It is a shame that Vancouver, BC singer Kate Hammett-Vaughan has been performing for 30 years, starting as a child in church choirs in her native Nova Scotia, and this is her first CD as leader of her own group. But the deprivation will be more easily borne now that she has released "How My Heart Sings", a collection of standards on the Canadian label Maximum Jazz which includes slightly lesser-known, and certainly not over-recorded, tunes by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Thelonious Monk.
Hammett-Vaughan has long been lauded for her moving combination of airy, sultry vocals and deep intensity of emotion she always brings to her performances, whether they be standards in a supper club with her regular quartet or trio, or the edgy improv musings she fearlessly imparts within the free jazz/new music performances of the NOW Orchestra. In a Spring 1999 interview - as she was about to go into the studio with pianist Chris Gestrin, saxophonist Jim Pinchin, drummer Tom Foster and bassist André Lachance, Hammett-Vaughan talked about how a previous ill-fated recording session helped shape her first solo disc, coming to terms with her idols and her own life in music, and this business of being dubbed a diva.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: WHERE WERE YOU AT - IN LIFE AND MUSICALLY - WHEN YOU DECIDED, 'HEY, WHAT AM I DOING? I'VE GOT TO PUT A CD OUT'?
Kate: I've actually had it in my brain for a few years that I wanted to do a standards recording and I had an ill-fated experience in 1993. I hired musicians that I'd been doing some playing with and felt good about the music we were making, but my musical life at that point was really expanding and my concept was changing a lot. I went into the studio and felt good about everything, and I made a recording that I was just so desperately unhappy with. I've played it for myself twice since. I was so stressed about it that I made myself sick, and I ended up spending more money having to go in and do overdubs, which was not my idea, not my plan about making a jazz record - it was [meant to be] live off the floor.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: WHAT DIDN'T YOU LIKE ABOUT IT?
Kate: I had thought for so many years that I needed to make a straight-ahead jazz standards record that when I went into the studio and did that without even considering where I was musically, or whether that was really what I wanted anymore. And I was finding it impossible at that point to banish the sound of my icons from my head. I mean, it's impossible to ever get away from it completely, but I really was having trouble with... getting Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Sheila Jordan and all of those people out of my head. I'm a little more successful at it now, I'm feeling more at home with what I do and a little more grounded in my concept.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: BUT YOU NEVER GET AWAY FROM YOUR INFLUENCES.
Kate: You don't get away from it. That's the stuff that forms you. I mean, if anybody thinks that an artist comes out of the womb formed already, think again. It's all about your life experience and all the stuff that informs it as you go along, and how you amalgamate and integrate and all of those things. So, at that point I just was not ready and I made a record that I was really unhappy with. I never did anything with it.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: TELL ME ABOUT THE MATERIAL FOR THE NEW DISC.
Kate: Standards are the thing that inspired me in the first place, and I will always sing [them], and, in fact they remain standards for me to aspire to, in that way. They're yardsticks that I measure my progress by, as well. And the interesting thing for me with this project is when I look at the book of tunes I've picked, the composers and the songs themselves, there's a whole lot of roots activity going on for me, coming back to 25 years ago, when I first started listening to this music... tunes that I learned from my favorite Ella Fitzgerald record when I was 19, and my first Carmen McRae record, there's a tune by Thelonious Monk, one of my two favorite piano players in the world, still, 25 years later... I feel like I'm completing some sort of a cycle, not that I'm finished with standards or finished growing, at all... Part of this is tied into the fact that I had this epiphany about standards' singers a couple of years ago, because I had been spending a lot of time playing improvised music and really focusing on that, and much to my shame and horror I found that I had started to almost disregard the talent of people like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Carmen McRae. You just think they're there, you've listened to a million of their records, a million times. I don't like to feel like I actually became jaded about their music, but I had a lot of other stuff going on in my life, and I had just stopped revering them at the level that I previously had... I was making tapes of 1949 music for a New Year's Eve party in 1998. I was digging up music [like] classic Billie Holiday, classic Ella Fitzgerald... So I came back to these singers through this, and also that holiday season on [Canadian TV channel] Bravo they were showing a lot of old Nat Cole shows, Frank Sinatra specials with Ella singing on them, and I just fell in love with her all over again. I was listening to her and watching her and going 'Ahhh!'. It was heart-stopping, how deep her swing feel is, and how gorgeous her sound is and how wonderful the gift is that she had and gave to the world of music, and I was just going, 'Oh my god! I feel so guilty, I have to go lie down on the road and wait for a truck to run me over.' Through that experience I came back to a lot of these singers that I hadn't spent any time listening to for a long time, and that, for me, was a real epiphany.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: DO YOU SET OUT TO MAKE THE TUNES YOUR OWN? I ONCE REQUESTED 'AUTUMN LEAVES' FROM YOU AND IT WAS NOT AT ALL THE SAME TUNE AS THE ONE I KNEW [RITA REYES], IT WAS DONE IN THE WAY THAT I HAVE COME TO EXPECT FROM YOU, HOW A KATE HAMMETT-VAUGHAN VERSION SOUNDS...
