Interview at ZCPortal, 2003

Jazz singing has undergone a real renaissance in the last decade and one of the best of the new jazz singers on the scene is Anita Wardell, a London-based musician who grew up in Australia. She has released a number of outstanding albums, the most recent of which is Until the Stars Fade. Next month, Ms. Wardell has a weeklong gig at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, where she is sharing the stage with Dave Weckl.

We at ZCPortal are very honored that Ms. Wardell took time out of her busy schedule of touring and recording to answer a few of our questions.

ZC: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you get into jazz?

AW: When I was 11 yrs old (1973) I emigrated to Australia from England with my family. It was such a culture shock! It seemed such a vast and barren land and totally alien to what I was used to, growing up in the UK. I spent most of my time exploring old musicals on TV e.g., Cole Porter and Gershwin and Rogers and Hart, etc. This is where I discovered the Great American Songbook! I was hooked! Totally absorbed and any chance I got, I was glued to that TV with a little tape recorder and recorded all the songs I heard, then went off and learnt them. I started collecting my repertoire from this early age. I was lucky enough to be accepted at the Adelaide University, where I completed a 4 year performance in Jazz course. This is where I discovered that I loved Improvising, especially scatting in a Be-bop fashion.

ZC: Who have been the main musical influences in your life?

AW: I would have to say Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Betty Carter. I guess the list goes on. Really!

ZC: You’re from Australia. Australian films are well known throughout the world. Australian pop stars are world famous. But I don’t think that Australian jazz musicians are that well known outside of Australia. Can you tell us a little bit about the jazz scene in Australia?

AW: YES ! That’s true! Australian musicians aren’t well known outside of Australia. I think there are a couple that have made a bit of a name for themselves, like James Morrison, a great multi-instrumentalist on trumpet, flugelhorn and piano, to name but a few! A singer that moved from Sydney to New York, Chris McNulty. She has not so long ago released an album. I remember the jazz scene in the early to mid 80’s was really thriving, lots of wonderful venues and festivals used as platforms for some great Aussie musicians. It seemed to change in the 90’s and although I was in London, friends informed me that it was really hard for a while, venues closed down and there just weren’t enough places to play. The big festivals still survived, but some of the smaller gigs were gone, a real blow. I was back there in 1999-2001 and it was thriving again. there are some fabulous clubs like Bennett’s Lane in Melbourne, The Gov in Adelaide and The Side On Cafe in Sydney. So, I would say there’s a very healthy scene there at present. Some really brilliant musicians hail from Australia. It’s a shame that more of them aren’t recognized outside of the country for their talents.

ZC: You’re based in London now. How is the situation there for jazz, and for jazz singing in particular?

AW: It’s not too bad here for jazz at the moment. There is work around and there are people out there who want to listen. It seems that younger people are now becoming interested in the music, which is a really good thing. As far as jazz singing goes, I’m sure that everybody is aware of the increasing amount of jazz singers that are appearing. When I first started singing jazz, there weren’t many around and especially those who improvised. I can think of about two or three in Australia while I was growing up and a handful when I came to England in the late 80’s. There are so many singers here right now and having spoken to many promoters and club owners most of the demos they receive are from singers. Quite a lot of competition.

ZC: You’ve got a great working band. Tell us something about your musical collaborators.

AW: I work very closely with my pianist, Robin Aspland. Robin is mostly responsible for the arrangements. We sit around the piano and throw lots of ideas around, until we come up with something that we like and then it sticks! Sometimes it takes ages and other times it happens very quickly. Working with Robin is very special; he has a wealth of knowledge and impeccable taste! He is also very encouraging and supportive. One needs this to survive in the business!

ZC: What are you planning for your next album?

AW: Well, I would like to do a be-bop vocal album of tunes written by jazz greats such as Bird, J.J. Johnson, Lennie Tristano and Art Pepper, etc., and write words to some of the great solos, you know, like a vocalese!

ZC: When are you going to tour America?

