It is very easy to assume that every track on Ellynne Plotnick’s new album, Life Is Beautiful is a cover of a jazz standard created by one of the Gershwins or Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer. The songs have the smooth flowing lines relatable to Porter, the graceful swells often attributed to the Gershwins, and an alluring orchestration liken to Johnny Mercer. Although it may seem to most folks that the jazz artists of yesteryear cornered the market on melodic beauty, Plotnick shows that she came equipped with those sensibilities too. Every track on Life Is Beautiful is an original composition that was written or co-written by Plotnick. Combined with a cast of talented musicians that includes pianist Dan Furman, guitarist John Cain, trumpet player Fred Mariano, and saxophonists Chris Coulter and Steve Moran, Life Is Beautiful carves a new niche in jazz standards.
Plotnick observes, "I am always inspired by other artists, many more than I can name. However, I don’t try to be like anyone else That doesn’t work for me. I just want to be authentic." She describes, "The CD is deeply personal and each song was a culmination of experiences over a two year period. I was responsible for the contents of the CD."
She reflects about the recording, "Many things motivated me. Just the process of songwriting, the act of creating musical compositions was highly inspirational. Each song refers to something personally meaningful to me, and each song was composed during the course of about two years. Once the recording process began, the project took shape."
One track that is deeply personal to Plotnick is her composition "Song For Barbara," a tune that she dedicated to fellow vocalist Barbara Winfield. She explains, "My [songwriting] process is to sit at the piano with a pad of manuscript paper and a pencil with a good eraser. I usually start with a chord progression, but in this case, I began with the melody and put chords to it afterwards. I tried out different chords and bass notes over the melody and listened to how it moved in 4 and 8 bar sections. I guess you could call the process ‘trial and error’ and I use my ears as the ultimate guide to what I keep and what I toss. The inspiration was my friend Barbara Winfield, a truly lovely person and a beautiful singer. We met through a chance encounter and I feel very blessed to have had her as a friend."
"The music came first," she recollects about the song. "I wrote the entire song but changed the harmonies because I didn’t think they moved well." She enlightens, "I conceived the song as a kind of spiritual that would serve as a tribute to her. It’s primarily in a minor tonality but brightens in the bridge. It’s a celebration of her life and who she was. She is missed by many people."
Plotnick reminisces, "A very fine pianist once told me that a CD was just a ‘document’ showing where an artist is musically at any given point. I console myself with that."
Life Is Beautiful is music that bares Plotnick’s thoughts and measures her creativity. For the recording, she chose musicians who could work off her vibe, which is why one of the first musicians whom she contacted was pianist Dan Furman. Plotnick chronicles, "I met Dan Furman about five or six years ago when we were both sitting in at a well-known Monday night jam session in New York City. We became friends and began to collaborate on songs. Dan is very in tune with singers - no pun intended. He knows how to assume different musical roles of the piano. He is quite creative and extremely versatile, and adept in many genres not just jazz. He is also a very good listener, which makes performing with hum, especially in a duo setting, very rewarding. I think the best musicians really know how to listen"
Plotnick and Furman collaborated on the track "As Rare As You" from the CD, but all of the other compositions, she asserts, "are my own. I created and provided the charts."
Additional musicians were called in for the recording including guitarist John Cain, trumpet player Fred Mariano, and saxophonists Chris Coulter and Steve Moran, were equally in tuned to Plotnick’s sensibilities. She appraises, "Steve Moran is great. I approached Steve to help me learn to sing horn lines a while back because I was interested in that kind of thing. I knew the moment I wrote ‘Changing Beauty,’ track 2 on the CD, that I wanted to feature him on the tune. It turned out to be a very good decision for both of us since I was right, and he liked the tune a lot."
She outlines, "Chris, Fred and John were introduced to me by Don Hurta, who played bass [on the recording] and was the recording engineer on three of the tracks - 3, 5 and 7, which were recorded in his home studio. I had met them before, but they graciously offered to play on the CD because of their friendship with Don, and it was a real pleasure to work with and hear them."
"Originally," she remembers, "Don suggested Chris because he wanted him to play soprano sax on ’Midnight Shade Of Blue,’ track 5 on the CD, but I wanted a richer, lower sound more reminiscent of Stan Getz, so Chris played tenor saxophone instead. He immediately tapped into the depth of sound as well as the feeling of the song and brought forth the right vibe."
She enthuses, "I feel very blessed to have such terrific musicians on the CD. They were also very good listeners." She furnishes, "Fred and I discussed approaching ‘A House Abandoned,’ track 3, with a bit of a vintage ‘Miles’ feel which he achieved, I thought." And she notes, "John used a nylon string guitar to provide a warm bossa nova groove to ‘Midnight Shades Of Blue.’ He had very good instincts for the song, too."
Though the musicians turned to artists like Miles Davis and Stan Getz as their barometers, Plotnick stresses, "I don’t compare my music to other artists because usually my songs are personal."
