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Getting to know Patrice Williamson

Vocalist Patrice Williamson recently released her second CD, "Free to Dream," the follow-up to her acclaimed 1998 debut, "My Shining Hour." With the sophomore release, Williamson continues to build a solid body of work and expand her growing reputation. More confident than ever, she sings and scats with authority.

Williamson stretches herself with material ranging from Bud Powell’s "Celia" to Stevie Wonder’s "Another Star." She even sings a spirited, nine-minute medley of songs from "The Sound of Music" and includes three original numbers.

"Free to Dream" is on her own River Lily label, which is named after her mother. recently caught up with Williamson to find out about the making of the new CD, growing up in Memphis and who would be on her fantasy guest list. Tell us about your new CD, "Free to Dream." How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t heard it, yet?

Patrice Williamson: Fun. I had a great time making it. Also, the music lends itself to happy thoughts. It entices people to hopefully just slow down. Everyone is so hectic, running from job to job. What goals did you set out when you starting making the album.

Patrice Williamson: Since it had been four years since my first disc, I had been collecting music along the way. When the opportunity came, we went in and starting working full steam ahead I knew I had a new voice. My voice had changed. My perspective on life had changed over the past four years, and I wanted to get that out there. What were the changes?

Patrice Williamson: One of the changes was to go ahead and allow myself to put all of the types of music that I enjoy on this disc. I did that a little on my first CD, "My Shining Hour," but I went a little further this time. I love Brazilian music. I enjoy pop music. I enjoy jazz music and reggae. You know, the whole nine yards. I wanted to go ahead and add more elements besides a strictly, straight-ahead, standard jazz album. How did your voice change?

Patrice Williamson: I had nasal surgery a few years ago. Once the healing process was done and I was working on my voice again, all of a sudden I had a lot more space. It was easier to sing. It allowed me to manipulate my voice a lot easier, and it also expanded my range. You have three original songs on the CD. Can you share a story about how you wrote one of these songs?

Patrice Williamson: For the first cut, "In the Loop," there’s a story. The melody and the lyrics for the first verse came together in 1984 when I was a junior in high school. I remember writing it on a beautiful May afternoon in Memphis. I was sitting on the auditorium steps waiting for my father to pick me up. It had something to do with whatever the lecture had been in my English class that day. That was part of the inspiration the weather and whatever had happened in English class. I remember rushing back to school the next day and at the lunch table with my girlfriends going, ‘Oh, my God. Listen to this.'

When you’re 16, things just fade away. I came back to it at the age of 33 at 3 o’clock one morning when I could not sleep. My keyboard was there, and I just sat down and started playing some chords. I remembered that melody I had in 1984. I looked at the lyrics, and the first verse is from a 16-year-old’s standpoint. You know, ‘When I find that perfect boy to take me to the prom, we are going to fall in love.’

Now, since I have done all of that and had my heartbroken and all of these other things, the second verse is more about how I don’t necessarily need someone outside of myself to validate me. I’m really all that I need. Basically, becoming my own cheerleader, which is sort of where I am in life. Do you have a process for writing?

Patrice Williamson: My process would be that of happenstance I guess. I know that whenever I set aside time and plan to write, absolutely nothing comes. When I get an idea, almost all of them come from some strong emotion. Usually everything comes together at once the melody and the lyrics and the bass progression. I then go and work on the chords. You cover a wide range of songs and styles on the CD. As a singer putting together an album, how do you go about picking the material?

Patrice Williamson: I always start by picking songs that I like to sing and songs that I would enjoy hearing if someone else were performing them. I also choose songs that can show different ranges of my voice. I am primarily a jazz singer, and sometimes you are pigeonholed and people think that’s all you can sing.

I grew up in the church, singing gospel. I grew up in Memphis, Tenn., surrounded by the blues. Like every other teen-age American, I sang my share of Madonna and Janet Jackson and Chaka Khan and still do. I think I have the ability to switch from genre to genre.

I really love musicals. You know those old movies when they started doing color and the sets were elaborate. The movies with Fred Astaire or Bing Crosby. I love all of that. On the new CD, you perform a "Sound of Music" suite, a fresh, jazzy medley from the movie. Tell us about that.

Patrice Williamson: Part of that is because "The Sound of Music" is a film that is very dear to me. When I was growing up, my father and I would watch it every year when it would come on TV. It was sort of my job to always know when it was coming on and let my father know. He wouldn’t go to a football party or whatever. He would stay home and watch "The Sound of Music" with me. He was a wonderful singer, and he would sing the songs. Over the years, I learned them and we would sing them together.’s also a bonus track on the CD. Tell us about "Close Your Eyes."

