Rocio, your album title, “JazzDance,” is quite intriguing. What is it all about?
A few years back I went to see a famous jazz pianist in concert. The band was absolutely awesome; their musicianship really impressive, but when I looked around the room I noticed that nobody in the 350+ audience was moving. No heads bopping, no toes tapping, nothing. The audience would cheer after every solo, but I thought to myself "wait, music is supposed to move you, and Jazz used to be the kind of music you went out to dance to back in the day.”
The next day I sat down at the piano and started to play around with my favorite Jazz standards. I tried different contemporary re-harmonization, grooves etc. I wanted to reinvent my favorite Jazz standards in a way they would get folks moving again, whether they'd be Jazz fans or not. I wanted to make them danceable again, sing-along-able, but without losing improvisational essence of the genre. In no time the tunes started "talking" to me and taking on a life of their own. I knew I was on to something. My co-producer and co-arranger, Greg Sankovich started to join me on arranging sessions and we stretched the tunes into places they'd never been. We then started to air them out a bit during gigs to see how the audience would react. Some arrangements we nailed right from the beginning, while others kept on evolving based on crowd feedback. That process continued in this manner. I noticed more and more folks getting up to dance during our gigs, and the crowning moment came when an audience member came up to us after a show and said, “I usually don’t like jazz, but I like your kind of jazz ‘cause I can dance to it!” Bingo.
Tell us a little more about the songs on the album, how you came about the arrangement ideas, and what elements you looked for in each tune that made it "JazzDance" material?
First of all, I have to personally connect with the lyrics. If I can't tell a story about myself with the words, I won't consider it. Second, the music has to move me; both physically and emotionally. A strong groove to get me dancing and the right instrumentation and (chord) changes to evoke the mood of a lyric is a must. And last, but certainly not least, it has to be fun for my musicians, my audience, and me. I find the magic truly happens when everyone is just having a good time! So that's exactly how I approached the arranging process.
"Foodie Toonz" was originally going to be just a Latin cover of "The Frim Fram Sauce". But while Greg and I were at the piano just having fun with it, I went into "Peel Me A Grape" out of nowhere. It just happened; it felt natural to transition into more detail, lyrically speaking, of what foods exactly I wanted. And being a foodie myself, the logical conclusion was to go into the hook of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," and then it just became a mixture of all three tunes. I love the groove and overall "jam" feel of the song.
As for Charlie Parker's "Confirmation", I'm not a fan of listening to be-bop, but it's a fun challenge to sing. And that song is very fun to sing. So we had the idea of slowing it down to the point where the melody wasn't “just” a quick succession of notes, and Sheila Jordan's lyrics would have a chance to speak. We tried a Latin Pop approach and that did it for me. Yet for the breakdown we added to the middle of the song my Spanish blood took over. I heard a Phrygian mode in the line "and so I have to confess" and just went with it.
When it comes to "Respect", that's a song I've done a million times during corporate gigs. But come on… white girl from Europe singing Aretha always felt like a stretch. So how could I pay tribute to Aretha (and Otis)? By deconstructing the tune. Taking a different emotional approach to the lyrics, and all the elements off Aretha's version, but placed in a different context. The groove pattern came to me while I was stuck in traffic listening to funk music; we kept the same key (just sung an octave lower at the beginning), slowed it down, replaced the sax solo with a scat, added a Badu-esque feel to the third verse, and finished with a short tribute to the original towards the end.
The initial arrangement for "Night and Day" happened many years ago while I was songwriting for my second album, "Windmills". I was inspired by the intro for one of the songs I'd written and just started to sing "Night and Day" over it. I ended up reharmonizing the entire tune that night, and dug it out of a closet for "JazzDance". We tweaked a few things here and there, and added the original verse of the song to the ending of my version as backing vocals. What I love about this tune is that it starts off as a ballad and slowly morphs into what feels like an up-tempo sambatique without you noticing exactly where or how it happens.
"Just Because" is a song I wrote many, many years ago and recorded on my first album, "Mosaique", in two different versions. Greg heard it, loved it, and reinvented it on the spot by taking the vocal intro idea and wrapping the whole groove around it. It's a simple tune but I just love how it's sounding in its most recent reincarnation!
Another couple of tunes I'd been performing forever are "Devil May Care" and "Twisted". Devil had always been the up-tempo swing thing, but one day I was feeling moody and discouraged, and almost a little angry. I played around on the piano and gave Devil the kind of feel you have when someone asks you how you're doing and you reply "fine", but aren't really telling the truth. It became a whole new tune and I wanted the arrangement to permeate the angst I was feeling that day. The total flipside of that is "Twisted". Another be-bop tune that we chose to slow down a tad, and then Greg came up with the groove idea that makes the entire tune. This was the most fun we had in the studio with all parties involved; we wanted to stretch this one to a level where you'd end up laughing, or at least smiling, if you listen intently to the lyrics and see how the horns and arrangement react to them. In fact we didn’t script the horn arrangements for this one; I had 2 horn players who could do all the parts of the "horn section"; so I decided to have them take turns going into the recording booth to just blow to their hearts' content over the tunes. I gave each player 3 full takes. Then we listened back and picked the best parts, harmonized them on the spot, and voila, horn "arrangements".
"Put the Blame on Mame" is a tune from the movie "Gilda". Rita Hayworth has a scene where she sings this song at a nightclub performance while drunk. I saw the movie when I was a little girl, and that song never left my head. I thought it was the perfect candidate for playing the "old becomes new" game, so we started it totally old school, transformed it into a contemporary groove and ended it a la Andrews Sisters. This was also the first tune I handed off to my fantastic sound architect, Russell Bond, to mix. He approached it in a way that blended the old and the new so perfectly that it elevated the tune’s arrangement by another 10-fold. So I gave him free license to express himself that way on every mix of the record.
