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Interview: Judy Wexler

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It's tricky business jazzing up the music of 1960s singer-songwriters. Most efforts either wind up a pale reproduction or they try too hard to swing the originals. Every so often, however, an album comes along that hits the tone just right. Vocalist Judy Wexler's new Back to the Garden (Jewel City) is one of these just-right albums. Out today, the recording breathes fresh life into songs and gives them a jazz feel with the elegance and sensitivity they deserve.

Much should be said about Judy's sparkling vocals and the shrewd arrangements. Passionate and reverential, Judy never tries to drag these sacred period songs into another space nor does she approach the material with the assumption they need a makeover. Instead, she sings as if she's of the music and takes chances in the right places with a voice that is sufficiently agile and powerful to meet the songs' challenges on their own terms. 

This couldn't have been easy, given the song list: The Youngbloods' Get Together, Gerry Goffin and Carole King's Up on the Roof, Paul Simon's American Tune, Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi, Bob Dylan's These Times They Are a-Changin', Judy Collins's Since You've Asked, Stephen Stills's For What It's Worth, Fred Neil's Everybody's Talkin', Bob Dylan's Forever Young and Sandy Denny's Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Arrangements are by Jeff Colella, and Judy's band is solid and there are terrific guest instrumentalists, including Larry Koonse, Bob Thiele Jr. and Hendrik Meurkens.

Recently, I had a chance to ask Judy about the album's inspiration, her connection to the material and her voice:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?

Judy Wexler: I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I lived there until I left for college at UC Santa Cruz. Growing up, my dad was a music lover and played a lot of Benny Goodman, Ella, Sarah and Frank—popular music from his day—and some classical music. I started piano lessons at age 5 and continued lessons on and off until I left for college. By the time I turned 11 or 12, my dad insisted I accompany him while he sang popular songs.

JW: Did having musical talent mean performing at home?

JW: Yep. I was often summoned from my room to play background piano at my parents’ many dinner parties. I’d also sang along with my dad. He took me to Wallach’s Music City in Hollywood and bought me sheet music of the popular ‘60s songs playing on the radio. I remember playing and singing “Goin’ Out of My Head,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Downtown,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

JW: In your teens, did you study voice?

JW: I took some vocal technique lessons, but I was turned off when the teacher would occasionally grab my throat. Thinking about that now, it’s a horrifying teaching technique.

JW: Were you a music major in college?

JW: I had two majors—psychology and theater. After college in 1977, I moved to San Francisco with three theater friends. We immediately formed an improv group called Caught in the Act: A Theater Collective of Four Short Women. We collectively wrote, directed and produced a fairly successful variety show. A year later, I moved to the Haight-Ashbury section and met my future husband Alan, who was my upstairs neighbor.

JW: That was convenient.

JW: It was. Alan (above) had just moved from New York, where he had frequented a lot of jazz clubs over the years and had a sizeable record and cassette tape collection, all jazz. Four months into my relationship with Alan, we moved to a flat in North Beach about a 10-minute walk to the jazz club Keystone Korner. We went to concerts there just about every week.

JW: What happened to the theater collective?

JW: By early '79, the improv group broke up, and I started getting parts in plays and musicals. On off nights, Alan and I went to hear jazz. The combination of falling in love, living in such an artistic and romantic city, and hanging out in jazz clubs gave me so many wonderful memories—lots of nostalgia for those carefree days.

JW: Who did you see perform at Keystone Korner?

JW: We saw Johnny Griffin, Airto and Flora Purim, Eddie Jefferson, Dexter Gordon, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey, among others. Then I found a jazz piano teacher in San Francisco, who gave me a proper introduction to jazz piano. In 1982, Alan and I moved to Los Angeles and married. I studied at the Dick Grove School of Music and ended up taking all of Dick’s jazz harmony classes. I also hooked up with vocalist Sunny Wilkinson for jazz singing lessons. A bit later in the 90s, I studied jazz piano for about three years with Terry Trotter, a brilliant jazz pianist and teacher.

JW: And now?

JW: I’ve taken voice lessons on and off for decades, and finally found the best technician five years ago: Bruce McClurg. He teaches the McClosky Vocal Technique, which mostly deals with relaxation and correct posture, but so much more. Before the pandemic, I drove 150 miles every week to study with him. Now we Zoom.

JW: Giving songs from the ‘60s a jazz feel is fresh approach. Besides nostalgia for San Francisco’s hippie culture, what was your primary inspiration?

JW: In 2010, I created a show called Talkin’ About My Generation, which featured two great back-up singers. I think my inspiration for the show came from my first album, Easy on the Heart, in 2005 with pianist/arranger Alan Pasqua. For the album, I recorded Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.

JW: How did that change things?

JW: Turns out, Pasqua had toured with Dylan for a year in the ‘70s and was into arranging the song. I loved how it came out. In 2006, I had a two-night gig at Upstairs Jazz Club in Montreal (above), where my family is from. When I showed up for soundcheck, the owner said we were sold out.

JW: Just like that?

JW: Turns out Radio Canada had played Don’t Think Twice just once and the phone rang off the hook for tickets. I was inspired to get more songs from that time arranged with a jazz sensibility. Soon after, in 2006, I began working with pianist/arranger Jeff Colella, who arranged Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s One Less Bell to Answer. That song and also the Classic IV’s Spooky, arranged by Pasqua, appeared on my second CD, Dreams & Shadows, in 2008.

JW: So by 2010…

JW: I had collected enough new arrangements, commissioned more, and was able to present a full-length show. I revamped the show and called it Back to the Garden. I always had a connection to the lyrics of all the songs, especially the protest songs. I was just about to do yet another revamp of Back to the Garden for a birthday show at the Baked Potato in Los Angeles last year when the pandemic hit. All shows were cancelled.

