“I try less to be someone people look at while I sing, and someone that makes people feel something when I sing. People tend to hear with their eyes first, which is truly unfortunate, but the idea that I have a bit of an old-school glam in my personality in general is not off point. I feel that when one performs he or she needs to respect the audience by dressing up for the occasion, but I realize that is not at all the most important aspect of this music... the music is. We all present different styles which ultimately glean insight on our inner personalities, but my on-stage presence tends to be more subdued than my off-stage mannerisms…”
I think one could forgive this jazz reviewer for wanting to discuss the juxtaposition of image and art with Chicago-based singer Erin McDougald, who self-identified as a “Flapper Girl” while building a promising jazz career early this century. Pictures from that time, along with seriously supportive critiques, suggested McDougald was demurely recreating a postmodern version of the 1920’s liberated female while fashioning a distinctive vocal style nurtured by people like the late William Russo at Columbia College.
And things were going swimmingly until a tragic misfortune. In 2006, as McDougald was creating momentum based on an album, Meeting Place, she was seriously injured in a car accident that took the steam out of everything.
But, with over a decade between that fateful day and now, McDougald has impressively returned with a new album and refocused energy. Chicago jazz aficionados can see and hear for themselves on July 7 when she, veteran guitarist Bruce Forman, and Chicago’s estimable percussionist Paul Wertico team up at the Den Theatre for a concert, which starts at 10 p.m. with Forman soloing his “one-man jazz libretto” The Red Guitar.
In a recent interview, this intelligent and engaging lady never brought up the accident, and it took a little digging to figure out what has been going on in the 12 years between recordings. But the time passed has not diminished her talent, creativity, and desire to be all things jazz.
As she stated, “When was brilliance ever a straight line?”
So, in a studio with several high-quality players, including two superstars, she self-produced Outside the Soiree, a terrific collection of deep-cut songs and an intoxicating original composition that represents what collective jazz is all about. Deftly engineered, recorded, and mixed by Dae Bennett, the performances are products of in-studio improvisation, giving her sidemen and soloists lots of air to breathe and the atmosphere to create, all while McDougald gives each tune her rhetorical twists and turns. Everything, clearly, is jazzed up.
“This album lets each artist shine as an individual and all of us shine as a fluctuating unit,” she said, “and I think that is the magic of improvised music or ‘jazz’... it's about the coming together and the divergent beauty we each contribute in that complimentary, supportive kind of a kinship.
“I try not to put hard restrictions of time limits,” she continued, “as the music should be unfolding in the moment and captured instead of what I think a lot of people in recording studios do, which is to try to create within a parameter of time to fit a hard 55-minute record. I have been criticized for allowing songs to go on too long, but I have also seen the most honest music come out of just letting it happen, even if we do two or three separate takes and then choose which track we most prefer to use on the record.”
Once one gets past the on-going and entertaining flapper persona, still evident on her self-planned album art, one experiences an artist who has thought deeply about her trade and the development of her art.
McDougald opined, “Most people completely miss the meaning of ‘The Flapper Girl’ in regard to my moniker; it is not about sexuality or clothing, as much as it is a social statement --a mantra of understanding the gravity and distinction of what existed before while inviting progress. The Flappers were indicative of the Jazz Age in the 1920s because they contributed to turning an avant-garde art form into a social sensation. Jazz was, and is, among other things, a social statement about the emergence of freedom of expression, freedom of self and freedom from constraints of social class…it goes way beyond the aesthetic or the surface. I think Flappers, like jazz musicians, engaged the discussion of progressive thinking. I like marrying the history of jazz standards with an improvisational, progressive mentality. To me, jazz evolves with the times, whether it is the making of new music or the reinvention of a standard to draw relevant correlations in historical or social contexts.
“The fact that I remind some people of Clara Bow is flattering or even amusing, but there is more pith behind the reference of the term for my purposes. And one can be attractive AND cerebral AND outspoken AND feminine AND comical AND thoughtfully-intuitive…”
So, instead of signifying (such as, oh, let’s see what the lady is like under the [album] cover), it’s more incisive to invite listeners to what went on BEYOND the cover. And what went on is very, very good indeed, an appealing display of ‘off’ tunes centered on an off-centered theme.
