Ten years ago, the number of female jazz vocalists that fans were familiar with were relegated to a few fading legends and at-the-time unproved talents still searching for their own individual style, such as Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson. Today, listeners can choose from a wide spectrum of singers, from Wilson and Reeves; to the popular stylings of Diana Krall and Jane Monheit; to the eclectic work of Patricia Barber, Jay Clayton, or Grazyna Aguszyk.
Somewhere in the mix stands Jacintha Abisheganaden. The Singapore-born and raised singer and actress has spent the past several years honing a style based in classic torch tradition. Possessed with a voice that could blow the roof off the ceiling of a theater, Jacintha instead prefers to lull the listener into the song with minimalist arrangements and a vocal style that seduces but never assaults. Her latest album on the Grove Note label, Lush Life, is her most fully realized recording: Jacintha’s vocals are complemented with tender string arrangements. It is a sound that brings to mind the classic Sinatra recordings with Nelson Riddle or prime Billy Eckstine.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Jacintha. The following questions and responses were submitted via e-mail:
Jazz Review: What led to the decision to utilize strings on Lush Life?
Jacintha: It was the decision of Ying Tan, the Executive Producer of Groove Note Records, to explore using strings.
Jazz Review: How do you go about choosing the song selections on your albums? Who gets final say in what sings make the final album cut? How much autonomy do you get in the studio as far as what you want to do?
Jacintha: Usually Ying and I work on songs and concept for a new album, sometimes a year before we record. But I must say they are his concepts and for the most [part], his song selection. What I do is confirm what works for me and what doesn't. The time before recording helps the album breathe, gain emotional momentum and clarity. Ying is able to match the psyche of a song with the psyche of the singer at hand. Even more interesting, as we work over the years, is that he is able to sense the changes and put that into the song selection. Because of this, he's very generous if I change my mind on a song. I'm generally left to do my thing in the studio. But you can only do that with great support. In this case I credit Mike Ross and Joe Harley for creating a recording atmosphere and sound so comfortable that it feels like I just have to "speak" to sing.
Jazz Review: I've found that slower tempo songs require a greater attention to detail to sing than up-tempo numbers. You seem to thrive on these songs. What is your approach to phrasing a lyric? Who were your early vocal inspirations? And how do you incorporate them into your individual style?
Jacintha: In acting, the suspension of our disbelief in a movie or a play depends on creating the world in which all the elements of that story exist. If the ‘world’ of that piece is not established and is not strong, the elements don't hold, the characters don't touch you. When I sing standards I want the world of that song to be fully known to me. If I inhabit it, the story I'm trying to tell and all the possible stories under that tells itself.
You cannot be a singer of slow songs without being influenced by Streisand. As a pre-teen in Singapore, I was obsessed both with her voice and her eyeliner. In her early work, the arrangements with full orchestra were so exciting that they kind of defined musicals from the movies for me. I listened to Joni Mitchell and learned that if the lyrics are rich, the singing can be almost blanched. Tell it like it is: that was exciting to me too. There was Stevie Wonder. There was Sergio Mendez. There was Karen Carpenter. Bits and bobs like Miriam Makeba when I was eleven. Again, the listening is a bit subliminal.
Recently I was listening to Stacy Kent. Her voice after four songs can produce in you a feeling of peace. It’s not a suggestion from the music. She can really induce it. In fact I'm more interested in what a vocalist is thinking than singing. And I want to hear it through very famous songs. With Lush Life, I wanted a very strong narrative without necessarily a very strong narrator; it helps that the songs match. As a new jazz singer you risk wiping yourself out because these songs have been sung before. But I was sure of my narratives. So you take a small song and in the telling of it, you make it smaller- a microcosm. There are people who'll say a song like Lush Life is not a small song, but to me the images are very specific - a time of day, the ennui that pervades it, and the unfolding of the story.
