Dubbed one of the "Diva Nouvelles" by Essence magazine, Vanessa Rubin is a jazz singer who was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where she began her music career before moving to New York (after earning a degree in journalism). Over the past two decades she has sung with such jazz legends as Barry Harris, Frank Foster, and Lionel Hampton, to name just a few. Vanessa caught JazzReview's attention with the release of her latest album "Girl Talk." Here she joins us for a woman-to-woman interview.
JazzReview: Let's start by talking about your new album. How would you say "Girl Talk" is different from your earlier recordings?
Vanessa Rubin: Well, one thing I'm different. I've grown as an artist and as a woman. The things that I choose are relevant to my life and my way of thinking. Obviously there's a theme that runs through the album, the whole idea of being in love, falling out of love, the whole issue of relationships.
JazzReview: What are some of the risks you took with "Girl Talk?"
Vanessa Rubin: I'm always trying to tell more of a story. So, the risks are me feeling comfortable, revealing more about myself to my audience, and putting things out there that I hope are also their stories.
JazzReview: What aspect of the "Girl Talk" CD makes you most proud?
Vanessa Rubin: The chemistry between the musicians and myself. I like that. We had fun doing it. I am very, very proud to have documented myself in history with the great Etta Jones. There's only one like her.
JazzReview: What was it like singing with Etta? What did you notice as you were working together?
Vanessa Rubin: Etta Jones seems to me to say so much with less. In her delivery, she has a quality where she can put a certain tonality on a note that makes it stick out. And, she has a way of bending notes that also is very noticeable, makes her reading of something much more tangible. And, she's got one of those -- at this point in her life -- it's kind of a whisky-sounding voice that makes it stand apart.
My voice has changed over the years... my voice was so much higher in my twenties, clear like a bell! It's darker now, a little huskier. I have a lot more of life to bring to songs now. And, I think that is what's so good about jazz...after you get the seasoning, after you've lived with it and you've learned what to do, as well as what not to do, we get better. There's no way to hurry that. You just can't be as great at 25 like you're going to be at 55. You're not going to tell a story the same way. You're not going to say a word the same way.
JazzReview: Given that, what advice can you give to young vocalists?
Vanessa Rubin: Follow your passion. You may find out it's not singing. If you discover that it is singing, then that's the most important thing. It's not about the fame and the fortune and the money. It's about the music. If you are meant to do this, you will do it whether you become a household word or not. It's really not in our hands. We can have publicity machines behind us, we can have all the money behind us, but the gift of song is something that the Creator gives.
JazzReview: Speaking of talent, you've worked with an incredible number of talented musicians. Is there anyone you haven't worked with yet with whom you aspire to collaborate in the future?
Vanessa Rubin: There are so many things.... There's an orchestra project I would like to do and I would love to work with someone like a Johnny Mandel or someone of that caliber. I would love to do a big band project with the writings and the under the direction of people like a Frank Foster or a Frank Wess. And, certainly there are some young players out here who are very talented as well.
I've always loved a big sound because I was raised on an organ quartet. Organ to me is so FAT and so full, I've always been drawn first to the bass. The organ had such a heavy bass -- foot pedaling, walking bass line - but, then it had all those rich, sustaining chords. So, when I first came to New York and started working with an acoustic group (bass and piano) I felt naked.
Another idea that I had because I do love tenor players...I would love to, at some point, do an album with four or five of my favorite tenor players just trios and some beautiful ballads and document myself with some of my heroes like George Coleman and John Griffin and Jimmy Yeats, people like that. Clifford Jordan kinda got out of here before I could record with him -- I wanted to record with Dexter Gordon soooo bad, but he died before I could get a chance! (wistful sigh...)
JazzReview: You've been touring a lot this year -- Germany, Egypt...
Vanessa Rubin: Going to Egypt was life changing. Let me say that because until you go to Egypt and stand at the foot of one of those pyramids and go and see the things from King Tut's tomb, you can't really imagine the magnitude of how it's going to make you feel just the history and the heritage of it all and how you're connected with it.
Second of all, that Egypt trip was a milestone for me because I got a chance every night to sing with Herbie Hancock. There was one part where just he and I and that long, fabulous Steinway were on stage doing Lush Life together. And, I just really enjoyed being able to sing with Herbie and float on top of all those wonderful changes that he made. I think I'm a better singer for it.
In the summer [European] tour I did with the Jazz Crusaders, it was wonderful, again, to have both personal and professional time with people like Wayne Henderson and Wilton Felder who created such a wealth of music and a unique sound. It was nice to actually live that music in person each night after having been a young child and growing up listening to it in the house. I was now onstage with those very same people, listening to that music, and the high point every night -- believe it or not -- was to stand between the two of them and sing a third harmony line to their two horns. Unh! Because I love soli sections and whenever I can just jump in and be a horn with them. I just love it!
