Photo © Elena Montemurro (Courtesy: Canada Council for the Arts)

Emma Frank’s Jazz Negotiates Dark and Light

Emma Frank's third recording, Ocean Av, is a brilliant collection of literary jazz that defies categories and features pianist Aaron Parks and drummer Jim Black. PopMatters talks with Frank about the challenges of finding a new voice in jazz.

Ocean Av
Emma Frank
Susan Records
16 Feb 2018

I believe love wants to make us choose

If we want to grow tall, got to lay our roots

And follow the water deep underground

Cherry blossoms reach out for such a short time

Before wind blows them into summer

Making way for new life, Making way for new life

This is the second verse of “Magnolia”, from the new recording by Emma Frank, an uncommonly literate and lyrical singer currently living in New York. Frank, still playing small rooms in the center of the jazz world rather than commanding big audiences, is laying her roots and following the deep water that every artist needs to grow.

Musically, however, she may already have arrived.
Ocean Av was recorded with two of the best musicians in New York: pianist Aaron Parks and drummer Jim Black. Frank’s songs sit comfortably between jazz and singer-songwriter artpop, comparable in approach and quality to the work of acclaimed young artists such as Becca Stevens and Gretchen Parlato. Her cool, plainspoken vocal delivery makes some listeners hear her music as “folk”, but the subtle rhythmic variations and harmonic approach betray her roots in jazz. The poetry of her lyrics, perhaps, points to her study of literature at Montreal’s McGill University. Call it what you want, Frank would surely say, but check it out.

Frank’s story begins in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, where she grew up the daughter of a woman who trained to sing opera but became an economics professor. “I learned to sing from her around the house in a really natural way. I learned ‘Amazing Grace’ before I could read. She turned me on to Nina Simone, Motown, and there was a lot of Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Frank thinks of musical theater as a kind secular gospel music. “If you grew up without religion, how and where are you supposed to praise? Musical theater gives you permission to go far on the spectrum of joy and sorrow. And it teaches you how to project and use your voice.” Despite loving this style, Frank’s voice, even when she was a kid, was almost entirely devoid of theatrical affectation. “I was imitating NIna Simone when I was 11. Even as a kid, I just didn’t want to sound like that. I’ve just always been a sensitive person. So, when I was in theater, I was often cast as an older woman, someone with more weight on her shoulders. I was always good at channeling sorrow.”

Today, Frank’s singing voice remains coy and mediated by honest feeling, less whiskey than silk, an airy sound that emerges with strength as necessary. Because her melodies bob and arc in unusual ways, it is tempting compare the voice to a clarinet: rounded and woody in lower registers, more urgent as it moves upward, but always with a whoosh of air, a flutey hum. On “Best Friend” from
Ocean Av, she doubles her voice in places, in unison or harmony, achieving a sound of cushioned beauty, but she also scats a line in unison with Parks’s synth that is playful.

Some of that sound may be traceable to Frank’s studying at 13 or 14 with singer Amanda Baisinger, who was just ten years older than Frank. Baisinger’s EP,
Short Songs, sounds like an influence on Frank’s music because Baisinger also favors a gentle vocal approach and because the pianist dominating the jazz group here is most certainly Aaron Parks, whose rhapsodic melodicism never distracts from the vocals but makes every second interesting. On Ocean Av, Parks’ distinctive pianistic voice plays a similar role, cushioning the lyrics, fashioning organic arrangements worked out over months with Frank and the band, and providing improvisations that Franks describes as “subtle and restrained and melodic”.

Finding an Artistic Community in Montreal

Franks tried to get into a performing arts programs for college but was discouraged from getting a impractical degree in music. She dreamed of going to NYU, but the cost was too high, so she found herself at the more affordable McGill University in Montreal, Canada. The move changed her life. “Montreal offered an interesting change in perspective. It’s not as ambitious a place as Brookline, where I grew up, because it doesn’t have to be. Upon moving there, I immediately had great health insurance. There was a culture of artistic creation, with people working ten hours a week and creating the rest of the time.” At McGill, Frank studied literature, reluctantly. “I spent most of my time as a jittery mess, writing lyrics or ideas of songs in the margins of my notebooks or trying to convince my professors to let me do a creative project instead of a paper.”

