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Sheila Cooper

Saxophonist, singer and composer Sheila Cooper began life in Toronto, Canada, studying to play the piano at first, and then later, the french horn. But it was not until she began playing the saxophone that she felt more at ease making music with the instrument keys. Her skills as a saxophonist netted her a grant from the Canada Arts Council as a young musician to study jazz in New York City. It was in New York City that she met jazz saxophonist Andy Middleton whom she married two years before joining his brother’s the big band set, New Yorkestra, led by saxophonist/composer Rob Middleton.

Together, Andy Middleton and Sheila Cooper have produced and/or co-produced each other’s albums, most recently for Sheila’s current offering, Tales of Love and Longing. This is her third album following her debut release, Since You Were Mine, and her sophomore album, While The World is in Slumber. Tales of Long and Longing was done as a duo, recorded with Cooper on saxophone and lead vocals, and classical pianist Fritz Pauer, whom Cooper met in 2005 while the two were teaching at a jazz workshop in the wine region of Austria. The album allows the duo to express themselves in ways which are so mellifluous, that it makes audiences feel like they are walking on clouds when they close their eyes and listen to the songs. It’s a heavenly match that recalls of the days when standard jazz was in its heyday, and duets like Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand were wowing crowds.

Interestingly enough, in certain photos, the expression in Sheila Cooper’s eyes, the aquiline features of her profile, and the flushed tone of her lips are reminiscent of Barbara Streisand. And also like Streisand, Cooper’s vocals are a knockout with audiences. She has even taken acting classes so utilizing both crafts might be something that she entertains in the future. Sheila Cooper explains to JazzReview.com how all of the twists and turns in her life have led her to a better path than one she was walking on when she first started making music.

JazzReview: How did you make the choices about which songs to record for Tales of Love and Longing?

Cooper: I look first at the lyrics and if they move me, that I feel a personal connection to them, and then the music, if there's something to work with.

JazzReview: When did you meet Fritz Pauer? What brought the two of you together?

Cooper: Fritz and I first met in the summer of 2005 as colleagues teaching and performing at a jazz workshop called ‘Poysdorf Jazz and Wine Summer’ in the wine region of Austria. Nine different jazz musicians are brought together each year to teach aspiring young professional and amateur jazz musicians. In addition we performed every night in different formations and collaborations, so Fritz and I had the opportunity to perform as a duo numerous times over the 3 years we were both there.

JazzReview: What led you to make your new record, Tales of Love and Longing?

Cooper: I remember a particular performance in 2006 where everything lined up for me, with Fritz accompanying me so sensitively and beautifully, that I was able somehow to attain all that I had been reaching for as an artist up to that point. And I thought to myself, "My life could end now, and it would be all right, because I have achieved what I set out to achieve for myself." That experience planted the seed of my vision of doing this recording.

JazzReview: What was it like working with Fritz on this recording?

Cooper: Fritz is so easy to work with because he is a person who finds beauty in everything, so I felt I could do no wrong.

JazzReview: How did you and Fritz compose the song, "I Gravitate To You?" What inspired the lyrics and the flow of the melody?

Cooper: Actually, I wrote that song on my own a few years before the recording and had been performing it live in quartet format. I wasn't sure if it would work as a duo, but Fritz immediately came up with the idea of the pedal note in the intro and at the end, added in some of his own voicings, and the song had a new dimension that really suited the sentiment of the song. The lyrics to "I Gravitate to You" began from the feeling of being so drawn to someone and never wanting to be away, to the point of following from room to room, not like a lost puppy, but from a place of the joy of being with that person. The melody came right out of the lyrics.

I'm not as prolific as many songwriters, perhaps because I don't sit down to compose on a regular basis. Generally, I have to feel really compelled about my ideas before I'll do anything about them, and that usually means they have to drift around in my head for quite a while without my forgetting them. Those ideas usually come in the form of the lyrics that pop in my head shortly after a strong personal experience or insight...first as one sentence or phrase with a melody, for it shortly follows of its own accord. I already know the emotional direction and then it begins to take shape regarding what kind of groove would best suit that mood, and then more lyrics and melody take shape. I begin playing with the words and rhymes a lot at this point. I often hold off going to the piano with it until I have nearly all the lyrics, working musically only within my imagination. For me, my musical choices stay simpler and more natural. That is exactly how it worked with "I Gravitate to You."

JazzReview: Why did you want to record the standard, "Body and Soul?"

Cooper: I chose ‘Body and Soul’ because it's a song I've known and loved since I started to play the saxophone. I think of it as one of the great saxophone ballads of jazz. I did not study anyone's version, vocal or instrumental, for this recording because it was already a part of my roots as a jazz musician. I have never performed a vocal version of that song.

JazzReview: Did you study the way that other singers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and its original voice, Billy Holiday sang the tune, or did you decide that you would not be affected by the way the song was done in the past?

