Today I’m excited to present an interview with Seattle-based vocalist, composer, and musical activist Elspeth Savani.
For the past decade she has been the co-leader of the Cuban big band orchestra Zarabanda, which regularly performs the salsa rhythms of old Havana throughout the Pacific Northwest. And in recent years she has applied her love of Cuban music to a more intimate, small ensemble jazz setting. She has truly assimilated the grooves, rhythms, and harmonies of Cuban music, but she is not constrained by them. Instead she transforms them into something uniquely her own and then adds a dash of contemporary pop and modern jazz to the mix. Unlike her work with Zarabanda, when backed by her jazz trio with Julio Jauregui on piano, Jeff Norwood on bass, and Jeff Busch on drums, her voice has more freedom to roam, to explore a broader palette of vocal expression, tones, and timbres.
This is all on display on Savani’s album Flights of Mind - Pensamientos en Vuelo (2011), a musical exploration of freedom inspired, in part, by an interview with a Guantanamo Bay detainee. Here’s a video of a live performance of “Mi Alma y Yo,” a track from the CD.
A complete list of Savani’s upcoming live appearances can be found here.
Today Savani discusses how she made the switch from Classical voice to Cuban music, creative process, and the politics that inform her music. It’s great stuff. Enjoy!
Tell me about your musical beginnings. When did you know that you wanted to pursue music professionally?
When I was a kid I sang in church and in community musical theater productions and also played piano and clarinet. Anything that had to do with music or dance that I could get involved in. I remember singing on long car rides with my sisters and caroling around the neighborhood. I used to walk home from school with a friend and we’d practice singing Beatles songs in harmony on the way. Definitely by age thirteen I wanted to pursue music professionally. I also pined for a dance career, but that somehow always seemed like a bigger leap (no pun intended).
You began as a classical musician. How does this background inform your work in jazz and Cuban music? Did it present additional challenges?
My musical training was hugely advantageous in that I knew how to practice. I knew how to break stuff down, practice in slow motion until I could play it up to speed, and notate rhythms against the vocal phrasing so I could really analyze how they locked together. I can’t even imagine the challenge of learning a new musical style with no training to hang your hat on.
However, it did present some challenges, in that I had to reconcile my different “voices.” I had spent ten years training as a soprano. Although I could access a more vernacular sound in my low range, in my mid-range I didn’t project the right kind of sound. I spent two or three years experimenting with that, partially under the guidance of Thomasa Eckert, a really insightful teacher. Eventually I developed an approach that allows me a lot of flexibility of expression, and is still, I think, authentic to the genres I’m working in.
The most helpful thing I did was to study Cuban percussion and dance, though. That opened up an entirely new world of time. Who knew? I remember when I first starting playing around with the spaces in between 4/4 and 6/8 on some basic rumba parts I was thinking, “I’ve been seriously missing OUT!”
You have performed with Zarabanda for more than a decade. Why did you decide to pursue Cuban-inspired jazz with a smaller, more intimate ensemble? How are the musical experiences different?
There is nothing more fun in the world than singing, moving your feet in time, and playing clave concurrently. That is the blissful place where I love to live. Add to the equation that you are playing for dancers who are responding kinesthetically to the music, and it’s very nearly perfect.
That said, as a singer it has some limitations. The singer in a salsa band has a very specific role, and that role doesn’t include the whole spectrum of what I want to do with my voice or with my improvisation. So the smaller ensemble satisfies my desire to explore other Latin-American genres, other more open-ended types of improvisation, a wider vocal range, and more subtle (or just different) vocal colors.
As a salsa singer, yes, it’s important to sing well and sing in tune, but the most highly esteemed singers are the ones who can improvise in a clever and rhythmically tasty way while amping up the energy of the song at the right times. The actual aesthetic appeal of the voice is somewhat secondary. In Cuban music, every person in the band is a drummer, so to speak.
In the jazz ensemble, it’s still very important to have a strong rhythmic sense, but your expression of a lyric, use of tone, resonance, dynamics – everything counts. Part of it is that in a smaller ensemble the voice is more exposed, and when people are attentive, listening, there is more of an opportunity to express the meaning of the song. Then, because it’s a jazz ensemble, we’re looking always for opportunities to create something new in that moment.
