Sunday, May 7, we're holding a Jazz Brunch and Performance at Ace Hotel featuring STAYCEE PEARL dance project dancers and vocalist Anqwenique Wingfield and Trio+. As the lead vocalist of ABBEY: In the Red, Anqwenique has been working alongside Soy Sos, Arranger Ben Opie, Ben Barson, Paul Thompson, and Elisa Kohanski. We recently caught up with Anqwenique to get the 411 on what her experience with this project has been like and what we can expect to see and hear at the Jazz Brunch.
What do you have in store for us at the Jazz Brunch Sunday?
I’m really excited about the brunch. I think it’s going to be a really beautiful day, and Ace Hotel is such a beautiful venue. I’m working with Trio+ and these guys are like my brothers. For this show, the audience should definitely expect to see a sneak peek of how the dancers, musicians and myself have been working together as an ensemble. It’s not a replacement of the show, but you’ll definitely hear some pieces from the actual show. There will Joe Sheehan on keys, Jason Rafalak on bass, and Ryan Socrates on drums. Me and these guys have been playing and singing together for a long time, so I’m excited to dig back into some of our old repertoire to supplement the Abbey Lincoln music. There will be a good mix of things: we’ll have the Abbey Lincoln music and some things from that era, but you’ll also hear some more contemporary works that Trio+ and I have done together as well. I love working with dancers, and I love watching a dancer while I’m singing and trying to figure out how to match their movements somehow. It’s never perfect, but it’s still that attempt right in the moment that’s something really beautiful. I love working in a multidisciplinary fashion. I think that it’s just really wonderful to get a group of artists together who all do different things and to just find all of the possible intersections and possibilities that the art can take.
How did you get involved with ABBEY: In the Red?
Herman (Soy Sos) and Staycee both reached out to me and were really excited about this project. I was kind of familiar with Abbey Lincoln--Of course I would listen to Max Roach, and I heard a few Abbey Lincoln songs, but never really just studied it. When I started to really research and listen to Abbey's music and immersed myself in it, I was truly, truly enthralled with the content for lots of different reasons. As a vocalist from a classical background, things like good diction are really important to me or things my ear grabs a hold onto, so I was just like wow, she has so much great diction in her singing, and I can really understand the words, and not just understand them, but I could feel the intent, and I felt what she was evoking. That was one of the things that really pulled my attention. Once I started to immerse myself, there was no going back.
What have you learned about Abbey Lincoln throughout this process, whether musically or about her life?
One thing I was really fascinated with was her acting career. She had been in For Love of Ivy. Seeing clips of her in this movie, seeing some of her acting skills, and seeing her in the early to mid 60s and the kind of stuff she was doing there, it just really reminded me of early Nina Simone. If you watch videos of Nina Simone early in her career, she had a very different messaging and a very different aesthetic, which was at the time a standard for female performers. So you had your hair pressed, you had the beautiful makeup, you had these wonderful, beautiful gowns, and I think that was a tv standard in those days. Watching Abbey, you see the metamorphosis and the changes in the evolution of her as a musician, but also of her as a person and her views of the world. Seeing that shift happen--watching old videos and things like that--was really fascinating.
Also, knowing the era that she was coming out of and the other singers that were around--Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and just knowing that she sang all the old standards that were sung during that time, and yet she still made a choice to break away from that and what came of that is just so beautiful. I watched interviews where she said that the professional and musical relationship that she had with Max Roach really just changed her and gave her a different kind of voice. It’s so clear and evident when you listen to the music of their collaboration: her voice is so free right when she sings this work, and it’s so raw, but at the same time, it’s so impeccably executed. Her intentional bending of pitches and the diction and all of those things are still incredibly intact, but there’s still this freedom that exists in the work too that really appeals to me. For me and my career as a classical musician and also as a jazz musician, singing all different types of music, I always am trying to find that freedom for myself as an artist within the context of having good technique. It’s not an easy thing to do and she just hit it right on the head.
In terms of subject matter and technique, Abbey Lincoln’s music is very difficult, how do you tackle the process of singing her music?
I think there’s no substitute for the amount of time you spend with the work. When I’m preparing for rehearsal, I practice as much as I can, but really it’s having that sit-down alone time with the music without the other musicians--just me sitting down at the piano, plucking out my notes or just listening and immersing myself. It’s like spending time with a new partner. It’s like you got a new boo-thang, and you don’t want to hang out with your friends anymore. You have to hang out with this person because it’s very important that you get to know them. What’s also really important for me, because I’m a classical musician, is I read music. In this kind of process, even though it’s jazz music and not classical music, having the sheet music is really helpful. I can see the notes on the page and what the other instruments are doing and hearing them at the same time, I feel my way through and how I fit in. That’s one of the most helpful parts of my process.
What is one of your favorite Abbey Songs and why?
I really love Garvey’s Ghost. I love the fact that it doesn’t have text and that it’s only the vocals. I love how literal this idea of there being a ghost is and just how haunting the melody is. I also love in Garvey’s Ghost how in the switch from the A section to the B section in Abbey’s recording, she automatically switches into this more operatic tone, which is right up my ally. When I first heard that, I felt really at home in making that switch and exploring those different sides of my voice. I also love--I’m going to give you two songs because I’m hard headed--I also love Freedom Day, and I really love our arrangement of Freedom Day. Our arrangement has this house kind of back-beat that’s very different from the original recording. It’s very different from Max Roach’s style, and I’m really excited to have this fresh beat underneath this very important classic song. Another thing I love about Freedom Day is that at the top and the bottom of the song, it begins and ends with this very sort of dense wailing that Abbey does. And I just love the text:
Freedom Day, it's Freedom Day. Throw those shackle n' chains away/
Everybody that I see says it's really true, we're free.
So it’s a celebration, even though it feels like a tentative celebration, but I think that’s very real and consistent with our experience as black people. We find the celebration in whatever the circumstances are and that celebration is always tentative because as much as we want to celebrate freedom, we know that it’s still an ongoing fight, it’s still an ongoing process. There’s this sort of pain woven into it and I’m really just trying to explore that and bring that out intentionally.
More information about STAYCEE PEARL dance project and Soy Sos' production of ABBEY: In the Red can be found here.