Fay Victor is having a good spring. In April the singer, composer and lyricist had a featured spot on the Tricentric Music Festival at Roulette (premiering her hour-long gentrification opus Neighborhood Dynamics). May’s gigs include a Barbes show for her ExPosed Blues Duo with guitarist Anders Nilsson, and a concert by Herbie Nichols SUNG, an ongoing project where she sings her own lyrics to the jazz pianist’s tricky compositions (Brooklyn Conservatory of Music on May 15). And good reviews keep pouring in for last fall’s Absinthe & Vermouth, the best album to date by the Fay Victor Ensemble, a trio with Nilsson and bassist Ken Filiano.
Victor is not your typical jazz singer by a long shot. Her subject matter alone makes that clear. Take A&V‘s opener “Big Bag”: “I love big bags ’cause no one knows how long I’ll be gone.” Then she gives us a peek inside, taking inventory. A transcript: “It’s filled up with paper, magazines, some tissues, lip-gloss, my iPod, some scarves, a sweater, candy, candy, candy and gum, a small notebook and a fan to, to cool off the heat…Eye shadow, mascara, my Blackberry, fluffy fluffy slippers, fluffy fluffy slippers, fluffy slippers and a big wallet, plus a secret compartment for clean underwear…”
“Big Bag” was inspired, Victor says, by a time she shared a flat with some cousins who tried to keep close tabs on her activities. “What was it Frank Zappa said? ‘All those love songs, why don’t we all love each other?’ There are other things to write about.” She does find them: “Gunk” from the same album is the rare jazz song about phlegm — and the psychic gunk we’d also do well to cough up.
The music isn’t typical, either. “Big Bag”‘s melody zigzags all over, shadowed by lurching electric guitar and upright bass. Call it post-Beefheart jazz. It’s a long way from her first, late-’90s album In My Own Room, where she sang “All Blues,” “Old Devil Moon” and “This Masquerade.”
Betty Carter once told this writer, speaking of avant-garde musicians whose jazz credentials she disparaged: Put them in front of a black audience and see how they do. As it happens, I saw Victor pass that very test one Saturday last summer at the Caton Castle, a supper-clubby little room in far West Baltimore, with a pick-up trio fronted by pianist Mark Meadows. (Victor had become friends with the promoter when they met at a festival in India in 2001. As we’ll see, she gets around.) The program was all standards and jazz tunes. On “You Go to My Head,” Thelonious Monk’s “We See” or a Jobim samba, her rich port-wine timbre recalled Carmen McRae. Victor still has her jazz chops and can charm a crowd while showing them off.
Fay Victor knows the tradition, but stands outside of it, which is consistent with her life history: “I’ve had a passport since I was born.” That was in New York in 1965, to parents from Grenada and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Her father was an UN economist soon posted to Zambia, where the family lived three years until he died in a car accident. Mom brought Fay and her younger sister home to Trinidad until she could arrange to get them all back into the States. That happened when Victor was five, but she continued to spend summers in the Caribbean. When she recorded exploded versions of vintage calypsos, as guest with the downtown quartet Other Dimensions in Music on 2010′s Kaiso Stories, she sang them in dialect. After the album came out a critic she knew asked her, “Are you even allowed to do that?”
Victor said, “I always say I feel culturally Caribbean — I feel at home there, where singing is normal, and not such a big deal. Music is part of everyday life, not something you talk of making a career of.”
Back in New York, the family started in Brooklyn but soon moved out to Wheatley Heights, south of the Long Island Expressway. Fay found the suburbs “really boring” — but when she wrote a song in the fifth grade, her teacher liked it enough to get the whole class to sing it at a school assembly. “So I dabbled in writing songs, even put together a little band, but didn’t see myself as a singer.”
Music wasn’t on her mind when she went off to college at Syracuse. But when her mother suddenly died, she dropped out and singing became her salvation — it gave her a reason to live, and made her a better, more amiable person. Gradually, she realized she had genuine talent — like when she sang an Anita Baker song at a friend’s wedding, and everyone was floored. She attended a singers’ workshop in Harlem, then studied with Ulysses Slaughter, who tipped her to another workshop at the Williamsburg Music Center, “where everything started.”
Through that workshop she met house-music producer David Anthony, who featured her on his “You Make Me Happy,” which made Billboard’s Club Playlist in ’91. She still runs into people who remember that one, especially in Europe, but it wasn’t a milestone in her development.
“I didn’t grow up listening to jazz — the Miles I knew was from the ’80s,” Victor says. “I started studying with Jody [Davis] Whitfield who told me, ‘If you really want to learn, just listen to jazz for two or three years.’ That was some of the best advice I got.” She learned the repertoire while working day jobs on the side.
