Before & After: Laurin Talese

The vocalist reaches for a new kind of sassy

Laurin Talese (photo: Adachi Pimentel)
Laurin Talese (photo: Adachi Pimentel)

Laurin Talese arrived in Philadelphia right around the turn of the millennium, as the neo-soul movement was reaching critical mass in the city. The scene added one more element to her already versatile voice, which had been honed through both classical training and the testing ground of the church in her native Cleveland. While studying at Philly’s University of the Arts she made connections that have led her to tours with the likes of Vivian Green and Bilal, as well as introducing her to her bassist and music director, Adam Blackstone. Along with drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., Blackstone co-produced Talese’s 2016 debut, Gorgeous Chaos.

Two years later Talese won the seventh annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, an especially meaningful honor given her reverence for the iconic singer. In the midst of running last-minute errands the day before embarking on a State Department-sponsored tour of Montenegro, Ukraine, and Poland, Talese sat down outside a scenic (yet, sadly, closed) café nestled in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park for this listening session.

Listen to a playlist with all of the songs featured in this Before & After.

Sarah Vaughan
“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (Crazy and Mixed Up, Pablo Today). Vaughan, vocals; Roland Hanna, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Andy Simpkins, bass; Harold Jones, drums. Recorded in 1982.

BEFORE: Yes, Sarah! That’s my boo. Her voice just makes me smile, because she was one of the first jazz vocalists I heard growing up. She sounds different here, though. She’s being a little gentler with the way she’s approaching some of her phrases. She’s laying back, which is something I don’t remember her doing earlier in her career. It’s a more contemporary style, not so much bebop, though you can hear echoes of that in this tune.

AFTER: The very first song I ever transcribed was [Vaughan’s version of] “Lullaby of Birdland.” I had classical voice instruction and was put in all these situations where I was singing music that didn’t quite feel like me. Then I was in a community gospel choir for a long time, and I really struggled with not having a gritty, loud, congregation-stirring gospel voice. I knew I loved to sing, but I didn’t know what my voice was. When I heard Sarah I thought she kind of sounded like my classical voice lessons but was also swinging. It just sounded so easy and free, like she was just being her. She was one of the first voices I was obsessed with. Of course no one will ever be Sarah Vaughan, but I really felt like I could do some of the stuff she was doing and build upon it, and that helped me find my voice. I like to call her my fairy godmother. It’s like she’s been along on my journey and guided me in random ways.

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Alicia Olatuja
“People Make the World Go Round” (from Intuition: Songs From the Minds of Women, Resilience Music Alliance). Olatuja, vocals; Jeremy Pelt, trumpet; Sullivan Fortner, piano; David Rosenthal, guitar; Dayna Stephens, tenor sax; Ben Williams, bass; Ulysses Owens Jr., drums. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: Alicia Olatuja. I know her warm, cozy voice. I don’t know who’s playing sax, but I like how spare the instrumentation is. Her voice just kind of peeks through. It’s really hard to do classic songs like this, but they’ve breathed new life into it.

You also know the drummer.

Ulysses is one of my favorite drummers. He co-produced my album Gorgeous Chaos, and brought clarity, organization, and sophistication to the process.

Chaka Khan
“I Love You Porgy” (from Echoes of an Era, Elektra). Khan, vocals; Joe Henderson, tenor sax; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Chick Corea, piano; Stanley Clarke, bass; Lenny White, drums. Recorded in 1982.

BEFORE: I love this song. What emotional, emotive phrasing. She pulls you right in as soon as you start listening. I love the progressions and the choice of chords that the piano player is playing behind her. She’s soaring and they’re perfectly following her. Beautiful. I’ve never heard this before. This is a really sexy rendition of this song. After listening to her, Porgy ain’t going nowhere.

AFTER: What?!? You blew my mind. Crazy. I would never have thought this was 1982—the year I was born. It feels nostalgic and modern at the same time. She sounds amazing. I shouldn’t be surprised. Chaka is just goals. This woman has been singing since the early ’70s, and here we are well into the 2010s and she still sounds like that today. She was always part of the soundtrack to my early years. Everybody was listening to Chaka in the late ’80s and all through the ’90s. There are never going to be many voices like hers: the sheer range and the power with which she yields it. She can show tremendous restraint, but also belt to the high heavens and not crack. That lady could really sing everything.

Vivian Green
“Emotional Rollercoaster” (from A Love Story, Columbia). Green, vocals; Lil’ John Roberts, drums; Isaac Phillips, guitar; Derrick Hodge, bass; Junius Bervine, keyboards; Eric Roberson, background vocals. Recorded in 2002.