The artistic community, however, was another thing. She played in a funk band based in Vermont and in a “really anxious, dreamy electro-acoustic pop project” exploring possibilities and “trying to create a voice”. Frank considered transferring to the music department but didn’t have the technical chops to make the shift. “My sight singing wasn’t good enough,” she explains, “and I had this chip on my shoulder that I was going to be really far behind everyone else. So I was taking private lessons, trying to learn basic jazz theory. I sang along to so many Jamey Aebersold records and transcribed solos.”

Listening to Frank’s music, it’s fair for listeners to feel that her approach owes as much to non-jazz sources. Her story is a good example of how, for millennial musicians, the boundaries blur from the very beginning.

Origins in Artful Voice

“In my first year in Montreal, I encountered some jazz musicians, these young improvisors. There aren’t a lot of jazz gigs in Montreal, and the gigs that do pay tend to be indie-rock. So the Montreal musicians who have graduated from music school are usually touring with some kind of indie artist as opposed to playing jazz. What that meant for me and for other artists on the scene was that these musicians had a hip palate of sounds as well as having a great sense of improvisation. They’re using acoustic instruments and are down to play jazz gigs, but when we’d do a standard, we would just end up blowing it open. To the point where I’d say,
Why are we playing standards? And they’d say, Yeah, thank god, why are we playing standards?”

Playing “Jazz” by Playing Your Own Songs

Frank was, in fact, in love with improvised music and “… how it made me feel. But I also really wanted to find a voice for myself that was authentic but within that tradition. I thought a lot about Gretchen Parlato and her first album The Lost and Found and also In a Dream, and how she constructed songs that led effortlessly into improvisation and back again. I really took notes on them. They seemed so fun to play and created so much space for musicians to express themselves in an individual way. Those records don’t sound like a pop project. They feel really alive and constantly morphing, while creating the perfect context for Gretchen to do her thing.”

After graduation, Frank had the chance to work on her writing. She knew that was the key to her version of “jazz”, her creative improvised music. She tells a great story: “I was on cruise ships for about six months after I graduated. We were doing standard ballroom jazz. This wonderful woman complained to me, saying, ‘I was just disappointed that you weren’t wearing more sequins.’ I had performed in enough jazz clubs to know that I liked that context, but I needed songs I could relate to.”

More recently in New York, Frank has also experienced this impulse. When recording
Ocean Av, she was working on Paul Simon’s wonderful “Kathy’s Song” with the band. “That was the one song we tried over and over in the studio and couldn’t get right. The band said, Why are you doing a cover? Your songs are great! So we stopped.”

Perhaps because she was based in Canada or perhaps because she was singing a set of literary and personal songs, it was probably inevitable that listeners would hear lots of Joni Mitchell in Emma Frank. But the influence is indirect. “I was asked to do a Joni Mitchell gig and agreed, but I had to learn lots of material. But it’s more that the singers that I have loved have loved her. I’m more a second generation Joni fan,” Frank explains.

But perhaps the key Joni lesson is one Frank articulates well: “You write songs because nobody has said what you need to say yet.”

New York, the Inevitable

Two years ago, fresh off a second recording (The People We’re Becoming), Frank did what aspiring jazz musicians so often do: she moved to New York City. “There is so much talent, and you have access to your heroes,” she notes, telling the story of how she simply ran into pianist Aaron Parks—his solos memorized from her teacher’s EP—outside a Keith Jarrett concert. Soon enough, she was rehearsing and then recording her latest songs with him and with Jim Black, the drummer who was a hero of her best friend from Montreal, trumpeter Simon Millerd.

“In New York, there was a pretty intense feeling right away,” Frank explains. “You’re either gonna do this or you won’t have followed your dreams. Which is a very different way of thinking about your creativity than in Montreal. The stakes are higher here in New York. You have to sacrifice more to have a decent standard of living here.”

New York, then, applies its pressure economically. “It’s a crazy time for music. It’s weird to think that, whether you’re gifted, whether you make beautiful stuff or not may have nothing to do with whether that will be financially rewarding to you.” Her description of the cost of merely catastrophic health care in New York (tripling, as she is about to turn 30) versus comprehensive health care in Canada (free) is enough to suggest how hard the creative business is in the very place where it seems to thrive.

