Five questions for the 74-year-old gospel icon (and lifelong Chicagoan)
Why did you decide to make your last album, One True Vine, a gospel record, rather than continuing with the folk sound of the Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone?
Well, gospel is home. It’s where I started with the Staple Singers. It always amazed us when we got invited to all these folk festivals. But when we started playing folk festivals, we realized how close it was to gospel. Gospel is the truth, and all these young flower children like Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie and Bob Dylan, they were singing songs of truth. They were singing beautiful stories.
What was it like to work with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, the fellow Chicagoan who produced your last two albums?
Oh, Tweedy is one of the best people. He’s humble, but he’s a genius! I love singing his songs. I really have to sit and consider what he’s talking about. I make up my own analysis, and then I take it into my heart and just let it go. That’s what my father taught me, to sing from my heart.
What will your Ravinia show with Buddy Guy [on August 19] be like? Will you sing blues songs?
We’ll be singing some of the old and some of the new. One time when I was doing this show in New York called Ladies of the Blues, or something like that, I said to Etta James, “Etta, I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t sing the blues.” She said, “Mavis, dammit, you’ve been singing the blues your whole life.” So in that way, how she saw it, I guess everything I’ll be singing out there at Ravinia is the blues. [Laughs.]
Do you have a regimen for taking care of your voice?
Our father always told us to get our rest. We never went to any after-parties. I have my tea and my loquat honey, and that just does it for me.
Any thoughts of retirement? Oh no! I’m not retiring. I’d like to make another record. No one has said that we’re making another record, but I’m gathering songs just in case.
Beyond the Green Mill
Under-the-radar spots to hear some great jazz right now, from “less known” to “top secret”
Tuesdays on the Terrace
Watch greats such as Corey Wilkes (July 8) and the Chicago Reed Quartet (August 12) play alfresco for surprisingly small audiences at The Museum of Contemporary Art—as few as 10 people for some performances last summer. 5:30 to 8 p.m. Free for Illinois residents. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., mcachicago.org
Surprise! On most summer Thursdays, the venerable Drake Hotel’s Palm Court is a great spot for scouting young talent, such as the Peruvian jazz combo Juan Pastor Chinchano (July 3, 10, and 17). 7 to 11 p.m., first three Thursdays in June and July. Free. Drake Hotel, 140 E. Walton St., jazzinchicago.org
Jazz in the Grazz
Held on Wednesdays at Chicago State University’s outdoor amphitheater on the Far South Side, this seasonal series deserves to be much better known. 6 to 8 p.m. Free. Chicago State University, 9501 S. King St., csu.edu/convocationcenter
Some of Chicago’s most interesting jazz happens, well, like jazz itself: organically and without much planning. In May, for example, saxophonist David Boykin invited 100 other sax players to play a tribute to Sun Ra in Washington Park—for an audience of only about 30 people. To get word of such events, go to now-is.org or follow one of these prime movers on Facebook: Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphonist) or Frank Rosaly (percussionist).
Blues Rocker Benjamin Booker
His music: The 24-year-old New Orleans singer and guitarist sounds like a cross between turn-of-the-century bluesman Lead Belly and ’80s punk rockers Black Flag.
His influences: “Otis Redding and Blind Willie Johnson, a blues singer from the early 1900s. He’s probably my favorite singer of all time.”
His debut album: Benjamin Booker (release date: August 19). “We recorded in Nashville, and we had a great time. The songs turned out better than I ever expected.”
His big break: Performing on CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman in April. “It was probably the most terrifying day of my life.”
Summer is heating up and nothing sizzles like a good jazz tune. Earlier this spring, Chicago eavesdropped on a conversation between two beloved jazz crooners Chicago vet Dee Alexander and rising star Cecile McLorin Salvant, who will headline this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival on August 31. The two women discussed many things, including their craft and songwriting process. An edited transcript is below.
Salvant: I’m really interested in your approach to songwriting, because that’s something I’m trying to work on right now.
Alexander: It really depends on what I’m inspired by at the time. One thing that’s a constant for me is that I always start at the bottom; I start with the bass line. And from there often the lyrics will come rather quickly. Sometimes it’s a particular subject, and sometimes it’s a mood. I like to do happy, upbeat song, but sometimes I’m feeling sad. I think a lot of the greatest songs have come from artists who were going through hard times. How is the process for you?
Salvant: I’m new to songwriting, so I’m just trying to practice it and really find my voice. I’ll sit at the piano and work through a little story or poem I have and try to see how it can come together as a song. Other times I’ll just be improvising at the piano and I’ll start singing along with some silly lyrics, but from there I’ll come up with a melody or maybe figure out a good theme or direction.
Alexander: The key thing you said there is “story,” because that’s really what we’re doing, right? We’re telling stories. When you look back on some of the great singers, the ones who really stand out were the ones who could do more than hit the notes – they could move you with the story.