JW: What did you do?

JW: I took the songs I had commissioned to Jeff (above) for arrangements along with a couple of songs from pianist Josh Nelson, and decided I should record an album. We recorded in late 2020.

JW: When approaching this kind of material, how did you gear it toward jazz and avoid simply creating vocal covers? JW: I like working with arrangers who are open to ideas. When I find a song, we talk about possible approaches and grooves that take it out of its original pop, rock or folk style. In many cases, a song’s lyrics inform a different feel that’s conducive to a jazz interpretation. The arrangers I’ve worked with have an approach that stays true to the message and intent. I’ve worked with Jeff for over 15 years. He has a great understanding of what will work with my voice and style. Josh Nelson arranged two songs (American Tune and Who Knows Where the Time Goes) that appear on the album, and we exchanged some ideas. I worked on my interpretations extensively before recording.

JW: For example?

JW: On Get Together, the opening track, I loved the melody so much that I had no desire to change it, just to sound like a jazz vocalist singing it. For others, like American Tune and Who Knows Where the Time Goes, I worked extensively on lyric interpretation, time, and melodic variation as well as my emotional interpretation. I had a few Zoom sessions with folk-jazz songwriter Kate McGarry, who had some ideas on a few songs.

JW: You handled Big Yellow Taxi masterfully. What did you learn about Joni Mitchell’s vocals by singing it?

JW: Thanks. I don’t think I learned anything I hadn’t known already. I've always been blown away by her luminous, light and airy voice and absolutely perfect interpretations of her songs. I loved the humor she put into her original and subsequent versions of the song. My voice behaves nothing like hers, so I tried to conjure the irony of the comparison she makes of losing her lover to developers mowing over natural spaces for ugly commerce. Erin Bentlage’s background vocals added so much texture at the end.

JW: What do you love most about Judy Collins’s Since You’ve Asked? Tricky to sing, no?

JW: I thought it would be tricky to record, but the I recorded the vocals very quickly. The tricky part was the time on a couple of crucial bars. Since it’s in 5/4 on the album, I had to adjust my ears to hearing and singing the arrangement away from its 4/4 original treatment. Vocally, I was able to access the lighter part of my voice, so that made it much easier to negotiate the intervals while staying true to the meaning.

JW: Did you also research the songwriting process?

JW: For sure. I discovered that Judy Collins's notebooks were filled with thoughts of depression and desperation. Her songwriting teacher gave her the assignment to write five songs about a relationship—the beginning, middle and end. Since You’ve Asked was the first song she wrote.

JW: What was the take-away?

JW: Knowing that story made the song even more clear. But I don’t think the relationship ends in this song, I think it goes on until old age and beyond: “As my life spills into yours / changing with the hours / filling up the world with time / turning time to flowers / this is what I give / this is what I ask you for / nothing more.” 

JW: Were you inspired most by Sandy Denny’s Who Know Where the Time Goes or the Judy Collins cover?

JW: Both versions required a bit of analysis. Who Knows Where the Time Goes is a song about the ephemeral nature of life and the passage of time. It’s also a sentiment that’s universal and gets deeper with aging. I was very inspired by Denny’s lyrics and her different vocal versions of the song, as a solo artist and with Fairport Convention.

JW: What touched you?

JW: Denny was only 31 when she died in 1978 from a brain hemorrhage after falling down a flight of stairs. The implication is that she might have fallen because of her alcohol abuse. Knowing about her fragility and tragic end adds an element of deep emotion to her lyrics: “So come the storms of winter / and then the birds in spring again / I have no fear of time / For who knows how my love grows / Who knows where the time goes.” Wonderful, yes?

JW: Tell me about pulling together the key sidemen on your album, including Bob Thiele Jr., Larry Koonse. You also have Hendrik Meurkens on Everybody’s Talkin'. And, of course, Jeff Colella.

JW: When I came to Jeff in July 2020 with the idea for the album, we’d already been working on most of the songs for the live show. I told him I wanted a couple of NY friends as guest artists to contribute solos remotely. I knew I wanted harmonicist Hendrik Meurkens on Everyody’s Talkin', as well as violinist Sara Caswell, who ended up playing on Dylan’s Forever Young, along with Bob Thiele, Jr.

JW: How did you come to Thiele Jr.?

JW: Bob is a buddy of Jeff's, so he brought him in for some added harmonics, fills and effects on four songs, plus the solo on Forever Young. I think that was a brilliant call on Jeff’s part, because Bob’s contribution made a significant difference in the sound of the arrangements. Jeff also brought in trumpeter Jay Jennings of Snarky Puppy, a golfing buddy of his. Jay plays so gorgeously on Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

JW: And Larry Koonse?

JW: I’ve played and recorded with Larry quite a few times already, and he is a friend and one of the most respected jazz musicians in Los Angeles. I knew I wanted background vocals on some of the songs, and Erin Bentlage—of the vocal group säje—did a wonderful job of adding so many layers and textures.

JW: Who did the album cover design?

JW: My husband—and we didn’t have a single fight about it. He’s a designer and designed my last two CDs. For my new one, he layered several backgrounds to come up with the design, and then added a cartoonish filter to the whole thing including my face. At first, the whites of my eyes were green, which made me look demonic, but he fixed it, so now it only looks partially demonic. (Photo above of Judy and Alan in 2019]

JW: Thinking about a followup?

JW: I’m thinking about the concept for my next album, but they won’t be pop songs. I’ll surprise you.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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