Ingrid James: Setting High Standards

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Brisbane singer Ingrid James is not 22 years old.  This is good.

Mind you, I have nothing against 22-year old jazz singers as a specific group.  By the time she was 22, Billie Holiday was already recording those astonishingly mature standards sides with Teddy Wilson’s various small bands;  Ella Fitzgerald was the voice of the great Chick Webb Orchestra;  Lee Wiley was…well, we don’t really know, because she lied about her age.  But she was really outstanding, that’s for sure.

No,  it’s not about age, it’s about maturity, insight and confidence…and that’s what you get in bucketsful from the somewhat-older-than-22 Ingrid.   With so many singers putting out CDs before they are genuinely ready to immortalise their work, it’s refreshing to listen to Ingrid James and her sense of swing, her accuracy, her fresh approach, her maturity.

Said Ingrid recently:  “A couple of years ago, after I had been singing for a while, one of my friends said to me, ‘Ingrid, you’re being very safe with your songs.’  That comment really affected me, and I resolved from then on not to be so safe, to take chances and see what happens.”

What happened was that Ingrid went from being a technically accomplished singer with at least a two and a half effective octave range, to becoming a musician.     Now it was not enough to hit the notes right on pitch and breathe at the right moments.  Now she was crossing bar lines, going up where others would go down, exploring new and daring harmonic possibilities.    Now she could safely avoid parroting precisely the notes which the composer gave us – she was interpreting and giving of herself.  It’s called being an artist.

Ingrid’s journey has seen more than just the predictable stops along the way. There’s her years as a TV producer with the ABC, and valuable experience singing in groups (ideal for learning how to intelligently interact with the instrumentalists you share the stage with, a skill Ingrid has mastered). She’s also enjoyed those intangibles that help develop artistic expression, life experiences like raising children and watching an intimate relationship grow.

Now she’s a full-time singer, a jazz identity complete with a recording, interstate tours, maybe foreign jazz festivals before too long.  

Ingrid’s maturity also manifests itself in her answer when you ask her where her style comes from.

“Sure, I really enjoy Billie and Ella and especially Sarah Vaughan, but a lot of my inspiration comes from horn players,” she says, citing the great Clifford Brown, among others.

(Interestingly, another fine singer who, like Ingrid, has made her mark on the Australian scene, says pretty much the same thing.  Former Melbourne singer Alison Wedding is also a devoted admirer of Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins. On Ingrid’s release Essence (Newmarket CD),  it’s clear that she is a listener and well as a performer.  She interacts superbly with her sax and flute player Adrian Cunningham, who sometimes sounds even more inspired and disciplined on Ingrid’s recording than on the Newmarket CD under his own name. Bassist Owen Newcomb and drummer John Parker are clearly relaxed and confident working with Ingrid, hence the faultless rhythm throughout.

 Special praise, though, should be reserved for pianist Matt Baker, who, like Ingrid, is a chance-taker, the high wire walker who sways a bit as he crosses the chasm but always comes out fine at the other end.  This album and his live work provide indisputable evidence that Baker is rapidly moving towards membership of that elite of Australian pianists which already includes Tony Gould, Joe Chindamo, Mark Isaacs and Mark Fitzgibbon.  The big difference – Matt’s a good deal younger than any of those four giants.

As for Ingrid –  Her two new CDs are proof positive of her eclectic approach to music.  On Colours of Your Love,  she is joined by frequent collaborator Louise Denson for a program of some originals and covers of tunes by such artists as K D Lang and Carole King.  Background chords from the Wild Silk Strings Project adds a near-classical dimension.

And her most recent work, Midnight Sun, is a collection of mostly standards ably interpreted by Ingrid and a small unit of musicians from Prague.  If you are wondering where vocal jazz is going (or OUGHT to be going), look no farther.