Born in London, Wardell immigrated with her family to Australia while still a young girl. She developed an early appreciation for the Great American Songbook through her parent’s extensive collection of cast albums, movie soundtracks and big band sides.
Throughout her career, Wardell has expanded her use of scat singing. On a live recording of “Take the A Train” by the Michael Garrick Big Band, she does not sing the tune at the beginning or end of the arrangement, but contributes a scat solo as if she were one of the horns (and it should be noted that her solo occurs within the sequence of the other horn solos). On “The Meaning of the Blues”, from her album “Kinda Blue”, she scats at ballad tempo, offering a natural extension of her heart-rending delivery of the lyric. She has explored free improvisation with a live version of “Freedom Jazz Dance” (sadly, the best example of this is no longer available on the web). And contrary to the practice found on classic recordings, she frequently follows a vocalese lyric with an extended scat solo, as she does in this intense duet with bassist Andy Hamill on “Farmer’s Market”.
She amassed an extensive knowledge of bebop harmony and jazz scales, which allowed her to create intricate solos that delved into the nooks and crannies of the chords. In her recording of Harold Arlen’s “My Shining Hour” (from the album “Until The Stars Fade“) she follows two choruses of melodic variations with three choruses of swinging and harmonically astute scat. The astounding fluidity and technical acumen that Wardell displays on this track is unmatched by any other singer in jazz today.
We caught up with Anita to talk about her amazing musical career, different inspiration sources, huge love for the voice and her incredible scatting skills!
Hi Anita, it’s a pleasure talking to you – we love your music and would be great to hear more about it! You’re a world- class storyteller and improviser in jazz – having influenced so many people throughout your career; what does jazz mean to you and what does it feel like to take such an important role in this way?
Hi Emily, great to be able to chat to you. Thanks so much for inviting me.
Jazz is an incredible art form- a way of life! I feel incredibly lucky to have an outlet where I can express who I am through music, especially Jazz and the improvisational aspect of this art form. It allows me to keep finding new ways to improve, to focus to keep coming up with something new.
It is a very important role – I take it seriously and try to keep myself accountable within the role. If I’m going to call myself an artist and go out and perform, I owe it to the audience and myself and those I teach to be honest and authentic. To be studious and curious, to be responsible and realise I’ll never ever stop learning and neither do I wish to. I want to be here for the longevity and keep loving and enjoying what I do and hopefully that will be what people remember about me.
Do tell us more about scat singing, the art of jazz improvisation, and how it came into your life.
I really love scat singing it’s like a heartbeat for me. I first heard scat singing when I was studying at Uni in the late 1970’s in Adelaide, Australia. I was in a class and it came to my attention, whilst I should have been listening to the lecture I was in, I was hearing some wordless sounds in the next room over the chord changes of what I later found out to be Dizzy Gillespies “Birks Works”.
Two friends, singers, Kaye Lindon and Janet Leadbeater were singing this tune with a jazz band when suddenly, my ears pricked up and started to party. The girls started vocally scooping and sliding musical ideas using a range of syllables such as doo be sa oolya dulya etc to their spontaneous melodies over the minor blues chord changes.
That sparked my interest to find out who else was singing in this marvellous and exciting way- I then found out about Ella Fitzgerald, Eddie Jefferson, Lambert Hendricks and Ross and all the greats out there that were doing this thing called scat singing. I had to get on it!
Scat singing allows jazz vocalists to explore their voice to the extreme in an instrumental way as with other more expected instruments from saxophone to trumpet – how do you feel the band’s relationship changes when the vocalist scatts instead of just singing the song, and how much improvisation sits within the delivery of the actual song too in interpretation?
When I was young and started scat singing, I received mixed views about it. Some of the more experienced instrumentalists were totally against it and commented that singers should just sing the song.
I must admit, I was pretty hurt by that as I was so enchanted with it – I loved it, it was freeing, it was exciting. To me it was not standing in front of a band whilst 12 choruses of a tune went by with one vocal head at the start and one at the end.
This made me (and probably a lot of other singers) feel as though vocal improvising was exclusive. After all, singers were learning too and trying to understand how scat became part of the whole performance. I used to think, “surely taking a solo on voice is like any other instrument taking a solo? But, apart from a few encouraging people it just wasn’t totally accepted.
I will say though, the relationship between singers and instrumentalists has changed considerably for the better as over the years. This is due to people who have turned or are turning more to studying vocal improvising extensively. There are so many fantastic educators in jazz and improvised music now. Primary and high schools have made jazz part of their syllabus. Students are more exposed to playing opportunities where they can learn their craft, study harmony, theory and how to play with instrumentalists and vocalists.
