Singing into synthesis: UNC vocalist specializes in blending in with, not becoming the leader of, the band
April 19, 2017
The UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival begins tonight and runs through Saturday evening. The festival also features after-hours sessions at the Moxi Theatre, 802 9th St. in downtown Greeley, as well as hundreds of school groups performing all weekend at various venues for free and clinics put on by many great musicians.
The evening performances, one of the highlights of the festival, are as follows:
» Tonight — Vocalist and National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master Shelia Jordan presents a tribute to Charlie Parker with opener Aubrey Logan.
» Friday — NEA jazz master and saxophonist Jimmy Heath performs with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band.
» Saturday — The world premiere of the “Romeo and Juliet” project features NEA Jazz Master David Liebman
with trumpter virtuoso Greg Gisbert and UNC’s Jazz Lab Band I.
The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Union Colony Civic Center, 701 10th Ave. in downtown Greeley.
Many times, when vocalist Julia Dollison performs with a big band, she's an instrument, not a singer.
When you think of jazz singers, you probably think of the person out front singing something like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." Dollison does that, too. One of her favorite singers, in fact, is Shelia Jordan, who will perform a tribute to Charlie Parker tonight at the UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival. But she specializes in something called "wordless texture singing," and that's what she will do Saturday night at the jazz festival.
Dollison will perform three tunes of "Romeo and Juliet," a series of jazz pieces that tell the story of Shakespeare's most romantic play. The songs were written just for her, and they call for her to vocalize a written part without words, just as if she was a trumpet, saxophone or trombone. The goal isn't for her to be out front, or stand out, as most singers.
"The goal is to blend in," Dollison said, "and be in the mix."
They're demanding pieces, not something in which she's supposed to hum pretty notes over a few bars. In one of the pieces, written by avant garde composer and drummer John Hollenbeck, he called her to ask about her range, and she said she had four octaves, so he uses many notes in those four octaves, from the highest to the lowest. And because this is jazz, she does have some small parts in which she improvises, but she isn't scat singing, a much more well-known technique used by jazz singers for soloing when they aren't singing the lyrics of a song.
The concept, while unusual, doesn't make her an outlier. Minnie Riperton did it (in a small way) for "Lovin' You," and the metal bands Disturbed and Protest The Hero use vocalists who dabble in it. Her hero was Norma Winstone, who pioneered the concept as a singer for Kenny Wheeler way back in the 1970s. Dollison teaches vocal jazz at the University of Northern Colorado with her husband, Kenny Marsh.
But it was unusual enough for her to become Maria Schneider's first vocalist, back in 2000 when she graduated from college. Schneider, a writer known for her intricate pieces, to the point in which they're almost symphonic compositions, went against her nature a bit, sending Dollison a bunch of her music and telling Dollison to "figure it out." Schneider then later tweaked what Dollison figured out.
Dollison knew she wanted to sing since she was 5, but she thought she would be a classical music performer, until she was told by more than one professor that her voice was too breathy. By then, in college, she had discovered jazz anyway, the world of Ella and Billie and Nina, and she was happy to focus her efforts on it. She found her own way, with her unique style, and she built a career out of it.
"I have a taste," Dollison said, "for the rare and unusual things."