"Sometimes, it’s difficult to say how you do something, you just do it."

Composer, Arranger, and Vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles

Composer, Arranger, and Vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles

Today’s interview is with New York-based composer, arranger, and vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles. The S.E. Charles Quartet, with Jesse Elder on piano, Burniss Earl Travis on bass, and John Davis on drums, will perform at the Triple Door Sunday, April 28, the final night of the Seattle Women in Jazz Festival. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the set begins at 7:30 p.m. This is Sarah’s first time singing in Seattle, so don’t miss out!

But Sarah’s Triple Door appearance is definitely not her first time at the rodeo. She’s appeared at the Apollo Theater with Geri Allen; the Blue Note in New York; Smalls Jazz Club; New York Couture Fashion Week (check out video here); the International Bern Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where she shared the bill with Jack DeJohnette; and the Kennedy Center as a participant of Betty Carter’s international jazz residency program, Jazz Ahead, in 2009.

Sarah has a keen understanding of the jazz tradition, the musicians who came before her, and the path that she wants to take. She’s an expert at transforming familiar standards from the American Songbook and truly making them her own. Her take on traditional Haitian folk tunes are a lot of fun. And her original compositions are fresh, insightful, and unexpected.

To hear this unique voice in jazz, take a moment to enjoy her debut EP RED, released last September by Truth Revolution Records. (You can download it here and here.) And if you would like to learn more about Sarah’s musical beginnings, band, and creative process, continue reading the interview below!

Tell me about your musical beginnings. When did you know that you wanted to pursue music professionally?

I began my singing career in the choir at Our Lady of Hope Church in my hometown of Springfield, MA. Shortly after beginning to sing in church, I started studying piano and joined the choir at The Community Music School of Springfield (CMSS). When I was eight years old, I performed my first solo at my Godmother’s wedding and from there realized that singing solo was something that felt good to me. From there, I started taking private voice lessons at CMSS and when I turned eleven, auditioned for the Charles Majid Greenlee Scholarship Jazz Ensemble at the school. This audition came about in an unexpected way. My private voice teacher at the time, Montenia Shider, was a wonderful jazz vocalist and along with the director of the school, Eric Bachrach, brought me up to the Jazz Ensemble’s rehearsal to sit in. This was an intense and a subsequently life changing experience.

After I got in, I would rehearse weekly with the ensemble, and the director, Vishnu Wood, was a great mentor for someone like me who didn’t grow up listening to jazz. He pushed me, and I began gigging with him and participating in summer programs such as the University of Massachusetts’ Jazz in July Program with Dr. Billy Taylor and the Vermont Jazz Center’s Program in Putney, VT. At these programs, I met the legendary jazz vocalist, Sheila Jordan, and began to realize that music was what I wanted to pursue professionally. She and I had many conversations about choosing a life as an artist, and I would say she was instrumental in inspiring me to make the decision to travel the path that I have. In addition to her though, there were many other people who have supported, taught and pushed me along the way. Mother, father, brothers, family, teachers, friends. . . It would be very hard to start naming all the names without leaving anyone out, so I won’t do that here. But they know who they are!             

Sarah Elizabeth Charles

Sarah Elizabeth Charles

What are your musical influences?

Wow, where do you start with this question? I’ve had and continue to have so many different influences musically. Vocally I started off listening to and falling in love with Sarah Vaughan and her sound/musicianship. Then I moved on to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. From there, I discovered Shirley Horn, Nancy Wilson, and Betty Carter. The list goes on and on. The instrumentalists who have had an enormous impact on me include Lester Young (he sings so beautifully!), Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus. There are of course many other people, but I’d say those are who come to mind immediately. I feel like I’ve had an extremely intimate musical relationship with each one of them.      

When you are singing standards or songs from the American Songbook, how do you modernize these classics and make them your own – an expression of your unique musical identity?

Sometimes, it’s difficult to say how you do something, you just do it. From a pretty young age, I had a few teachers who were keen on me finding my own musical identity in addition to learning the tradition. This was very helpful. For instance, I’d learn a standard and transcribe the exact vocal delivery of a piece from a particular recording . . . and then I’d be asked to flip it around and make it my own. I think this was invaluable and something that I realized a lot of people didn’t get until much later on. I’m grateful for that. The music is about improvisation and individual voice, not simply copying exactly what others have done before you. So I truly believe that making the classics “your own” is an essential step in pushing the tradition forward. Don’t get me wrong, learning where you came from is always necessary in order to know where you’re going. But once you have the tools to get there, you have to go.  

