Every year on April 29, musicians, radio stations and lovers of jazz celebrate the life, legacy and music of extraordinary bandleader and composer Duke Ellington. Born in 1899, Ellington created a body of work throughout the twentieth-century that still stands today as one of the most voluminous and influential among all American masters of composition.
New York-based vocalist and recording artist Candice Hoyes is one of many musicians who pay tribute to Ellington both in-studio and on stage, but what separates Hoyes’ intentions from the others is a willingness and ability to blend a highly developed opera singing talent to Duke’s profound sense of swing.
The new “On a Turquoise Cloud” has Hoyes bringing in top players from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Duke alumni to craft a set of rare Ellington songs written for soprano voice. I spoke with Candice Hoyes about her new release, the research going into it and her deep appreciation for the one and only Duke Ellington.
Kory: Where there any sort of adjustments that you made, both physically and emotionally, when preparing for this recording?
Candice: I certainly had to go through a metamorphosis vocally. Ellington wrote these songs for soprano and he really illuminated a truth about the soprano voice. I’m one of those vocalists who believes that if you have a high extension you also have a low extension. I typically live high in the stratosphere, but my voice also has the tendency to extend down in the warmer, speech-like sound that’s typical of jazz. I worked on my flexibility. Emotionally, jazz and Ellington is a part of my fabric. It feels like home for me.
Kory: What is it about the music of Duke Ellington that you find appealing for this project?
Candice: I always knew that Ellington was writing and arranging to feature the very special instrumental soloists, so when I found these songs I realized that the singers, like Adelaide Hall in the 1920s and Kay Davis in the 1940s, sang songs written specifically for their voice. It’s a very floaty and ethereal sound that he arranged so beautifully with the big band.
Kory: What was the process of going into finding and researching some of these lost tunes?
Candice: Producer Ulysses Owens Jr. was undaunted by the fact that I couldn’t find lead sheets for these Ellington songs. It was an amazing experience to go through boxes at the Smithsonian, touching the yellow paper that the songs were written on. I found stamps, names, hotel phone numbers, addresses of churches scribbled in. That was, to me, the spirit of Ellington telling me there was a lot of life in these songs and I need to bring it out.
Kory: How do some of your fellow opera singers feel about you covering jazz music, and in this case, the music of Duke Ellington? Are there purists in the opera world who may find this approach inappropriate?
Candice: Even in opera, as an African-American singer, I’m already challenging people’s notions when I go to Italy or Budapest and sing a baroque opera. The singers in my generation on both the jazz and classical side are thrilled. Who wants to be boxed in? They’re looking at it like a breath of fresh air.
Candice Hoyes’s self-released “On a Turquoise Cloud” features Ted Nash, Marcus Printup, Ron Blake, Carl Maraghi, Vincent Gardner, Wycliffe Gordon, Joe Temperly, Adam Birnbaum, Yasushi Nakamura and musical director Ulysses Owens, Jr. and can be heard on Jazz 91.7 FM.