Cooper: I never study anyone's version of a song before I record it. I listen once or twice to as many various versions of songs when I am deciding whether to record them or even include them in my performing repertoire. Once I've decided on a song, I stop listening to other people's versions. In initially choosing my direction with a song as a vocalist, I focus entirely on what the lyrics mean to me personally, and I don't want to distract myself from that with someone else's version. I do study the song itself though!! Meanwhile, I have to add that I have listened to a huge number of recordings of the great singers of jazz, and in addition to those beyond the strict jazz category, including Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Jo Stafford to name a few, and naturally have been inspired and influenced by all of them. I still closely study recordings of master singers and saxophonists because I find a lot of inspiration that way, but never as a preparation to recording them myself.

JazzReview: Why did you want Andy Middleton to be involved in the recording? What was his role during the recording?

Cooper: Andy Middleton is an excellent saxophonist and composer/arranger,and has also been my husband for nearly 12 years. He has co-produced, with me, all three of my CDs, and I have co-produced two of his --Nomad's Notebook with Ralph Towner and Dave Holland, and Reinventing the World with Kenny Wheeler, on which I also played. His role included running the session, helping the engineer tweak the sounds of the mikes, keeping track of takes, advising us when to do another take or when to move on, alerting us to any mistakes and intonation glitches that might be happening, and taking any burdens off me whenever possible. Having another set of ears at a recording session so familiar with my music is always a tremendous relief. He also played a very large role in the mixing.

JazzReview: Were there moments during the recording that you needed to seek the advice of someone else other than Pauer or Middleton about how to sing a melody or arrange a song, or were their opinions the only ones that you wanted?

Cooper: I never seek the advice of others about how to sing a melody because those choices are born solely out of my own personal relationship to the lyrics, the details of which I share with no one. My interpretation of a melody will change from take to take, based on the current musical circumstances. I do seek the advice of trusted friends and colleagues about which take is best in the time between recording and mixing (usually weeks). On this particular recording, Fritz and I collaborated on the arrangements, which began with my bringing a set of lead sheets with some ideas in mind, which we'd play/sing through together. Often, a few days later, I'd get an email from Fritz with a new chart with some additional ideas, usually wonderful voicings. We didn't rehearse all that much. It was pretty simple as the CD is primarily ballads and in duo format, and so much in jazz happens in the moment of the performance.

JazzReview: How did you get involved with Candid Records, and why did the label want to release Tales of Love and Longing?

Cooper: I had a finished master recording and sent a copy to the label because I liked a lot of their new releases, in addition to the fairly large catalogue of interesting older jazz recordings that they have. Alan Bates, the CEO, called me on the phone about a month after I sent it, to have a ‘chat,’ and we talked for a good hour, mainly about music. He asked me a lot of questions similar to the ones you're asking me now. Alan's been in the music business for decades, and Candid has a team of people working there that have a passion for jazz, as does Alan himself, who has a great ear for talent. He signed Jamie Cullem and Stacey Kent when they were unknowns. As to why Candid chose Tales of Love and Longing out of the hundreds or thousands of CDs they receive, I never asked... but I got the impression from Alan that the CD really moved him, and so I think that it was a choice out of love of the music rather than a calculated business move.

JazzReview: What caused you to make a new home for yourself in Vienna? What do you think of Vienna?

Cooper: Both Andy and I had been touring a lot in Europe, always had great experiences with the audiences and had each made a lot of connections. So after several years in New York City, we started to entertain the idea of relocating to Europe. When Andy got offered a position teaching jazz composition at Konservatorium Wien in Vienna in 2006, we decided to take the leap.

Vienna is a beautiful city with an amazing amount of culture, especially when you consider its size (a little over a million people). We ride bicycles everywhere, (including to jazz clubs at night!), and find it to be a much more relaxed lifestyle. We're each using Vienna as a kind of home base from which to do gigs throughout the continent, and think of ourselves more as residents of Europe. That keeps Vienna from feeling too small to us as former New Yorkers, who as everyone knows, tend to think of New York as the center of the universe.

JazzReview: How was recording Tales of Love and Longing different from recording your previous record, While The World Is In Slumber?

Cooper: Because it was duo instead of quartet like my two previous CD’s, some things were easier and others were more challenging. It was definitely more relaxed, partly because Fritz is such a supportive, laid-back guy, but also because I had more experience. It seems simpler to work in a duo format but that's a bit deceptive because it really lays a lot more on the two musicians' shoulders and exposes one's flaws. Those flaws can end up being part of the beauty however.

JazzReview: How did you grow as a singer, songwriter and saxophonist on this new recording?

Cooper: In between those two recordings, I had taken a year-long, intensive acting class in New York City that really influenced my approach to the lyrics. I did the class because I was looking for a way to create for myself, the same solid grounding in emotional expression that I had been able to develop over years of study in the areas of technique and theory as a vocalist, saxophonist and musician. I was lucky to find a great class and a great teacher, a guy named Larry Silverberg, who taught the Sanford Meisner method, which has a lot of similarity to jazz in that your main goal is to be in the moment, and totally responsive to the actors and circumstances around you. Learning to do that really freed me up emotionally and gave me some concrete tools to work with. Through that class, I also met a vocalist named Breck Alan who had written an excellent book on vocal technique that has expanded my technical approach as a singer. I'm always looking to grow, musically and personally, and expect to be in yet a different place by the time of my next CD recording.

