Tess and I are both fans of jazz singer Jacqui Naylor, so when we were planning a trip to Vancouver, we picked the weekend she was playing there. To say she’s a jazz singer doesn’t capture everything she does, though: she also writes original tunes that are sort of folk-rock, and with her musical and life partner Art Khu, she does something she calls “acoustic smashing”: she’ll sing the melody of one song over the groove of another, often mixing genres. For example, she’ll sing the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime over Weather Report’s Birdland, or Nina Simone’s Feeling Good over Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff. It works better than it has a right to; she’s the Gregor Mendel of musical hybridization.
For this concert, Ms. Naylor wore clothes. Well, she always does in concert, as far as I know; it’s just that the charming man next to us (who generously gave us a taste of his wine when we were trying to choose one) was going on about why she dressed in a certain color. Funny, I never see that much attention devoted to a male singer’s clothing. But, we also had a civil and interesting conversation with him about politics, which is apparently possible to do in Canada.
Anyway, although plagued by an elusive hum from the PA that took a few songs to eliminate, she found her groove soon enough. Her strong, expressive, wide ranging voice is always a pleasure to listen to. The most delightful song of the evening was when she sang Surrey With the Fringe on Top over Gabor Szabo’s Breezin’ (which became a hit for George Benson [which Szabo hated]). If acoustic smashing ever goes on artistic trial, this could be Exhibit A for the defense.
I think it works so well because of the geometry of the songs: Breezin’ is very horizontal, in that the notes don’t go up or down very much, and they’re also very even in length; it’s a forward-leaning, propulsive tune. Surrey, on the other hand, is quite vertical, notes going up and down, with a kind of bouncy rhythm—you can almost see the upright carriage and prancing horses, just from the music. They don’t fight for the same space. The timing of the two songs was genius: when she sang the chorus of Surrey, the quicksilver guitar riff from Breezin’ would swoop in and push it along.
However, I felt something was missing. I’d heard her in Seattle a few years ago, and I was struck by how she had different voices: there was a Rickie Lee waif, a world-wise Tracy Chapman, a tough-gal low voice, and others. One or more of them would pop into a song for a cameo, and it was like having different characters tell the story of the song. This night, it was “only” her regular Jacqui Naylor voice, which is wondrous in its own right. But getting those different points of view in one song is, to me, more interesting than acoustic smashing. I like the acoustic smashing, it’s fun, and I think says something general about the surprising shared DNA of different musics; but getting those other voices/viewpoints expands the specific emotion and world of a song.
I started wondering if I’d just imagined her “multiple voices”, because I couldn’t understand why she’d drop that, but I’m sure I didn’t. (Pretty sure, anyway—I did have an imaginary friend when I was a kid, so who knows.)
One interesting thing about Naylor was that she’d talk to fans on the break and after the show; not just “Hi how are ya,” but actual long conversations. (Maybe people she knew?) We thought about talking to her, but decided not to wait around.
Her partner Art Khu, however, was the opposite: we thanked him on the way out, and he seemed like a classic introvert: very present, but not into the schmooze. I mentioned that I thought a tune they played, “Sunshine and Rain”, would smash well with Jobim’s Agua de Berber (which I badly pronounced, and briefly mumble-sang a bar of). He nodded politely, and we said good night and walked to the door, me feeling foolish.
As I was about to step outside, he called after me: “Good point.” Musicians amaze me: in the 4 or 5 seconds it took for me to walk to the door, his mind figured out what the hell song I was talking about, extracted the relevant riff, ran it through some simulations with the other song, and decided it had enough merit to mention.
We stepped out into the cool Vancouver night and headed for the bus, full of good wine, average food, excellent music, and the pleasure of each other’s company. It doesn’t need to get much better than that.