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Brenda Earle

JAZZREVIEW: I’ve listened to your album Happening, and I like it very much. You have a very good band, and a nice sound with the Saxophone and strings. However, on the song that you sing with Julie Hardy, Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic I can’t tell you two apart.

BRENDA EARLE: That’s interesting isn’t it?

JAZZREVIEW: Yes it is. It’s just that I thought I would be able to tell you apart, having listened to her album so often and I can’t.

BRENDA EARLE: The thing that is funny is that we took that from my recital when I got my masters degree about a year and a half ago and we listened to it and I was stealing her ideas and she was stealing my ideas and it was unbelievable how much we lined up.

JAZZREVIEW: Is Happening your third or your fourth CD?

BRENDA EARLE: It is officially my fourth. The first was in 1998 it was a little five song EP called "Her Main Claim to Fame." That was a long time ago, right when I finished my undergraduate degree and I was twenty-one. The second and third ones I did at the same time. I did "All She Needs" which was a straight up jazz album of original material. And then I did a CD called "I take requests" which is a paired down acoustic versions of pop songs.

JAZZREVIEW: Okay, what songs are on there?

BRENDA EARLE: There is a Van Morrison tune, a Bryan Adams song, Get Here by Brenda Russell. And that kind of thing because I was working on the cruise ships a lot back then doing piano bar work.

JAZZREVIEW: Yes I saw a picture of your office.

BRENDA EARLE: Yes my office, you know that’s what I did for a few years. I figured while I was out there it would be nice to put together a product that I could sell to all the guests. You wouldn’t believe how many people came up to me and said, "Man we wish you had a CD of this stuff. Sort of by popular demand I ended up recording that and it turned out quite well.

JAZZREVIEW: I can still hear a tiny bit of a Canadian accent.

BRENDA EARLE: Yes, I’m sure you can.

JAZZREVIEW: Well I still have a little Brooklyn accent.

BRENDA EARLE: Yeah, I was going to say you sound like a New Yorker.

JAZZREVIEW: And I haven’t been there in almost twenty years.

BRENDA EARLE: Oh wow.

JAZZREVIEW: But once it’s there it never goes away.

BRENDA EARLE: It’s true. It’s true.

JAZZREVIEW: Sarnia, Ontario? I don’t know anything about that part of the world. Is it a little town?

BRENDA EARLE: It has seventy three thousand people and it is a border town, on Lake Huron and it borders Port Huron Michigan, about an hour from Detroit, and about an hour away from London Ontario. The primary industry there is this section of town, which is called "Chemical Valley," which sounds really horrible, but it is where they have plastics plants, and chemical plants and oil refineries, and its right on the St Clair River, so its kind of a convenient for all of that.

It’s a lovely town and it was rated by Arcadia Magazine to be one of the top ten cities in Canada to raise your kids and it just so happens that my parents met there. It was a good town to grow up in. It wasn’t so small, but it wasn’t so big. I grew up and spent my entire childhood in the same house and made some really good friends. Also, Sarnia is town that has been home to some really famous musicians.

JAZZREVIEW: You mean other than you.

BRENDA EARLE: Yes.

JAZZREVIEW: You started playing piano when you were four?

BRENDA EARLE: When I was four. Yes that was a very common thing to do in Sarnia, by the time I was of school age was taking piano lessons and I took Ballet. You know just activities that they thought would be developmentally appropriate for me. But I don’t think either of my parents thought that both my brother and I would end up being professional musicians.

JAZZREVIEW: Your brother plays the stand up bass.

BRENDA EARLE: Yeah. He’s a bass player. He lives in Copenhagen Denmark now. He started out as a punk rocker. Both of us we were forced into the classical piano lessons and it never stuck. My teachers were always telling my Dad she’s really talented but she just doesn’t seem very interested in what were doing. I played clarinet all through my childhood years too. So sometime around the time that I was fifteen in high school my friend said hey they’re letting clarinets into the jazz big band and you know we should start going. We started playing and I just had a ball doing that and then just before the music festival competition they said we have to take the clarinets out because there aren’t supposed to be clarinets in the big band. I was just devastated. The piano player who was in the big band saw how devastated I was and she said you obviously want this more than I do so you can have my spot and play the piano. That was sort of how it all began.

JAZZREVIEW: Do you still play clarinet?