New York, however, provided unique opportunities. “In New York, just one small gig can do a lot for you. It can mean more than playing the Montreal Jazz Festival. For example, at my first gig in New York, Jim Black came, and now he is part of my project. In New York, you never know who is going to be there.” Frank notes that performing in Quebec produced problems for someone who only speaks English. “It’s really hard to develop your stage identity when you don’t know the language. So It was freeing to come to New York and get make a joke and have people respond.”

Her New York band on
Ocean Av is exquisite. Parks limns every tune with keyboard touches that far exceed “comping”—he finds places for glistening Rhodes electric piano lines, short improvisations that are inherently compositional, and always: texture. “It was so refreshing, coming to New York to work with people like Aaron Parks and Jim Black. The indie-pop musicians in Montreal didn’t necessarily have a ton of training, so bringing them charts with odd time signatures didn’t work. The jazz players would go virtuosic or go free on it. And I’d think, Hey, it’s a song, let’s keep it a song.

“The musicians I’m working with now have been gigging with incredible singers and songwriters and there’s just more reverence for the song itself or the singer’s role in society,” Frank reports. In addition to Parks and Black, the band includes Rick Rosato on bass, Pedro Barquinha on electronics, Simon Millerd’s trumpet, and most importantly, Franky Rousseau as the producer of the album, guitar player, and arranger. “It was instinctive and awesome to work with them. They are always working art, not just making killing jazz records. They’re very mature in their ability to navigate something complex but play it in the simplest, most faithful way. Their ability to tune into the emotional content of what’s going on is so uninhibited. There are no blocks between them and the feeling they’re trying to get with their instruments.”

Photo © Elena Montemurro (Courtesy: Canada Council for the Arts)

Ocean Av

Coming off a break-up, Frank uses Ocean Av to think deeply about some of her—and our—tenderest places. “I was depressed, I was tired all the time, I was waitressing a ton, and the theme was gravity. That’s where my body and voice was at, and so I was asking my voice to be really rangy. I was letting things be spoken or tired.”

The vocal performances, to my ear, are languid and subtly surprising. Take the opening tune, “Magnolia”, which begins with finger-picked guitar, setting you up for a gentle folk tune in waltz time. Which it is, but for the way Frank’s vocal line syncopates the rhythm across and against the guitar, shifting the stressed syllables all over the place … only to have the bass line do the same thing a bit later. You’re grounded … but it’s shifting. Tricky “folk” music, if you want to call it that. “Best Friend” has a funkier groove and vocal line that moves around like a saxophone, crossing unusual intervals, but gently. Frank arcs her tone from low to high, uses breathy head voice leading into a double-timed chorus, and then punches the chorus like a softly harmonized saxophone
section and follows it with a wordless line that isn’t “scatting” if only because it is careful, delicate, molded like a sculpture.

“My identity as a singer,” Frank explains, “especially when I have lots of gigs, is different from my songwriting. It is more positive—I feel good about my instrument, I can do whatever you want me to. I love performing and the pure energy of people making music.

“But the my instinct when I’m going to make a record is not as a singer but as a songwriter trying to capture these moments in space and time for people. I deal with depression. I’m very up and down. Songwriting is a form of therapy. I write mantras for myself to carry around with me that are the soundtrack to my life while I’m working on that song. And they may return to me later in a useful way.”

Ocean Av, Frank negotiates darkness and light, folk directness and jazz complication, depression and hope, chill sonority and grooves that are remarkably crisp and propulsive. “Gradually”, for example, does just about everything that a jazz song for 2018 could hope to do. it sets up a dancing figure on piano—but in 11/8 time. It uses a jarring backbeat from Jim Black that hints toward hip-hop but the vocal is gentle and flowing. Then it contains a bridge with flashes of harmonic daring that feel like spotlights that suddenly hit the story of love and pain, as Frank’s vocal blends with trumpet. The horn then takes off on a solo that quickly strains against a groove that lifts matters higher and higher. Wow.

“When I finished
Ocean Av,” Frank admits, “I was prouder of it than anything I’d made before. The whole process was refined. Aaron and I worked for a over a year on the songs, on arranging them. I’d just see him once or twice a month. A bar of a song might change: first it’s in 5/4, then we realize, no, it’s 3/4. It was almost all recorded live, even my vocals. The goal was to have it sound like a live, acoustic record. I idea was for everything else—synthesizers or bells or harmony vocals—to seem more like a hint or a glimmer around the edges. I wanted the record to feel really human. I’m really into intimate music. I love listening to Aaron play while I’m doing yoga under his piano. It’s so special to be in a quiet room, listening.”

