by Charles Waring, Soul and Jazz and Funk
“Life happens while you’re a jazz singer,” laughs Vanessa Rubin, explaining her long absence from the world of recording. For those mystified by her sudden disappearance back at the dawn of the 2000s, she says “I never stopped singing,” adding, “but you can’t be on stage all the time. I’m happy to have had time to be with family and do some normal things, instead of just travelling and focusing on my performance.”
Now, six years after her last LP, the independently-produced ‘Full Circle’ – an organ-driven soul-jazz collaboration with saxophonist, Don Braden – Vanessa Rubin returns to the fray with the ninth album of her career, ‘The Dream Is You: Vanessa Rubin Sings Tadd Dameron.’ Vanessa will be promoting it when she travels to the UK to perform later this month as part of London’s EFG Jazz Festival. She’ll be appearing at the Chelsea venue, The Pheasantry, between Thursday, November 21st and Saturday, November 23rd. Though she can’t give too much away about what her show entails, the singer says that she’ll be serving up “some classic standards, blues and originals.” She’ll also be accompanied by a trio that includes US pianist, Danny Grissett. “Danny is wonderful,” reveals the 62-year-old chanteuse. “He’s a fabulous piano player. When he first moved to New York, I gave him his first gig there, so he’s like my little brother. We’re like family and have a really great connection and chemistry together. I love working with him. A couple of years ago, he married and moved to Austria. So when I come to Europe, I usually work with him.”
Vanessa Rubin is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, in the heart of the US Midwest. “I was the seventh of eight children,” she discloses. “My dad was a World War II veteran, so he was into the big bands and loved Count Basie and Gene Ammons. My mother’s from Trinidad, so I also heard a lot of calypso playing around the house. My older siblings, particularly as they were boys, were jazz fans and were into Cannonball (Adderley), Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and Dakota Staton. And of course, all that stuff that Nancy Wilson did on Capitol when she was young and fine. So we had a whole bunch of those records round the house, and all of us played instruments. There was a lot of culture.”
Despite her immersion in jazz from a young age, Vanessa didn’t harbour any ambitions to become a singer during her formative years. “Although music was always part of my growing up in our household it was never something that I was going to pursue professionally,” she states. In fact, it wasn’t until much later – when Vanessa was studying journalism at college – that the Cleveland native had an epiphany that moved her on to a musical path. “That was what I call my ‘a-ha’ moment,” Vanessa laughs. She’s referring to the life-changing epiphany she experienced when she took part in the Miss Black Central Ohio beauty pageant. After parading in a bathing suit, Vanessa had to demonstrate that she had talent as well as good looks. She decided to sing Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless The Child’. “I didn’t really know anything about Billie Holiday though I had heard some standards” she confesses. “Me and another girl were in this pageant as a joke. I wasn’t trying to win anything. It was just like, ‘Yeah, girl, let’s do that.’ So when it came to the talent portion, I thought, hell, I can’t do anything, but I can sing a little bit, so I chose ‘God Bless The Child.'” Bobby Floyd was her accompanist. “He was a very prominent and well-known jazz pianist and organist here in the states, who lived in Columbus at the time,” remembers Vanessa. She sang Billie Holiday’s famous signature tune and brought the house down. Says Vanessa: “I got a standing ovation. I was so taken back. I said to myself, wow, I really enjoyed that, and then a light went on in my head. I wasn’t even trying to be serious, and I won a talent award that night so I thought what would happen if I really pursued this seriously?”
That Damascene moment had convinced Vanessa that a career in music was where her true destiny lay. Her parents, though, weren’t sold on the idea. “That didn’t go over well,” she laughs. “My mother was like, no, you’re going to graduate school, so I started a master’s programme in public administration.” Her heart wasn’t in it, though, and the call of music was too strong. “I dropped out after three months,” she reveals, “and started singing in the early ’80s with an organ quartet. It was organ, guitar, drums and vibes. I intended to take that group to New York when I decided to move there, but they weren’t ready to leave at the time. So I left and went to New York and then I started with a classic piano trio.”
Vanessa went to the “Big Apple” in 1982. It was there that she eventually met saxophonist Steve Coleman. He was signed to RCA’s Novus imprint and headed a jazz collective called M-Base, whose members included singer Cassandra Wilson. “Steve had a production deal at RCA with Novus, which was (producer) Steve Backer’s label. He did a demo with me, took it to RCA, and it was because of that demo that Steve Backer decided to sign me. At that time the industry was a little more amenable to signing some new artists. Dianne Reeves got signed to Blue Note, Nnenna Freelon got signed to Columbia, and I was signed to RCA.”
