At times it has been stated, "Any transition serious enough to alter your definition of self will require not just small adjustments in your way of living and thinking, but a full-on metamorphosis." When a career takes this road, the words are just as powerful. Keeping that in mind, just sit and spin awhile with jazz vocalist Judy Wexler.
Former actress, Ms. Wexler followed that pulsating romantic, called a heart, and launched a whole new dimension to sound studios unexplored. With the introduction of her new jewel box, Easy on the Heart, truly a respectable debut--Wexler is on a collision course to a promising future in jazz.
Released in March on Rhombus Records, this bolt of feeling is a strong yet subtle execution of diverse emotions, embraced by melodic verse. West Coast vocalist, Ms. Wexler, took what many fear to gamble--a total change in careers to offer the public her perception of jazz. Many adjectives have been thrust upon her such as innovative, tasty, inventive and sensual, however, I like to think of her as "Just Judy" doing what she was meant to do telling of adventure, romance and moments through expressive storytelling and vocal realization.
Easy on the Heart is a passionate debut project with several attitudes branching out to touch listeners, at times allowing her level of tone and vocal structure to expand to many degrees. In fact, her forte as a storyteller is noticeably prevalent. Ms. Wexler also shows great command and control of her performances, a sturdy and grounded foundation in her career with this initial project.
So with all of this unleashed passion, Ms. Wexler was an excellent and most pleasant subject to catch between sets. Personable on all levels with that "fire in the belly" sparking from within, she expanded on many concepts throughout our conversation. From her changes, philosophy, processes and dreams, fellow jazz aficionados and fans will enjoy this brief time with Ms. Judy Wexler.
JazzReview: An artist in any genre or at any stage at times takes chances. How big of a risk was the metamorphosis from acting to music?
Judy Wexler: Music was always a big part of my life. I started playing the piano when I was 5 and enjoyed singing with my family, especially my father, throughout my childhood. While I pursued acting in theater and television in Los Angeles, I was also studying music. When I quit acting and concentrated more fully on studying music, specifically jazz piano and jazz vocals, I felt that I was moving from an area of frustration into an area of joy, so it didn't feel at all like a risk.
JazzReview: Why was jazz your chosen direction instead of classical where your first journey into music began?
Judy Wexler: I studied classical music in college, but it was never a goal of mine to play other than for my own enjoyment. Even back then, I was interested in jazz and took some jazz piano, but I had no idea what I was doing. Years later, because a friend of mine decided to take a jazz piano class with Joyce Collins at Dick Grove School of Music, as a lark, I joined him. I met Sunny Wilkinson there. She taught jazz singing and I studied with her for a short time before she moved away. Sunny referred me to Cathy Segal-Garcia, whom I ended up studying with for years, and who is now a very close friend.
At the beginning of the process, I thought that I'd eventually accompany myself. I took all the crazy harmony classes that Dick Grove taught. I studied piano with Terry Trotter for over three years. But then I came to the realization that there weren't enough years left in my life to get as good as I'd want to be, so I quit studying piano and focused exclusively on singing. And who knows? I might decide to work a couple of numbers into my gigs at some point. All aspects of my background inform my singing. I think that my theater training helps me with lyric interpretation and phrasing -- it all ties in. And singers have what instrumentalists will never have - words! So jazz singing is the best of everything.
JazzReview: Performers often times are their harshest of critics regarding their talent. Is there an area of talent about you that you are critical about? How does an artist undress it mentally?
Judy Wexler: Truthfully, it's a constant struggle. I'm merciless in that department, and while it would be really nice to be totally self-accepting, I think being critical of one's work is a reflection of a desire to get to the next place creatively. There are always a million things to work on!
JazzReview: Understanding vocal execution as you do, what are some of the most important techniques you have learned that would be of value to a novice performer in jazz?
Judy Wexler: Jazz singing, I think is multi-layered and complex. Of course, working on technique and developing good intonation is really important. I've been lucky to have some great teachers who were masters at vocal production. But also, you have to work on time, improvisation, and interpretation. And then on top of that, building an interesting repertoire is really, really important to me!
I'm fortunate because I read music and can accompany myself at home. I like to work on my time and improvisation by singing and playing with Paul Carman's drum tracks backing me up. What helped me enormously, too, was to work with some great jazz pianists. Tamir Hendelman and Tom Garvin are two of L.A.'s greats, and they also are wonderful communicators and can give valuable coaching to singers from an instrumentalist's perspective.