“I thrive off of unearthing obscure tunes or borrowing songs from other genres outside of the jazz idiom and turning them into improvised renditions to appease a jazz mentality, if you will. I love finding a mood for each song and letting my voice express that mood as if it were a diary entry or a private conversation or a jubilant announcement... and through those vignettes, a theme emerges, as with all my albums, which generally speaks to a more general statement. This album explores what it is like not to be part of a ‘clique,’ but rather to be alone with a choice, or part of the fringe, or lost in a crowd, or separated from the familiar... Outside looking in-- inside oneself and outside looking in on something from another perspective.”
It’s appropriate that on July 7 McDougald, a shrewd chooser of sidemen, will sing with Forman (whose accompaniment on Annie Sellick’s A Little Piece of Heaven raised that live recording a notch) because on Outside the Soiree, one of her main foils is guitarist Rob Block, whose understated yet invocative playing embellishes her expression throughout. He and bassist Cliff Schmidt provide constant synergistic support that makes one think of other vocalists who paired up with musicians for grand effect—Getz and Gilberto, Billie and Lester, Ella and Oscar, for examples.
“Cliff Schmitt and I have been good friends for ten years or so, and I love his playing and love his friendship; we have so much fun together. I felt he was not highlighted enough by critics, for sure, but thought his soul came through on the title track. Rob Block has been a close collaborator with me for over a decade and he and I worked most closely on the arrangements and the concepts, you could say, as we did weekly gigs together in Chicago for a decade and really knew each other intimately as artists who evolved together and because of one another through that time…”
And, of course, the album benefits from the presence of two highly respected players, trumpeter Tom Harrell and saxophonist Dave Liebman.
“Basically, I have wanted to work with Tom Harrell since hearing him on Wise Children around 2004-2005 and a Sheila Jordan album around that time [Little Song, High Note]. And Dave Liebman, who has worked with me in live settings and advised me both personally and professionally in my life and career—I love him as a (musical) father-figure—I first started listening to around that time frame as well; in fact, I tried to get him on Meeting Place, but he was traveling when I was recording. So when this album came about, I reached out to Dave Love, his then-manager and told him about the project and sent him some clips of my singing live and recorded, and Lieb got back to me within that afternoon…It was actually a pretty easy process getting these players on board and they were, to my surprise, truly enthusiastic and encouraging of the project and my singing from day one and ever since.”
To these ears, album high points include the opener, “Don’t Be On the Outside (Looking on the inside),” a swinging introduction to the band that features pleasurable solos from Liebman’s soprano, Harrell’s Miles-like smoky entry, and label-boss Mark Sherman’s vibe play; “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” on which McDougald signifies both sensually and socially, a moment of lounge-singer-pianist (Block) chutzpah that evolves into a mambo with a great horn arrangement embellished by a Harrell solo; the title cut, where McDougald paints a scene of the outsider, with a brilliant recording of her mates: Block on guitar, Schmitt’s evocative bass, Dan Block on tenor sax, and Rodney Green on drums; and “The Parting Glass,” which ends the album the way it began, pianist Rob Block, bassist Schmitt and drummer Green’s rock-solid support of Liebman on soprano, Harrell, Sherman on vibes, and Dan Block on tenor, with McDougald’s scats, creating a fitting end to this collective effort that feels a lot like what a concert would be.
“The music we found within our communications and expressions is very honest and hopefully that translates in a way that will engender neophytes to appreciate the beauty and aficionados to relish in the nuance. As an artist, that feels like the best success... when your music moves everyone involved in making it and those who happen to hear it or seek it out,” said McDougald.
While those who attend on July 7 won’t get the whole band, they’ll get the whole woman, which this album and its music delivers, in every jazzy way possible.
Erin McDougald. Outside the Soiree Miles High Records, 2018.
Erin McDougald, vocals.
Tom Harrell, trumpet and flugelhorn
Dave Liebman, soprano and tenor saxophone
Rob Block, guitar and piano
Cliff Schmitt, bass
Rodney Green, drums
Dan Block, tenor and alto saxophone, flute, clarinet
Chembo Corniel, percussion
Visit FlapperGirlSings.com for more information on Erin McDougald