BRENDA EARLE: No. Definitely not. I guess that was my hobby instrument. That was what I played for fun, but the piano was definitely my main instrument.

JAZZREVIEW: So in addition to being a piano player you are a singer, a composer and arranger. When did you start composing music?

BRENDA EARLE: I wrote my first song when I was sixteen or seventeen. We had this really interesting class in high school called beginning composition and there were about fifteen of us in the class and we experimented with some classical forms and just wrote minimal things. I ended up writing a song that sounded very much like a standard; you know thirty-two bars, a swingy kind of song. I have written a handful of those things over the years. Then I started writing longer compositions that were for instrumental work and then small band arrangements for piano trio or two horns or I did something with two singers quite a few years ago where we did a bunch of arrangements for two voices. It has been really in the last four years that I have started writing bigger things, I’ve written music for big band and I’ve written extensive music for choirs, I do a lot of choral conducting and it has become something that I do on a regular basis.

JAZZREVIEW: Where do you do the choral conducting?

BRENDA EARLE: I teach at a summer music festival in Upstate New York called the Hartwick Music Festival. I’ve spent two years, six weeks each summer teaching there and my beef was that there just isn’t very much good published material for jazz choir. This program is something that is aimed at high school and college kids and most of what’s published is not interesting for them. It’s too hard or something a kid just wouldn’t enjoy. So what I did the first year was I went in with one piece of published music and as the two weeks of each session would progress I would write the music to suit the kids, which was a lot of work, but very exciting. I could feel out what the kids were interested in and I would bring in a tune, sometimes it would be an instrumental tune or it would be something more contemporary. I did a bunch of Stevie Wonder Tunes that went really, really wonderful last year.

JAZZREVIEW: Which of Stevie’s tunes did you do?

BRENDA EARLE: We did Too High and we did Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing and For Your Love. It became a project for the summer. I was able to gage the level of the students and see what they would be able to do. I was able to try some of it out where we would go through and read it and would see how it sounded.

One thing that was very exciting for the kids was that for each solo the performer’s name is typed into the score. For a lot of them that was exciting because not only was the piece of music written just for them but their name was in the final score. It was a lot of fun.

JAZZREVIEW: That sounds very cool.

BRENDA EARLE: Yeah and I’ve done a lot of conducting for elementary school students. I’ve done work for "Midori and friends" which is a company that brings music education into inner city schools. I taught up in the Bronx and ran a chorus for two years in Central Harlem for elementary school kids. That was really neat. I wrote all the music for them too because it was more fun that way.

JAZZREVIEW: How big are these groups that you are teaching?

BRENDA EARLE: The jazz choir in the summer is somewhere between fifteen and twenty kids. I don’t like to have more than twenty kids. Usually the elementary schools are under twenty kids because it is just I by myself and I only have two hands.

JAZZREVIEW: I guess that is like herding cats.

BRENDA EARLE: It’s pretty intense. But there are a lot of teaching techniques and earning the respect of your students, setting up a good classroom environment and that’s what I try to do.

JAZZREVIEW: You have a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music.

BRENDA EARLE: Yes that’s right.

JAZZREVIEW: Is that a teaching degree?

BRENDA EARLE: It’s a performance degree. It’s a two-year degree where your "quote unquote" thesis is a recital, which is recorded. In the two years that you do your degree you do a lot of composition and performance courses, improvisation, you take private lessons. You’re in all kind of ensembles and big bands and then you take one pedagogy class, which is a class in musical education. I also took a couple of history courses. The majority of what I was doing while I was at the School was composition and performance. The Manhattan School of Music is composition intensive and I did a lot of writing for that.

JAZZREVIEW: The recital was recorded?

BRENDA EARLE: That’s right.

JAZZREVIEW: How long was the recital?

BRENDA EARLE: It was about an hour and a half long. Some of the material that is on "Happening" came out of that. The majority of the music that is on the album is music that I have written since I’ve been in New York which is three years now. I guess a lot of the experiences of living in another country and experiencing being far away from family and friends and that palette of emotions that goes along with that is in there.

And then there is a lot of experimentation. It took me a long time before I could find the right band. To find the right fit and the guys in the rhythm section on that CD were a long time coming. I definitely went through a lot of rhythm sections to find the one I really clicked with. And the saxophone player Joel Frahm he’s one of my closest friends.

