Rebecca Sullivan came into her own as a jazz vocalist in Chicago, where she’s been based since 2006 and where she’s frequently gigged with guitarist Mike Allemana. Their compelling musical chemistry is the main event on Sullivan’s forthcoming debut recording, This Way, This Time, a duo session that will be released on Rhyme or Reason Records on June 12.
“Rebecca has a lovely, liquid instrument, often evocative of Billie Holiday yet completely personal and unpretentious,” says saxophonist Geof Bradfield, who produced the album. “Her delivery is so intimate, and it really works seamlessly with Mike’s inspired colors and textures.”
On the new CD, Sullivan mixes affecting interpretations of infrequently heard standards by Johnny Mandel (“The Shining Sea”), Friedrich Hollaender (“Strange Enchantment”), and Hoagy Carmichael (“Ivy”) with boldly personal versions of songs by the Beach Boys (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”), Nick Drake (“Blossom Friend”), and St. Vincent (“Human Racing”). She also contributes two originals (including the title track, co-written with Allemana), and closes the album with Dave Frishberg’s poignant “You Are There.”
“Rebecca really gets inside the lyric,” says Allemana. “Unlike many young singers, she never manipulates the melody or takes it out of context. She knows the composer wrote it that way for a reason.”
A native of York, Pennsylvania, Rebecca Sullivan grew up with several music traditions—singing in her family’s a cappella gospel group, studying classical piano (and winning competitions), steeping herself in American standards from the 1940s and ’50s. As a student at Portland’s Reed College, she performed folk music on open-mic nights, accompanying herself on guitar. But her first exposure to jazz came in the unlikely place of St. Petersburg, Russia, where in 2004 she spent a semester abroad studying Russian literature. There she had the opportunity to hear live jazz: “I had no idea songs could sound like that,” she recalls of that epiphany.
While in Russia, Sullivan put in serious listening time to recordings by Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Carmen McRae, and once she returned home she was already on her way to pursuing a career as a jazz vocalist. She relocated to Chicago in 2006 to study at the Bloom School of Jazz, and also began attending tenor saxophone legend Von Freeman’s weekly jam session at the New Apartment Lounge. She made a deep impression on Mike Allemana, Freeman’s longtime guitarist. “It’s so refreshing to find a young singer who knows these beautiful old songs,” he says.
Before long Sullivan quit her day job (at the University of Chicago Press) to devote herself full-time to singing. “When I worked up the nerve to ask Mike if he would do a gig with me,” she says, “I really felt like I was in over my head. But he said yes, it worked pretty well, and we ended up doing more gigs and eventually recording the album together.”
Come fall, Sullivan, now 29, will be starting the next chapter in her musical journey in Boston, where she plans to pursue a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory. “I’ll be studying with Dominique Eade, and then I’ll have a separate improvisation teacher,” she says. “I decided to go there because I want to be immersed in the intense musical learning environment they offer, as well as to improve as a musician and songwriter. Also, some great jazz musicians whom I really admire studied at NEC: Roberta Gambarini, Luciana Souza, Bill McHenry. And I can’t wait to be back on the East Coast!”
Rebecca Sullivan will be performing with Mike Allemana at a CD release show on Sunday 6/24, 8:00 pm, at Szold Hall (Old Town School of Folk Music), 4544 N. Lincoln, Chicago. Tickets are $12 ($11 Old Town School members). Call 773-728-6000.