Leslie Lewis is the type of jazz vocalist that conveys the jazz language in a delivery style that harkens back to the be-bop era. You truly hear the hours of hard work and study of the jazz language laced into every note she sings. Her authenticity is immediate, but you also hear the evolution of her journey as each year passes and with each release. I have had the pleasure of hearing her previous releases; Of Two Minds, Keeper of the Flame and now Midnight Sun. Like Lewis’ previous recordings, Midnight Sun features guest artists, in this case trombonist Joey Sellers and tenor saxophonist Chuck Manning and of course her longtime collaborator pianist (husband) Gerard Hagen, Jerry Kalaf (drums) and Domenic Genova (bass). The repertoire ranges from the American song book from George Gershwin and Cole Porter to Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney, all with Lewis’ dead on rhythmic sensibilities and powerful vocal prowess. Hagen and his trio are superb; this is truly a jazz offering worth exploring, and for the younger generation of aspiring vocalists, to truly use as a lesson in excellence, especially when studying the language of be-bop.
I got a chance to interview Leslie right before her move to Paris; we spoke about her upbringing, the California Jazz scene versus the New York scene and her process for choosing material for her records. It was a delightful opportunity to get a closer look from her perspective.
H. Allen Williams: How do you feel your east coast upbringing influenced the type of jazz you love to perform?
Leslie Lewis: My father grew up in New Jersey where he went to school with Sarah Vaughan. His love of jazz and jazz singers was a huge influence on me as grew up. We listened to all the great jazz artists, Ella, Sarah, Carmen, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Being so close to New York gave us opportunities to hear many artists in all genres.
H. Allen Williams: Who would you say was your biggest influence musically growing up?
Leslie Lewis: Cleo Laine’s “Live” at Carnegie Hall recording was an important influence on me. I loved her phrasing and scatting. I listened to that recording over and over. Anything Ella did was important. As a child I sang and loved all kinds of music, show tunes, R &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp; B, pop music and standards. I wasn’t focused on jazz until later.
H. Allen Williams: How do you feel the California jazz scene differs from the New York scene?
Leslie Lewis: Los Angeles is very spread out. At any given time there are a few clubs and performance spaces that will make a commitment feature jazz music. They usually come and go and another pops up somewhere else. Because of the distance from one club to the next it is difficult for the musicians to have a place to hang and develop a better sense of community. There are wonderful players and music presenters here who are working very hard to make it work and for that reason there will always be a jazz scene in L.A. Gerard and I were working in New York last Nov. and found the number of jazz clubs and opportunities to perform were considerably more than in Los Angeles. New York musicians might not feel this way but that was our impression.
H. Allen Williams: When choosing songs to record an album, what do you look for in a song, is it the lyric that influences you or is it the melody?
Leslie Lewis: The first thing I consider is the melody. The material has to speak to me in some meaningful way. The changes are also important in that they support the melody in a way that leaves me some space to interpret the melody in my own way.
H. Allen Williams: Do you ever see yourself recording a completely original works album?
Leslie Lewis: I can’t say no, but I’d have to find enough original material that spoke to me. If that were to happen I think it would be a lot of fun to make that record.
H. Allen Williams: How do you feel live performance influences the way you interpret a song?
Leslie Lewis: In front of an audience the actress in me comes out. There is an energy in the room that is not present in a studio. Anything that one of the musicians plays can change the direction of the music and affect my performance. That is the beauty of music that is improvised and the thing that we as jazz musicians must access to let the audience feel that they are witnessing a special one-time event.
H. Allen Williams: Your husband (Gerard Hagen) is your pianist, how did the two of you meet?
Leslie Lewis: I wanted to develop my piano chops and so I took a jazz piano class at a local college. Gerard was the professor. We started to do some duo gigs and eventually I used his trio on my club dates.
H. Allen Williams: If you were to describe your style of jazz to someone who had never heard of jazz or you before, what adjectives would you use to engage them?
Leslie Lewis: Wow, this is a great question! I strive to make music that swings and has elements of the blues. So I guess I’d say the feel has a lilt or forward movement. It is toe-tapping! The melodies could be exciting, gritty, or they could be mellow and warm.
H. Allen Williams: How do you feel Midnight Sun differs from your previous recordings?
Leslie Lewis: Midnight Sun has more space incorporated into the arrangements. Sometimes the space is in the form of an extra bar in the melody or an added vamp between sections of the tune. We had a monthly gig with that band so we could play the arrangements and make adjustments as needed before we went into the studio.
H. Allen Williams: I noticed you do a bit of clinician work, what do you feel is the most important part of your program to inspire the next generation of jazz musicians?
Leslie Lewis: I feel the most important thing is for musicians to see themselves as artists. I believe that artists are responsible to bring something to the music. The only way to do that is to have lived with the material for enough time to understand it and have an opinion about what it is. It also means knowing how previous artists handled the music that they want to perform. The only reason to perform is because you are so drawn to the music that you must perform. Any other reason is all about ego and has no place on the bandstand. This is what I want young musicians to understand.
H. Allen Williams: What does the future hold for Leslie Lewis?
Leslie Lewis: Gerard and I are moving to Paris in the very near future. Paris has a history of loving and respecting jazz. We feel this will provide many new avenues for growth in our musical careers and in our personal lives as well. Beyond that who
knows, we may eventually end up on the east coast!