Lea DeLaria is one of the hippest jazz singers around.
Her innate skills and deep love of standards shine through on The Live Smoke Sessions. Unlike her first two CDs, which offered innovative twists of Broadway tunes and rock songs, the latest effort has DeLaria taking on classic jazz numbers. In creating an album that recalls the great live jazz recordings of the 1950s, DeLaria has created her most personal record to date.
She swings and scats hard with guest vocalist Ian Shaw on "Puff" and reinvents "Miss Otis Regrets" as a delightful New Orleans-style number. She also shows another side with several tender turns, including remaking the usually big and showy "Come Rain or Come Shine" into a gentle ballad.
The multi-talented DeLaria has also starred on Broadway and made people laugh with her bawdy stand-up comedy. She was the first openly gay comic to appear on national television in the United States. Many also know her for her work in films and on television even though she jokes that she is the only working actor in New York who has never appeared in an episode of "Law and Order."
There’s no doubt that her career has stretched into different areas, but The Live Smoke Sessions (Ghostlight Records) reminds us about one very important line in her resume: Jazz singer.
DeLaria tells us about the new CD, why there isn’t much scat singing these days, and what makes her laugh.
JazzReview.com: Begin by taking us behind the scenes. Tell us about the night that you recorded the CD.
Lea DeLaria: We recorded over two nights. We did three shows a night, so we did six concerts in all. We recorded live at Smoke. It was great. All six shows were packed. It was just electric in the room. I think you get that on the album. We were pushed by that audience that was really into us. Smoke is probably my favorite jazz club in New York. I really love Smoke. It was great to be there and do it.
JazzReview.com: Did you modify your show in any way because it was being recorded?
Lea DeLaria: Absolutely not. It was exactly the sort of show I always do. In terms of the editing, we edited out almost all of my talking so we could just get the music. We purposely made that choice because on the old live recordings from the ’40s and ’50s when they would record stuff like "Live at the Vanguard" you would never hear them talking between the song. You know they were, but you would hear them playing and occasionally saying "thank you" or something like that. We were looking for that. We were looking for an old-school sound and style.
JazzReview.com: It’s striking because the CD has a timeless, classic quality. It could have been recorded and enjoyed anytime in the last 40 years or so.
Lea DeLaria: Thank God. That’s what I’m hoping for.
JazzReview.com: What is it about that era that you like?
Lea DeLaria: That’s the beginnings I guess. The beginnings of the music. I wanted it to be a throwback. My first two records were so not throwback. Even though they were swinging jazz, they were very contemporary in their sound and style.
I was doing this interview while I was touring in Europe, and the interviewer said, "It’s almost like you are afraid to do standards." Well, no, I’m not. It’s that everybody does standards. I like to shake things up and be different. This is my way of going right back to the roots and beginnings and saying this is what I would do with standards.
JazzReview.com: Live recordings can be tricky. What did you want to do and not want to do?
Lea DeLaria: I knew I didn’t want to have a lot of chatter. I knew I wanted it to be about the music. The one place that I did have the chatter was just to give people a taste of that. That’s the introduction to the song "Puff." That’s the only contemporary song on the record.
And this is more about what I wanted: Sometimes no matter how great a record is when it’s in a studio it sounds sterile. I was looking for that raw, lively sound and energy you get from a live audience and a live production.
Even when I record in the studio, the band and I are all recording at the same time. I don’t track. That’s just crappy jazz to do that. You all want to be creating that sound at the same time. Even though I do that, what’s missing in the studio is the fifth musician the audience. When we get that that musician, the audience, it pushes all of us to a different place. I think that really shows on this record.
JazzReview.com: We should mention that Gil Goldstein and Seamus Blake are among the people on the album. They were on your first album.
Lea DeLaria: On my first two albums. Most of the arrangements on the first one and all of the arrangements on the second were by Gil Goldstein, who played piano on quite a few of the songs on the first one and then he played piano on all of them on the second. Seamus Blake played tenor sax on the first one. I also had Vincent Herring on the first one. Seamus came in and was the guy on the second one. It’s all Seamus on that. Those two particular musicians, Gil and Seamus, I just click with them. We click. The three of us have a very silly sense of humor. We make each other laugh when we are in the studio and when we are on stage. We’re just jokers. We click musically. We really listen to each other. There’s a real rawness that Seamus and I both share. You know, really balls out. Gil is very, very, very what’s the word that I’m looking for? I want to say musical, but it’s deeper than that. He’s so in-tune to what’s happening around him and exactly what the right thing is to fill on the piano. When the three of us create this sound, it’s an interesting cool sound. I can’t imagine recording without them.
JazzReview.com: Let’s talk about some of the songs on the album. "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" swings and is fabulous. Is there a favorite one that you have?
Lea DeLaria: That’s one of my favorites on this CD. I also like "Love For Sale" very much and "Jumpin’ with the Symphony Sid." I’m a scat singer. There aren’t a lot of us out there. There aren’t many chick singers or male singers left that blow over changes. Not just rhythm changes but changes, that can read a score and blow. I do like the ones where I’m blowing on this record. When I trade with Seamus, we’re just pushing each other further and further, laughing and having a good time. It’s great.
JazzReview.com: Why do you think there isn’t more scat singing happening?
Lea DeLaria: Because no one in jazz encourages singers to actually know music anymore. Singers, especially female, are encouraged to be pretty and have a pleasant voice. That’s about it. The whole industry of jazz has turned into this place where if you can’t cross over, by that I mean if your records don’t get play on pop radio or smooth jazz radio, then the label itself won’t sign you. We’re almost losing sight of what jazz is. What is jazz any more? As far as I can tell, the new jazz is country. Most of the music that they put out and say is jazz, I’m like "That’s country music." I don’t know why they call that jazz. How is that jazz?