Novus was a label set up by Backer. It was primarily intended to showcase new, cutting-edge jazz artists. But with her classic jazz voice and interest in performing standard material, Vanessa Rubin didn’t fit the label’s template. Recalls the singer: “Because I was more of a straight-ahead type individual, he wasn’t interested in doing the kind of stuff that I liked to do. Steve wanted to produce something different and was trying to go where no man had ever gone before with pushing-the-envelope experimental-type stuff. So he said you can just go in and do your own thing. He didn’t get in my way. I always loved him for that.”
Vanessa made her RCA Novus debut in 1992 with the album, ‘Soul Eyes,’ produced and arranged by noted pianist, Allen Onaje Gumbs. It proved to be an impressive collection of swinging standards and soulful ballads that showcased Vanessa’s warm, honey-glazed, contralto voice to full effect. Vanessa’s second album, 1993’s ‘Pastiche,’ was even better: her lithe, expressive vocals framed by fabulous horn arrangements. “That was my favourite,” says the singer. “I love bands with horns. That was with (ex-Count Basie saxophonist) Frank Foster.”
One of the album’s essential tunes was ‘Simone,’ a song originally written by Foster which Vanessa wrote lyrics to. “‘Simone’ was something that I used to hear Frank play on Monday nights at the Village Vanguard when I was living in New York,” Vanessa remembers. “It’s a minor-key blues, which I Iove. People think it’s about Nina Simone, but it’s not. Simone was a booking agent in Paris that had done a successful tour for Frank one time, and he wrote this song for her. But when I wrote the lyrics for it, it was for all the strong women in my life who had a great impact on me. My mother, my manager at the time, my older sister, and certain friends: all powerful women who have been pillars for me. And so, collectively speaking, Simone is all those people.”
After four well-received straight-ahead jazz albums for the Novus imprint, RCA decided to pull the plug on Novus. Vanessa, however, remained with the parent label, recording the album ‘New Horizons’ for RCA in 1997. Remembers Vanessa: “The label was downsizing ’cause they said jazz wasn’t selling. Everybody else (on Novus) had left, but they felt because I was a singer that I could do something else other than a straight-ahead jazz record. So they wanted to do more contemporary-sounding stuff. So I said okay, I’m not opposed to that, but I wanted to use George Duke because I always wanted to work with him. But he was in the process of doing ‘Stardust’ for Natalie Cole, so I couldn’t get him. I ended up with another guy, Andre Fischer, who was Natalie’s ex-husband. So he brought some tunes to the table, and I had some other things that I wanted to do.”
More slanted towards contemporary R&B than her previous albums, ‘New Horizons’ certainly lived up to its title. It was also the first time she has overdubbed her vocals to pre-recorded tracks. “I was a little uncomfortable with it because I was used to being in the studio as a live singer and they had cuts on that that were already programmed,” she reveals. “We don’t have anything like that in jazz, but it was good for me. I learned how to do things a lot of these singers do on their records.”
Despite her initial reservations about making ‘New Horizons,’ it has a special place in her heart. “That’s one of my favourites because it’s different from anything else I’ve ever done,” she says. “It was the one record I made that really made what they call a wave with the adult contemporary market. Some people said, though, that it was a sell-out, but I did gain a new listening audience from that. You have to grow your audience while not abandoning your base. And there were things on there that I thought my base could dig too, like ‘Here Comes That Rainy Day.’ I was the producer on that track. I remember it because I was short one song and we had to go back to the studio. I said we don’t have to get the producer, I’ll go in with my piano player and produce that track myself. I did all the background vocals, everything. I was very proud of myself.”
After RCA, Vanessa recorded two albums for Telarc (1999’s ‘Language Of Love’ and 2001’s ‘Girl Talk’) but then had a twelve-year break from recording. That was partly due to the major labels viewing jazz as no longer commercially viable. Remembers Vanessa: “Our 24-hour cable jazz channel here in the States and our jazz radio stations ended. A lot of things that used to keep jazz and jazz artists visible began to just disappear. Everything dwindled.” Coupled with this were changes in Vanessa’s personal life away from the stage. As a result, she put her music career on hold. “I stepped away for a while,” she explains. “I decided to move from New York and went back home to Cleveland to spend some time with my mother in her last year or two. And then I lost two brothers unexpectedly.”
