Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

March/April 2012: Dee Daniels

Anna-Lisa Kirby

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Anna-Lisa Kirby has made a big impression on this city since she arrived here from New York almost a decade ago. With performances in every possible setting, from the WSO to duos with husband Steve at private receptions, Anna-Lisa has moved listeners with her articulate and musical storytelling. As the Vocal Instructor in the Jazz Studies program at the U of M, Anna-Lisa is also responsible for giving the right start to many of the terrific young singers taking their places in this city’s musical landscape. These days, her focus is on her March 31 concert of Leonard Cohen songs…

You’re becoming known as an interpreter of Cohen songs. What do you like about his writing?

I wasn’t listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen, but when Dr David Barnard asked us to perform “Hallelujah” at the U of M convocation a few years back, Steve put this arrangement together and people liked it. That got me interested, so we started exploring. “Bird on a Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Suzanne”—now we have almost a dozen, and they’re very diverse. Harmonically and melodically, they’re straightforward, but the lyrics are anything but.

Really it’s been the poetry that has dictated our approach to arrangements for all of these tunes—that’s the path to create something fresh and compelling. There’s a line about Lily Marlene in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and researching her gave Steve the idea to use a slow polka/march feel, it’s almost a caricature of that wartime mood. I took the same approach with “Suzanne,” but some of them just lent themselves to a more pure jazz treatment. “Tower of Song,” for example—shift it to ¾ and it’s a fit with Miles’ Davis “All Blues.”

The whole concert is kind of a rollercoaster ride. You have all these incredible lyrics, and songs you think you know turned upside down and inside out by these phenomenal musicians. It’s Leonard Cohen, but not as you know it!

You’ve performed in a lot of different settings over the past few years. Do you have a favorite?

It’s really fun to sing with a big band, so I’m always happy to perform with the WJO. The WSO? Wow, I’m singing with the symphony—tell me what you want and I’ll do it! I also really like working on other people’s projects. When Steve comes up with stuff for the Oceanic Jazz Orchestra and puts it in my lap, I have to figure it out. I like the challenge of making it work. But singing classic, straight-ahead jazz with a great ensemble—the American Songbook, blues, Ella, Sarah, Billie—that will always be my first love.

Teaching is a big part of your life now. Are teaching and performing connected for you?

I whole-heartedly believe that you can’t teach this music unless you perform it—if I stopped performing, I would cease to be vital and credible. I think I’ve grown more as an artist in the last ten years, because teaching forces you to really break down what it is you do and make it user-friendly. What are the steps? What are the hurdles? How did this become second nature?

The other thing I’ve learned is that there’s no point in keeping secrets. In New York, the singers wouldn’t divulge their secrets so I ended up learning things the hard way, on the bandstand. When I started teaching here, I thought, “There’s room for all of us—I’m gonna give them the info and get as many people as I can to love it.” Because that’s what I care about. I don’t want any negativity or ugliness or entitlement attached to it.

What singers most inspire you?

There are so many… The singers that got me off the ground were the divas: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae. I got to hear these legendary jazz artists (except Billie) when I lived in New York—to this day that blows my mind! Then I discovered Shirley Horn, who really had a huge impact on my singing. From her I learned that it’s about what you don’t say—the real magic is in the spaces.

For years, I have loved Dianne Reeves—I’m inspired by her pure vocal ability, her phraseology, her improvisational ability (not only scatting but within the song), and her exciting arrangements. More recently, I’ve become obsessed with Kurt Elling—just ask my students! He’s a phenomenal artist in every way—improvisationally, rhythmically, creatively. I have so much to learn from him that I’m going to be feeling his influence for years.

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