Jennifer Lee: The Bay Area Diana Krall

All photos (partials) by Billy Winters from Jennifer

Jennifer Lee is not the typical, 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.

Jennifer Lee is a complete jazz musician. She sings with bebop precision and affecting feeling, she plays both piano and guitar with a comprehensive knowledge of jazz harmony, and she has a huge repertoire of standards, Brazilian bossas, little known classics, and original songs. You might argue, in fact, that she's a Bay Area Diana Krall.

Except for one thing: she's not famous. Not even close. She's not even married to Elvis Costello. She's just very, very good.

Almost There, Yet So Far Away

Two months ago, Jennifer Lee played for the first time at Yoshi's, the top jazz club in the Bay Area. "It was better than I imagined it—a full house with so many people from all my different communities. I usually have to shake off some nervousness, but at Yoshi's I was comfortable from the start." After a long road, including making her sterling new recording Quiet Joy, she experienced one of what should be a string of highlights to come.

So, Lee is talented and smart and well down the road as an artist. She has two full-length recordings independently on the market and a Yoshi's gig on her resumé. But she is at a crossroads. What do you do next to get bigger audiences, to let your music—and we're talking about straight-up jazz here and not some Norah Jones-y hybrid that might just make you a million dollars if the right person at Starbucks Corp. falls in love with it—flower?

It is not clear that Jennifer Lee—or that anyone in her position—has a foolproof plan. "I don't have a specific plan," she admit. "It has a been a gradual process for me to feel confident that I belonged on that stage at Yoshi's. I finally feel that I've got something special to say. I don't have a goal of being famous, but if getting some notoriety allows me to get concert gigs and get people there, playing and making music so that all that energy is there from the audience—that's my goal."

The Freedom to Sing

Lee's story, like so many others, begins with her mom and dad. Her mom made sure she received the critical music lessons she needed, and her father's criticism of her as a child first held her back and then let her go.

Lee took traditional piano lessons from the age of five, but they didn't last. On a family trip to Mexico when she was eight, her parents agreed to buy her one thing. "I wanted a guitar. At which point I thought, 'The heck with the piano!' My mom got a teacher for me who taught me the basic folk chords. Then as a freshman in high school I started taking piano lessons again and told my mom I wanted to play jazz."

Her mother also supplied crucial inspiration, as she owned several classic jazz records and tapes that the young Lee found captivating. "I loved them: Dakota Staton and George Shearing, the Stan Getz bossa-nova discs, the Modern Jazz Quartet playing The King and I, the soundtrack for A Man and a Woman." Lee was exposed to classic jazz and seminal adaptations of Brazilian music, and so a life's trajectory in music was set. The teen-aged Jennifer Lee got a teacher for the basics of jazz harmony, she applied this to her guitar as well as the piano, and she played in jazz bands in high school and then junior college.

What she didn't do, however, was sing in public.

"I started singing when I got my guitar, and I knew then that singing brought me the most joy in the world. When I started taking jazz piano, I started singing a tiny bit and accompanying myself. But I was just a closet singer—I would not open my mouth unless I thought I was totally alone. I was terrified of singing in front of people."

Lee had stopped pursuing music in her early 20s. She went to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for an art degree, then finished up at home in San Jose because her father had become sick. Eventually, she was taking care of him full-time. "I was still scared of singing, and I was not confident enough about my piano playing then either—I just did not feel I would ever be good enough.

"When my father died at only 51-years-old, it was the catalyst for me. I realized that I'd better do what I want to do, as you never know how much time you have left."

And her father's death released her not only from a full-time pursuit but also from her fear. "Some of my reluctant feeling about singing was tied to my relationship with my father, who used to tell me to keep my mouth shut and would get me in very big trouble if I didn't. His death freed me up—I lost my fear of his judgment."

A Late Apprenticeship in Learning the Joy

With a new goal, Jennifer Lee made progress, taking whatever gigs she could get. "If it was some ratty little bar somewhere, I didn't care. The self-expression had been building up in me for years. I thought, if I can sing in some little place, that will be cool. I was almost 30, but I thought, 'I'm going to be a singer. Yeah, jazz is the thing for me.'"

While she waitressed for a while and then did copy-editing work, she soon had some steady singing work, too. "I sang at a Starbucks in San Francisco and then at some nice restaurants. Eventually I became the house singer at the Ritz Carlton for four-five years. The money was better, it was steady, and I got lots of other casual gigs through meeting people at the hotel. I learned a lot doing that.

"But during that time there was some feeling of—'Is this all there is?' But there was also the terror of losing the gig. And, of course, that eventually happened. With 9/11, the hotel cut way back—first we lost our bassist, then they went to just solo piano."

Lee tells stories of a million other gigs at parties or other occasions where few people may have been listening and where she was all alone with her voice and her instrument. "When I first started doing solo gigs, playing piano and singing on my own, it felt lonely. But I realized I could have a joyful experience playing on my own. If I can get totally present and just be the music, and get out of my head, thinking about what I'm doing—that is another joyful experience making music."

Eventually, she would emerge ready to record.

Next Page

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.