You’ve got a large quantity of singers out of there who have never learned to read music, never learned the language of jazz, never learned the theory or the math of jazz. If you don’t know those things, you can’t scat sing. Some people try, and you know when they try and they don’t know that stuff. They sound like the Sweeney Sisters on Saturday Night Live.
JazzReview.com: In the liner notes, you meant it to be funny, but it’s true when you said you prefer to be called a "chick singer with balls." It’s kind of what you are talking about.
Lea DeLaria: I did mean it to be funny. This is the first time that I’ve really written the liner notes. In the past, I would write a dedication or that sort of that thing. I’ve wrote the liner notes on this one. People expect me to be funny because of my background in stand-up comedy. That’s my sense of humor. All I mean by that is I’m an adventuresome singer. I like to take a risk. I don’t like to play it safe. Even when I am singing something like a standard, I’m going to be adventuresome with it. When have you heard anybody do anything like what we did with "Miss Otis Regrets?" That’s what I mean when I say "I’m a chick singer with balls." I’m adventuresome.
JazzReview.com: Who else would you consider a chick singer with balls?
Lea DeLaria: There are a lot of women that I like. You know who is ballsy is Dianne Reeves. When she blows, oh my God. It’s really nice when she gets away from the modal blow and goes into the be-bop sound, which you don’t hear a lot of with her. It’s an interesting time. I don’t know. Even when I listen to the Ella tribute record, I was like "Where’s the real hard-core musician, the one who can scat from top to finish, with the most amazing vocal quality and musical knowledge?" That’s who Ella is. That’s why the big boys let her play with them. That’s why she was able to conduct the Chick Webb Orchestra after he died. When in that time would a woman be able to be the musical director of a big band? She was in charge because that girl knew music.
JazzReview.com: Where does your interest in jazz come from?
Lea DeLaria: I’m a second generation. My father was a jazz musician.
JazzReview.com: So, you grew up listening to jazz.
Lea DeLaria: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. My mom liked all the big band stuff. My dad was a be-bop head. I had everything. I had everything at my disposal. It was a musical house. Music was always playing. Jazz was the first music that I heard. I listened to jazz before I heard rock ‘n’ roll.
JazzReview.com: She didn’t scat, but I like to imagine you hanging out with Rosemary Clooney for some reason.
Lea DeLaria: Maybe because we have the same birthday. We were both born on May 23, not the same year for God’s sake but the same birthday.
JazzReview.com: It just seems like you two would have gotten along.
Lea DeLaria: I went to see her concert. She did this thing with the Boston Pops, her and Linda Ronstadt in the ’90s. We had the same agent. I was in the front row. We had a couple of great moments of just acknowledgement. I went backstage and met her. We talked a little bit, and she was magnificent. You’ve got to love her.
JazzReview.com: On the cover on the new CD, you’re barefoot, but there are some other photos of some great, old worn boots. Tell us about those boots.
Lea DeLaria: Those boots have been with me a very long time. That was the whole concept of the boots that the music has been around for a long time. I’ve been doing this kind of stuff for a long time. I have walked through this music for a long time. That was kind of the idea of the boots. And, then having them off was that it was still fresh and new.
The boots I got from a show that I did I did 15 or 16 years ago in Canada. It was wardrobe. I told them I wanted to buy the boots. I’m going to get in so much trouble for this. (Laughs) When you do a movie or television, and they have wardrobe for you, you can generally say I would like to buy that and then you get it at a discount. Very rarely do they give it to you. You’ve got to buy it. I said I want to buy those boots He said no and then left the room. I went "OK. I offered to buy them." I was catching a plane so I put them in my bag.
I have worn those boots in many a stage piece in New York. I just recently wore them in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" when I played Bottom. I’ve worn them in three different movies that I’ve made. Those boots have been around.
JazzReview.com: What were you like as a child?
Lea DeLaria: I was loud. Yeah, I was loud. I was pushy. I needed a lot of attention, but what child doesn’t really? In that respect, I was a pretty normal child. Once when I got to 10, 11, 12, or 13 in that vicinity, that’s when I started reading more and watching movies and listening to music. I guess I was more that kid.
JazzReview.com: You are so funny. Many people know you for your stand-up comedy. What makes you laugh?
Lea DeLaria: The current administration makes me laugh really hard. Sarah Palin makes me laugh or I would cry. Those are the sort of things that I laugh at because if I don’t I would kill myself. I’ve a real interest in what’s going on in the world and how those things affect me. Then there’s stupid humor. When someone slips on the street, my initial reaction is to say to them, "Are you OK?" then I laugh really hard. I’m that guy. Initially, I’m like "Oh my God, I hope you are OK," then I’ll start laughing.
JazzReview.com: What haven’t you done that you would like to try?
Lea DeLaria: I want to do a way out there jazz record that everybody is going to say no way no one can do that then I’ll do it. I have a few ideas. And, I wouldn’t mind somebody writing a Broadway show for me.
JazzReview.com: More immediately, are you touring with the new CD?
Lea DeLaria: Big time. We’ve got a record release concerts here at Smoke on this Monday [Sept. 29] and then the following Monday [Oct. 6] and then I’m in Provincetown on Cape Cod for five dates. I go back to England to do a record release concert there and then I’m doing a tour of Australia in November. Then I come back to New York in December. I’m doing Christmas shows here and in Boston. I take January off and then I do the West Coast, including Hawaii, San Francisco, Seattle, and Santa Fe. Then I tour Europe.