Jazz singer Alexis Cole’s career has been anything but conventional. She’s done residencies in far-flung places like Ecuador, India, and Japan. She fronted the Army’s big band for several years as a soldier herself. And now she’s a faculty member in the jazz program at SUNY Purchase. With a dozen critically acclaimed albums under her belt, some big awards on her shelf, and more good stuff to come, Alexis distinguishes herself a leader in the ever-evolving world of vocal jazz. Here are some of the highlights from a phone chat that Alexis had with Five Music Minutes (5MM) last month:
5MM: In an interview with journalist Mark McKinley [mogswebsite.com] you talk about how music—singing in particular—is a way of channeling the divine. I find that a lot of singers talk about receiving inspiration from a “meta” place that could be called the divine, or spirit. What is your experience of this?
AC: Singing is a direct pathway to feel the power of the spirit. When I’m performing, I try to actively or subconsciously bring in that aspect. Moments [of spiritual inspiration] can happen in any situation where there are hungry hearts, and there is food in the music. As a capping thought, when Robin Williams committed suicide, I thought about all the roles that he played that were so full of humor and hope. It came to me then that we sing the songs we need to hear. When I hear a song of hope and of love, if I’m not feeling in a particularly hopeful or loving space, the song takes me with it—I can be ministered to by the works of art that I engage with in my singing.
5MM: When you’re scatting, you’re clearly an inspired singer whose ideas are coming from somewhere. Where do think that somewhere is?
AC: I do feel that it’s my most connected moments in general when I scat. Sometimes if I sing the head it’s kind of [ordinary], but then I take a scat solo and find the freedom I was looking for. That’s the moment when I have a very similar vibrational feeling to when I’m singing Kirtan [a form of sacred singing in Hinduism] or leading people in worship, when I can be in a more meditative place. I don’t scat on every song, so if I’m going to take a solo it’s because I feel inspired to take a solo. Why am I inspired? Because of the interplay with the musicians, the audience, the sound. And when you ask what am I tapping into—I feel like I’m drawing from my ancestors. My grandmother was a great singer, and her mother was a singer. My grandmother sang jazz, even though she called it pop music. And my father is such an inspired singer and pianist and composer—almost all of the music my dad writes is spiritual music. I see that spirit in him when he plays especially. It feels like some combination of my ancestors and divine coaxing.
Also, I lived in India for a while, where it doesn’t sound so funny to say that, because [in India] you only really become a musician if you’re from a musician family. All the musicians are from musical families and they draw upon both the environment they were raised in, but they also build on the strength of their ancestors.
5MM: What brought you to India?
AC: I had the opportunity to study Indian classical singing there through a program where you got room and board at a hotel in exchange for 10 hours a week of singing. Then you could go every day and take a lesson with your teacher. It was a two-month residency in Mumbai, in 1999. Roseanna Vitro and Leni Stern are two other singers you might know who did it.
5MM: I’ve heard Roseanna and other singers like Debra Latz incorporate Indian classical singing into their scats. Do you?
AC: Yeah, I do it. You can’t help it once you have that sound in your ear. My Christmas CD [The Greatest Gift] is the only time when I’ve done a fusion thing with Indian instruments, though, on the song “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow.” At the end I do overtone singing, which I learned right before that recording session. I’m proud of that.
5MM: How is Indian classical vocal technique different from Western classical technique?
AC: The main difference is the usage of head voice. They have that very forward, higher tone. I don’t even want to call it head voice, because it’s really quite seamless with the lower register. A lot of Western singers have a break in their voices, but I don’t think any Indian singers do because of the very forward way that they sing. It’s very nasal sometimes. But they don’t have two voices, like we have when we go into our covered or back head voice. If I have students who are having trouble with a break I teach them this technique to help them with it.
5MM: You’ve also spent a lot of time working in Japan. How did that come about?
