Q&A with Chris McNulty

Chris McNulty currently divides her time between Australia and the USA, with a super busy schedule in both locations. She’s back in Oz for Perth International Jazz Festival and Stonnington Jazz, and was kind enough to answer some email questions for us between flights and concerts.

You might also like to read this earlier interview >

chris-mcnulty-suppliedAustralianJazz.net: I notice that at Stonnington you’re playing with James Sherlock and Tom Lee. How did you come to meet and work with them?

Chris McNulty: I had the good fortune and opportunity to play a casual gig with James on my last trip down here and we had a really lovely hook up. What struck me first… his ears and listening ability but also his coloristic palate. A wonderful guitarist and gorgeous addition to any musical landscape. I only know Tom by word of mouth but I’m really excited to be playing with him this time round.

AJN: Are you playing with James and Tom at Perth? If not, who’s the band there and how did that come about?

CMcN: No, the Perth gig was a hook up through Graham Wood so I’ll be performing with a different group of players. That’s kinda the way it works when I’m out on the road and touring around a bunch of cities. I pick up bands in each city. Just very lucky that there are so many great players here. I just had a wonderful rehearsal with Graham’s trio and he’s brought in two very fine players who I’ve not had the pleasure of performing with before, bassist Karl Florisson and guitarist, Fred Grigson. One consistent thread I’ve found among Perth players (among many other fine qualities), they all seem to have a gorgeous pocket. Perth’s a soft city, meaning it’s not harsh and abrasive or dark and damp. The sun and the soft breeze here seems to create a more relaxed vibe but there’s also a very strong creative energy and soulfulness here too. A nice combination. The jazz/music program at WAAPA has also played a huge role in the development of a very healthy jazz scene.

AJN: What will your repertoire be at Stonnington and Perth? Originals? Standards? A particular project / CD that you’re touring or developing?

CMcN: It will be mostly tracks off the last CD, a couple of ‘newbies’ and a few oldies. I’ll eventually get a chance to work the music from the new chamber music project into my touring repertoire and already have a couple in the mix. The charts are written to notate the geography, kind of like a road map outlining the journey. There’s specificity there for that reason but my approach in most other ways is more organic. There’s a lot of grey area that’s not easy to define on a chart and in a way I never want it to be. For me it takes more of a routine band to get that to work especially as it applies to introducing new music into the mix. I have a pretty good handle on what can be achieved in a two hour rehearsal, especially when touring so I often opt to perform music that’s been well worked through. Would love to do more challenging material but touring and traveling with usually one quick rehearsal doesn’t make that so possible. Sometimes getting that organic thing to work takes more than a rehearsal BUT sometimes it happens magically on a first meeting. I love the challenge of all of it but I do find Aussie musicians to be some of the most open. They have such a large musical palate. It’s very refreshing.

AJN: You’ve got such a busy schedule for the next few weeks (all the time!). How do you look after your voice?

CMcN: Ha… on a wing and a prayer mostly. This time, I travelled with a medical mask from NYC. After falling prey to a couple of awful bugs straight off flights, two trips in a row, I don’t have much choice. Air travel is risky business these days. For some reason the air on most flights is not recycled as much as it was in the past (I’ve read a bunch of material on this – it seems it’s a fuel saver?). I also travel with Propolis [a bee product that people take to strengthen their immune system] and Manuka or now, since arriving in Perth, Jarrah honey. I take vitamins and try to limit contact with anyone who’s sick and wash my hands a lot. Get as much rest as possible, basically keep my mouth covered and drink a lot of water. Air travel is a serious challenge for vocalists. The voice doesn’t travel well. We gets sick our instrument doesn’t work. This time round I flew from NYC to Perth with no lay over (one and only time I’ll ever attempt that). I wasn’t able to warm up for a few days due to the effects of jet lag and exhaustion. Warming up, finding a piano are all really important things for me once I’m rested.

AJN: What can you tell me about the project you’re working on with a chamber orchestra?

CMcN: The project is a collaboration between myself and pianist, arranger-orchestrator, Steve Newcomb. The seed was planted back in 2011 and came to fruition this past January and September 2013 in NYC. In late 2012, I chose the material and began working with NY pianist John Di Martino to create the core trio arrangements. We then sent the files to Steve who dressed it with the chamber group orchestrations. Steve had the job of hand picking the string and woodwind players from some of New York’s finest young talent while I organized the quartet of John Di Martino, Ugonna Okegwo, Gregory Hutchinson and Australian, Matthew Jodrell. All this happened during and following the devastating impact and effects of Hurricane Sandy. With Steve Newcomb at the helm and one rehearsal under our belts, chamber orchestra and quartet entered the studio for two days in late January. This is by far my proudest recording achievement and I truly believe Steve Newcomb’s involvement and contribution renders it a sublime work of art. The project was conceived as a dedication to my son, Sam. Every note, phrase and musical intention is for him.

AJN: I hear that you have a teaching book in production. What can you tell me about it?

CMcN: The book explores the use of scales/chords in jazz harmony by utilizing the use of tetrachords. I’ve created a series of exercises sourcing several ‘mother’ templates specifically geared for students of ‘vocal jazz’. Working through those exercises starting from the source templates will hopefully help vocalists improvise with more confidence and accuracy. It also provides a solid foundation for exploring and analysing a myriad of musical landscapes more freely, whether it be improvising over II, V, I harmony or more modal music or to help with their composing and arranging skills. I hope that what I’ve written will also lead to more independence and creativity as well as more pleasure and more empowerment as creative artists. I’m confident that learning to use this methodology, exploring its uses, will benefit students (vocalists & instrumentalists) preparing for any rigorous jazz studies program. However, I also believe many vocalists and educators who’ve already gone through a jazz program or who’ve been honing their craft and working out there professionally, will find it useful as a study tool or reference module. Vocalists who missed out or chose not to go the educational route will absolutely benefit from doing this work. I know I have.

I began this work after realizing that much of the information I’d gathered over the decades would be more useful to myself (and students) if it was organised and collated. Once I began sorting through the material I started to see either gaps (missing links) or connecting threads. I wanted to fill those gaps with something that transcended dry theory, learning scales, listening to saxophone players etc., I also wanted to address the larger issue facing many of us as jazz vocalists ‘how to absorb, retain and utilise theoretical information’ and transform that knowledge into ‘hearing’ it and using it as improvisers, composers and arrangers. For those who play even a little piano this work will probably feel a bit more accessible at the beginning. For those who rarely go to the piano I hope, after opening the book, they will. However, every note – chord/scale/tetrachord/melody – has been notated in Sibelius so non playing vocalists will still be able to complete all the work without having to go to the piano, even though I encourage all to do so. Seeing this work at the piano will absolutely lead to more freedom and hence more choices. Ultimately the goal is for the vocal student to transition from singing along with the Sibelius files/mp3s to playing this work at the piano.

I’m hoping to have the first pressing out by July/August 2014. The material for the first of a three book series has already been collated. As soon as I return to NYC the audio tracks will be completed and then hopefully we’ll be ready for the printing and pressing. I still believe that with any kind of teaching methodology it’s enormously beneficial if the person developing the work continues to present workshops. I’ll therefore be selling the book where ever I teach and it will definitely be available for sale at my site and ultimately at on-line sites such as Amazon.


Chris McNulty’s website

Perth International Jazz Festival website

Stonnington Jazz website


Listen to samples on Reberbnation