JazzReview: Did you encounter any barriers business wise and/or musically as you designed your first debut project Easy on the Heart?
Judy Wexler: Every project has its barriers, but my first great idea was to ask my good friend, Barbara Brighton, to produce the CD. Barbara has a great ear and wonderful aesthetic, and I knew I was in good hands with her. It was Barbara who led us to Alan Pasqua. She felt his sound would complement my singing, and I absolutely love his arrangements, and his harmonic sense is nothing short of exquisite. So musically, I couldn't be happier!
From a business perspective, yes, there are things I would do differently. But I've learned an amazing amount about the industry this year, so I'm sure I'll just make different mistakes with the next project! I hired a really great radio promoter, Neal Sapper, and happily the CD received a good amount of airplay and made it to the JazzWeek chart for six weeks! Nevertheless, I think there is a big challenge for jazz radio to support new artists. Even once the record is added for airplay, for some reason the program directors find it difficult to compel the mostly volunteer DJs to spin a new artist over someone who is a known entity.
JazzReview: Getting into the design and implementation of your new project, the choice of cuts were most intriguing. Not all were familiar and as you pointed out, needed recognition. Talk if you will to the process of selection and why.
Judy Wexler: I've always been into repertoire, and I really try to sing the more obscure, great tunes. At least half the tunes on the record were culled from favorite songs from my live performances. For the rest of the tunes, it was a process of Barbara and me listening to a lot of tunes and playing them for each other. One of my new favorites, really, is a complete surprise to me... its Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice", its All Right." I really love singing it on gigs now. During the time Barbara and I were working on the repertoire, I came over to her house while she was playing the song. We both just love the lyrics. Then Alan told us that he toured and recorded with Dylan, so that was that--we had to do it!
JazzReview: Easy on the Heart is diverse, but what other goals did you set forth to accomplish on this disc?
Judy Wexler: At the beginning, I just wanted to make the best CD I could with no particular goals in mind. This project has definitely exceeded any expectations I had before I started.
JazzReview: With deep affection, you speak of two individuals who seemingly ignited the fire for you with this project: Producer Barbara Brighton and arranger/pianist Alan Pasqua who had a strong impact on the disc. Talk if about them and what you see as their impact on the album.
Judy Wexler: Making a record, especially one's first project, is challenging on so many levels. Barbara was there to guide and support me with all kinds of creative choices, including repertoire, as I already mentioned. She's also a clinical psychologist, so lucky (nutty) me; I could take advantage of all her skills! We were friends when we started, but now we're a lot closer.
Alan Pasqua is one of most amazing pianists I've ever heard, and it was great to have worked with him on this record. First of all, his harmonic sense is gorgeous. His arrangements were an over-arching concept applied tastefully to re-harmonized and beautifully voiced changes, all perfectly supporting the material. Alan is just so sensitive in the way he supports the vocals, and then his solos are so great, too.
JazzReview: Speaking of Pasqua, his work on Humdrum Blues is powerful and innovative. Speak on the cut and the design theory behind Mr. Pasqua's work.
Judy Wexler: Humdrum Blues is a great tune written by Oscar Brown, Jr. about fighting boredom. Alan applied a greasy New Orleans beat to the tune, which made it downright rollicking, and provided an interesting counterpoint to what the lyrics express. On the whole, I think Alan was just great in coming up with a tasty rhythmic and harmonic feel that works magically with the whole repertoire. What amazed me, I think most of all, was watching him conceive the last tune I brought to him, "Moment to Moment." He works quickly and immediately changed the time to 3/4 and added a McCoy Tyner-ish dense chord structure, really giving it a very emotional feel.
JazzReview: Norman Simmons’ "If You Could Love Me," as vocalized, seems to have hints of your emotions wrapped up in the performance. Does this tune have meaning for you? For that matter is there any tune that takes Judy to another place personally?
Judy Wexler: It's funny that you mention this tune. To me, If You Could Love Me is really about unrequited love -- a woman tells a man she desperately wants that if only he would kiss her, he would fall madly in love with her and her despair would end. I had to find a way to approach this woman so she wouldn't sound pathetic. I love the tune, but really don't relate to it in my personal life. Oh, that's not true... when I was very young, believe me, there were heartbreaks and moments I felt this way. But I've been so lucky in love for so long... my husband is a wonderful, supportive person, and the tune that resonates deeply with me is the title track, Easy on the Heart. That's him!
