“People say I sound like my mother, but I get the scatting from my dad.” That was a recurring theme in a recent conversation with Capital Region jazz singer Colleen Pratt.
The musical experiences (and genetics) she has shared with her family are never far from the surface. Her father was a jazz musician, her mother sings and her sisters both sing and play. But Pratt has a sure sense of what she wants from the music.
“I’m zoning in on standards,” she says when asked what she’s concentrating on currently. “I don’t consider myself a jazz singer. I’m an interpreter of standards.” That’s a telling observation from someone who could easily coast on the wheels of a recognized and respected style. Calling herself an interpreter of songs instead of a torchbearer of a “style” reveals a connection and respect for the music and shows a particular attitude. However, that isn’t to say that calling Pratt a jazz singer would be off the mark. Far from it.
Empire Jazz Orchestra
WHO: Saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and singer Colleen Pratt
WHERE: Schenectady County Community College, Carl B. Taylor Auditorium
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday
HOW MUCH: $15; $6 students
MORE INFO: 381-1232
In fact, one of the groups she regularly performs with is called just that: The Jazz Voices. The two other area vocalists who fill out the group are Jody Shayne and Teresa Broadwell.
Pratt’s connections within the local jazz community is six degrees from anywhere. She has long been a regular with many of the best area groups playing private parties, weddings and other such functions. This has put her in touch with all the best players, but she’s happy to be focusing solely on the music that interests her these days.
“I’m glad not to have to sing ‘Electric Slide’ or ‘YMCA’,” Pratt says with a laugh that may be more a sign of relief than thinking that anything is particularly funny.
In addition to The Jazz Voices and groups she organizes from the fine pool of local talent, she’s also the singer for the local big band Empire Jazz Orchestra. She will perform with the orchestra in Schenectady on Tuesday night as part of their Jazz Masters concert series at Schenectady County Community College. She will sing “Too Close for Comfort” and “The Summer Wind.”
The special guest that evening will be saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, who will play tenor, alto and flute with the EJO. He will also do a question-and-answer clinic at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday in Room 156 of Begley Hall at the college. The public is invited.
Pratt has also recorded a CD with the orchestra titled “I Thought About You,” after the well-worn standard tune of the same name.
Another recording she’s happy to talk about is one that includes the singing of her mother, Helen. They sing duets on the standards “Pennies From Heaven” and the CD’s titular song “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Pratt is vocal about her mother’s talents as a singer and refers to her as her inspiration.
“When I open my mouth to sing, It’s her,” she says. Helen Pratt is 85 now and still singing.
When the younger Pratt is asked if she does any vocal teaching, the question gets steered back around to her family again: “I tried. I had one great student but it took up a lot of time. And I didn’t study. I’m a student of life.”
Her “schooling” or study involved hearing her parents perform with Skip Parsons when she was young. She was also fortunate enough to witness another relative of hers, Bobby Pratt, often playing piano with Roy Eldridge. Those types of experiences can be invaluable learning experiences and this concept is not lost on Pratt.
In recent years, Pratt has come around to owning her own business: an insurance company. It’s definitely a full-time day gig and takes up a good amount of her time and energy. Contrary to how it may appear, this move has been good for her musical situation, she says.
In the past, she’d be singing full time, gigging five to six nights a week. But that included a lot of “Electric Slide” and “YMCA.” These days, she is “zoning in on standards” and really focusing in on music that matters to her personally. Between her full-time business to run and her various music projects, she’s keeping extremely busy. But that’s not a problem. “Some weeks I have no days off,” Pratt says. “But I’m good with that.”