BEFORE: That’s my girl! I love Vivian Green. I just was talking to her on Instagram before I pulled up. [Sings along] That was my part.

AFTER: This song was huge for her. I’m so grateful to have been on tour with her. That was super early [in my career], and she let me sing background for her so I could witness what you’re supposed to do. I learned so much. She is somebody who gives her all on every performance. Her voice is so big and so powerful, and it was like that every night.

Patrice Rushen
“Let Your Heart Be Free” (from Shout It Out, Prestige). Rushen, vocals, electric piano, bass; Al McKay, guitar; James Gadson, drums; Bill Summers, percussion. Recorded in 1976.

BEFORE: Her voice is sweet. Is it Minnie Riperton? I have no idea who this is. This sounds very ’70s, but it’s so funny: This song reminds me of the early 2000s. When I moved to Philadelphia in my late teens, this is the kind of vibe I would hear, so I have a tremendous love for it. You can hear the lineage between this music and the early 2000s here in Philly, Jazzyfatnastees and those sorts of folks. The progressions, the instrumentation—I could easily hear this being performed live at the Black Lily back in the day.

AFTER: Ah! Oh man. I was thinking of her, Syreeta, and Roberta Flack. Her voice was so young. It’s amazing how as we get older, we still sound like ourselves but our speaking voices and our singing voices change, just from life. I haven’t spent a lot of time listening to Patrice Rushen, but I respect her greatly. She’s more than left her footprint on this landscape of music.

Dinah Washington
“There’ll Be a Jubilee” (from In the Land of Hi-Fi, EmArcy). Washington, vocals; Cannonball Adderley, alto saxophone; Junior Mance, piano; Hal Mooney, conductor. Recorded in 1956.

BEFORE: Dinah. One of my favorite voices, easily. I haven’t heard anybody who sounds remotely like her, ever. It’s her vibrato, her tone is very brassy. Her voice just makes you straighten up. Something about it really speaks to a person’s soul. She was so young, but she sounded like she lived a life and she could tell you about yourself. There’s something about where her voice actually sits in her body that’s different. I’ve never heard her talk, but I would imagine this is how she would sound when she spoke. It sounds like it’s so authentic to her. You can hear blues, you can hear church. Her voice always just felt familiar to me. It’s joy-inducing.

Miles Davis
“So Emotional” (from Rubberband, Rhino). Davis, trumpet, keyboards, synthesizer; Lalah Hathaway, vocals. Recorded in 1985 and 2019.

BEFORE: Lalah? You went back, though. Oh—is this from the Miles Davis thing? This album sounds so much like his last recordings, that’s why I thought it was one of her first records.

AFTER: Her voice is one of my favorites as well. And she’s hilarious; just as witty and genius as she is when she sings, that’s how she is in real life, which is amazing to discover. In January 2018 there was a contest where she was picking people she heard off Instagram to open for her on tour, and she picked me. I got to hang with her at the Keswick Theatre all day and soak up her energy. To hear this, but also to hear her sing chords, her range and diversity is amazing. She’s like honey.

Ramsey Lewis & Nancy Wilson
“Peel Me a Grape” (from Meant to Be, Narada Jazz). Lewis, piano; Wilson, vocal; Larry Gray, bass; Ernie Adams, drums. Recorded in 2001.

BEFORE: I love this song. I love how breathy Nancy is on this one. She seemed to innately know her voice and what it did, and she wasn’t necessarily bound by any contractual obligation to jazz. She was going to sing a good song. Jazz was obviously her home base, but she was free in the way she delivered things. And her showmanship: She was so elegant and powerful on stage, but classic and simple. Some singers I love for all the riffs and the runs and the crazy scales they’re hearing as they’re scatting, and she could do that stuff too; but to me her sweet spot was her phrasing. The tone, the space that she left between the phrases, the pregnant pauses that made you linger on her last word. This sounds like later Nancy. I hear those lows, and I hear the slower vibrato. She never was a big vibrato singer. She’s from the school of Dinah and Jimmy Scott; they sing quick, halting phrases, so that’s what I’m used to from her. But here, she’s taking her time and breathing into it. She literally makes you want to peel her a grape. “I’m here, and you’re gonna do what I need you to do.” I love her sass and I love that no matter when it is in her career, she just knew how to manipulate a song and tell a story. She made you believe the narrative of the tune.

The tone of this song feels like an influence on some of your songs, like “Trenchcoat.”

