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From Scatter to Cantor: Lisa Sokolov Defines Herself

The vocalist explains, "In the commercial world, music can be very shallow, but music as service and language gives its full due."

Lisa Sokolov

A Quiet Thing

US Release: 2009-03-04
UK Release: Import
Label: Laughing Horse

After working the New York-based club scene since the '70s, jazz vocalist and pianist Lisa Sokolov can torch like Bette Midler, funk like Madame Betty Carter, and emote like Laura Nyro. Beneath the vocal scat wrap and rubato that lounges atop altered chords, elegant ostinato, and a cappella breathiness, an alternate persona emerges, that of a healer.

As her 13-year-old son Jake studied rigorously for his bar mitzvah training, Sokolov re-evaluated her life. Though she had grown up in a culturally Jewish home, she hadn't received formal training in Judaism and rarely visited the synagogue.

There was something missing -- something out there for which she was longing. That longing soon manifested itself in the study to become a lay cantor. The process required learning not only to read, speak, and sing in Hebrew, but also to learn a comprehensive body of liturgical music that she would perform during religious services for her congregants.

But though the process was time-consuming, Sokolov enjoyed achieving her goal. "I've been a musician. I like to throw challenge into the works," she says. So after establishing a foundation in voice and classical piano, studying to be a lay cantor was a logical life-cycle step.

"Working your brains, I had all this language I had to do and it was something very compelling, learning the melodies," she says.

One rabbi who heard Sokolov's jazz singing defined Sokolov as having a "beginner's mind", meaning that she could approach the studies with a fresh perspective.

Sokolov not only completed the cantorial training, but having been spiritually inspired, infused the liturgical, sacred prayer "Kol Nidre" into her performance and on her newly released CD A Quiet Thing. Jake accompanies Sokolov on cello, achieving solemn, but hauntingly effervescent result.

The performance of "Kol Nidre" begins the sundown service for the Yom Kippur. I ask Sokolov how the congregants felt about this sacred prayer being sandwiched between Sokolov's avant garde and mainstream jazz ballads on her recent release.

"People are moved by it. Traditional "kavanah" (the Hebrew word for ‘intention) within it is very powerful – it's a generational piece," she says.

And when Sokolov performed "Kol Nidre" at a release gig, a friend who had never heard it sung before said, "I felt like there were ancestors in the room," referring to the "power" that emanated through the venue.

But, though Sokolov garners respect and admiration for her musical gifts, she remains linked to the healing profession. As the Master Teacher and Head of the Voice Faculty of the Experimental Theater Wing at NYU, Tisch School of the Arts, since 1985, she teaches "Embodied Voice Workshops" which she describes as non-verbal and incorporates "singing as language".

At the Experimental Theater at NYU she trains artists to "open their hearts and throats" and to be open about "being entirely alive". And, unlike more traditional vocal performance approaches, Sokolov doesn't allow her students to work with written material until after completing a rigorous six-month, three-day-a-week incubation period.

She also works with two institutes in Europe training physicians to incorporate this training, and in New York she works with the Big Apple Circus instructing young rabbis and cantors.

As a long-time faculty member of the graduate program for Music Therapy at NYU, Sokolov has also been trained as a music therapist. Describing music therapy as "a clear vehicle to achieve fullness" she explored this approach with patients who had experienced sexual abuse, eating disorders, pain, psychiatric illness, and typical neurosis.

"I do less of it now," she says. "[But] my role in music is very profound and very wide." That said, Sokolov's understated quest for spiritual completion becomes clearer.

"In the commercial world, music can be very shallow. But, music as service and language gives its full due," she says.

As a kid Sokolov had headaches and at the age of 15 she developed her own methodology to use breath and sound to fix it. That same intuitive "gut" which fueled her passion for jazz interpretation may have started then.

That supple thread of healing -- unlike "Vegas" it doesn't just "stay" in the synagogue or the clinic -- transcends a deep relationship with her audience. Whether performing with a jazz trio or solo, she embraces that connectedness.

Listening to Sokolov sing is like spending an entire day at the ocean. Close your eyes and at one moment her voice lulls you to blissful sleep, while the next a torrent sweeps and crashes you further along the rocky coastline.

Then she so subtly comes up for air, and so masterfully -- not just turns a phrase -- but luxuriates in it, curls up next to it, with such immediacy that you get deliriously lost in the salt-tinged waves.

Despite being compared to powerhouse singer Betty Carter and the kitschy Bette Midler, Sokolov doesn't bristle when categorized. She simply sees these comparisons as a point of reference and remarks about lineage as a continuing thread.

I ask her what thread she sees herself continuing and, though I put her on the spot, she refuses to unravel.

"Janis Joplin rings very true to me. I was very deeply moved by Laura Nyro. She had the emotional capacity to sell a song and how she dealt with time changed the face of songwriting."

