Friday, April 19, 2013

12 Questions (+ 2) for Valerie Gillespie!

photo by Jennifer Smith

Valerie Gillespie is about as talented as they come. Astoundingly proficient on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes as well as flute, she's also a vocalist, with a natural, easy-going, soulful sound. She's played with artists like Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney and even the Xavier Cugat Orchestra. Comfortable in both jazz and classical settings, she also plays with many top symphonic orchestras and is hence one of the busiest musicians in Tampa. So busy, in fact, we felt guilty asking her to do the interview! She cheerfully obliged in between an orchestra gig, teaching a jazz vocal master class and her long-running stand at The Garden Café in Dade City. Because her talents span so wide a territory (we didn't even get into the motorcycle riding), we had to add a few extra questions!

1) Your dad was a singer, did you learn a lot from him? Do you hear him in yourself when you sing, or even play?

Yes! All the tunes I learned as youngster, I learned from him, always by ear.  He'd come in to my practice room (the breakfast nook) and sing tunes to me, and I would just copy them by ear.  It was good because it improved my ability to do any song in any key.

2) What was your first professional gig?

I think I was about 13, and played at the local Elks club with an organ player who played jazz tunes.  The thing I remember about that gig is that I needed to work on remembering the bridges to tunes.  The way most tunes are laid out, the A section is done 3 times for every 1 time of the bridge so I sometimes had to have him play the bridge because I couldn't remember it.  It was a great learning experience for me.

3) Along with a masters in jazz saxophone (USF), you also have a bachelors in classical (Carnegie-Mellon). Is there a favorite composer or piece that you love to play in that milieu?

Just yesterday I listened to Stravinsky's "Firedbird Suite".  He is probably my favorite, but I also love Debussy, Mussorgsky, Bizet and Ravel.  I perform with the Florida Orchestra frequently, and usually end up having solos in the works for which they call me.  This evening is our third performance of Leonard Bernstein's "On The Town" and I have two sultry solos in the third movement.

photo by George Lindsay - Tungsten Photography
4) So far – what has been one of the most memorable onstage jazz experiences for you? Classical?

There are so many, but one that comes to mind is doing a concert with Bobby McFerrin with the Florida Orchestra.  It was mostly classical, but at one point he started to do a jazz jam on Blue Monk with the bass player, and then pointed to me and had me take a solo… it was completely impromptu!  I had a blast, and what an adrenaline rush!  For classical
it would probably be the time I played Pictures at an Exhibition, and the conductor Vladimir Verbitski loved it so much, he brought me out onto the podium... 4 nights in a row. That was truly an honor.


5) Name 3 albums (any genre) that are currently getting a lot of rotation in your home or ipod.

Ingrid Jensen- Project O, Kenny Garrett- Pursuance, Tierney Sutton- Blue in Green

6) Who do you look to as the ideal jazz instrumentalist? Vocalist?

Kenny Garrett-saxophone, and Ella Fitzgerald-vocalist.  I love these two specifically because they play and sing with such control and yet such abandon, and those are the qualities that draw me to jazz.

7) Tell us about your saxophones/flutes!

Saxes alto, tenor, bari I play Selmer Mark VI, soprano I play a Yamaha Custom. Clarinet, I play a Buffet.  Flute, I play a Yamaha.

Valerie on Bari sax - photo by John DePaola
8) I'm sure you hate this question... if you had to be stranded on a desert isle with only one horn, which would you choose? (or would you hide your soprano and flute in the bari?)

My alto sax, definitely.  It seems to be my natural voice, and feels the most comfortable to me.  I would probably be tempted to sneak the flute and clarinet in as well, though.  'Clara' and I have a secret love affair going on… Don't tell anyone!

9) Is there a composer that you love to sing?

Cole Porter and George Gershwin are two of my favorites, and anything with Johnny Mercer lyrics.  Oh, and also Billy Strayhorn….  So many songs, so little time!

10) As an artist, do you have specific goals that you are trying to achieve when you perform?

On horns, I am trying to create a good shape to the solo, so that it has a definite peak.  Sort of like an author writing a book with a good climax.  Vocally, I love a good ballad, and the key for me is to be understated, not to push too hard.  I always like a relaxed tone, so the warmth is there.  That seems to be my strength vocally, so I try to make sure that comes through.

11) Which of your albums do you feel has come closest to sounding and relaying exactly what you wanted it to?

This is a tough one… I find that I like certain tracks on each CD. If I had to choose, I might be inclined to say "Lush Life" because that is my all-time favorite tune, and I was thrilled to get to record it… "Rough Around the Edges" has been very popular, though, in fact, I'm going to have to place an order for some more, so I guess that one was successful, as well.


12) As an adjunct at USF - what's the most important thing to impart or inspire in a student?

Probably getting the student to feel motivated just for the sake of music, not for any particular performance.  If they can practice consistently simply because they want to try new things, then I feel I have really done my job.  And probably the best way to keep that in the forefront is to do a lot of listening.

photo by Alex R. Spassoff
13) I've noticed that even though their are plenty of female jazz musicians out there, many of them very famous - it still seems to be a 'man's world'. I don't see many famous jazz men hiring women, and I don't see women equally talented as their male counterparts reaching the same status. Do you agree? Did you have struggles in this area? Do you have advice for young ladies going into jazz?

I have usually been the only woman in the band, with the exception of some great players like Ingrid Jensen and Anat Cohen, but it does not bother me at all.  I've always been treated with the greatest respect, I think because musicians are only interested in whether you can play or not.  As soon as they hear that, then they're unconcerned with anything else: they just want to play!  My advice to women is practice hard, make sure you have a GOOD sound, and that you know your stuff.  Don't worry about anything except that you play with confidence.

14) What's coming up for you?

I have been doing some jazz festivals and jazz vocal workshops lately, and as far as the band goes, I am looking to add to our repertoire with some obscure ballads, and hopefully some originals.  Also, June 7th & 8th I'll be at Heidi's in Cocoa Beach.  Maybe I will have a couple of originals by then! 

We asked Valerie to choose a video of her performing for this article - she chose a sizzling live version of Chick Corea's "Got a Match?", also featuring flute sensation Jose Valentino on flute! (former student)

Thank you Valerie for a highly entertaining interview. Keep an eye out for appearances by Valerie throughout Florida & don't miss 'em! You can hear her exceptional playing and singing on episodes 11, 13 and 16a of our podcast. Her music is available at iTunes and CD Baby. Below are some purchase links for Valerie's excellent albums on Amazon. Treat yourself! - PCJ

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