INTERVIEW: Sandy Cressman (606 Club, Sunday 19th July 2015)

Sandy Cressman

San Francisco-based vocalist Sandy Cressman performs at the 606 Club in Chelsea for this first time on Sunday 19 July. Born in New York City, she worked with the award-winning vocal trio, “Pastiche.”. For the last twenty years Sandy is best known as leader of the band “Homenagem Brasileira” (Homage to Brazil) as well as for her collaborations with contemporary Brazilian musicians Jovino Santos Neto, Weber Iago, Marcos Silva. Sandy has also been associated with acclaimed British jazz vocalist Anita Wardell. Anita says, “Sandy Cressman is a total musician.  She cleverly enhances each song rhythmically and melodically in conversation with the band who dance along with her…skillful and deeply moving." Interview by Laura Thorne:

LondonJazz News: This is your first time performing at the 606 Club, but you have played with several UK-based musicians before, including Anita Wardell. How did you and Anita meet?

Sandy Cressman:  I met Anita Wardell at a wonderful music camp in California called JazzCampWest.  It's a music and dance intensive (primarily for adults) in the woods outside of San Francisco, and we were both teaching there.  We really hit it off--she is interested in my work in Brazilian music and I am a great admirer of her work in jazz and especially her bebop improvisation skills.  I then recommended her for an intensive where I teach annually in Munich; now she is a regular there too!

LJN:  We know that in addition to performance work you are also a voice teacher, and were in London last year giving lessons. Was this your first visit to London in that capacity, and how did that come about? 

SC: Last summer, Anita Wardell invited me to perform as part of her "Songsuite" festival, so I came to the UK to perform at the Pizza Express Pheasantry and also to do a Brazilian singing workshop.  I also taught some private lessons at 606, and it was great to meet the staff and managers there.  I discovered that Steve is a flautist and Brazilian music enthusiast, and I discovered that the PR person there was someone I had worked with previously in the US at Stanford Jazz Festival!

LJN:  Can you tell us a bit more about "Homenegem Brasileira" ("Homage to Brasil") which is the show that you will be performing at the 606 on 19 July? Who are the musicians that will playing on the date with you?

SC: About 20 years ago when I really found my artistic voice through Brazilian music, I felt a lot of gratitude to the composers of this beautiful music, and I decided to do a tribute concert, which eventually led to my first solo CD, called "Homenagem Brasileira" (released on A Records of Holland in 1998).  My goal was to introduce listeners to composers and to repertoire beyond the few Jobim songs that are well known to jazz listeners.  I ended up using the name "Homenagem Brasileira" as my band name.  My current concerts still highlight the music of the great Brazilian composers in fresh arrangements as well as some original music I have composed inspired by these composers and styles.

For my show at 606 on 19 July, I will be joined by a great group of musicians who played my repertoire last summer at the Songsuite festival: pianist John Crawford, UK-based Brazilian bassist Matheus Nova, drummer Tristan Maillot and woodwind/keyboard phenomenon Gareth Lockrane, as well as some special guests sitting in:)

LJN:  You were introduced to Brazilian music as a music student at university, which clearly seems to have been a significant influence on your direction as a singer and songwriter. What was it that captured your attention and made such an impact?

SC: Actually when I think back, one of my earliest musical memories is when, at a Middle School talent show, I heard a girl sing Jorge Ben's "Mas Que Nada".  The groove and the passion of her performance knocked me out.  So when I took a Latin Styles class at University and heard Airto, Flora Purim, Elis Regina and Ivan Lins, it reawakened the excitement I felt back in Middle School.  I think that besides the groove(s), the passion in the chord progressions and melodies speaks to me on a very deep level. 

LJN:   "Brazilian music" is actually a generic term that refers to many different styles, from choro to samba, forró, bossa nova and many more, all of which have their own distinctive rhythmic patterns. From a technical standpoint, that sounds difficult to learn?