As for "Harlem Nocturne", to quote the lyric, "the melody clings around my heart and won't let go". It's one of those melodies that speaks for itself, which totally conveys the mood of the lyric. I always have visions of a sax player under a street light in a New York alley on a rainy night while being watched from a window by someone who's feeling lonely. So we just gave it a solid groove and kept it simple.
I wanted to put an a-cappella song on the album and had an arrangement of "Sing, Sing, Sing" that I wrote several years ago for another project sitting in a binder. That arrangement never saw the light back then, and it was intended for just 4 singers. I took it into the booth for guidance but then just cut loose and made it up on the spot. I don't know how many parts I ended up with (a lot!), and then we added unusual "instruments" such as a wash bin, napkins, glass bottles, plastic buckets, and body percussion to replace the drum parts and keep the whimsical feel of the song, which then became "Sing Sing Sung."
The last arrangement on the album is "Weathered Coffee", which combines "Black Coffee" and "Stormy Weather" to create a new tune. It was supposed to be a full band thing, but on the day of the session I decided to just have Greg and me go into the booth. We did two takes, and the second take ended up on the album as it happened that day, unplanned and totally improvised on the spot.
What would you define as the most life-changing event so far in your musical career?
One day in my early 20’s I went to see a gig by jazz guitarist friend of mine. He was playing in a duo with a sax player. During their set break, the sax player ate a bad hot dog and got sick (true story!). My friend asked me to go on stage to do the 2nd set with him, and I called him crazy (among other things), because up until then, I’d only sung in professional choirs and a-cappella groups, with occasional solos, but never really stepped up as a lead singer. I knew the wicked harmony parts to a series of standards, but I was only vaguely familiar with the lead parts. That didn't deter him from dragging me up on stage (literally). That day all my musical training from early childhood on came into play; while I didn't know the lead parts, I instinctively knew the changes of each song, and ended up improvising a whole set, including scat solos. By the end of the set we had a long line of folks asking when our next gig would be… and that was the birth of Rocio the Lead Singer.
At what point in your life did you make the decision to become a professional musician and actually record your own albums?
Music has been my passion since childhood, and starting when I was a teenager, I was always singing in bands or groups. By the time I graduated from college in Europe (with a non-musical major) I was actually making a living singing. Two unexpected and sad events, the passing of my father and later of my stepfather's quickly taught me that life is a gift one cannot waste. I decided to make my passion my profession, and moved to the US in search of more musical diversity. I found what I was looking for (and then some!), and have been a full-time musician ever since.
Going back in your life as far as you can remember, what song or performance is the first you recall hearing and being affected by?
Ella Fitzgerald, singing “How High The Moon” live. I got my first record player when I was about 14, and decided to go to the local music store to buy a few records to play on it. A live recording of Ella's caught my eye; I took it home because I was delighted to see that one of the songs, "How High The Moon," was one I also sang with my high school band. I listened to her version, and that was the first time I heard anyone scatting. I was so blown away by it that I spent that entire afternoon learning her scat, syllable for syllable. I then sang it at band rehearsal the next day and the bandleader just stared at me in disbelief, asking, "where did that come from??" While it is not the first song or performance that I ever heard or was affected by (I grew up listening to tons of music), that particular time of hearing scat for the first time made me go, "I want to do that!"
Scatting was the answer I'd been looking for to express myself as a musician, not "just" a vocalist. I love using my voice as a vessel for lyrics, but being able to blow just like the other instrumentalists without being attached to specific words is incredibly satisfying. I like singing lead & backing vocals, but also love to use vocals for textural effects as well as lead improvisation. As a matter of fact I'm known to "substitute" instruments when needed (as highlighted on "Sing Sing Sung")… here's your "Where's Wally?" challenge: During one my JazzDance album studio sessions I became part of the horn section on one tune after we'd sent the horn players home, because we felt it needed an additional part. Can you tell which song that is? (Hint: it's not "Sing Sing Sung")
You’ve built one of the most successful voice training studios in the San Francisco Bay Area. How did that come about?
I spent decades studying and developing my voice. I studied with a vast array of teachers; the good, the bad, and the ugly. At first I learned Classical Singing at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Madrid, Spain, and found myself sounding like an opera singer on any tune I attempted to sing. I was actually encouraged to pursue Opera professionally, but that wasn't what I wanted.
I then found teachers who taught me to sing "modern", mainly by pushing the high notes like there was no tomorrow, which was not only unproductive and unhealthy, but also very limiting in range. After many years of searching and trying, I came across a way to connect my bottom and high registers seamlessly, and trained that until I could sing effortlessly throughout my entire range, at any volume, and in any style. Now I can pull of a Classical Aria and follow up immediately with a Gospel tune, without ever hurting my voice.
I wanted to enable the younger generations of singers to get to this way of singing faster than I did, so I founded the RG Vocal Studio back in 1998 to do just that. We average about 60 students a week, from beginners to seasoned professionals, and work with the Stanford Department of Otolaryngology to help their singing patients recover their voices after injury or surgery.
My studio enables me to “give back” in two ways: I make sure my singers get to the point where they never lose their voices after a show or singing engagement (hoarseness is not normal), and then I also give them artistic opportunities I didn't have as a young singer: Every year I select 10 students from my studio to be showcased on either a professionally produced CD (hence introducing them to the professional recording studio setting, and to what it takes to prepare a song for recording), or a live show at a public venue backed by none other than my awesome band. During the prep phase I help them nail their song, teach them how to work with a live band (and all that entails from counting off, to cueing the band), and how to interact with the audience. It's extremely rewarding work!