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Raya Yarbrough

"To me jazz is like a sponge of culture, you squeeze it out and you get new jazz," singer/songwriter Raya Yarbrough tells me during our recent conversation, "I disagree with people when they say that jazz needs to be preserved and frozen in (time). I think that dead things need to be preserved, and jazz is not dead, it is very alive. Jazz is changing because it is meant to change. People didn’t think that bebop would ever work and it did. Every step of the way, every time that jazz has morphed, people have said that’s not jazz, that’s not going to work. (They have said), jazz is changing too much; it’s not really jazz (however), each and every time it has come to be accepted. I think that true art is meant to change, and it is meant to reflect all the different cultures, and the different social changes that just happen over time. That is why I started the Alternajazz Festival, because I meet other musicians and groups that are taking jazz in so many interesting directions. I wanted to put together a forum where once in a while people could come and see how many cool things are happening, which are still within the category of jazz. The people who like stuff that is more traditional can come and enjoy themselves, and the people who don’t think that they like jazz can come and hear how multifaceted it really is. If I were to give myself my own genre, I would call myself alternajazz. There is alt rock, so I see myself as alt jazz"

Yarbrough’s new self titled CD, from the Telarc label has many flavors and colors to choose from, including her opening track "Lord Knows I Would." The song is more blues than it is jazz, and she literally breathes sensuality into every evocative phrase that leaves her lips, and no more so than when she sings, "If I had me a little sugar / I’d pour it slow / So I could have me something sweet / After you go."

"I came up with these lyrics (to "Lord Knows I Would"), on an airplane and I think that at the time, I was either coming from or going to visit my boyfriend. The lyrics came from how I was feeling. I felt that no matter what I did, I couldn’t do right by him. I wanted to, but sometimes I didn’t know what to do. I think that everyone that is in a relationship, feels like they are trying really hard and they are doing the best that they can do, but sometimes you have to throw your hands up and say, ‘If I could be perfect, if I could be everything that you need me to be, I would. I just don’t know how. I just needed to say, ‘I’m trying.’ That is pretty well much where that song came from," says Yarbrough in explaining when and how the creative juices started to flow.

Yarbrough accompanies herself playing a blues shuffle on her acoustic guitar while singing, "Lord Knows I Would." She credits her father Martin Yarbrough, a highly respected singer/songwriter, originally from the south side of Chicago, for teaching her some bluesy licks, while she was honing her craft. Daddy taught her well, because even though Yarbrough’s song is more about, ‘This isn’t working for me,’ her guitar riffs seem to say, ‘you don’t know what you have, and if you lose me, I’ll still be real good, and by the way, I’ll pour me a little sugar.’ John Kirby’s keyboarding is equally provocative.

"Lord Knows I Would," may be the best blues performance this year, and is deserving of a nomination for a Blues Award when they are handing out in 2009. Yarbrough talks about the song, "It’s not a performance where I push very hard. I am not going for a lot of big diva notes. I wasn’t trying to sing it like I would a power ballad, because it is kind of a throwing your hands up sort of a song."

Yarbrough is an excellent storyteller, and she says that certainly is one aspect to her singing and songwriting, "I think that it depends on the mood that I am in when I am writing. I know that I can nail a ballad (she laughs). If I were to ask, ‘What is my natural voice best suited for,’ it might well be ballad singing," but she also says, " That’s not always how I feel, sometimes you want to put a lot of energy into a song. Sometimes a song makes you angry, or a song makes you really excited. Part of the challenge of being a singer, is to figure out how you want to frame your voice. You want to sound good, but you also want to sound honest about what the song is trying to communicate. As a singer songwriter, one of the most difficult people to write for is you. Just because you write a song, doesn’t mean that you can sing it. It is one of the more frustrating things. Sometimes I have written songs, and then I have thought I might not be the right person to sing that song. I have had to put some of those on the shelf until I got older, and my voice sounded more mature, or until I decided to restructure the song. The way that I perform a song, follows the intention of what I want to communicate."