How do you choose your repertoire for your group? What are you looking for in a song?
Lots of things – a great melody, a great feel. I like to have a couple of pieces that showcase the musicians in the group, and some pieces that allow me to use my voice in different ways. I like to try different combinations of influences – a son played as a danza or a nueva trova as a swing tune. If there is a great song that I want to use but doesn’t seem to work for our format, shifting the groove sometimes allows us to find a really cool interpretation that plays to our strengths. Audiences love to hear songs they know, so I have a few standards in the repertoire, but that’s not our thing. You won’t ever hear us doing “Besame Mucho” or “Girl from Ipanema.”
In addition to singing, you also compose. Tell me a bit about your creative process.
Most often I start with improvising a melody and then develop it from there, but sometimes I start with a groove or a lyric. Once I have a reasonably developed melody and the basics of the harmony, that’s when I usually take it to Julio [Jauregui], my pianist, to develop the harmonic progression and the arrangement. I’ve also done some co-composing with Chris Stover (trombone), and that was a great process. I started the songs, and then we worked together – Chris providing most of the harmonic development and me providing the lyrics and melody - then Chris wrote the final arrangements.
I’m not sure I have specific goals when I’m writing. I’ve got ideas that I want to express, and I hope that I have something interesting to say. I hope the songs will resonate with the listener. It’s a very vulnerable feeling, bringing your own work into rehearsal or a performance. But it’s also great because patterns emerge and you start to see what is important to you, what you want to communicate to your audience.
Your most recent CD, “Flights of Mind/Pensamientos en Vuelo” (2011), is about freedom – physical, mental, spiritual, and, of course, musical. Tell me about what inspired you.
I heard an NPR interview with a recently released [Guantanamo] detainee a few years back, and it really stuck with me. He didn’t seem overtly bitter for being wrongly imprisoned, but I kept wondering how you get over the anger of having seven years of your youth snatched from you. You go home and your little sister is grown up; people you knew have started families. And you’ve changed, too, because you’ve been locked up for so long, so nothing can ever be the same.
I also wondered: How do you stay sane while you’re in there? The track “Pajaro Encerrado” and the title Flights of Mind were based on the idea of sending your thoughts somewhere else – out those barred windows and somewhere far away - in order to psychologically survive a long incarceration.
Also, in 2010 a friend’s daughter was arrested for being undocumented and sent to the NW Detention Center in Tacoma. I visited her there a couple of times and was struck by how bleak it was. There are no activities, no opportunities to go outside. The food is a sort of a runny gruel. It was so sad to see her in there with a criminal’s jumpsuit on, with nothing to do but read and sleep. She told me about how the women make flower arrangements out of cardboard from ramen noodle packages to pass the time, and that image was incorporated into a lyric on the track “Portas.” The complete lack of oversight of these for-profit detention centers by our own police and local government is appalling, and I wanted to get the word out. When we perform the song it gives me a chance raise awareness.
The final significant piece informing my thoughts on immigration and detention is that I’m married to a Mexican and have heard all about his family’s undocumented border crossings and the circumstances that led up to their decisions to come here. In “Portas” I combined some of these stories into a single character’s experience.
So, throughout the record I was thinking about the idea of freedom. Literal freedom from incarceration, but also freedom of movement, of self-determination, of thought, and how that ties in artistically with freedom of expression in the realm of jazz.
In addition to performing in clubs, you also present educational outreach programs for children. Tell me more about Ponte el Ritmo!, which you will be performing at libraries throughout the region this summer.
¡Ponte el Ritmo! is a call-and-response rhythm, song, and movement workshop for kids and families. My percussionist, Jeff Busch, and I go into schools and libraries and we get the kids clapping, singing, dancing, and handling a bunch of percussion instruments. We get them listening to us and to each other and expose them to basic arrangement ideas through playing. We throw in a little cultural information, but the emphasis is getting the kids playing and listening from the first minute until the last. Jeff is amazing with the kids, and they love it. I get to dance around, sing a bit, and help the kids out with the instruments and parts while Jeff runs the show. It’s crazy fun.