JAZZREVIEW: He sounds like he’s a pretty good Saxophone player.

BRENDA EARLE: He’s one of the best, in my opinion he is one of the best, and that’s a lot of people’s opinion, he’s played with Jane Monheit, and he’s played with Brad Mehldau and Matt Wilson. He’s really a heavy weight and to meet the guy you’d never expect that he is one of the most influential saxophone players of his generation because he is just one of the nicest guys. For me that’s one of the most exciting thing about hearing the record is hearing him playing on it. He just really brings it all to life.

JAZZREVIEW: The sax on there is really very good, but there is also some really good piano on it too. I’m trying to think is it on Left of Center, the Suzanne Vega song. I have to listen to album some more but I was listening to the music and I said, wow, this is really good piano. Sometimes you here people playing the piano and it’s competent, but not that impressive.

BRENDA EARLE: Part of it to is as soon as you open your mouth to sing you are just a singer, and a lot of people are surprised by my piano playing because they think that I am a singer who plays piano but it is very different for me because I am definitely a piano player first. So that is what I focus the majority of time on and its only been in the last five or six years that I have concentrated really seriously on getting my voice in shape and still to this day I’m trying constantly to get it up to the comfort level of my piano playing.

JAZZREVIEW: When you went to the Manhattan School of Music it was because you met some teachers who directed you there. Who were those people?

BRENDA EARLE: One of them was Garry Dial, who is remarkably unknown but every musician in New York City has at some level studied with him. He’s an outstanding piano player who played with Red Rodney. He has been involved in a lot of different playing situations but right now he is "the guy" who everybody studies with. When I first came to NYC in 2001 and I had no idea what I wanted to do somebody said, "Oh, you should give Garry Dial a call and so I did. I started studying with him every week and practicing all the time and he introduced me to a wonderful voice teacher named Jackie Presti, and she specializes in vocal technique and vocal hygiene, so I started studying with her every week and at the end of the summer when my money ran out and I had to go back to Canada and back to what I had been doing I said that I really wanted to come back to new York, but I don’t know what to do to get through immigration and to meet people. Both these people said hands down you should apply for the Manhattan School of Music.

At the time I had no intention of pursuing a master’s degree in performance. I had no intention of any of it, it was just one of those things where I thought, "Yes that will work." It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.

JAZZREVIEW: That’s neat.

BRENDA EARLE: It just goes to show that you never know where your life is going to take you. I came to New York just to see how I felt about it, I was also thinking about going to Europe at some point, because I knew I needed a change. I was thinking Europe but I had a little money saved and New York was closer and I thought I may as well just go and check it out. Within two months I knew this is where I need to be. My brother had the opposite experience, he went to Copenhagen figuring he’d give it a try, because he was thinking about New York too, and he was in Denmark for three months and said, "This is it."

JAZZREVIEW: Do you plan on staying in New York?

BRENDA EARLE: For now my life is here now, my friends are here now and I’ve really put the roots down. I wouldn’t over rule going somewhere else but for right now I’m very happy to be here. That’s funny because I always thought that I would go back to Canada in a hurry but I can’t see that happening for a while.

I was recently in New Zealand and I was touring and playing festivals. I also taught at a couple of Universities over there. It is so beautiful and I thought that I could really live here and there was a possibility of me getting a job at one of the Universities. But I thought to myself, "Do I want to live this far away from everything." Not yet.

JAZZREVIEW: Let me change the subject for a moment. You have a great website. Most musicians quite frankly have lousy web sites.

BRENDA EARLE: I realized the value in taking care of that. I think a lot of times that artists in general forget that this is a business. I have read a couple of books that have helped me to avoid that. I think it is not only very important how your music sounds but it is very important how it is presented. I have a bit of a background in theater and in dance so I know how important it is for things to look as good as they sound and for it to be a product like that. It was one of the things that was very important to me for the CD that came out. I wanted it to have a certain look to it, which reflected the music and I have this amazing designer named Colleen Chrzanowski.

JAZZREVIEW: She did a very good job.

BRENDA EARLE: She’s amazing

JAZZREVIEW: Now did she do the text?

BRENDA EARLE: No I write most of the text for what I do.

JAZZREVIEW: Well you did a very nice job there also.