Sokolov also listens to "a lot of Aretha". Her cover of "Chain of Fools" implores a mix of caterwauls, vocal implosives and rhythmic exorcisms draped against discordant piano comping.

Although she enjoys other vocalists, she doesn't choose to surround herself with her inspirations prior to undertaking a recording project.

"I'm not a big listener," she pauses. Then reflects, "I listen to my soul or gut." But, when not in the midst of recording, Sokolov writes choral music, and loves singing and improvising with other vocalists, even though all the vocal work on "A Quiet Thing" she does herself.

Once done selecting repertoire, Sokolov cherishes a chosen song. "Most songs have a long life," she says. "Certain songs will fill some kind of expressive need. They get into the center of the moment." But, beyond a particular lyric or genre, the song has to "answer what's true to me".

Among the twelve tracks of A Quiet Thing, two songs are original. "Green Light Haiku" came to Sokolov in a dream. "It came like a gem," she says softly, "down to the syllable counts of seven then five." But the wildly syncopated "She is Standing" came "whole as an improvisation".

Sokolov admits to being scared to make her follow-up recording after the preceding CD Presence (2004) received 5 stars by Downbeat and the Masterpiece title "Best CD of '04." Given the high praise received by earlier releases Angel Rodeo and Lazy Afternoon, one had to wonder if A Quiet Thing could meet these expectations.

A Quiet Thing differs from her past recordings because this time "there is a quiet essentialness living behind songs. An introspection -- not about technique -- intangible." As Sokolov reveals, "I am striving to be more of myself."

"El Silencio" features a text by poet Frederico Garcia Lorca. Lyrics are paramount here, and so is the energy created by musicians Sokolov has worked magic with before, such as Gerry Hemingway on drums and Cameron Brown on bass.

With Sokolov's intermittent stops, starts, and melodic detours, only "a village" of well-seasoned musicians could anticipate these frequently unexpected moves, and lay back enough to let her vocals soar. But this was the result.

Sokolov's son Jake will soon be off to college. Jake has been the subject of several of Sokolov's original songs. In one YouTube performance, Sokolov strokes arbitrary piano keys and extols the joy of seeing her tiny, newborn son.

And it seems the older Jake was also referenced in the "El Silencio" lyric. I hear the Spanish phrase mi hijo ("my son") in the text, and I wonder about Sokolov's reaction to college-bound Jake's impending absence.

I ask, "When Jake finally goes off to school, will you make another sweeping life-change?"

Sokolov laughs. It's a warm, woman-to-woman laugh. And though she does admit Jake's departure will shake things up, she reminds me that she still has a daughter in high school and will enjoy quiet evenings at home with her husband (when he's not touring with his family theater project). So while the nest won't be empty, it certainly will be less noisy without Jake's sundry strings.

As far as Jake's reaction to performing with his mom, Sokolov says, "He gets to gig along" and claims, "he has a giant brain ... I roped him into gigging with me. He's totally into it," she admits. Sokolov suspects that "soulful" Jake will commit to his musical career, thereby continuing the musical muse of Sokolov's family tree. Like Moshe?

Another apple from Sokolov's familial tree -- her grandfather Moshe Singer -- wanted not to be a liturgical singer but a secular singer and had to "escape cantorial school".

It seems like Sokolov was scripted all along to submerge herself in music. Her father played stride piano and introduced her to the complex improvisational genius of jazz pianist Art Tatum and vocalist Mabel Mercer.

The other side of the family spawned choreographers, and the art of movement is vital to Sokolov's world view. Oddly enough, her mother considered herself "tone deaf".

Sokolov began to study classical piano around age 11 playing "Beethoven and Chopin as a young kid." She adds, "You create relationships with people," referring to her early days studying these classical composers.

While attending Bennington College, she continued her classical voice and piano studies, but then she discovered jazz improvisation, fueled by her fascination with post-bop saxophonist John Coltrane.

Coltrane's bassist, Jimmy Garrison, attended Bennington, and Sokolov's hunger for more spiritual jazz was awakened. Coltrane went beyond technique seeking -- like Sokolov -- a higher spiritual grounding. And though Sokolov had read books about spirituality and Torah, she was yet to explore the same phenomenon in her musical choices. So while Sokolov has reaped the benefits of the bebop standards, she credits Coltrane for attaching the emotional and spiritual charge to a genre hatched from bebop, free jazz.

"I was considered [by her peers] one of the 'sax" players,' she says. "Sax can go to places vocalists normally don't go." And though she was "awestruck by bebop", she experienced a "split" when John Coltrane came calling. Coltrane took the genre to a higher plane.

Sokolov says that "bebop intricacy is more about line or form thinking than surrendering," while with Coltrane, "every phrase imbued great meaning." That emotional tug captivated Sokolov and set her on a new path.

"When I started to improvise, I had to start over again," she says. When she sang in The Magic Flute, her opera coach from the Met said, "You have to choose." Sokolov, still straddling classical and jazz idioms, made that jump, and never looked back.

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