Also in 1991, she landed a three-month gig in at a club in Fukui, Japan, singing standards. She advertised for an accompanist in New York and Bertha Hope — widow of Monk buddy Elmo Hope, and a serious pianist in her own right — applied. Victor says, “We had a ball, working four sets a night, six nights a week. Bertha explained a lot to me, let me know what potential I had as a singer.”
Victor gave up permanent day jobs to spend more time on music. But she felt she’d hit a ceiling. “I wasn’t good enough to work in New York, and I wanted to develop my craft. It seemed a good idea to move to Europe,” she says. In ’94 her friend singer Ingram Washington invited her to visit in Amsterdam, took her around to all his gigs and had her sit in. She made a good enough impression he was able to line up more than dozen engagements for her to play on a return visit. She decided to stay.
It changed everything. She met, and eventually married, bass guitarist Jochem van Dijk, one of those stern-looking Dutchmen who’s a softie at heart. Investigating his record collection she discovered Herbie Nichols — Dutch jazz fans love him — and decided to set lyrics to his “House Party Starting.” She wasn’t sure she’d transcribed the music correctly, so she contacted Nichols expert and Amsterdam scene guru Misha Mengelberg, the beginning of a long association. In 2010, she did a little West European tour as a guest with his ICP Orchestra, singing Nichols, Monk and Mengelberg (the last in Dutch, with a good accent). On the intro to “‘Round Midnight,” Mengelberg on piano might sprint a bar or two ahead of the melody, as bassist Ernst Glerum lagged a couple bars behind (or vice versa), and drummer Han Bennink dropped distracting bombs. Victor sailed right on through, unfazed. The band adored her.
She recorded “House Party Starting” on her sophomore album Darker than Blue, recorded in New York in 2003, with among others pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist John Hébert and Dutch guitarist Anton Goudsmit, whose spiky style pointed the way toward Victor’s future. That was also the year she repatriated, with Jochem’s encouragement. “I felt, now I could compete here. Now I had something to say. But I still considered myself a straight-ahead jazz vocalist.”
That soon began to change. While still in Amsterdam, she and Jochem had begun writing songs together. At first, he wrote the music and she the words, though gradually their roles have intermingled. In 2005, she put together the Fay Victor Ensemble, originally a quartet with drums. FVE’s The Freesong Suite grew out of a method she and Mengelberg had used on an Amsterdam quartet concert earlier in 2008: With the set list as a guide, they’d improvise their way out of one tune and toward the next, in a slippery continuous suite. “With improvised segues, the listener couldn’t tell where one tune ended and the next began. I didn’t want that division to be so crystal-clear.” Compared to Absinthe & Vermouth, the jazz influences on her writing are closer to the surface on The Freesong Suite (while the guitar playing’s even rockier). The wispy opener “Seasons” shows the influence of another American singer based in Holland in the ’90s, pioneering free jazz vocalist Jeanne Lee.
Victor deploys the freesong method again on Absinthe & Vermouth‘s “I’m on a Mission/Paper Cup” where the band improvises its way from one song to the other — as on stage, where the process might take three minutes, or 20. The ExPosed Blues Duo uses the same method on traditional material, stringing together blues, spirituals, Monk and Ellington tunes — songs that can bring out Victor’s swingy Carmen McRae side.
“With the Ensemble, I wanted to treat the voice as one of the instruments — not have the voice out front. Integrating lyrics set to melodies with lyrics used in improvisation continues to be difficult but we have lots of fun trying,” Victor says. “The entire concept of the FVE is an experiment in constant development. When I started the group I wanted a ‘fight’ in the music. I likened it to a sparring match where we all maintain our individuality and negotiate teamwork from an anarchistic core. But then a few years in, I didn’t want that sort of fight anymore. I wanted better clarity in the music, and to be heard.”
An amicable parting with drummer Michael “T.A.” Thompson was part of that process. The Ensemble on Absinthe & Vermouth is tighter, the tunes stronger, with Ken Filiano’s bowed bass sometimes functioning like a second voice.
At the same time, Victor’s circle is growing wider — last fall, she appeared on Trombone for Lovers by Nichols champion Roswell Rudd. In one two-week period in November, she performed in ad hoc settings with Boston free-jazz guitarist Joe Morris, with new drum hero Tyshawn Sorey and with Dutch vocal gymnast Jaap Blonk — diverse collaborators who hint at her conceptual range, and her increasing visibility. After decades on the outside, Fay Victor brings it all back home.