When you think of a jazz singer, you probably think of people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan or Mel Torme and how they could bring the lyric of a song to life. Julia Dollison does that too, as you can hear in her solo recording of the standard Autumn in New York…
But on her latest recording with husband Kerry Marsh, Julia Dollison doesn’t sing ANY words. As Marsh explains, they’re building on a tradition that’s been around since the 1950’s.
KERRY MARSH: “Well the history of wordless vocal I think goes back all the way to the Hi Lo’s. I think most vocal jazz groups over the years since – Manhattan Transfer, Take 6 and New York Voices – they’ve all taken a stab at that."
Marsh and Dollison have been teaching and performing wordless vocals for years. But nothing they’ve done in the past compares with the ambitious project they just completed for a new CD. They’ve taken the orchestral jazz music of Grammy award-winning composer Maria Schneider and replaced her band’s 15 horn parts with their own overdubbed voices singing without words. Here’s a section from the compostion “Hangliding” first by the Maria Schneider orchestra.
Now the same composition sung by Dollison and Marsh with just piano, guitar, bass and drums…but no horns.
KERRY MARSH: “There are about seven of me and eight of Julia on every track. Julia would sing the flugelhorn and trumpet and high woodwind parts and I would sing the trombone and low woodwind parts and so the idea was essentially to wordlessly interpret this music using multi-tracking in the studio. So we’re creating essentially a new vocal texture over this music that’s been entirely instrumental up until this point.”
With just two voices covering fifteen parts, Dollison and Marsh ran the risk of creating a sound that was too homogenous. So they altered their approach based on the instrumental part they were singing.
JULIA DOLLISON: “We kind of decided on specific sonorities and shapes of vowels. When I do a flugelhorn or a muted trumpet for example it’s a lot breathier and you know a different vowel ‘ooh and ahh’ and more nasally for a real trumpet.”
KERRY MARSH: “And I kind of used a sort of a dark ‘oh’ and ‘low’ and ‘doh’ for most of the trombone stuff. And it’s only in moments like the biggest what we call shout section moments of some of the tunes where we decide to go ahead and everybody’s on an ‘ah’.”
If you’re wondering what composer Maria Schneider thinks about this vocal transformation of her instrumental pieces, she’s fully behind the project. In fact, Julia Dollison got her first big break thanks to Schneider.
JULIA DOLLISON: “She first came to me when I was in grad school at University of Miami and had me try out some vocal things and that was incredible. And then I moved to New York and she invited me a few times to sing at the Jazz Standard with her band and it’s been a great relationship since then.”
Dollison and Marsh could have composed lyrics for Maria Schneider’s music as other singers have done with instrumental pieces. But they say these compositions have an added appeal without words.
JULIA DOLLISON: “There’s just something that transcends the lyric in the case of her writing."
KERRY MARSH: "If we were to add an overt lyric to these pieces it maybe takes away the opportunity to tell an abstract story, which I think her music does really well."
JULIA DOLLISON: "To let the listener decide their own interpretation."
KERRY MARSH: "And it makes it more universal too.”
Kerry Marsh and Julia Dollison’s new CD is being released today. It’s called “Vertical Voices” on the ArtistShare label. The couple will perform tonight at 8 p.m. at Sacramento State in a faculty recital which will also feature the Sac State Vocal Jazz Ensembles.