JazzReview: While you were recording Tales of Love and Longing, were you concerned about how these songs would sound when you perform live on stage?

Cooper: That's an astute question. I definitely conceived this recording as a "mood" CD, and chose the songs with that in mind. I sometimes like to listen to a CD that maintains a similar energy level throughout, whether it's energetic or mellow, rather than abrupt changes in energy, and I was shooting for that with this CD. In a live performance, I think the audience generally likes to see a lot more variety in energy level.

JazzReview: What are some factors that you took into consideration when you were recording Tales of Love and Longing?

Cooper: The main thing I looked for in the repertoire is if I felt a strong personal direction with the lyrics, and if the music gave us something to work with in the duo format.

JazzReview: When you look back, is there one person, or maybe a few people, whom you feel gave you a break and made it possible for you to be where you are today?

Cooper: A pivotal thing for me was getting a grant from the Canada Arts Council as a young musician to come down to New York City from Toronto and study jazz. That really changed my life. Another person was my singing teacher in the 1990's, a man named Carlo Thomas, who helped me not only as a vocalist, but really encouraged me to record my first CD and generously put up some seed money to get that ball rolling. That first CD led to a lot of great opportunities.

JazzReview: What does it feel like for you when you are in front of a live audience, because you light up when you perform live?

Cooper: It's very exciting to perform live because the audience contributes a huge amount of energy that they are directing back to you in response to the music. It can be challenging for me to totally allow that energy in and maintain the same command of my musical faculties that I have without that energy, because it really changes everything and is a bit of an unknown. I've been a bit frustrated by that in the past, and responded by working harder on improving my craft on a daily basis, so that if my faculties were at 80% capacity, for example, that would still be okay. One of my aspirations as a solo artist is to become so at ease with letting the audience energy in, that they would carry me to 110% capacity -- to really be an open conduit of the flow, the give and take between an audience and the performer. And of course, it's not about me at all, but the magic and mystery of the music itself, which is really what the audience responds to. Lately, I've been coming closer to that more and more, and it's a fantastic feeling.

JazzReview: How do you transform yourself from collaborate in the studio to being the focal point on stage?

Cooper: Integrating the ‘musician’ diligently collaborating and the ‘performer’ in the focal point on stage, has been an interesting facet of my development, and I would say I usually have to do twice the work to be prepared, than if I was just playing or just singing. All the material needs to be so mastered that I'm not thinking about it at all. Ironically, once I'm REALLY prepared, it all feels like one and the same. Each set of skills informs the other.

JazzReview: Are there other projects or musicians that you are working with when you are not performing your own material? Do you work with music organizations or aspiring musicians on the side?

Cooper: In New York, I was in a band called New Yorkestra, a contemporary big band with all original arrangements, which were primarily original compositions. It was initially co-led by Andy's brother, Rob Middleton, also a saxophonist and composer, Andy, trombonist Pete McGuinness and saxophonist Steve Kenyon. I also worked on various projects as a sideperson, nearly always as a saxophonist rather than singer. Since moving to Vienna, I have been focusing primarily on my own music. Last year, I taught jazz vocals at Kunst Universität Graz one day a week, which I really enjoyed as the students were very talented and enthusiastic. They had me very inspired. I also teach at various workshops. My primary focus as a musician is as a performing artist.

JazzReview: How do you know Tessa Souter? What do you think of her singing?

Cooper: Tessa and I met at Cleopatra's Needle's singers jam session about eight years ago, exchanged phone numbers, but each never followed up. I called her up a couple of years later after flying back from Europe on British Air, and reading one of her articles on the in-flight magazine -- about the New York dating scene. It was very funny and I wanted to tell her how much I enjoyed it. We've been buddies ever since. I think Tessa is truly one of the most moving performers in jazz today, in addition to having a beautiful voice. When she's on tour, I always send my friends in those towns to see her, and they are always ecstatic about her.

JazzReview: Why did you want to know how to play the saxophone as well as sing? What motivated you to learn to do both?

Cooper: I played the saxophone first, starting as a teenager. I had learned piano as a small child, then french horn in high school, but the desire to play jazz prompted me to switch to sax. My parents were playing jazz records much of the time on our house so I had heard Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole, Nancy Wilson, Gerry Mulligan for as long as I can remember. I found the sound of the saxophone really inspiring. I added singing in later, when I really wanted to work more with the words. I think I always wanted to sing, but was really too shy to get up in front of people and do it. My desire eventually outweighed my timidity.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Sheila Cooper
  • Interview Date: 6/1/2006
  • Subtitle: Set To Blow Her Horn In Austria... Preparing To Perform With Fritz Pauer
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