Yeah [laughs]! I should do “Peel Me a Grape” into “Trenchcoat.” That’s a good idea. I’ve never covered this tune, but I should. Something I got from both Vivian and Nancy Wilson is actually talking to the audience, giving them your experience, your impetus: why you wrote a song or why you were so drawn to a song that you’re covering. In the pop/soul world, where Vivian sits, that’s second nature. Artists are always talking. But a lot of times when I would observe jazz vocalists, they didn’t talk as much about their general experience. People came to Nancy’s shows for her voice, but equally for her storytelling ability. That was something that really drew me into her and helped me shape my own stories, just looking at how people were leaning forward in their seats trying to figure out what the next phrase was going to be in “Guess Who I Saw Today” or “You Can Have Him.” No one could tell a story like Nancy Wilson, but I guess I found my footing and confidence in the fact that people would want to hear what I had to say.

Robert Glasper
“All Matter” (from Double-Booked, Blue Note). Glasper, piano; Chris Dave, drums; Derrick Hodge, bass; Casey Benjamin, alto saxophone, vocoder; Bilal, vocals. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: [Hums intro] You had to throw this in there. Rob’s on this, but is Steve McKie playing drums? Is this Chris “Daddy” Dave? Is Tone Whitfield playing bass, or is it Derrick Hodge? “All Matter.” Is this on Bilal’s album?

AFTER: Wow. He performs this so much I thought it was on his record. I love Bilal. [His debut album] First Born Second came out during my freshman year [at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts] and I heard it during either Christmas or summer break. I found out he was from Philly and I was determined to meet him when I got back. I had to tell him how much I loved every single song. I internalized that first record. One day I was at the Five Spot and he was there. I was dating this guy from college at the time and I totally forgot about him. Then a few months later I remember I was walking down Broad Street and I got a call from Steve McKie saying, “Bilal’s looking for background singers, do you want to audition?” So I did and I toured Europe with him while I was still in school. It was like being in college again. He’s experimenting with different sounds here, which he always does. He’s classically trained and he grew up in church, but he also knows the Real Book like the back of his hand. For a young singer, being around somebody with that much under their belt is just everything. To this day, every time I hear him sing I melt.

Robert Glasper was also touring with Bilal at that time, and recorded with you on Gorgeous Chaos.

Glasper is crazy as heck. He has a dark sense of humor, amazing wit, and he’s just unabashedly himself. There’s a lot of self-deprecation that goes on in the artist community, but Rob knows he’s dope, he knows what he’s done. He knows he’s got the whole traditional jazz game down, but he also knows his own artistic voice. It’s really affirming to be around somebody who walks around every day in their self, in the present moment, knowing exactly what they have to offer the world.

Cal Tjader & Mary Stallings
“It Ain’t Necessarily So” (Cal Tjader Plays, Mary Stallings Sings, Fantasy). Stallings, vocals; Tjader, vibraphone; Lonnie Hewitt, piano; Victor Venegas, bass; Johnny Rae, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: Ooh! That’s a tempo. I love arrangements like this. I know this voice, but I can’t call it. It sounds like a live performance recording. It feels theatrical. Her voice is power straight out of the gate. I can’t call it, though.

AFTER: I haven’t listened to much of her. I would never have been able to pick out her voice, but it was super powerful. It sounded more gospel- and soul-influenced than jazz-influenced. Her voice has so much authority.

Jazzmeia Horn
“Free Your Mind” (from Love and Liberation, Concord Jazz). Horn, vocals; Victor Gould, piano; Stacey Dillard, tenor saxophone; Josh Evans, trumpet; Ben Williams, bass; Jamison Ross, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: My girl! Jazzmeia. I love the message in this song. Lyrics are something I always listen to, and I feel like on this album she’s writing standards, and I love that. She’s so young—it’s fresh, and it’s so affirming and powerful. I love how unabashedly candid she is. She’s literally just like her music. If you ask her something, she’s going to give you a piece of her mind and it’s not going to be super diplomatic. I have a tremendous respect for how Jazzmeia approaches life.

Dianne Reeves
“Fascinating Rhythm” (from The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan, Blue Note). Reeves, vocals; Billy Childs, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Greg Hutchinson, drums; Munyungo Jackson, percussion. Recorded in 2000.

BEFORE: [Laughs as scatting starts] This arrangement is crazy. Is this Dianne?

AFTER: She’s another one who straddles both worlds, soul and jazz, but not many people can do it as well as she does. She clearly has paid tons of time listening to the Sarahs and Ellas and can do all that stuff, but she knows her own voice. She knows who she is. Sometimes you hear somebody who can pull the soul out of a tune and moves you in that way, but they’re not giving you all the jazz stuff. Some people can give you all bebop but there’s nothing pulling at your soul. She does both easily.

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.