Springtime, and birds are singing outdoors.
So is Jeanne O’Connor. The busy time of year has started for the Saratoga Springs jazz vocalist, who will kick off the annual Jazz on Jay concert series in downtown Schenectady on Thursday.
O’Connor has brought her ballads and old standards to clubs, cabarets, concert halls and music festivals. She has been on stage at New York’s Blue Note, Elaine’s, J’s, the Rainbow Room, Cat Club and many other jazz venues. She created “Jeanne O’Connor Sings Gershwin” as part of the Rockefeller Center City Celebration and is part of the female vocal trio String of Pearls.
O’Connor is ready to sing out at Thursday’s noontime event. She sings out today during a Q & A about concerts, jazz and favorite songs.
Q: What’s it like to start this year’s Jazz on Jay series?
A: It’s a total honor and I’m thrilled to be kicking it off. I think I did the series, it must have been six or seven years ago, and I really enjoyed it. I just think it’s a beautiful thing, an outdoor concert series where you can bring music to people who don’t get around to nightclubs and have to be working in the middle of the day. It’s such a wonderful thing that Proctors and the various Schenectady organizations bring jazz to people who don’t get to hear it all the time.
WHERE: Jazz on Jay, Jay Street, Schenectady
WHEN: Noon on Thursday
HOW MUCH: Free
I also get to bring in my “A” team of great musicians — I have Peg Delaney on piano, Pete Toigo on bass and Pete Sweeney on drums — which makes it so much fun. Sometimes, we’re in situations where we can only play with one other instrument because there’s not enough space and it’s not a real concert situation, so to be able to have my full swinging trio behind me in the middle of the day with a somewhat captive audience, I love it.
Q: What’s the difference between singing outdoors and singing inside a club?
A: There are negative things about it (singing outdoors) because sometimes there’s a lot of noise, but for the most part there’s a kind of lightness and happiness about it, especially if it’s a nice day. Sometimes the acoustics are great, sometimes you have to deal with distractions.
I have to say I’ve done many outdoor gigs in New York City; I just got back from doing some gigs with my vocal trio String of Pearls and some outdoor concert series we do in New York City, and Jazz on Jay is quite a bit easier.
If you want to know, last week we had our female vocal trio plus piano, bass and drums and two of the instrumentalists, the bass player and the drummer. We were in traffic for 21⁄2 hours and couldn’t make the start of the gig because the traffic was so horribly snarled. So this is one of the ways that Schenectady is a little easier than midtown Manhattan. There are fewer fire engines and fewer sirens. It can be a little loud and people may leave in the middle of the show, but that’s not a problem. It’s just a pleasure, especially if the weather is good.”
Q: How did you handle the gig where your musicians were delayed?
A: Fortunately, our piano player was there, so we could do the songs with just the piano. It’s also a vocal trio that does harmony, so we can pull it off no matter what.
Q: You do some of the old standards such as “I Cover the Waterfront” and “All the Things You Are,” do you ever fear that some of these songs may slip away because fewer people are singing them?
A: Sometimes I worry about that a little bit. I do think they are timeless, so they do reach people. We mix it in sometimes with more contemporary things, and I also do gigs where I do different kinds of material. I’ll do some rhythm and blues kind of tunes. Sometimes we’ll do things like Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why,” but I think the infectiousness of the rhythm with these players, I think we get through to people.
I think that some of the songs like Carole King and Joni Mitchell and people like that are being considered more standards or classics as time moves on. So sometimes we incorporate those into our set.
Q: Does it help that people may know the lyrics to the older songs?
A: I think so. Some of them know the lyrics. I haven’t finalized what I’m going to do Thursday, but something like “Summertime,” which we often do during the summer, that never goes out of style. Sometimes, there will be a song that’s on a commercial like “Fly Me to the Moon” and people will get to know it again a little bit from the media. Hopefully, they’ll respond to the quality of the musicianship and the fact that we’re trying to have fun.
I was just reading a blog, a guy saying this is why people don’t like jazz. One of the points that he was making was sometimes instrumentalists in particular, who are very serious about their improvisations, may not work as hard to connect to an audience. I don’t think that’s the problem as much with singers. We’re all about connecting to an audience, we’re all about lyric. And we’re about having a little fun, trying to connect to the joy of the music, which is so much fun for me, anyway.
Q: What do you think about the state of jazz these days?
A: I think in some ways it’s really healthy. I think someone like Wynton Marsalis has done so much to keep it in the public eye. I don’t think it’s as popular, you’re not seeing people on “American Idol” doing as much jazz as one might like. I think there’s a great niche for it and I don’t think it will ever go away.
Also, I will say having spent much of my career in New York, this particular region, the Capital District region and in Schenectady, there’s such a great group of jazz listeners who really come out, really support the music, follow the music and love the music. There’s also a great jazz community and also a great community of singers. Colleen Pratt is a friend and colleague of mine, Jody Shayne, some of the other singers in town. I moved up here a little more than 10 years ago, and I’ve just been delighted to find such a great jazz community up here.
Q: If the busy time is here, what’s also on your schedule?
A: On Sunday [June 8] I’m bringing up a male singer named Richard Lanham. We did a whole duo thing in New York for a long time, Lanham and O’Connor, we’re doing a concert for the Swingtime Jazz Society at Portofino’s in Latham at 4 in the afternoon. It’s going to be great, it’s a great series that people come out to, it’s like A Place for Jazz.
I’m going to be doing a bunch of gigs at Provence in Albany, I also have a group called Jeanne O’Connor and the New Standard, which is sort of a ’60s, ’70s band with four-part harmonies. I’ll be doing the “Upbeat on the Roof” series at the Tang at Skidmore College. String of Pearls will be coming to Caffe Lena in August, we’ll also be playing Saratoga Race Course.
Q: Are there any songs you really enjoy singing?
A: It’s interesting you mention “All the Things You Are,” that’s a song I never get tired of singing. I always find something new in it, something new to explore. The chord changes and the harmony and the melody are so beautiful, so I love that one. I like a Rodgers and Hart song called “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was”; I never get tired of that one. And believe it or not, even though this is a real loungy kind of tune, almost corny, but actually “Fly Me to the Moon,” I’ve always enjoyed singing it — even though it’s been sung in a million lounges and probably badly. But I never get tired of it.