While listening to your promo video for RED, I was struck by your use of technology to manipulate your voice. It was lovely. Do you mind telling us what you did and why? What did you want to accomplish?

We definitely went in an unexpected direction with the title track on my recording, “Red.” This piece was originally conceived as a swing tune, but once we got into the studio, Burniss started playing electric bass with his pedals and so this changed pretty quickly. He created such an unmistakable vibe that we went along with it. And thank goodness the engineer was rolling because he caught all the experimenting we did on that first day . . . everything! I left the studio, listened to the work we put in and came back two days later ready to re-conceptualize the whole piece.

It turned out that it felt more effective and true to the song to deliver it the way we did in the end. There wasn’t much manipulation aside from myself overdubbing a vocal part and then taking bits and pieces of recorded dialogue that occurred during the session and placing this over the second half of the tune. With “Red” I wanted our audience to have a sort of window into the band’s vibe when we’re not playing; to get a sense of our personalities as individuals and our personality as a group. I hope you and everyone else was able to get even a small sense of that while listening.      

Often when discussing jazz vocalists, critics will say that she or he sings like an instrument. This is high praise. I’m always curious to learn what this means to vocalists. Do you try to sing like an instrument? If so, how? Which instrument?

I think when critics say that he or she sings like an instrument, they’re usually referring to a vocalist scatting. This isn’t always the case (take Betty Carter for example), but I feel that it usually is. It’s interesting because when improvising a vocalist has to find a space that they are comfortable living in. I don’t feel like I ever try to sound like an instrument. My sound probably does resemble particular instruments at one time or another, but I don’t think I am consciously aware of trying to make that so. Instead I think more so of textures and tones that can enhance the standard or original tune that we’re performing at the time. I find it exciting using those elements to improvise and take a piece to another level that is unique to the group of musicians performing it at that time.   

In addition to singing, you also compose. Tell me a bit about your compositional process. Do you start with a lyric? A melodic idea? Do you collaborate with your trio? What are you striving for?

My goal when writing everything is clarity. I often times will have an idea, but not be able to communicate or write it down exactly how I hear it in my head. To help clear this up, my process, more often than not, begins with a group of voice memos that I can transcribe and decipher in a way. Unfortunately, I seem to come up with a lot of musical ideas when I’m out in public and not near a private space or a piano (I compose at the piano). Therefore, voice memos are wonderful!

In terms of what I start with, it depends. Lyrics, melodies, changes . . . I think I’ve begun pieces with all of these components at different times. But playing the piece with other musicians, even when it is still in the process of being completed is something I like to be able to do if I can (it’s rare, but I utilize it when it’s available for sure). It can help clarify so much when you have the chance to do that. The Quartet’s music is written by me, but we’ve all collaborated in building it and building the sound we’ve come to dwell in today. I’m happy to be able to say that John, Jesse, Burniss, and I have an open musical relationship and their opinions and suggestions have always been welcomed and infinitely appreciated. I love creating with this group. 

 What is it like being a “woman in jazz”? Do you think it’s harder being a woman rather than a man in the world of jazz? Have you felt pressure to be one of the guys?

I grew up with two brothers and all boy cousins, so being one of the guys is something that I’m very much used to. But in all seriousness, it’s no secret that the world of jazz predominantly consists of males. A lot of professions in this world predominantly consist of males. Female jazz musicians who have come before the younger generation I am a part of have certainly paved an amazing road for us to travel upon now. Mary Lou Williams, Alice Coltrane, Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lil Hardin, Nina Simone, Geri Allen, etc. . . . All these woman have helped to make the situation a million times easier/solid for us.

So today, I feel that how you’re perceived as a woman on the jazz scene is not completely, but can very much be more dependent upon how you decide you want to be perceived. Of course, it’s not always up to you, but your outlook, attitude, and work ethic can make a huge difference in the process. I just try to stay true to myself and keep working toward becoming the best musician/vocalist/human I can. If I do that, I don’t see myself running into too many problems.   

Tell me about the set you will be performing April 28 at the Triple Door.

We will be performing music from our DEBUT recording, RED, as well as some new pieces. The music is a little bit of a lot. From a contemporary arrangement of “How Insensitive,” to the James Brown flavored original, “Perspective,” to Haitian folk tunes like “Mesi Bondye,” it should definitely be a colorful and fun time. We cannot wait to play for you all!  

A big thank you to Sarah for taking the time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions before her West coast tour. I’ve enjoyed what she had to say.

This is my last interview during JazzApril, but I hope that the conversation can continue in the months to come. I look forward to talking to many more of the wonderful, very talented women (and men!) of jazz about their work, craft, and lives in music. So please stay tuned!