solos. I’m a big fan of Betty Carter – her style of singing is so interesting to me, hard hitting one minute then delicate and soft the next. You can tell she is kicking your butt every time she sings. Also singers Jon Hendricks, Jimmy Scott, Carmen McRae are all big influences.
In terms of more current inspirations I’ve really started looking at Australian musicians, I think coming home has facilitated that. Kristin Berardi is a world class vocalist and is such a joy to listen to – I spent a little bit of time with Kristin as a student and she is the real deal. I’ve borrowed a few of Kristin’s songs that I include in my set, I’m really grateful she lets me have a go at them! Sean Coffin, a saxophonist from Sydney was my lecturer at Uni and he and I have started working on new music together, trialling different ways of writing, to lyrics, for melodies, around melodies etc. so I think my next project will have a very Australian flavour to it – this country has some awesome talent.
J-P: Are there particular challenges or positives about being a jazz singer? Is is hard to break into or hard to get noticed?
JK: Jazz singing is a funny thing – people’s understanding of jazz singing has changed so much over the past 10 or so years with the introduction of mega stars like Michael Buble and with pop stars releasing swing albums. People’s opinions or understanding of what jazz singing is, is now quite specific when actually jazz singing is one of the broadest art forms around. It’s hard to compare singers like Theo Blackman and Diana Krall, Eddie Jefferson and our own late Joe ‘Bebop’ Lane. So for me one of the challenges is spending a lot of time explaining what I actually do in terms of repertoire and ideas of music. People on first take instantly think, ‘male, jazz singer, Buble impersonator’ and after they see my gigs they realise that its fairly different, ha! I’m a big Buble fan by the way, I think he’s great. Jazz singing allows you to experiment a lot with many different styles and ideas. One of the coolest parts of putting together my album Possibilities, was bringing together all my influences, throwing them all together and seeing what came from it. You work really hard I think as a young aspiring jazz musician let alone a singer to establish yourself and get noticed and create something new and interesting. People like interesting things so I guess the real challenge is maintaining that interest musically and keeping that momentum going. A full time job in itself.
J-P: You’ve been described as having ‘…an ear for the fascinating but underrated classic as well as a talent for original lyrics.’ What do you enjoy about singing standards? Which standards attract you and why?
JK: I spend a lot of time listening, listening to favourite artists back catalogues and less well known music. Kurt Elling told me in a masterclass once that you have to research everything; if you like a musician research their music, and that stuck with me. A lot of what I do with standards and not-so-standard tunes is a bit of risk taking. When I was putting together the music for the album I really wanted to have the chance to write lyrics to unsung tunes and really create something without already hearing someone else do it first. When listening to instrumentalists, every time I think I couldn’t or shouldn’t attempt to sing something, I actually do try and sing it; sometimes it works other times it doesn’t.
J-P: When writing your own lyrics do you enjoy that process, or find it a challenge? (or maybe a little bit of both!) Where do you get your inspiration for lyrics? Are there some subjects that compel you?
JK: I started writing lyrics to instrumental tunes as a way to practise writing original songs. I was struggling writing melodies and lyrics at the same time so I started doing them independently, then really enjoyed the challenge of matching these existing melodies to lyrics. It can be tough sometimes to try and create a story line and be restricted by the phrasing or amount of syllables available in the melody, but once you crack it, it’s awesome. Inspiration for topics can come from anywhere, e.g. the original title or by the feel or mood of the song. When I’ve learnt a new melody words will often come into my head that fit the rhythmic pattern and that will spark an idea, so there are a few different ways of coming up with topics.
J-P: Do you feel any particular there challenges or constraints when you’re adding your own words to great tunes by jazz royalty like Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter?
JK: I hadn’t really every thought about this until the first time I had to perform these songs live, and people started commenting on the fact that these tunes (‘Actual Proof’ and ‘502 Blues’) where some of there favourite songs. Instantly I was worried I had destroyed their favourite song, but this wasn’t the case, well they didn’t tell me that anyway! You do feel a bit of pressure because you are changing something that’s already living and being enjoyed. You do however get a little more confident when the publishers give you permission to use the lyrics you have written, this helps you think you’re heading in the right direction.
J-P: How did Possibilities come about? Were there any special stories of serendipity or aligning of the stars?
JK: Possibilities came about after a year or so of working pretty closely with Bassist/producer Geoff Gascoyne.
When I first got to London I sent am email to jazz singer Claire Martin who has released something like 17 records and is apart of UK jazz royalty, literally, she was awarded an OBE last year, asking for a singing lesson. She invited me to play at her gig that weekend then sent me off to see her good friend Ian Shaw another prominent UK jazz singer, who in turn sent me to see Geoff Gascoyne who had just finished touring with Jamie Cullum for the past 7 years. We listened to loads of music and talked about ideas and basically from that day started meeting once a week at Geoff’s home studio recording, writing and arranging ideas. We never set out to record an album; we just wanted to create music which represented both our interests and influences and to see what came of it. After putting the dream band together and gigging the material we had to record it and here it is. The title track ‘Possibilities’ was originally titled ‘Joshua’ by Victor Feldman and I wrote lyrics to it – I really wanted to sing a tune called Joshua, for obvious reasons. Turns out Victor Feldman’s son, also Joshua, is a big fan of the new tune and album which is really cool.
J-P: Who’s in the band you’re playing with on your forthcoming Australian tour. How did you meet them?
JK: When I first got to Melbourne I started researching pretty quick who was around and who was doing what, as I knew I had specific ideas on what kind of musicians I wanted to start playing with. Friends from Sydney had also suggested a few people and I just started checking people out, their vibe, their sound – all that. So with the wish list together, I made a few phone calls and managed to hear ‘yes’ over the phone when I offered them a gig; a year later they are still saying yes, so that’s hopefully a good sign! Daniel Gassin a great piano player and mean Rhodes player. Craig Simon is one of the most creative drummers in the country and can blend and merge styles and feels so beautifully, and I’m joined on Bass by Alex Boneham. Alex and I met years ago at the James Morrison Generations in Jazz Scholarships in Mt Gambier and he just gets better and better so I was pretty keen to get a chance to play with him again.
J-P: What are you looking forward to most about your tour?
JK: In addition to the last question, I’m not really in a position to take the same band around the country so I decided I was going to go and get my dream band in each state. Australia has some ridiculous talent and I have wanted to play with some of these guys for a long time so I think that is one of the things I’m really looking forward to. Also finally sharing this music with friends and family… they have all heard and read about what I’ve been up to in the UK but it’s one thing to read about it and it’s another to come see it live, so that’s going to be really great.
J-P: What are you listening to now?
JK: A whole lot of different things. I have always been a Robert Glasper fan, and his new album is on high rotation. I was given 11 albums of Avashai Cohen recently by a friend and that stuff is killing, really digging the album Adama at the moment. I love the simple melodies and programming of pop artist Jamie Woon, I think it’s a really cool idea and vibe he creates. New Orleans rock band Mutemath is blaring from my iPod at the minute. Just really clever arrangements and production ideas, but just this morning I was playing ‘My one and only love’ off the Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane album so it’s always changing – my flat mates don’t know what to think half the time – Ha!
Joshua Kyle on MySpace