By the time they get to university level, they are much more confident and experienced. I think singers are becoming more aware that the preparation needed for vocal solos is the same for instrumentalists – listening, transcription, ear training, dexterity, melodic work, chord scale relationships and targeting, harmony, theory, playing with others, we might practice some of these elements in a slightly different way (we all start at different stages) but it’s all the same really. This all helps to build knowledge, language, vocabulary and confidence. I’ve definitely noticed a change in relationships between singers and instrumentalists – much more positive and much more inclusive.
Alongside being renowned as an outstanding scat singer, you’re also a skilled writer and performer of vocalese, as well as a sensitive interpreter of standards and jazz originals. How do you manage to keep on top of your game in all these different areas of music?
Yes – this is always a hard one to manage. I have to split all these areas into compartments to manage it. Improvisation I tend to go through stages of only practicing improvisation for a while, working on my ear and targeting particular chord progressions, rhythmic ideas, – melodies, licks, patterns resolutions and modulations etc.
Transcription at the same time, I’ll pick a tune to transcribe, usually something that I can write lyrics to and will become the next Vocalese. That works well for me time wise. Recently I wrote a vocalese over Dexter Gordons solo on “Don’t explain” – I became obsessed with it and spent a good three weeks refining it, starting again. re – write certain lines – re-think the scanning of the lines and melody. I think I’ve got it now and I’ll be recording it soon! I love it all so much but there’s just never enough time! Arghhhh
Standards Ahh – The Great American songbook treasure chest. It mostly late at night that I get time to dig through for new repertoire. I stick them on a playlist and immerse myself in them whilst I’m out and about and ideas will come to me about how I’ll arrange them and find out if there’s a verse I can add. Keeps me very busy!
Some artists experience what is known as ‘artist’s block,’ a period in which they lack creative ideas. Do tell us where you get your inspiration from, and if you’ve ever had a creative block how did you explore creatively out of this?
My inspiration comes from the greats that I have been listening to since I got into Jazz. At 12 years of age, thanks to my Father’s record collection, I came across Sidney Bechet, Clarinetist, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and many more at. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wanted more.
At 19, I was introduced to Bebop, artists such as Lambert Hendricks & Ross, Charlie Parker, Red Garland, Sheila Jordan, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Cannonball, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Norma Winstone, Nancy Wilson, Mark Murphy, King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson. They all totally blew my mind as did so many other artists. The evidence is totally out there that these artists have all at some point inspired so many establishes up and coming artists which of course go on to inspire the next generation. Brilliant!
It’s beyond clear that you really love the voice. What is it about the voice that you love so much?
You can do so much with the voice – the story telling element is very strong-being able to express with words, drama and emotion. I love finding the colours in vowel shapes and playing with consonants to make a word sound like what your describing, ie painting the word bending a vowel, scooping, sweeping and all those magical things.
You can sing anywhere – no heavy instruments to lug about! Oh…. Except when you have to take an amp and all your music to the gig on public transport in gig shoes in the pouring rain…..ha ha ha
As a highly experienced performer, you had lots of opportunities playing with various instrumentalists. Yet, given that your most recent album was recorded solely with the piano, we’d love to hear what you think about the relationship between the piano and the voice?
I love singing with all instruments. When I’m singing with Piano alone, I don’t just approach the performance like I am the singer and the piano is accompanying me singing a song.
I feel much freer than that, vulnerable and quite exposed – but – I relish in it at the same time. It’s a conversation between the two of us – a long conversation where we delve into the sweetness, the uncomfortable, the joyous, the sometimes – dark -sometimes – light natures of ourselves crossing paths and then swimming alone. Sometimes the whole orchestra is playing sometimes it a single line. We trust the process of the performance and hope to stay true to ourselves.
Congrats on your recently self-released single ‘Wouldn’t it be Loverly?’ from your upcoming album ‘Stars’. As this is the first single from the album, it would be amazing to hear more about it and how it feels to finally have it released.
Thank you Emily, we’re pretty proud of this Cd. Dave and I got talking at the beginning of April 2022 and realised that although I had guested on Dave’s 2020 Cd “Ochre’ we had never recorded a full album together. We decided pretty quickly to come up with a concept and record it because I was moving back to the UK in June 2022.
We arranged a get together and chose some songs. The first tune I suggested was “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” (My Fair Lady) because I had always loved the song since seeing the Musical as young girl. Also, I have thought about this song a lot over the years.
What it would be like to be poor? Not have a home, to be cold, alone and longing for comfort, The fear of living on the street day in and day out, wanting desperately to be looked after and loved. I had already started to reharmonise the A sections of Wouldn’t it be Loverly? a few years ago and whilst organising songs for the recording, came across it.
