Jazz vocalist and West End actress Joanna Strand is at London’s Crazy Coqs from 2 to 4 June, with some special guests. She has had a versatile career in jazz, cabaret and musical shows including Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (Lyric, Belfast), Hello, Dolly!, Jekyll and Hyde (Union Theatre), Master Class with Tyne Daly (Vaudeville Theatre and Bath Theatre Royal tour) and The Phantom of the Opera (Her Majesty’s). She has also appeared with Garsington Opera, Grange Park Opera and Opera Holland Park. She has also presented cabaret at Feinstein’s and Café Carlyle in New York, and in London at Pizza Express, The Pheasantry, Jermyn Street Theatre and the Jazz Café.
When you were studying at the Royal Academy of Music, did you have any idea in which musical direction you would go?
I went to the Royal Academy as a classical singer, but I had already been singing jazz for many years and I didn’t ever stop.
I left home when I was 15 and started singing jazz in bars around London. With the confidence of youth, I secured some nice gigs – even performing at the Jazz Café singing my own songs. Around the same age I discovered art song and opera thanks to my music teacher at school. Fortuitously, she was married to the famous English tenor, the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson OBE, who offered me free singing lessons and gave me performance opportunities that meant I was suddenly exposed to an art-form I had never experienced before. I fell in love with the songs of Schumann, Faure, Debussy, Strauss.
So while studying at the Royal Academy as a postgraduate, I specialised in French art song and opera, but I was still singing jazz in the evenings. I was also lucky enough to be chosen by jazz composer in residence, the late Michael Garrick, to sing his settings of Blake and other songs with the RAM Jazz Big Band.
So I guess the short answer is I didn’t really have a direction; I was exploring.
Were you only interested in performing in music rather than just straight plays?
I have always acted through song – the basis of my technique is to take a breath and say something. I try to never sing a phrase without genuine intention. So I suppose it was easy for me to transition to straight plays with this training. My first film role in Wolfman was enjoyable but nothing was like sharing the stage with Tyne Daly as the American Juilliard student Sharon Graham in Master Class at the Vaudeville, and with Stephanie Beacham for Bath Theatre Royal. I learnt the New York American as I would any pronunciation for song. So I think my singing training prepared me well for straight roles. My undergrad degree was in English at UCL (back in the days when university had no fees and we could learn for learning’s sake!), so I have always loved performing straight plays, and I have enjoyed appearing in numerous dramas including Shakespeare roles.
You seem to have covered a wide range of productions from Gilbert and Sullivan to Andrew Lloyd Webber, so you must have the ability to crossover from opera to musicals. Do you find it easy to do both, or are they just part of the same process?
Absolutely part of the same process! And these days the boundaries of genre are tumbling down across the musical spectrum.
I consider myself quite a geek when it comes to vocal technique and healthy singing in a variety of styles. There is no reason why a singer cannot learn to set things up vocally to take in opera, legit musical theatre, pop, belting, and floating the voice… holding the vibrato still or allowing a little air into the sound to change colour. It’s all about deciding what the music and words are asking for. Then I take a breath and say something.
You are obviously at home in the world of jazz, as your programmes at the Crazy Coqs are predominantly jazz-based with guest jazz performers too. Do you prefer to give a song a jazz interpretation rather than singing it straight?
Yes, I do enjoy inflecting songs with a jazz edge. Our arrangements pretty much always have this tinge; so we take songs from shows (which were the pop songs of their time), standards, folk, pop, blues, jazz-country and classical songs. Genre is less important than content and I sing songs which I find extraordinary and powerful. What defines a song in terms of genre is interpretation as opposed to the original context or genre and I love to explore a range of emotions and musical colours. Which is also why I love to have guest singers and instrumentalists.
Your three nights at the Crazy Coqs cover an immense range of repertoire, from interpretations of songs by Bernstein, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Gershwin on the first night with guest Jacqueline Tate. Are these some of your favourite songs from the Great American Songbook?
Yes – those are definitely some of the greats and it is such a pleasure to sing such magnificently constructed songs as by these composers and reinterpret them. But I enjoy songs from both the Great American Songbook and the New International Songbook! So while we are looking forward to presenting some lovely arrangements by those great songbook composers, I am also excited to be singing songs by other composers, including jazz interpretations of classical and pop songs by Britten, Poulenc, Brel, Peter Gabriel and Snow Patrol. Jacqui and I also enjoy presenting some ‘funnies’ in our programme, but we carefully select these comedy songs so musically we never compromise to get a laugh. But we can get pretty silly… but you have to come along to know our comedy numbers – they are our secrets!
Your guest on the second night is accordionist Romano Viazzani, in music by Michel Legrand, Harold Arlen, Piazzolla and Poulenc etc. It sounds a very attractive programme and the accordion must be a first for the Crazy Coqs, is it not?
Actually Romano has played on several occasions at the Crazy Coqs including with Frances Ruffelle. I ask him to play for most of my shows. The colour the accordion can add, and his innovative and imaginative arrangements of Piaf, Mancini and Legrand are a treat. And even just using the accordion as the billows of the sea, or like someone breathing, can really be a spellbinding.
On the final evening your guest is baritone Rodney Earl Clarke in some classic duets by Gershwin, Porter, Cy Coleman, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Bernstein. Is it true that you met Rodney at the RAM but haven’t seen each other for 20 years? It should be a great reunion.
Yes – nearly 20 years – crazy! I remember singing a Mozart duet with Rodney at the Royal Academy back in 1998 and haven’t seen him since then. He has also incorporated jazz and musical theatre into his career and so here we are. It will be a joy to sing with him again and we have a very romantic programme for this night.
Do you have a preference for cabaret over theatre work, because it is easier to get to know your audience?
Yes, I adore the intimacy of cabaret. I also love the opportunity to select the songs I sing to people and arrange them in a way that I feel I can bring them to the audience in the most powerful and entertaining way. I believe we all need great music. Giving an audience the opportunity to lose themselves in a journey of song – seeing people smile and laugh and cry drives me. It is sharing emotions that, in our every day lives, can be hard to share. That has to be the most uplifting and meaningful part of performance.
Your accompanists for the three nights at the Crazy Coqs are John Bailey, piano, and Nick Pini, bass and Jason Reeves on drums. Have you worked with them before?
I cannot really call them accompanists – John arranges a lot of the music with me and writes all the parts for the band. And when we are rehearsing we are all pretty equal in terms of musical contributions. I have worked with John, Nick and Romano on a number of shows and our first album ‘Fly Transatlantic’ (available on iTunes) is the same line up but with Asaf Sirkis on drums. We have already started working towards our second album together. For these shows we will have Jason Reeves joining us, and judging by our first rehearsal, he is going to bring some exciting new ideas to the songs.
Are we likely to see you in more theatre shows, operas or musicals in future?
Oh yes, though it took me a long time to find my musical home, and cabaret is it. There are a number of roles I would like to perform that would tempt me back to the West End stage.
We will be recording our second album this summer which includes several of the tunes we will be performing in Wednesday’s show. Then I head over to the 54 Below in New York in September which will kick of a short tour of the US. Other plans are afoot on an Italian theme but those are all still a secret.
Will you be able to record any of your cabaret shows for release on CD?
Absolutely… One of our nights at the Crazy Coqs will be recorded for youtube. And for more recordings and upcoming shows see www.joannastrand.co.uk and www.strandandtate.com!
Compiled by Michael Darvell