Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ellen Robinson @ The Chapel of the Chimes


One of the Bay Areas busiest music directors, jazz singer Ellen Robinson has helped take many a vocalist from the level of simply wanting to sing to the stage. Currently directing two performing groups, the longstanding The Anything Goes Chorus as well as several other recreational choral groups, she's notable for arranging and guiding vocalists toward mastery of nearly any genre of song. Nonetheless, Robinson is most at home as a performer herself. With a bevy of sold out shows at Anna's Jazz Island in her wake, Robinson is putting the finishing touches on the set she'll perform at The Chapel of Chimes Sunday, January 18, at 2pm.

Q This is a new venue for you, correct?

ER Yes. One of my goals is to find new venues [to play]. The Chapel is a unique setting. I'm excited about this particular setting, it's a landmark in Oakland and the acoustics are different than a regular kind of club. I have to gear my performance to the acoustics of the room because it's so echoey. I like to sing whole lines which works well in settings like this, so I'm going to pick that material based on that

Q What are you going to sing?

ER I'm not going to do highly rhythmic pieces. Like I have sambas, but I won't do as many as those. I've written a lot of songs that are rhythmic, that go from 5 to 6 meters and stuff. I have a drummer [for this gig] but he probably won't use sticks. He'll probably only use brushes and "hot rods" for this gig.

So I'll do "Maiden Voyage" by Herbie Hancock; "Dimming of the Day," as well as "It Goes as It Goes." And I'll do "Calling You" from Bagdad Café, which has long lines.

This show is Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, two days before inauguration. The first set is geared toward the dream and hope.

Q Tell me about the band. It's a fairly new line-up yes?

ER I love this band. It's my dream band. Ben Flint was my piano player for 8-9 years and he moved out of town so I had to get new players. I've started working with Murray Low who is such a team player. Not all piano players know how to work with a singer and Murray totally knows how to do that. He's been nominated for Latin Jazz Pianist of 2008 so he brings a lot of great ideas to the music. Bud Spangler, who has been with me since I started this jazz journey. He's become a good friend. Sam Bevin is exactly what you want a bass player to be: rock solid, he's got the biggest heart and he's just fun. He's very animated. He's a performer, he sings when he plays, he moves his face and he can play every style. The newest member is Kristin Strom who plays sax. It's so great to have a woman in the show. She can blow that sax and she can sing with me, which is great fun. She's really good.

Q You welcome input on arrangements?

ER Yes. I always collaborate [on arrangements] with my players. I like to be surprised-not in a bad way-but when someone says something I haven't heard. I like that

Q You're a true jazz singer?

ER I think I am. What I do to prepare is to do everything I can that I can possibly control. Then I step on stage and let go, and whatever happens, happens. I wrote a song about that. It's called "Tic Toc" from a book I read called "Deep Play" by Dianne Ackerman. She talks about being in the zone. And one of the sentences is that when you're in a zone you're between the tick and the tock, and when I'm having a good show that's where I am. You are there. And this band is like that. We're all having a group conversation on stage.

Q You do a mix of originals and covers: Would you classify your writing as jazz given your wide range?

ER Yeah. I used to sing folks songs when I was a folk singer. I've discovered when I sit down to write that the last 4-5 songs I've written have started with a bass line. I kind of hear this bass set up, then I write a melody over it. One song I wrote, the bass and I double. The absolute best thing for my writing is getting Sibelius software, which has transformed my writing. It could be any software. I used to scribble a song down and then come back and I would say 'what the hell is this?' Now I can come back 3 months later and play what I saved with the software and go 'yeah.' And I can write it, then play it back and sing over it. I can play the whole piano part I hear, and figure out the chords later.

Q Do have a regular writing schedule?

ER I teach so much that I really have to carve out time for myself because I'm spending so much time arranging and promoting and communicating with people. If I give myself open-ended time and I sit down, something will come out. I've learned how to take care of myself physically and emotionally, but this I struggle with, saying 'everyone go away and I'll do my music.'

Q How much does your teaching inspire your music? Does it feed your music, performing and creating? In addition to the chorus, you direct a women's quartet called Treble Makers and a women's nonet called Girlfriendz...

ER [Teaching] keeps me in music. Sometimes, when I'm working on a song, I'll teach it to one of my groups. So I'm working on it with them and for myself. It keeps my chops up, keeps me in music, and I love teaching. I feel like I'm the quarterback. My students have no idea how much they give me. I feel masterful when I'm teaching, excited. I'm having fun turning people on to music. To this day, it's still magical that I can tell people to sing notes and it makes a chord. It's still exciting to hear harmony.

Q What's on the horizon for '09?

ER I'm working on booking different gigs in new venues. I love being in the Bay Area. I would love to live in the Bay Area and travel for short tours or long weekends.

Q What keeps you singing despite the challenges?

ER It's what turns me on. I've played other instruments, but because I am the instrument and there's nothing between the audience and me, singing is the most exhilarating instrument to play. When the band comes out and plays their opening number, I feel like my heart is going to burst out. As soon as I join them, I feel home. There's nothing else like that except standing on top of a mountain the Sierra. It's what I was put here to do. To do that and to help people find their voice. I used to think teaching and singing were frivolous, but I've discovered doing music is probably one of the most important things to do. Being a performer is powerful, it can destroy you or you can use it to do something good for the world. Why not say something good that lifts people up?