Whilst discussing the reharmonisation, I said to Dave “I’m not sure about the Bridge, where should we take it”?. Because he was also invested in the lyrics and the reason behind this song choice, he very quickly came up with the perfect set of chord changes to give it a sense of “wistful dreaminess” which enhanced the meaning of the lyrics. It very quickly dawned on us that it should have a short musical “Dream Scene in it where I did a small amount of free vocal impro using breath and some wordless sounds and textures.
I had told him that I really loved the intro to the song – so I Played him the market scene which is the opening of the song. The Covent Garden stall holders are talking about the rich and mimicking what the public were saying. What they were going to do with all their money – We reharmonised that part of the song and used it as a verse. And at the end of the song, you hear a little tribute to the bow bells by playing the first line of the verse a minor 9 th apart – so cool!
‘Stars’ is a dedication to the late, great British singer Tina May, who was an incredible person on the international jazz singing scene, and her loss was a sad huge wave across the British jazz community. Your musical lives were clearly interwoven as great friends and colleagues. Stars is a beautiful title, we’d love to hear more about the album and your musical companionship with Tina.
Yes, Emily, so very sad! This a dedication to Tina. I mentioned earlier that Dave and I started talking about this album at the beginning of April, a week after Tina had passed. Such a travesty to have lost Tina and so young – Kind, warm, so talented and her personality so infectious. We were soulmates, jazz sisters.
We sang together on a number of occasions, ………..
I remember back in the 2000’s we went up to Scarborough Jazz club, with Robin Aspland, Jeremy Brown and Steve Brown. We were performing “A Tribute to the Bebop Singers, Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, Lambert Hendricks and Ross etc. Tina had this idea for us each to don a pony tail extension. Hers bright blonde and mine reddy brown – (she was a girly girl, all sophisticated and graceful….me….I’m a bit more …..mm …rough and tumble). We both wore suits mine were always black- Tina creative and colourful, she wore red that night. Anyway, we sang some vocalese’s and each took one of the solos ie “Now’s the Time” Miles and Parker. During the intro of Eddie’s version of Take the A -Train, Tina turned around and out of her pocket took two stick- on moustaches. She stuck one on each of us and there we were…. …Long pony tails and moustaches spontaneously lowering our larynxs’ to emulate a deeper sound. Together, in all our glory, singing the story of “A- Train” through Eddies amazing vocalese. Swapping phrases and scat lines. We kept breaking into fits of giggles during the song because the glue was wearing of the moustaches and mine was half off- hilarious…. and the audience couldn’t help themselves- falling about laughing- we had a wail of a time! Such a happy memory for me. Tina gave it her all. No messing about. Life was too short!
During the first rehearsal with Dave, I showed him an idea for a tune I was working on which I quite liked and said “I’d like to write something for Tina”. So, he quickly said “let’s do it now – right here on the spot” and off we went. Just like that.
He transformed the idea into something else, something beautiful. He played the first chord and then proceeded to follow me and the melody I was singing. These chords and melody soon became “I hear your song “all about the last night Tina May and I hung out together in 2019.
The album is called “Stars” it’s all about love and loss, hard conversations, beginnings and endings, leaving, returning. It features Norma Winstone’s beautiful lyric to Fred Hersch’s tune instrumentally known as “Endless Stars” vocally known as ‘Stars’. It was a hard record to make in some respects. Re-living certain times in my life that haven’t been the best -I’m glad we did it though, so glad. Most of the songs are from the Great American Songbook, but also features some originals by both Dave and I including “I Hear Your Song” for Tina
You collaborated on this album with Australian Jazz Pianist Dave McEvoy; tell us more about your relationship while working on this project. Did knowing and performing with Dave for many years prior help the work to flow and make the musical connection instantaneous?
Dave McEvoy, is one of Australia’s best and in demand pianists. It’s always an absolute joy to be in his musical company and to experience what he brings to each performance.
Dave’s playing is so inventive, he never fills empty spaces for the sake of it. Rhythmically-in the pocket -swing feel which is so infectious, all intertwined with the most beautiful and soulful of melodic lines. So exciting to sing with.
Having the opportunity to work on an album together from beginning to end and witness his approach to ‘making “Stars” was truly special.
Every song, every arrangement, every re-harmonisation was a collaboration. Making sure we paid attention to detail in the arrangements ensuring that what we were adding was right for the song, the lyrics, the performance and in turn keeping the stories intact and honest.
Finally, when can we expect the album’s ‘Stars’ upcoming songs? And where can people next come and hear you perform?
There’ll be one more single release in April.
The full album will be available on May 4 th at the UK Launch at Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel 9.15pm. We’ll be performing the “STARS” whole album -plus a few newies that will appear on the next!
People will be able to purchase a signed copy of ‘STARS’ form both Dave and I.