AC: This is one of my favorite stories. I was on my way back from Ecuador, where I’d been teaching at the Berklee College of Music. I was visiting my parents in Miami, sitting around the pool with them, and my mom asked me what I was going to do with [a small inheritance I had just received]. Without having thought about it at all I said, “I’ll put half of it away to be frugal, and the other half I’m going to use to go to Japan.” I thought this would be a great time to go there and work on some musical projects. Then I went inside to check my email, and there was a message in my inbox from [bassist] Gene Perla asking me if I knew anybody who’d be available to sing in a lounge in Japan for three months, starting in three weeks. I just said that I’d love to do it…and I got the job. I did four three-month contracts in Japan over 2 ½ years.
5MM: Things seem to happen very quickly in your life! You must trust your intuition a lot.
AC: I do. I have some good friends to bounce things off of, too. But with things like the Japan gig and the Army gig, it was really amazing and random.
5MM: You were a singer in the Army for about seven years. Most jazz singers probably don’t know about these jobs. How did you hear about it?
AC: [Jazz singer] Nancy Marano told me about that opening. So in 2009, while I was in Tokyo, I took the ASFAB exam, at Camp Zama, and the week that I got back from Tokyo I auditioned for the West Point Band. Then a few months later, I was in basic training, and I sang with the Army until October 2015.
5MM: When you enlisted, did you know how long you’d be in the Army?
AC: There’s a minimum of three to four years per enlistment, and you have the option to reenlist every couple of years. So, if I had a four-year enlistment, around year two and a half they’d start asking if I were going to reenlist. If you aren’t going to reenlist, they need to start advertising for your job and hire somebody and send them to basic training. So I enlisted the first time and reenlisted twice. When it came to the third reenlistment, I thought, “I really love this job, but maybe it’s time for me to take the next step with my career.” The military is kind of limiting. Even though it offers some great musical opportunities, my schedule was not my own. Now I have things on the calendar a year out, which absolutely wouldn’t have been copacetic when I was in the Army band.
5MM: You sang with the Army’s Jazz Ambassadors earlier this year, even though you’re no longer enlisted, right?
AC: Yes. There’s a vocal position open now with Jazz Ambassadors Big Band in Washington, D.C. But they’ve had three rounds of auditions so far and they haven’t hired anybody.
5MM: That’s surprising, because a steady singing gig with great musicians, long-term benefits, and lots of travel sounds pretty appealing.
AC: It is. The military just changed the retirement structure, too, so that anybody who serves gets something. That’s going to be good for some people. With my seven years in, I could have gotten some pension [under the new structure]. But I have VA (Veterans Adminstration) healthcare for the rest of my life—everybody who serves at all gets that.
5MM: Did your teaching position at SUNY Purchase came in right after you left the Army?
AC: They overlapped for a while. [Getting the SUNY Purchase position] was amazing, too, because I was living in Peekskill at the time, near West Point, and transitioning out of my role in the Army. As part of that they let me go one day a week to do the SUNY job, where I had about eight students that first year.
5MM: What’s the SUNY program like for singers and what is your role there?
AC: At SUNY Purchase our vocal students are mainstreamed with the other jazz students, and my role there is just to teach the voice lessons. I have developed a curriculum for them over time, where I give them support for their other classes, too, like theory, ear training, and piano practice—giving each individual student what they need. But with my classical voice technique experience, all my students become good singers first. That’s really important to me. So we work on arias and vocal technique primarily, especially in the beginning.
5MM: What do you see as the connection between classical and jazz vocal technique?
AC: Tone, resonance—these are universal things that are beautiful about singing. We put style on top of that. But what’s underneath should always be beautiful and resonant and full and easy and tensionless.
5MM: It sounds like you have a pretty full schedule. Do you have any big projects coming up?
AC: I’m going to be releasing two of my CDs on [Japan-based] Venus Records in the U.S. They were never released here. One of the CDs [with pianist John Di Martino] is called Close Your Eyes, The Sultry Sound Of Jazz, and the other is You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To, with the band One For All. I finally got them repackaged and have a thousand copies of those. I’m also working with Tetsuo Hara [owner of Venus Records] to produce a new Brazilian album. I’m hoping to go to Brazil to do it. After that, my next big artistic ambition is to produce a big band CD. I have all this material that was written for me while I was in the Army band, arranged by [pianist] Scott Arcangel. This project would be to document all the work that I’ve done over the last decade.