SC: When I was recently in São Paolo, my colleagues there referred to the style of music that we do as "Samba Jazz"--which includes songs that have samba/partido alto, bossa nova, baião (related to forró), calango and other rhythmic grooves.  Initially, the rhythmic phrasing and grooves were challenging to learn, and I still consider myself a humble student of this music.  But I have been really interested in rhythm since University, and I have learned to play a number of percussion instruments.  For many years, I also sang and played in a salsa band, which is a completely different rhythmic (and verbal) language-- with the common aspect being how my vocal phrasing needs to relate to the subdivisions of the beat and to the way music is phrased in each of the styles.  I love singing "with groove", and even on the rare occasions when I sing American jazz and pop music, people remark on the groove in my singing.  I continue to study many Brazilian styles, both when I go to Brazil, and at a wonderful camp where I work as a translator for a Brazilian teacher--California Brazil Camp.

LJN:   We hear that you recently performed on the Main Stage of Carnaval in Recife, Brazil. Can you describe that experience, the atmosphere, what it was like to play in front of a Brazilian audience?

SC: My previous trips to Brazil had never fallen during Carnaval, but this year, the amazing bandleader Spok (for whom I translate at California Brazil Camp) invited me along with my husband Jeff (who is a trombonist) to participate in the Opening and Closing Shows at Carnaval in Recife.  Recife is in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, and its unique carnaval music is called "frevo".  It was originally a street music played primarily by brass bands, with subgenres like "frevo canção" and "frevo de bloco" that include vocals.  Spok is a saxophonist who brought frevo to the concert stage with his group "SpokFrevo Orquestra" (currently heading to NorthSea Jazz festival and other venures in Europe).  This year, Spok was the honoree of the whole Carnaval.  Having translated and sung with Spok's band classes in California, I had some knowledge of frevo and its sub genres...but I had no idea what to expect in Recife.

Spok had assigned me a song to prepare to sing with his band, and had assigned a different piece to Jeff.  We had no rehearsal or soundcheck, and arrived at the venue to find a huge stage and an amazing crowd of approximately 50,000 revelers.  Carnaval in Recife is really a celebration of the people--everyone is dancing and celebrating.  When Spok introduced me onstage as an American he had invited to sing with his group, there was an interesting moment of anticipation-- it turns out that the frevo I was about to sing was one of the most famous, almost a Carnaval anthem.  There was a group of costumed dancers (Bloco das Flores) dancing below the stage, and after I sang the first chorus of the song, a female vocal group joined me for the second chorus.  It was a joyful moment and the musicians and crowd seemed genuinely touched that I had learned their music and presented it authentically.  My husband's performance was similarly received.

We were greeted by the US Cultural Attaché and several reporters were waiting to speak with us backstage.  The show was televised and as the week went by, I kept running into people that had seen the show either live or on TV, and always they wanted to give me a hug and congratulate me.  I had the opportunity to sing again and parade in smaller manifestations of the Carnaval, and it was a really touching experience.

LJN:  We understand that your husband Jeff is a professional musician himself, and that your daughter Natalie has now gone into the "family business" as a trombonist and singer.  The music profession can be insecure and unpredictable, yet you and your family have developed sustainable careers. In retrospect, can you look back and identify key factors that made that possible?

SC: I think the main this is that Jeff and I early on remained open to doing all kinds of gigs, which was always a learning experience and ultimately added to our musicianship as well as teaching us what kind of gigs we didn't want to do any more; Jeff also loves helping musicians with sound -- both live sound and recorded, so he developed a side business doing live and studio mixing.  I sometimes took over a sound gig for him if he had a request to play on the same day...and often Natalie and her younger sister Julianna (a dancer) accompanied us to our shows and sound gigs.  I got involved with teaching voice as I continued to work on my own technique and style.  So in between our own shows, we are involved with helping other musicians with their shows and recordings.  It has allowed us to raise children and do what we love at the same time.  About 15 years ago, Jeff was hired to play with guitarist Carlos Santana (coming to London's O2 Arena 25 July), so he travels on and off all year.

When the girls were still at home, we went to join him on the road whenever we could, and I continue to do so.  Our children grew up seeing us work hard to do what we love, and I think that goes a long way to form their character and keep things together.

Laura Thorne runs marketing for the 606 Club.


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