Jazz Review: Your bio states that you dabbled a bit in techno-pop early in your career. When did you make the decision to start gravitating toward jazz? How did you find yourself moving in that direction?
Jacintha: I won a national talent-time (contest) with two other friends when I was 18 singing jazz. It was kind of really all I wanted to sing through my career. But you're young and you can sing anything, so you diversify. You try everything, but you try to sing it in the spirit of jazz. My friend, the actor Kay Tong Lim told Ying Tan to consider recording me in the mid-nineties. Ying was living in the States; Groove Note was not yet born. I passed Ying a tape and we basically talked about recording for two years before we went ahead and did it. At our first meeting when it seemed like it was going to happen, I was so excited that day that I smashed my entire rear windscreen of the car while parking and dreaming about it. It was a good sign. I would break the glass ceiling of my recording career.
Jazz Review: Do you sometimes find your location in the Far East limiting, with regard to cultivating an audience and your continued development as a singer? If so, have you thought of spending more time in the States or Europe to capitalize on the strong word-of-mouth that your Groove Note albums have generated.
Jacintha: The world literally became smaller when the Internet came into play. I am no techno wizard. I don't buy my books and CD's on the net. I go to the shops because I am a shop-a-holic. When I was in America in the mid-eighties, I used to write stories to the (Singapore daily newspaper) Straits Times about the Oscars and the Grammies because we didn't have live-via-satellite globally. In 15 years, the face of how we market something or someone has changed irrevocably. It’s become in many ways much simpler. So, the Far East is not so far. We should call it the Near East or the Nearer East.
There are those who say you can only to listen to jazz live. But that's like retail therapy - I believe in it. It changes the face of jazz that millions can sample an album and buy it from their homes. And these are new listeners. New listeners are good if we want to continue a genre of music that has faced being completely ousted on the music market. I do think the proof of the pudding is showing up. Showing up really helps. It’s not my strongest suit especially if I'm in Singapore when there are jazz fans in Europe and America. But I think that an artist from any part of the world today has a much better chance of exposure. The common denominator here (Singapore and the Pacific Rim) is English because that is the language of technology. Another year or maybe less you could beam me up visually on a phone interview. I'm hoping that this changes the (requirement) of being in one place, doing one thing at one time for an artist. In fact I can't tell you how it relates to my sales, but I do believe in the tried and true reality of radio play. If it permeates the airwaves, it permeates the psyche. Also, an MTV jazz channel would be great. There is no right time to tour when you have a small child who will not find it funny on tour. But I think if the opportunities come up, we'll do it in small select doses with optimum potential to those outings. I'm pretty proud of Groove Note's credibility. They know their onions and it’s worked for me.
Jazz Review: How did growing up in Singapore, with its tight control over media, affect your musical development?
Jacintha: We experienced a huge hunger for homegrown talent in the 80's (Sorry, I'm dieting right now.) A lot of original groundwork was laid in both entertainment and the arts. People were collaborating, writing. The theater was experimenting with new forms to enhance the work. The media covered everything or tried to and they gave us a hint that we had in fact managed to find a new, valid artistic voice. It was deeply motivating for me.
Jazz Review: Are there any vocalists singing today that you admire and look at as a benchmark to what you want to accomplish as an artist?
Jacintha: I don't listen to enough. In many ways I've approached my interpretation of music more through books- from literature and travel and life, great stories and biographies and my fashion magazines. But if I had by druthers (whatever that means) I'd like to feel what it’s like to hang in Shirley Horn's silences; her pauses. They are the bravest. Her art is in the meaning you catch in between the phrases. But possibly because I'm reading I'm the One That I Want by Margaret Cho right now, I'd like to finish off that feeling with the audacity of Streisand's record sales. I say this, but I have more Diana Krall albums than Horn's. And I'd still be interested to hear what Joni has to say 10 years from now.
Jazz Review: How do you envision your career unfolding as you continue performing?
Jacintha: Unfolding would be good enough.