Patrice Williamson:About a year or so ago, I was promoting one of my shows here in Boston. The group was invited to do a live radio performance with a studio audience at WGBH. Technology is so advanced that by the end of the performance, the engineer brought me a CD of what we had just done. There’s a certain energy that the band gets into when we are performing live that you can’t always capture in the studio. ‘Close Your Eyes’ has become one of my most favorite songs, and that particular rendition had a different energy. I like the way that Mark (Shilansky), the piano player, decided not to play during during the first part. It was just voice and bass. I love that. It was very freeing. It allowed me to go places that I probably wouldn’t have gone had there been piano behind me. Do you have a favorite track?

Patrice Williamson: It changes from day to day, but today it’s "The Gentle Rain" (written by Louis Bonfa and Matt Dubey). I love the way that Eric Byers plays (guitar). He spent some time studying Brazilian music. It felt very authentic to me. The same with Kera Washington, who is on percussion. She has been to South America more times that I can count. It really felt right when we put that one together. You scat quite a bit on the CD. Is that very intuitive or something that takes a lot of thought and time?

Patrice Williamson: I spent a considerable amount of time learning how to scat. It’s a scary thing to do. A lot of my students, who are just starting out, find it hard to get past the inhibition of ‘I’m going to sound silly.’ I often try to get people to go back to when they were kids and making up sounds and making up songs. When I started to learn how to scat, I didn’t know which syllables to use. I felt very awkward and would only semi-scat the melody. It then became more about listening. What is it that you hear? How can you make up your own melody and finding the scat syllables that feel nature? It took a lot of listening and a bit of soul searching before I was able to step out there and scat. There’s a story that when you were attending the University of Tennessee one of your teachers heard you scatting.

Patrice Williamson: Right. We had a group called the Studio Jazz Orchestra which was basically a big band that also had a string section and wind. In that ensemble, I was playing violin. We took a break, and I’m sure I was singing either Madonna or Janet. I love them both. I was scatting what little instrumental part was in one of their songs. The director overhead me, and he said. "Oh, you can sing? OK. Sing a song." mentioned your father, Webster F. Williamson. He was an amateur singer and a church choir director. What music did you hear around the house?

Patrice Williamson: My father loved Lena Horne and Dinah Washington. I think his all-time favorite was Louis Armstrong. We had a lot of Louis Armstrong records. I can remember on Saturday afternoons going through his 78s and listening to Louis Armstrong with me. What did you father teach you about music?

Patrice Williamson:There weren’t necessarily any direct lessons, but when he sang a solo in church I could see how much he would put into it and then see the congregation’s reaction to it. I think a lot of my lessons from him came from observing him singing and seeing him work with the men’s chorus and seeing how much he enjoyed music. Is anyone else in your family musical?

Patrice Williamson: My mother is an avid music fan and supporter. I wouldn’t trade her for the world. She’s encouraged me to go after this. She says, ‘Baby, the Lord has blessed you. And, if that’s what you want to do, by all means go ahead. You have my support and love.’ Not too many musicians’ parents will say that.

My sister can sing. She and I both went through the Suzuki string program when we were little. I stuck with violin, but my sister went on to play viola and bass. was the first album you bought?

Patrice Williamson: Live it off the wall Michael Jackson. I believe it is still in my mother’s house. This was when Michael was still black. What do you do when you are not working?

Patrice Williamson: Probably like every other American, I’m trying to get fit. Every now and then, I get on a real Taebo craze.

My newest hobby is knitting. My sister recently had twins, a boy and a girl. I have my first niece and nephew. I’m totally in love when them. There’s a group of ladies at my day job who started a knitting club. I said I would like to learn. They now tease me because I’m obsessed. I tell them, ‘I was up till 3:30 in the morning and look I have three more inches.’

I also love going to the movies. I love the whole experience. You walk in, and there’s the popcorn smell. You’re wondering, ‘Oh, am I going to get popcorn or chocolate?’ I love the whole entertainment aspect of it. It’s bigger than life. If you were performing and could invite anyone, who would be on your guest list?

Patrice Williamson: To perform with me, it would be Al Jarreau. Kurt Elling. Chris McBride. Since it is a fantasy, Ray Brown. Donald Brown, who’s a piano player. Art Blakey and Clifford Brown. There’s a lot of Browns.

To be in the audience, Oprah. What’s next for you?

Patrice Williamson: I have a good lineup of shows in the fall, starting in October.

I have a show at the Acton Jazz Café outside of Boston. I’ll be doing an in-store performance to promote the CD at Virgin Megastore, and I’ll be giving a concert with a special guest at the Regattabar here in Boston. My special guest will be Stan Strickland, who plays saxophone and flute. He also sings. I’ve always enjoyed seeing him perform so it was a big step to ask him to be a guest. I was thrilled when he agreed.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Patrice Williamson
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