JazzReview: Is there another country you'd like to visit, some particular style of music you'd like to study?
Vanessa Rubin: First of all, living in America allows me to study everybody. I've flown all over the world, but I've found that I can find a little bit of all of that right here in the United States.
JazzReview: Any particular style you'd like to explore more, though?
Vanessa Rubin: Oh, girl, I love so much music. I listen to everything. I'd like to go to Brazil because I like rhythmic stuff, but I know I would love to go to some part of Africa -- west Africa or the southern part and perform with some musicians from there. You got people like...Hugh Masakela is from South Africa and I love the rhythms and the use of the guitar in a lot of his music. But, then you have other artists like Selah and King Sunny Ade who is from more west Africa, just some great albums that are so full of high-life music, happy music [you can hear Vanessa smile], lots of drums, very infectious. I'd like to do something so infectious that people couldn't take it off...
JazzReview: What do you find most challenging about singing?
Vanessa Rubin: Trying to always tell the utmost truth.
JazzReview: When you have a bad singing day?
Vanessa Rubin: I've had 'em!
JazzReview: What's that like?
Vanessa Rubin: It feels guarded. It feels like you're not as connected to your source as you should be, because something is in the way. So, on a good singing day you feel free and that creative power comes through you and allows you to tap all that energy, all those emotions. That's the best way I can describe it.
JazzReview: I've heard that you studied classical music and then switched to jazz.
Vanessa Rubin: You know what, that's really not that correct -- I was never a classical major but I studied music in school and part of that study course involved doing arias. I didn't just study classical music. I was doing that in school and singing in glee clubs. I had a singing group with two other girls -- that's what I did for fun. And, we were doing all the hit stuff -- y'know The Supremes and Motown -- and singing in talent shows. I never planned to pursue singing as a career. Never! Because my parents encouraged us to go to school, and then graduate school...my mother wanted me to go to law school.
But in my senior year in college, I got into a beauty pageant as a joke, with a girlfriend of mine, and I won the talent portion singing "God Bless the Child." I got such a great reaction from the crowd I thought, "Man, if I'm this good and I'm not even serious, what would happen if I really decided to pursue this?"
But, I threw it out and actually started a masters program in public administration. Three months into that, though, my spirit said, "What do you want to do?" I had always wanted to please my parents, had gotten a good job, but I felt like I was doing things for other people. I wanted to find something that I liked getting up and doing every day and I just started singing again. I met a piano player and started going on his gigs and I knew maybe five songs, five standards. And after that, I learned five more, and then some more and eventually, I got too demanding for his group and went and got my own group.
I realized that when I connected with that part of me, the light came on inside of me and I said, "Mm! This is it." I just knew I had to stay with it and do that if I wanted to be whom I was. It was really the beginning of discovering who Vanessa was.
JazzReview: If you could change one thing about the world of jazz today, what would it be?
Vanessa Rubin: I don't know, girl. I wish...it was more about the art itself and not politics and hype. I just wish it could be more about the music and what people are doing with it, rather than who's got the biggest machine and the most ads. That whole phrase "starving artist," why the hell should artists have to starve? Imagine what the world would be like without music? Without painting? Without literature?
JazzReview: You have a reputation as "an appealing singer who doesn't improvise much." I'd like to give you a chance to respond to the criticism.
Vanessa Rubin: Critics! Girl, that's a whole 'nother article. The thing about music is...it's not that you want people to sit and listen to, "Well, she improvised here, she didn't there. She sung a double-diminished seventh here..." When I sit down and put on music, all I want to know is does it do something for me? Let your ears and your heart be your guide. A lot of people didn't like Monk and they talked about him like he was some kind of alien. And, that went on for years. But he didn't care, and he went on and that's one of the greatest examples for anyone.
JazzReview: Would you say that being a vocalist is your primary vehicle for expressing yourself?
Vanessa Rubin: It is my most public one. But, I'm a giver. I don't just give on stage. I come from that kind of a family, a long line of matriarchs who just took care of the community, who cooked, who looked after the sick, who would give you the shirt off their back. So, I'm not a nurse (like my mother was) or a midwife (like her older relatives were) but I like to think that the music that I do in some way is a healing force or brings some kind of joy.
JazzReview: Do you have anything you'd like to say in closing to your fans?
Vanessa Rubin: I'd just like to encourage people to go to the website (www.vanessarubin.com), to turn other people on to me that may or may not know that I'm there because I believe in the personal touch. I encourage people to write to me on my website. I do take time to sit down and write to people and I don't want my audience to ever think that I've forgotten this one important thing: without them, there is no me. And the more love and support they give me, the more love and good music I'm gonna give back to them.
JazzReview: Thanks for this wonderful opportunity to get to know you better, Vanessa. We'll keep listening.