BRENDA EARLE: Thank you. My boyfriend proofreads.

JAZZREVIEW: Well I know better than most the need for a proofreader and marrying one has saved me uncountable embarrassments.

It is written on your web site that you were strongly influenced by Bill Evens.

BRENDA EARLE: My first influence was Oscar Petersen that was the first jazz that I heard I just was blown away by the excitement of it. He’s just so exciting when he plays and I have seen him play live a couple of times and he is just so exciting. Somewhere, along the line someone gave me a copy of Bill Evans’ "You Must Believe in Spring" and at first listening, it obviously wasn’t as exciting as Oscar Petersen’s music was. But I remember putting it on one day while I was doing my math homework in high school and gazing out the window. I remember this like it was yesterday--just stopping and thinking, "This music is amazing!" Just like that. Wow. I had just put it on for background music. It became one of my favorite records of all time and every time I put it on it just gets me. He’s been somebody who I’ve spent a lot of time with.

JAZZREVIEW: Then there is your Burt Bacharach connection.

BRENDA EARLE: Yeah that is a little lesser of one When I was working on the ship I sort of got a little nerdier about knowing who the song writers were and the story of a lot of the songs that I’ve known. I discovered that I hadn’t known how many of the songs that I love are by Burt. He didn’t sing many of them himself, they were Dionne Warwick songs, or Dusty Springfield songs, and I thought wow this is amazing. Then a record came out in 1997 or 98, maybe it was a little later 2000. It is Elvis Costello and Burt. Have you heard this record?

JAZZREVIEW: No I haven’t

BRENDA EARLE: It’s phenomenal. It is really amazing. I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan and I have been for years, Elvis has a certain quality of what he does, there is a certain cynicism and darkness to the lyrics that he writes. Then here he is teamed up with Burt Bacharach and here are all these strings and two trumpets in unison and just the way it’s orchestrated, the kind of chords he uses, he uses very soft sounding chords, and something about that record that really hit me. I‘d say I probably listened to it a hundred times the first month that I had it. I listened to it constantly. It was always playing. There was something about that record that really affected me. I just love way that Burt conveys music.

JAZZREVIEW: Ran Blake and David Fabris just put out an album called "Indian Winter" which has a Burt Bacharach tune on it.

BRENDA EARLE: Oh, which one?

JAZZREVIEW: Say a Little Prayer for You. To me it’s interesting; here is a composer who is an unseen landmark on our psycho cultural landscape. These notes stand out in the culture to varying degrees but we are largely unaware them. Yet we all know the notes, we hear them, or see them performed and recognize them, but we are aware or unaware of the origin of these landmarks on our cultural landscape and yet there seems to be a shared understanding across society of what they mean.

BRENDA EARLE: Music is one of those things. I was talking about this with a friend yesterday and said that it can bring you back to a time and a place immediately. On this record that I have just done there are songs that are not originals of mine that are arrangements or that have affected me over the years. That Suzanne Vega song Left of Center is from a favorite childhood movie of mine "Pretty in Pink" with Molly Ringwald. At the time I was very effected by that, by feeling of being an outcast, which I think is pretty typical. So I have always just identified with that song. And since I have heard it over and over in my head, the only way to get it out was to do it and I did but the way I did it is very different from the way it was done in the movie.

The Police Tune Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic really affected me; it’s a song that is probably my favorite Police song.

JAZZREVIEW: My favorite is Roxanne; I think that that was their first hit in New York. And the Sultan’s of Swing will always be my favorite Dire Straits song. One final thing before I let you go I noticed that as an individual singer you perform an awful lot.

BRENDA EARLE: The last four to five months have been really busy I was at the Kennedy Center and then I was at Ravinia for ten days in Chicago, it is a big festival and I met a lot of people through those experiences. So I have a friend in South Central Florida who I go down a play with. We just did a weeklong thing in Atlanta and Charlotte. I have a friend in South Florida who I do stuff with and I have a band over in New Zealand who I play with and I have my Canadian thing. I’m sort of the consummate businesswoman because I’m always out there. That’s kind of what I’ve done and I’ve just sort of made friends all over the place. It’s always fun.

JAZZREVIEW: And now I have kept you on the phone for half and hour and I think it’s time to call it an interview. I’ll let you go.

BRENDA EARLE: Thanks.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Brenda Earle
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