One of the most creative pieces on Yarbrough’s CD, is her cover of rock group Queen’s song, "Dreamer’s Ball." She says, "I like Queen. I love Queen, and Freddie Mercury had one of the most incredible voices ever. I love the song "Dreamer’s Ball." I think that it is really pretty. I don’t think that I was thinking so much about jazz when I picked that song, I just really liked it. When I do a cover, there is always one particular part of a song that I think is gorgeous, so I try to think of a way to highlight that part of the song. I heard a really soulful quality in the architecture of the song, and I felt like the classic version of the song, is really cool and perky. I just wanted to push it to the max."

Yarbrough demonstrates with "Dreamer’s Ball," that she is far more than a one-dimensional singer, as she serves up a soulful, gospel influenced interpretation of the song. "I thought that the song could be (treated with a gospel take) to some degree, because it has that much heart in it. I just found it to be a really cool, emotional song. I wanted to wring every last drop out of it, which is why I put it together with so many A cappella voices. I added some additional pauses, and a couple of bars here and there. My dad sings the lower part on "Dreamer’s Ball." Takeshi Akimoto’s acoustic guitar work is an extra gem to listen for on "Dreamer’s Ball."

Oh yes, the jazz part err alternajazz part of Yarbrough’s repertoire. Yarbrough created and delivers on her original composition, the elegant, "Sorrow’s Eyes," and is absolutely dazzling on the Barney Bigard / Duke Ellington / Irving Mills tune "Mood Indigo." She follows up "Mood Indigo," with Johnny Mercer’s beautiful, "Early Autumn," and for the first time on this album, we hear an artist whose vocals sound like a throwback to the great standards singers of the thirties and forties.

"I think that it ("Early Autumn") is one of the prettiest songs that I have heard, and I have been performing it for a really long time. I began performing it when I was seventeen. When something strikes me as really gorgeous, I like to strip it down to its bare essentials. For years, I have been singing that song with just an upright bass and vocals. That was the most stripped down that I could make it. I had been performing this song without a trio for so long, that I decided to take it even further away from a traditional jazz setting, and gave it to Steve Bartek to arrange for a string quartet. I had a few ideas where I wanted the song to go, but that is what Steve does, and he is a genius with that stuff, so I told him to do something awesome with it, and I would sing it. It is one of my favorite tracks. I think Steve just knocks it out of the park."

The songs on this CD have either been part of Yarbrough’s repertoire for many years or reflect significant periods and emotions in her life. For instance, her song "Vice and Vanity," provides an insight into how she views relationships, "It is a story about two people who had been friends when they were younger. I grew up here, literally and figuratively in Hollywood. It is difficult to be here in LA and not have some Hollywood exposure, or know somebody who is doing this, that or the other thing. People come out here to try and make it, and that is what this song is about, success coming between two friends. It is about one person wondering, how did this happen? Where did we go wrong? How did two people who were such good friends part ways, so completely that it is like they never even knew each other. I called it "Vice and Vanity," because there are lines in the song that say, "We were kids when we grabbed that chain fence / and tried to shake our lives free / We got along like sisters / like vice and vanity." Those are two things (she laughs) that usually are not thought of as good qualities. I am saying that neither one of us is right. We grew up so close together. We are like twins. It is hard for us to differentiate from each other, because we are so close, but then we parted. In truth, when two people part relationship wise, the fault usually lies with both of them to some degree. It takes two to be friends, and it takes two to break something off. The song is about relationships between people, and whether I am vice and you are vanity or whether you are vice and I am vanity, we’re both a little bit wrong, and we are both still kind of the same."

"This CD is definitely personal, but the way that I write, I don’t know if I would be able to make an album that wasn’t intimately personal. I don’t know how not to be vulnerable through a song. If it is all about putting it out there, then I might as well put it out there. I can’t imagine making an album that isn’t personal. I feel that this album holds a lot of truth about me."

It is that vulnerability, combined with a gift for creativity, and blessed with an abundance of vocal talent, good music sensibilities and superb songwriting skills that make Raya Yarbrough one of the most exciting artists on the music scene, and someone who will soon be tearing up the charts.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Raya Yarbrough
  • Interview Date: 4/1/2008
  • Subtitle: To me jazz is like a sponge of culture...
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