On the Record
Lee had the chance to record a compilation disc, Quint-Essential, with four other Bay Area female vocalists, which generated some concert opportunities, including work at area wineries. In 2003, she followed with her first full-length, Jaywalkin’, in 2003.
By now, Lee was playing plenty of piano along with her singing, and she was allied with some of the better musicians in her area, including Peter Sprague on guitar and Bob Magnusson on bass. Jaywalkin’ mixes standards (a confidently slow “Baltimore Oriole”, a pocket-rich “Blue Skies”, a lightly Latin-ized “Night and Day”), bossas sung in easy Portuguese (“Chega de Saudade” by Jobim), and some originals (“Note to My Niece” with some lovely accordion, and a solo piano “Cathy’s Song”). Her version of “I’m Old Fashioned” is taken at a delicious crawl, with a clever arrangement that makes clear that Lee the Musician and Lee the Singer are certainly one and the same.
“It’s great to have instrumental skill as a singer. There are so many singers who don’t speak the language and therefore can’t communicate with their accompanist. I can write my own charts—so I encourage every singer to learn something about piano so you don’t have to be dependent on other people. I just feel so blessed that I can play. The language of music is just a part of me.”
Her 2009 release, Quiet Joy, features mostly the same musicians and similar approach but boasts even more confidence, musicianship, and flair. The opener, “I Hear Music”, is a bravado performance that comes off light and easy as Lee zips through a complex arrangement with natural grace. Smooth but not treacly, Lee’s singing moves with the precision of an alto sax. Her tone, however, is a sunny day, making her about as perfect a bossa nova singer as you will find. Her medley of “Amor Certinho / S’wonderful” is totally convincing—relaxed, hip, and knowing.
Lee transforms the classics, but she unearths songs you haven’t heard before, too. “‘I Don’t Want to Fall’ is wonderfully unique—with unusual chord changes. I found this song on a CD by Jeannie Bryson, and I’d never heard it before. Her mother is one of the composers. I’d not heard it before or after, and I wanted to do it on the new record.”
With Jaywalkin’ and Quiet Joy to her credit, what more should Jennifer Lee have to do to “make it” as a significant jazz talent? Alas, as ever, the music is not enough.
Marketing “Jennifer Lee”
It’s a heck of a great mousetrap. Now: who’s going to buy it? Or even find out about it?
When it comes to selling herself, Lee admits, “I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I am working with radio marketing people and a publicist, but I don’t have a distributor. It’s a big challenge being an independent musician. I have to wear so many hats, and there’s so much I don’t know about how to proceed. I’m doing my best to put it out there.”
First things first. We all know that “jazz” mostly doesn’t sell. “When people ask me what kind of music I sing, I say ‘jazz and Brazilian music,’ but it’s not that simple. I can’t tell you how many times people have said, ‘I don’t like jazz.’ People think of crazy horn solos, loud and fast. But it is such a huge spectrum. It is a truly rare individual who would not like any of the music that falls under the jazz category.”
Lee, however, fits neatly into a portion of the jazz market that does sell: she is a lovely female vocalist. And though she is a player too, she is conscious of “putting myself out there as the ‘chick singer’. If I couldn’t sing, I know that marketing my music would be more challenging than it already is.”
Image, Lee knows, is part of what sells. “For Jaywalkin’ I initially used a cover that was consciously not sexy at all. It got some attention and some good reviews, but it didn’t really take me anywhere. I came to believe that the first cover was a mistake. The truth of this world is that more people would have had a chance to hear the music if I had been willing to use a more dressed up cover. I repackaged it with a cover that made it clearer than I am a girl and I can look good when I’m dressed up. Why not use everything you’ve got to put your music out there as long as you do it in a self-respecting way?”
When it comes to the music, however, Jennifer Lee goes strictly with her gut. For example, she’s less likely to record love songs today than she used to be. “I love them, and there are so many out there. But these days I’m less interested in singing about romantic love than about other things I feel are more real—like love at a greater depth or the joy and beauty of this life, or even making music. Those are truer expressions of me and my consciousness.”
And so her latest, Quiet Joy, contains expressions of joy and hope that are maybe more abstract or, well, musical: “I Hear Music”, “Music of Your Soul” or “Never Never Land”. On the cover, Lee sits in her backyard garden, attractive but contemplative. From looking at this photo, you would certainly believe, as is true, that Lee teaches piano to kids and families when she’s not swinging at Yoshi’s or beyond. She’s not exactly The Next Hot Young Thing. She’s not even some seductive jazz singer in a little black dress, holding a martini and giving you a late night wink. But she is a heck of a singer and musician, and she’s ready to be heard.
Soaring Beyond Expectations
“Whatever I do in life, I want to people to have a joyful experience—me, my band, my audience, my students.”
Talking to Jennifer Lee, it is hard not to be struck by how carefully she has compartmentalized the part of her that is striving to be a great—a greatly appreciated—jazz singer. On the one hand, there is her astonishing new disc, a recording that simply could not exist if she had not honed her talent for decades in preparation. On the other hand, Lee seems comfortable if things do not take off. You listen to the record and feel that her success should be inevitable. But you also know—like her—that these things are quirky.
“When you play or listen to music, you can have a transcendent experience, a joyful, blissful, emotionally evocative experience. That’s my goal: to make as much of my music like that as possible.”
Quiet Joy is out on the record label SBE, set up and run by the guitarist Peter Sprague. “SBE”, Sprague told Lee, laughingly stands for “Striving to Break Even”.
“I told Peter, ‘Striving to Break Even’ is really funny, but I’m going to pretend that SBE stands for something else. You know what my mother thinks it should stand for? ‘Soaring Beyond Expectations’.”
Which is a neat summary of Jennifer Lee’s view of her jazz career and an accurate assessment of the brilliance of her singing. Here’s hoping that the rest of the jazz world catches up quickly with what she’s done.