Kate: Hmmm. I think it's definitely on purpose that I'm trying to be conscious, yet unconscious. That's a funny line that you sort of have to tread; is that being conscious of the musical form that you're in and the tradition - especially in something that's rooted in tradition as this is - to remain conscious of what's gone before and what you're trying to express in your moment, but also being sort of unconscious enough to be creative and loose with it so that you don't have those ghosts haunting you. But I think what you hear as being unique, is actually an amalgam of every version of that tune I've ever heard, plus my own take on it, so I'm afraid it's not really as unique as you perceive it to be.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: I'VE JOKINGLY CALLED YOU THE 'DIVA'. DOES THAT SORT OF LABELING BOTHER YOU? THERE IS THE SIDE OF YOU THAT IS THIS BEAUTIFUL WOMAN, HAVING THE ELEMENT OF BEING THE CHANTEUSE AND THE DIVA - YOU'RE NOT DRESSED IN A POTATO SACK SAYING, 'DON'T LOOK AT ME'. I MEAN, WHEN YOU'RE PERFORMING, ONE CAN SEE IT'S NOT ABOUT JUST YOU, BUT THE INTERACTION WITH THE BAND AND AUDIENCE.
Kate: It's about audience... I think I recognized a long time ago that image has a great deal to do with how the people perceive the music, how Joe Public perceives the music. People like you and me can go out and we can see somebody perform in a potato sack, and if it speaks from the heart it doesn't matter, but image is very important these days, and I think I recognize that and consciously built myself an image as the redheaded singer in the black dress. To this day, I run into people on the street or in the grocery store that I've known forever, and say, 'Hey!' and they'll go, 'Kate?' And they'll say, 'God, you don't look like you at all' and I'll be in my sweats. And I'll go, 'Well, actually, this looks more like me, more often than the other one.' Sometimes I'll do gigs where I really tone that thing down because I don't want to present myself in that way, I'm more interested in fading into the line-up. I think that the word diva has become bandied about a great deal in the last few years and has actually kind of lost its power. When I think of divas - and I don't include myself in this - I think of people like Maria Callas, Jessie Norman, even Joni Mitchell. It's a measure of power, and the power to inspire awe, and that kind of brilliance of talent that shines so brightly that other things pale in comparison. That's a diva, to me.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: WHEN DID YOU KNOW THIS WAS WHAT YOU HAD TO DO?
Kate: There's never been a defining moment for me. I've continued to do it because I seem to not have a choice. It's my preferred mode of expression. It's the thing that brings me the most joy, the thing that brings me the most frustration and angst. It's the thing that challenges me more than anything else I've ever engaged this fully with, apart from love relationships. And it's sort of the same thing, it's like having a relationship. It's a funny analogy, but it's similar in that it's something you have to surrender to; that you have to be prepared to make any number of unforeseen compromises [for] at any point in time, and [for which] you have to keep the larger intent in mind, which is, for me, to be the best artist that I can grow to be. And it's also like having a child in that, at a certain point, you have to let go and realize that it's going to be what it's going to be and that you can't really control it, no matter what dreams and hopes you have for your life as an artist or where you originally foresee yourself getting to. At a certain point, if you're really engaged with it - as with a child - you have to look at it and go, 'This is what it is. This thing has a life of its own and it's way more complex than anything I could have conceived of and it's far too complex to control and I have to surrender'.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: IT'S GOING TO TAKE YOU WHERE IT'S GOING TO TAKE YOU.
Kate: Yes, it's a journey, and I've long since given up any sense of ultimate control over it. I have control in that I can direct projects and stuff but in terms of where I'm going to end up, what my destination is, who knows? I'm just along for the ride. I'm enjoying it now. It's seriously frustrating for a lot of people, and part of that was around the 'turning 40' thing for me... I was very conscious of the different - especially in retrospect, like hindsight being 20/20 - things you go through as you're growing. In my early 20s I was on this kick, you know, I was just like, 'Sing it. Cool.'
Turning 30, I went through that inevitable thing about, Oh, my god, I'm not young and talented anymore - I may still be talented, but I'm certainly not young, and now I need to stop coasting on the fact that... people can't go, 'Oh god, she's so good and she's only 25'. Now I've got to say something, I've got to do something about it.
So then you go through that and you get into this whole middle-30s make-or-break stage where you're driving yourself crazy and killing yourself over trying to establish yourself. Then in my late-30s into 40 - as I said before, this has all been kind of organic - I can see in retrospect the certain phases very clearly. Going into my 40s, I became much less destination-oriented, and realized that it was so much about the journey and really not about, 'I'm going to get to here or here or here'. Because I realized, as in life, many of those places that have been my destination or my goal points, I had already passed and didn't even realize it when I was there. It's like, 'I guess it was OK'. But it was the kind of thing where it was like, 'Oh, I have to get to that point' and then you think, 'Oh man, been there, done that.' It happened already and it wasn't earth-shaking, and god, it really is just the journey, so I'm along for the ride.