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Abigail Riccards Interview
It would have been a crime had jazz vocalist Abigail Riccards not pursued a career in music, and we would not have needed to go very far to find someone to help discover the reasons why that felony would have occurred. You see Riccards was headed for a career in criminology when she first enrolled at the University of Maryland. After just two weeks, she decided that her heart really lay with music, and during the winter semester enrolled in the jazz program at the University of Massachusetts, which is good news for jazz fans.
The evidence as to how wise a career decision Riccards made comes to us in the form of her debut CD When The Night Is New, a beautifully arranged and sung collection of standards including tunes such as, "I'll Be Seeing You," "The Very Thought of You," and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." It was however her interpretation of a non standard, the Sting tune, "I Was Brought To My Senses," that sent a warning shot across the bow of the music industry, that Abigail Riccards is a singer to be reckoned with. Her 2007 release has garnered praise from several circles including Riveting Riffs.
Although When The Night Is New may be the first time many listeners have experienced the jazz vocalist's music, she was hardly last year's overnight sensation. Riccards has been critically acclaimed as a singer since very early in her career. She was recognized in 2002 by Downbeat for being the Outstanding Collegiate Vocalist, and received the nod from Downbeat again in 2004 for being a part of the Outstanding Collegiate Vocal Jazz Group.
If one is to read between the lines of the twenty-seven year old singer's words however, you get the impression that, early on she found it difficult to relax in her career, and to enjoy the moment. "When I first started to sing, I had this idea that everything had to sound perfect. I wanted vibrato in certain places, and I wanted my tone to sound this way and that way. I went to the IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education), and Cassandra Wilson was there. She came out on stage, was beautiful, opened her mouth to sing, and I was absolutely floored. It wasn't what I expected at all. I just remember feeling so connected to what she was doing because it wasn't this beautiful cabaret sound that a lot of people go for. It was this gritty sound, and it was fantastic. She told a great story and sucked me in. She really helped me to understand that my voice is my instrument. This is what I have, and I can do whatever I can to connect with people, but this is what I have. The other thing that I have is words, but a lot of singers dismiss that, and sing a lot of syllables, which is a great approach. A lot of people are very good at it, but words are a very powerful thing, and they connect to people on a whole other level. They (also) connect to a different audience. I think that as singers we can reach a greater audience base than instrumentalists can, and that is a big advantage for a singer," said Riccards.
To borrow a phrase, Abigail Riccards is somewhat of an old soul. She may still be in her twenties, but she approaches her music with a maturity that extends far beyond both her age and her experience. "I look at songs and I say to myself, I wish I could hear me singing this song in ten years. I was thinking about this the other day. Do you remember the Thelonious Monk song, "Reflections"? When I sing that song, I am always nervous because I am only twenty-seven years ol, and I don't really have that much life to reflect back on. (However), I have been singing jazz for ten years now, and I certainly sing it much differently that I did ten years ago. I think that every day we are growing, changing, taking on new experiences and new emotions. I just try to call up what I have, and try to relate it to the song," she said.
While some women may have been offended when a musical acquaintance commented that he thought Riccards was in her thirties, the singer did not bat an eye. "I viewed it as a compliment, because I think that is what we are dealing with in this art form. The further that you go, or the older that you are, the better that you get at it, and the more that you connect with people. In one sense, I am excited to get a little older as a jazz musician, because I will have learned more, and experienced more. I will be able to relate to people better. Let's use Joni Mitchell as an example. Her voice has completely changed from when she was young, to where she is now that she is older. Everything that she sings is completely different. It brings a whole new meaning to the songs. I have a recording of her in the seventies, when she is singing, "Both Sides Now," and it is this perky little song. Then she did it a few years ago with the London Symphony Orchestra, and she was just heartbreaking. Her voice was so weathered, that I can't even describe it. It is amazing to hear what time does to our voices, to our musicianship and to our stories."
It is with that respect for the connection between life experiences and music that helps guide Riccards as she selects the music that she records and performs. "I like listening to standards, and I am really particular about the standards that I pick, because I feel that every song is a story for me. If it is not a story that I can relate to, or that I can tell, I am not going to sing that song. I am not going to sing, "Lush Life" because I think that song is a little ahead of me right now. Maybe in twenty years I will sing that song, but for where I am in my life right now, and with the things that I have experienced, it is not an appropriate song for me. These are definitely factors (I consider) when choosing my material."
Connecting with a song can come at the most unpredictable moments for a singer, as evidenced by Riccards' discovery of the song "Left Alone," a tune that she included on When The Night Is New. "I first heard "Left Alone" when I was driving through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, on my way home from a gig. The radio was fading in and out, so I could barely hear the song. It was an Abbey Lincoln recording. I went out the next day, found the recording, found the music, and transcribed it. I did everything that I could, and in two weeks, I recorded it," said Riccards.
"Left Alone" is my favorite song on the album, because (it reflects) where I was (in my life) when I was recording the album. I had just moved to New York and was getting out of a relationship. I find that people connect to sad songs more than they do to happy songs. I know that sounds strange, but it seems to me that people relate to heartbreak very well. My father always jokes with me, that I should have called my album The Poet of Urban Loneliness. I really connect with ballads. I am actually a very happy person in my life, but I think that those types of ballads, and that type of music, are an outlet for the darker side of my personality. If you came to one of my gigs, and only heard me sing those ballads, you might think that I am a really dark person. I am not, it's just that everyone has different dimensions to their personalities, and this is how I vent that side of me," she said.
When it came time to record When The Night Is New, Riccards surrounded herself with people who have a ton of experience and good sensibilities. Co-producer David Berkman arranged many of the tunes, as well as playing the piano and Hammond B3 that we hear on the song "The Thrill Is Gone." Riccards' other co-producer, Dena DeRose, also weighed in heavily when it came to shaping the soundscape for When The Night Is New. The young vocalist also surrounded herself with a bevy of very gifted musicians, including the amazing Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund, trumpeter Ron Horton (who also plays flugelhorn), bassist Ben Allison, drummer Matt Wilson, percussionist Rogerio Boccato, and Adam Kolker (woodwinds).
"When it came time to choose the musicians, I chose Matt and Ben for very specific reasons. I think they are both amazing musicians and wonderful composers. David arranged about half of the songs on here, but for (the other half), I just went in and told Ben and Matt the vibe that I wanted. They were able to create this amazing thing. At the beginning of "The Very Thought of You," Ben plays this world music, and a great sounding ostinato, to bring in the band. It is something that I would never have thought of. That is one of my favorite moments on the album," said Riccards.
She also noted that, "It was the same thing with Matt for "If I Should Lose You." I just told him that I wanted to be straight and kind of open. Matt started doing things with handbells, and it sounded almost Middle Eastern. It has this amazing flavor to it."
When The Night Is New is just the beginning of what promises to be a very long and rewarding career for jazz singer Abigail Riccards. Don't be one of those people who twenty years from now says, 'I wish I could still get her first album.' Pick up a copy today.
For those readers in New York City, you have an opportunity to catch Abigail Riccards live performance at the Cornelia Street Café on February 28th. She performs at 8 pm.
By Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved
Joe Montague is an internationally
published journalist / photographer and the publisher of Riveting Riffs,
www.rivetingriffs.com . His ministry is dedicated to the memory of his
late son Kent David Montague who went to heaven at the age of 18. All copyright
and distribution rights remain the property of Joe Montague.