She also does not compare her current work with her previous records, I Walk Alone and Daydreams. She remarks, "I don’t really like looking back. I think that with each successive project, I get to know myself a little better. I hope my artistry improves too with each new endeavor. I hope my voice is more resonant and nuanced than it used to be. That’s another area to keep working on." And adds to that "I think I could learn to write stronger lyrics. I think it’s extremely hard to write great lyrics."
She speculates, "I think I took a chance with this CD. It isn’t easy to put it, or me, into a neat little box. I think I have grown most in my intention and my understanding of musical composition, song form and harmony. That said, there is so much out there to absorb and to learn,, it’s a bit overwhelming. Also, I ’comp’ for myself at the piano on three songs - tracks 3, 5 and 7, and put a string accompaniment to one of the songs which I have done before. I would have preferred to have live strings but budgetary constraints didn’t allow for it."
Working with a tight budget comes with the territory of being an independent artist as Plotnick concedes, "Being an independent artist is extremely challenging because you do absolutely everything yourself. It’s also liberating because nobody is actually telling you what to do, but making decisions can be scary and stressful. Another challenge for me personally is teaching which takes a great deal of energy. While I find it gratifying and meaningful, it isn’t always easy to get that energy back at the end of the day. Thank you caffeine," she chortles.
"Also," she assesses, "financing projects takes a lot of discipline and self-sacrifice. So yeah, there are many challenges. I think what keeps me going is a deep commitment and a crazy love for music, plus an insatiable need to express myself."
Another aspect of being a solo artist which allows Plotnick to bare her soul is performing live. "Performing live requires forming a rapport with an audience which of course the studio does not demand." She endorses, "I love the studio and live performance. Both require different types of focus and commitment."
She tells, "I have performed all but 3 of these tunes [from the CD] live in various settings. I don’t get opportunities to perform much, though I hope that will change soon." She elaborates, "Since I currently have a teaching gig during the day, touring for weeks at a time isn’t feasible right now, though I have summers to make that happen."
She reveals, "I would like to perform in other areas of the country and overseas perhaps in the not so distant future. I would also like to hear other artists perform and record my music, to hear what they might do with it. It would also be wonderful to have a regular gig. Those have been rather elusive perhaps due to the recent economic downturn."
She correlates her recording at Carriage House Studios was a lot like doing a live show. "The seven songs recorded at Carnegie House was a bit like a live performance. We didn’t rehearse beforehand, we talked through the arrangements during the session, and though we took a few takes of each song, it was very much like a live jazz performance. I send everyone the charts beforehand but we had never played through them as a band."
Working with a band is hardly new ground for Ellynne Plotnick who expresses, "My first band, NLB, made a 4-song demo recording in a basement on a home recorder sometime in the mid 1990’s. I don’t know if I have ever been really prepared to make records but it hasn’t stopped me. I think there are things you learn by doing them that no one can actually teach you."
One of those attributes which no one could show her is the melodic luster in her vocals. That she found on her own. She cites, "I have studied voice with various teachers on and off since gaining an interest in singing when I was in my 20’s. I think for better or worse, I’ve developed my own sound, mostly through experimentation, though I have a pretty solid technical foundation from which to build, which I credit to a few exceptional vocal teachers."
She admits that playing music "was an avenue that I pursued alone. My parents have always had a keen appreciation for music, especially opera, chamber music and classic jazz. I heard a lot of different sounds on their turntable growing up. I took the ‘de rigeur’ piano lessons as a kid, but it wasn’t anything memorable."
"There were musicians in my family," she shares. "My Uncle Alan was a sax player with Louis Prima, and his son Jeff, a drummer played with Vic Damone. Though there is a musical tradition in my family. I definitely pursued this avenue alone. Like most kids, I think I wanted to be a veterinarian or a paleontologist - but with a better wardrobe."
The wardrobe she wears as a singer is vastly more appealing and conducive to her sensibilities which began to veer towards jazz music. "I have always loved jazz," she gleans, "I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or not but I got hooked. I think it had to do with listening to so many great jazz artists and discovering and re-discovering recordings."
A lack of funding has not deterred Plotnick from finding a way to bring her music to audiences. She acknowledges, "Fans have found me on the Internet through iTunes and other places. The Internet has been a pretty good source for connecting fans to new music, but there’s no substitute for hearing it live."
Ellynne Plotnick has always made things happen for herself whether it’s been recording solo albums or finding musicians who understand what she is looking for in her songs. She has done it and achieved a level of artistry that puts a new niche in jazz standards. Classic jazz has its pillars of nobility but they often belong to the 1950’s and ‘60s. Plotnick is a modern jazz artist who reveres her predecessors and is able to make compositions that can stand beside her musical influences. She is a cog in jazz music’s evolution which enables its motors to keep running.