JazzReview: Down On The Ground, a Lalo Schifrin melody, has been wonderfully arranged with your vocals separated by a strong keyboard influence. However, you say the lyrics lured you to perform this. Why and how do they relate in some way to your life?
Judy Wexler: I absolutely dig the lyrics to this song. They really are about self-realization: "Someday I'm sure I'm going to find/Those wings on my mind/To set me free./So if you hear a sound/From Down Here on the Ground/Well, my friend, it's only me, trying to fly!"
I don't want to sound maudlin, but I was very close to my mother, who passed away six years ago. At that time, I was working a lot on jazz, but was really too afraid to even book a gig for myself. When she was dying, my mother said, "You want to sing. I will die happy if you just get out there and sing." Just two months after she died, I got my first gig. I was petrified, but I just thought of my mom and how I was doing it for her. I really feel that my mother knew I could fly, and her great final gift to me was to push me out of the proverbial nest. That's what I think of when I sing Down Here on the Ground.
JazzReview: What did you take out of the process of your first project that seemed invaluable to you for future recordings?
Judy Wexler: Wow, there are a million things that I've learned, and I'm so grateful that I have so many friends who have been down this road who could advise me. My buddy,the wonderful songwriter, Mark Winkler, helped me enormously with business advice, and I think I'll take everything I learned from Mark and add to that what I learned from the business mistakes I made in this project.
Also, I think having the right team is essential. I was so fortunate to have that on this project, and I hope that that will prove to be a constant for all future recordings! I think, too, that in choosing material, I have to go with my instincts and taste, and just trust that the end result will find its audience. Speaking of trust, I have to say that one gets so emotionally involved in the whole process. I hope to learn for the next time the great value of perspective (but I probably won't). In other words, not to get so stressed out and to "trust the process" - that was the mantra when I was in the theater world. Yesterday, I toured the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and there's an exhibit on film music that displays a letter from Fred Astaire expressing to Irving Berlin his disappointment after hearing his recording of Puttin' on the Ritz. He complained about not having enough time to get it right, not being happy with the arrangement... I thought, wow, there's always something - no matter who you are or what it is.
JazzReview: Some have said, "You have the voice for jazz," a strong compliment coming out of the gate. The accolades are many, so how do you react to such praise? How does it affect your drive and thirst for further endeavors?
Judy Wexler: Getting good reviews is great for your ego and for helping to promote yourself. But as Martha Graham said, no artist is ever content. You always want to keep growing and deepening, and no matter what the critical reaction is, the truth is, we mostly need to please ourselves. That being said, however, I'm really happy with the response and yes, it makes me eager to work on something a little different and see how that flies.
JazzReview: Live performance or studio recording, pros and cons to each as a pianist/vocalist.
Judy Wexler: I can only relate to my experience as a vocalist, since I don't play in public... Live performance is wonderful because you can connect with the audience, which really is the whole raison d'etre! Of course, anything can happen in live performance - so you take it all in. With studio recording, you can ensure that the subtleties and nuance of your performance are heard - something that you can't always achieve in live performance because of the invariable sound difficulties in clubs. I really love recording and can't wait to do another project. I found that having a really wonderful team is essential, and I was lucky to work with Geoff Gillette and Carlos del Rosario -- master engineers.
JazzReview: When do you go behind closed studios next and what concepts have you toyed with for disc number two?
Judy Wexler: Well, I financed this project completely by myself. I want to find a backer for my next project. I'm anxious to start working on a concept I think would be unbelievably cool, and all I'm going to give away is that jazz musicians composed all the tunes.
JazzReview: Now for something completely different! Taking your past in mind, what TV show/movie would you have liked to written/vocalized a theme song to? Who would you like to join you in studio to perform it?
Judy Wexler: Hmmm.... good question. Well, if you put my favorite singer and film together, it would be a duet with Abbey Lincoln for the new theme song to the great DeNiro-Grodin buddy-road comedy, "Midnight Run!
With her initial presence made in the jazz world this spirited and well-versed performer is seeking out new roads in this world she has adopted. Ms. Wexler's passion for jazz and its offerings will assist her well on her travels, seeking out the knowledge and insight from those who have been there. This will be the key to her success, such as producer Barbara Brighton and arranger/pianist Alan Pasqua.
Judy Wexler has so much more to say and share with the jazz populous, but hopefully, that will be through her vocal expression and style. Fans will definitely be hearing more from Judy Wexler, and that I believe our jazz collections and community will welcome her with each melody unleashed.