Now, in late 2019, Vanessa is glad to be back recording and performing again. Her latest album, ‘The Dream Is You: Vanessa Rubin Sings Tadd Dameron,’ released earlier in the year, has garnered rave reviews from the jazz press. It’s a tribute to a pianist and composer who is well-known by the jazz cognoscenti but not a familiar name to the general public. “In the beginning, before I knew all his history, I just loved his melodies,” says Vanessa, explaining her fascination with Dameron’s music. “I just love his writing. Very early on, I had an attraction to his sound, his music, his melodies. I wasn’t aware of everything that he had written but just knowing two or three things were enough to whet my appetite.”
Vanessa regards the project as a labour of love. It began well over a decade ago when she started investigating Dameron’s life and music in greater detail. The singer discovered that he also hailed from Cleveland. “I thought it was just really hip that we’re both from the same home town,” she says. “So I began researching and finding songs and then I got Frank Foster, who was still around then, to write a couple of arrangements. (Saxophonist) Benny Golson was in much better shape than he is now and he was also able to do an arrangement. So did (saxophonist) Jimmy Heath, who’s not arranging anymore, but he’s still alive. So I was able to get some of our greatest NEA jazz masters and legends to help me with this project, because they also were Tadd fans. They were around when he was active and actually knew him.”
Dameron, she says, was very influential regarding other musicians even though the public was mostly unaware of him: “People like Dizzy (Gillespie) loved his writing and invited him to write for his big band, and he also wrote for (Billy) Eckstine’s big band. Tadd was bridging those two periods of music, from swing to bebop. He was really ahead of his time and coming up with really hip, extended harmonies that people like Dizzy and Miles (Davis) were really attracted to. He wasn’t a virtuoso pianist like Bud Powell, but he could play, and you could obviously hear his knowledge and genius in what he had to offer.”
‘The Dream Is You’ is released via Vanessa’s own label, Nibur. She says that having her own record company gives her a sense of autonomy and artistic freedom that she hadn’t know before. “It feels great,” she declares. “It’s very empowering.” But she’s also the first to admit that her present situation feels a world away from her time at RCA: “It’s a different paradigm now. When I was with RCA/BMG, they were worldwide. So I could go anywhere in the world where there was BMG – and they were everywhere. That really made getting into markets and getting product around the world easier. But the jazz labels started to dry up, and the support was just not there for artists. Most of us now, except for a few, are doing a lot of things for ourselves.”
They certainly are. Vanessa, in fact, produced the new album herself, which she regards as a significant achievement “It’s quite an ambitious endeavour,” she admits. “It was a lot of work because I had to organise it all: hire everybody and pay for everything. I realised – though I always knew, of course – what the big record companies do for you. You have to do everything – from the publishing, researching and the mechanicals to the artwork, and arranging the photographers. It takes you away from the music, but you do what you’ve got to do, and I was determined to do it.”
Vanessa’s determination has certainly paid off. Thanks to her passionate commitment to exposing Tadd Dameron’s talent, she has also illuminated her own special gift. The end result is an exquisite collection of performances that stand head and shoulders above other jazz vocal albums of 2019. Though it had a long incubation period, Vanessa’s dream eventually became a reality. “Now I want to be able to tour it and sing it live,” she says with palpable excitement in her voice.
Looking beyond this current album, Vanessa has other projects in the pipeline. “I have a great fondness for the blues, so I’d like to do some kind of blues-based record,” she reveals. “I’ve been telling people as I get older now that I feel like I’m going into the blues backwards, and I really love it. But you know, that’s the foundation of jazz, so it’s not unusual. I also might do another organ record, and I’ll do it with all my hand-picked people. It will be really soulful and deep in the blues.”
That’s for the future, but for now, Vanessa Rubin is looking forward to playing The Pheasantry in London in the last week of November. “I hear it’s a singers room,” she says. “A lot of great singers go there – Sheila Jordan was there recently – so I’m in good company. I’m so happy to be back.”
Vanessa Rubin’s The Dream Is You: Vanessa Rubin Sings Tadd Dameron is out now.
See Vanessa Rubin Live At London’s The Pheasantry between November 21st and 23rd 2019.