JAZZIZ interview: Sylvia Brooks
Vocalist Sylvia Brooks took some time to chat with JAZZIZ about her new album, The Arrangement, her love of jazz, the influence of her theatrical background on her work, and more.
Brooks recently released her third album, The Arrangement, which features a mix of standards, jazzy readings of tunes from outside the world of jazz, and original tracks arranged by four skilled writers: Otmaro Ruiz, Jeff Colella, Christian Jacob and Quinn Johnson.
Congratulations, The Arrangement sounds excellent!
Thanks. Yes, people really seem to like it. It means a lot, we really worked hard. And, you know, I only started singing jazz about nine, ten years ago. My father was a well-known jazz pianist in the Miami Beach area and first call player for many of the greats, like Buddy Rich. But I decided to study classical theatre because Shakespeare, Chekov, Shaw, and all those great writers really spoke to me.
I moved to New York and started getting cast in musical theater because I guess I had a natural voice – my mother was an opera singer, so I kind of come from it. But while I was there, I had a major accident. I took a spill during a dance class and completely destroyed my knee. The doctor who operated on me said I’d never dance again. So, I came back to Miami, started doing some episodic television…which I hated! And when my dad passed away, I was looking through some of his music to have played at his funeral. While I did that, I re-awoke this thing I had in me to start singing jazz.
Is that when you started recording?
Yes. I made my first album [Dangerous Liaisons, 2009]. It was picked up by Dick LaPalm, this legendary American music promoter who has sadly passed away since, and I started charting. So, I realized that something was happening. I made my second CD [Restless, 2012]. Kim Richmond did all the arrangements on it. After that, he and I had a series of meetings and he asked me what I wanted to make next. I said I didn’t know. What I did realize is that I didn’t want to put it all in a box. I wanted to reach out to various arrangers and let them do what they do. Otmaro Ruiz, Kim Richmond, Jeff Colella, and Quinn Johnson, all arrange very differently and all bring something different. So, it was really this collaborative – and that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to do Latin, ballads…I wanted to do all these things and, on The Arrangement, I was able to do that.
Do you think your background in theater is what brings all these different styles together on the album?
I believe that, as a performer and an artist, you have to move people. I remember Kevin Spacey once said, “you’ve got to bring the message across the border.” So, I do think that when I approach a song I look at it as its own little vignette in time. I ask myself, “what is its story? What are these lyrics and this melody about in the human condition?” I knew it was going to be a challenge for me. I knew that I’d have to be able to vocally pile this stuff together so that it would sound really cohesive.
When you’re acting a song, you also have the melody that gives you queues. It’s kind of like doing Shakespeare, the iambic pentameter. If you really break down the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, there are rhythms in the writing that tell you what’s going on emotionally. It’s the same with music.
I think a song like “Body and Soul” is just as good as anything Shakespeare has ever written.
All art is connected. It’s all about the human experience.
Does that mean that when you pick a song, it has to move you?
Yes. For example, I always wanted to sing “Eleanor Rigby.” There’s just something about the power of that story that really reaches deep into me. Because it’s about this woman and her life, and nobody knows who she really was. I don’t know why but sometimes, in art, you don’t really understand why something reaches you at such a deep level. And there hadn’t been many vocal renditions of “Eleanor Rigby.” people hadn’t recorded it for many years. I was quite surprised. But it is a hard song to do. George Martin’s strings on the original version were so ground-breaking!
The final version on The Arrangement is quite different from the original.
That was thanks to Christian Jacob, who did the arranging on that one. He’s great. And he’s really honest in what he does. He’s not afraid to tell you when he doesn’t like something; when he thinks something doesn’t sound right. I like that.
Your version of “Midnight Sun” is also quite different from the way it’s usually recorded.
“Midnight Sun” is an interesting one because everybody sings it very depressed or very dark. But when I looked at the lyrics, I thought that it was really about a magical meeting between a woman and a man that didn’t last. But it happens, and when that happens, there’s a sadness to it, but there’s also a real joy that someone came into your life and made the heavens sing. So, I really wanted to bring that out in that piece.
You also have three original tracks on the album. Were you worried about putting them in the album alongside all these classics?
I’m a new writer. I’ve been writing for a couple of years, and I have a long way to go. I have a lot more stories to tell and I want to write deeper – more poignant stories and lyrics. For The Arrangement, I had about ten or eleven songs I had written. I didn’t write the melody, I wrote the lyrics. I ended up working with Patrick Williams, who is an amazing talent and loves original music – he loves to compose and write. I brought him a song called “Maybe I’m a Fool” and he wrote the music to it. He couldn’t do the arranging on the album because he had a big job in Italy. So, I had Quinn Johnson do them on the album. So, as a new writer, you do worry about putting your songs there with others like “Body and Soul,” and “Eleanor Rigby,” and all these brilliant pieces of music. You just hope they’re good enough and that they won’t stick out like a sore thumb. But the response to my original songs has been really good. People love “What Was I Thinking” and “Sweet Surrender.”
Do you hope to include more originals on your next album?
That’s the plan! Whatever happens now, my next plan is that I’m gonna start really delving down into writing again. I have ideas for the next album… I’m not sure if I’m going to stick to it. But, whatever happens, my goal is to have six or eight originals along with some more versions of well-known pieces.