Cindy Scott: Renewal in New Orleans

This is an unedited version — PDF’s of the verison that appears in the September 2011 issue are available; please email me at jennieodell@gmail.com (or pick up a copy of Downbeat!).

When vocalist Cindy Scott quit her job as an executive at an international corporation in Houston and moved to New Orleans to pursue a master’s degree in jazz studies, she made a pact with herself.

“I was going to be completely fearless and do anything I wanted to do,” she says, seated before an electric piano in her home studio in the Mid-City neighborhood. “I have no regrets. Did I ever sing a wrong note? Yeah, but I was here
to grow.”

Scott quickly entrenched herself in the local music scene, contributing to a wide range of projects. She earned her degree and began teaching at U.N.O. as an adjunct professor. And just five years after leaving her office job and M.B.A behind, she released “Let The Devil Take Tomorrow,” which was named the Best Contemporary Jazz Album of 2010 at the annual Best of the Beat Awards.

Looking back, the move required a lot more fearlessness than she’d anticipated. Scott arrived to start her new life in January of 2005 – just seven months before Hurricane Katrina. And though she lost her belongings and much of her new city to flooding, the challenges of rebuilding her life in concert with other New Orleanians who returned ultimately helped define her – and her work.

“We came back in January after the storm,” says Scott, her speaking voice warm and prone to wispy Southern lilts. “I wanted to finish school. I felt like New Orleans needed us … I don’t know how I could ever have felt as connected to the city if I hadn’t gone through that.”

As she began performing around town, that bond became a driving force of her music. In Houston, Scott had been allied with musicians with ties to the University of North Texas jazz program. Her approach, documented on the 2002 recording, “Major To Minor,” reflected a reverence for standards and exhibited solid straight-ahead chops.

In New Orleans, however, her allegiance to the goal of expressing herself freely helped forge a new sound. She drew inspiration from the music around her, taking a note pad out to clubs and recording ideas that might become points of departure for her own music. She practiced scatting and uncovered jazz underpinnings in music that moved her, whatever the genre. She wrote and recorded songs about the emotions she felt after the storm and the places she loved throughout the city.

All of these nuances are evident in her recent work, as her voice moves seamlessly between influences, holding a masterfully controlled vibrato on one phrase before dipping into a bluesy, organic purr on the next.

“There’s so much freedom here to explore and try things,” she says. “You can create music that’s super straight-ahead and people like it. You can make music that’s crazy, free, wacky stuff with loop pedals and people like that too. If you’re tryin’ to be creative and really open yourself up, it’s OK here.”

That kind of artistic risk-taking is at the heart of “Let the Devil Take Tomorrow.” Producer and guitarist Brian Seeger describes the disc as an attempt “to bring new sounds into a traditional jazz vernacular,” in an honest way.

An eerily dark arrangement of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You),” for example, gets what Seeger calls a “conceptually obtuse” treatment.

Where Williams employed a countrified cry as he moved between notes, Scott arrives decisively at each of the many musical lamentations throughout the song. Meanwhile, Seeger’s pedal steel softens the genre lines without confusing the approach, which helps, as Seeger says, “frame [the song] in a sly way.”

“Cindy brings a unique skill and artistic set to the community,” he continues. “I hear other great jazz singers and I don’t feel like I have any sense of them as a person. If you get so steeped in tradition, there’s no room for your own
personal expression … with Cindy, there’s lot of depth.”

Karrin Allyson, who has known Scott and her music for more than a decade, agrees. “It’s a personal approach that’s most affecting about Cindy,” she muses. “The warmth that comes through. She’s the real deal.”

Scott’s honesty also extends to her role as an educator. Speaking on a panel about trends in vocal jazz education at the Jazz Education Network Conference in January, Scott (who is classically trained in flute) took issue with universities that
mandate strict classical requirements for singers before they may enter a jazz
program.

“I think there are a lot of singers that know what they want to do and they’ve already done that work,” she explains. “If a singer can demonstrate good classical technique and an understanding of classical voice, they shouldn’t necessarily have to do two years of classical before jazz. That said, exercising the voice in that manner is important. In fact, I’m taking classical voice lessons now.”

She’s also currently writing new music – something she hasn’t focused on as much as performance in the past.

Despite her long tenure as a professional musician, Scott feels she’s on new ground with her career. As she puts it, “I’m coming out of my cocoon.”

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