For Laurin Talese, jazz is cinematic. The arrangements, the grandeur of the sounds open a window to imagination. It still works for her, at 36, as she makes her way around her adopted hometown, Philadelphia.
“I walk around this city listening to Henry Mancini’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ soundtrack. I walk around listening to Oscar Peterson and Nelson Riddle’s record,” Talese said. “I like envisioning: ‘All right, what if I was walking down the street in Paris?’ or, ‘What if I was actually on a movie set?’ or, ‘What if a bird just landed on my shoulder?’ ”
The Cleveland-reared singer moved to Philadelphia 18 years ago to study vocal performance at the University of the Arts. She arrived during a special moment for the city’s music scene, when neo-soul was blossoming. Talese performed at famed live music series the Black Lily and sang background vocals for Philly artists Bilal and Vivian Green. But in recent years, her stature as a jazz soloist has been growing. She released her first album, Gorgeous Chaos, in 2016. Last month, she won the Sarah Vaughn Vocal Competition, a premier international contest for female jazz singers.
Talese spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News about what drew her to music and where she hopes jazz is heading. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
So, I understand you come from a musical family.
I do. My dad sings.
He comes from a family of 13 total. So most of them sing at family gatherings or even just on, like, a Thursday night. He has three brothers [and family] who would come over and just congregate in our dining room. They would sing, like, quartet style, the Whispers. They would sing current stuff at that time, After 7, like songs from the ’90s and also like Marvin Gaye, and break off into harmony. I would be so intrigued.
They would always kick me out, like, ‘Get out of here. We’re doing grown-up stuff,’ because they’d be drinking and cussing and talking about man stuff. I was like 7 at this time. One day, they were too swept up in whatever they were doing to notice that I was actually there. I kind of figured out how to be just in the cut, and so I just ... started to harmonize with them. My dad just looked at me like, ‘Oh, like you can sing.’
So after that, he just started — him and my mom — putting me in all these troupes and singing ensembles and stuff like that. I would go to nursing homes and sing for that population and just make them happy singing the songs from yesteryear, like all the stuff in the ’20s, in the ’30s.
I was listening to your album earlier, and I was just taking in how much of an interpreter you are. How did you develop your sensibilities to make the choices that you make approaching different phrases?
I have never thought about it in that way, but I guess the people that I really loved … that was something that they did. Before I found jazz, it was Anita Baker and it was Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton and all those folks. And they are some interpreters.
I’m sure as you can hear in my music — I’m not just traditional straight-ahead jazz. That finds its way in. I like to say as a black woman living in 2018, how can it not? That’s just my actual existence right now. But I loved listening to Sarah Vaughan. She was like one of the first people that I actually listened to, which is crazy how everything’s come full circle. She was the first jazz solo I learned.
How did it feel to win that competition?
I was so surprised, because, I mean, it's not like I haven't been singing for a long time. I have. I felt very comfortable in my own skin. I treated it like a performance, even though it was definitely a competition. However, with all that said, it depended on what the judges wanted because everybody was great.
I immediately just started crying and I was like, ‘Oh, my God! Me?'
What’s your take on jazz in 2018? What excites you? What do you think needs to change?
What excites me? I’ll start there. What really excited me a couple of years ago was just hearing Kamasi Washington and Kendrick [Lamar], that whole crew coming together because it reminded me of Baldwin and Ellington and all those folks that are around at the same time. Literally, you have a poet, somebody who’s telling the story from a very grassroots, very urban real-life level, his experiences, in Kendrick Lamar. But then you have this soundtrack to it. And it’s a Kamasi, and it’s a Terrace Martin and [Robert] Glasper and it’s Lalah [Hathaway,] and there’s all these people coming together and doing exactly what was done back then.
I want more of that to happen ... more collaboration. I think that jazz purists tend to alienate themselves, and they create the danger of it being elitist. Jazz isn’t elitist. Jazz is literally at the discretion of the people today. Right now, whatever they’re going through. They don’t know they’re paying their rent next month? That’s jazz. If they are excited because they see a little extra money in their bank account? That’s jazz. If they fell in love and can’t believe they connected with this person who they thought was just going to be a friend? That’s jazz. All these disparate experiences are jazz.
What needs to happen more is that we are using our influence and our artistic visions to collaborate across genres so that the more popular genres, the more accessible genres, are collaborating with us, and we're providing that nice, sweet, cozy bed underneath that message or providing the message.