AW: I have always wanted to come to America! As soon as I get asked, I’ll be there!

ZC: The jazz singer/pianist Patricia Barber once remarked that making a career in jazz is “a dumb thing for a smart woman to do.” Your thoughts?

AW: Well, I feel like she has a point! It’s personally rewarding in that you learn so much about yourself and others. However, it’s a very lonely business at times and one can remain very anonymous! Not to mention “You don’t earn much money” Whoops, sorry, -I mentioned it!

ZC: The past decade has seen a revival of interest in jazz singing. Abbey Lincoln and Shirley Horn restarted their careers; Mark Murphy resurfaced in America; Diana Krall, Diane Schuur and Jane Monheit have attracted the attention of the big labels and have a lot of “crossover” appeal; The Green Mill Night Club in Chicago seems to be breeding jazz singers like Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling; and in England there’s been a plethora of outstanding new jazz singers come along, most notably Claire Martin and you. Why do you think there’s been such a renaissance of jazz singing lately?

AW: Jazz singing seems to be very in fashion at the moment and generating a lot of interest everywhere. Since the launch of singers such as, Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Kurt Elling and Stacey Kent (to name but a few), who have helped made the art form accessible to the public more, many singers are coming out of the woodwork. There are so many schools, universities and courses which are turning out some wonderfully talented singers who are inspired and motivated to sing jazz.

ZC: Who are some of your favorite songwriters, and why?

AW: My favorites are: Rogers and Hart, Gershwin and Cole Porter, the reason being the songs never seem to date! The melodies are strong and the lyrics are very clever, meaningful and sometimes extremely witty. I also love Bob Dorough, for someone like me, who is so totally into bebop, his quirky lyrics are right up my street.

ZC: On a normal club date, what would be the lineup of tunes in a typical Anita Wardell set?

AW: I would probably start with something like, Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” ” Farmers Market,” “Everything Happens to Me,” “Oleo,” “With a Song in My Heart,” “Flor de lis (Upside Down).” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Jackie” (a Bebop blues, lyrics by Annie Ross), and “I’ve Got Just About Everything I Need” (Bob Dorough).

ZC: Some of our readers who are aspiring singers might want a little technical advice. What kind of vocal exercises, vocalizing, warm-ups, etc., do you do on a daily basis? Before a gig?

AW: Firstly, I do some breathing and really focus on the physical side of what I’m doing, you know, with my body, etc. Then I do 5 mins of sirening, just like a fire engine on “ng.” Then I practice scales and arpeggios on all the vowels, incorporating different scales such as Melodic minor, Diminished, etc. Then to finish I do long tones. When it comes to practicing tunes I do a technical exercise which consists of roots, thirds, sevenths, digital patterns, arpeggios, etc. Before a gig I do a general warm up and then some drilling, e.g., lots of scatting exercises, around different chord progressions, also take some patterns and licks around the cycle of 4ths/5ths.

ZC: Are you doing the jazz festival circuit this summer?

AW: Yes, I’m doing the Bath music song festival, here in England, the Ramsgate Festival and the Paradise Festival in Cyprus.

ZC: What are your future musical plans?

AW: I would really love to record an album with strings, (every singer’s dream!) But more short term, just keep on practicing and get better. I will continue to explore the music, transcribe and try to come up with fresh new ideas to keep the music interesting and alive for me!

ZC: When you’re not performing, rehearsing, recording and touring, what do you like to do in your spare time (that is, if you have any)? Hobbies?

AW: My hobbies, when I have the time, are firstly “cooking Indian food” and secondly, “painting” (I love to escape every now and then!).

ZC: At ZCPortal we have a tradition of asking all of our interviewees the same final light-hearted question: Besides this question, what is the most annoying question you have ever been asked on an interview?

AW: For me it has to be when I was doing a live radio interview and the interviewer asked? “what is this ‘ba dooby dooby’ stuff you sing”?

ZC: Anita Wardell, thank you very much for your time.

AW: Thank you.