Ocean Av sounds every bit like that. It can be a meditation or a whisper between lovers. The gospel hints on “Sunless Morning”, for example, are matched one-for-one with moments that sound like Aaron Parks channeling those great old Chick Corea “Childrens’ Songs”. It is balance and calm threaded with surprise.

#MeToo in New York’s Jazz World

Frank’s music is both firm and delicate. It feels emotionally exposed, but it also explicitly avoids every cliché about female jazz singers being seductive or sassy or out of another era.

Frank has thought a great deal about the problem of conforming to female stereotypes or suffering because of her sex. “There are so many singers I know who perform in heels. That doesn’t make any sense. They mess up your posture, your breathing, your art. I remember being young and looking at Christina Aguilera and thinking: I’m never going to look like that, so I’ll never make it.

“It seems like a very recent phenomenon that women are having careers without looking ‘lovely’. And I thought for a long time that ‘loveliness’ was a prerequisite to being successful. I have had to give myself permission to be real. In ‘jazz’ there are expectations. Why should you have to play a jazz club, and if you do play a jazz club, why can’t you do it wearing sneakers?”

Frank knows that her emotionally dramatic songs and breathy voice invite some unwelcome responses. “I’m often told that I have a sexy voice. I performed for an audience of 800 people, opening for a jazz singer who does a lot of bossa material, and some guy yelled out ‘I want to marry you!’ That kind of thing is not a compliment but is controlling. It’s clear that there’s a culture that is really weird in defining what’s okay to do to a woman in public.

“The word ‘achingly’ might be appropriate to use in describing my music and how I sing. But if the only word you can use to describe my music is ‘achingly’ or if your impulse is to say that it is ‘dripping with seduction’, that’s weird. That can’t describe a whole person.”

More explicitly, Frank notes that every time she plays a show in New York something happens. “I don’t dress up much, but I might wear a little make-up for a show. I’m getting off the subway at Canal Street to perform and a homeless person grabs my butt and then follows me. I had to yell at him and run away. That’s the energy I have right before going on stage. That’s crazy. I’m so mad and it makes your adrenaline rush to have someone cross your boundaries.”

But things could be getting better. “My generation has more role models—women who are making music their way. I remember hearing Becca Stevens’ album
Weightless and just loving it and feeling that I could trust that music. This is music that is intelligent, that forces you to hear things a new way — maybe a polyrhythm that makes you move in a way you didn’t know you could. Something harmonically that shifts your perspective. I heard Becca’s music as really smart but also like it was coming from a good female friend. That made me feel there needs to be more music that falls into that category.”

Now What Happens?

Now Emma Frank has made a record with some of the best jazz musicians in the world, her band, in the music’s capital. She will debut it at the Rockwood Music Hall in February. But that doesn’t mean she’s “made it” in this music. Will Ocean Av find success?

“Working on this record, I started thinking, what if I got a major label? What if this is a breakthrough record. What if I released ‘Enough’ as a single?” “Enough” has a rollicking triple meter powered by strummed acoustic guitar and chiming keys, as well as a forceful vocal. The lyrics point out “I’ve got a lot but I may have enough”. I like it a lot, in fact.

But Frank also calls this thinking The Fame Monster at work. “So many people are making it work in a truly creative way. What we don’t talk about enough in the US is how much having an artistic community is
itself important. We need to make people feel more connected to each other. The best compliment I can get is when someone comes to my show and says, you really inspired me, now I want to go home and write my own songs.”

“Sometimes I get to thinking that maybe I should quit music and go back to school. That’s the only rational thing to do. But once you make music, you think,
This feels so great or you encounter the people who are your fans who say Never stop doing it! At that exact moment, I may have been thinking about quitting music.

“You have to grab onto those moments that encourage you to keep going,” she promises.

“Last night I went to see this awesome show, it was like stadium rock for people who would never go out to a stadium rock concert. I don’t go out all that much in New York—I’m tired, I don’t want to take the train and pay $30 to see a show…”

Frank’s voice trails off, which is rare. She takes a breath, and she doubles down on making it happen … “but when I go, I realize that I’m here to do this, to be a part of this.”