Artist Spotlight: Leala Cyr
Updated: Mar 1, 2020
The upcoming Jazz vocalist and trumpeter, Leala Cyr has been making waves in the jazz world with her debut album, First Instinct. The album covers a large range of variety and skill, from the dizzyingly fast cover of Guinga’s “Dichavado,” to the more modal textures of the track “First Instinct.” The sheer variety of textures Leala incorporates into her composition/improvisational vocabulary is impressive and, given that she accomplishes it with elegantly sparse and often minimal accompaniment, the album demonstrates true artistic maturity.
Leala’s career follows a distinguished past, she was named Down Beat Magazine’s “Best Jazz Vocalist” - college division, in 2005, and was promptly awarded the World Tour Scholarship at Berklee College of Music. She has since gone on to become an active member of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music and Chamber Music Societies, and has shared the stage with the likes of Terri Lyne Carrington, Guinga, and Milton Nascimento to list a few.
When attempting to describe Leala Cyr’s style, one is led to compare her vocal and trumpeting style to the smooth and relaxed tone of Eliane Elias, but with lighter, more delicate, timbre. The usage of the wordless singing technique turns Leala’s voice into an equal participant of the music while not forcing the listener to push themselves outside their comfort zone. In tracks featured on the album like “Summertime,” “First Instinct,” and “The Secret,” there is a sense of fluidity present in the voice, a flowing elegance where the syllables, breath, and skillful accuracy exceeds the standard of instrumental phrasing, transcending the instrumental/voice boundary set by so many generations before us. The album finishes with the track “Mona Lisa,” a uniquely arranged tune for solo voice and hand clapping. Leala’s phrasing for the solo here is both organic and relaxed, slightly reminiscent of Lester Young’s nonchalant flow, but with a distinctly Brazilian flare. Displaying elegance in simplicity and complexity in the craft of the arrangement, Leala's flare for self restraint is intriguingly fresh.
Speaking with Leala about her experience as an up and coming artist, she opened up about her musical upbringing, influences, and experiences as a woman in the male dominant Jazz field. Her story is varied, complex, and one that many aspiring Jazz artists can likely relate to - small town upbringing, discovered Jazz through the mentorship of her high school band teacher, and was guided by a multitude of individuals into pursuing the craft as a career.
Who would you say were your biggest influences growing up?
I believe my biggest influences were my teachers. I had the opportunity of learning from Mr. D. Thomas Busch, my band director at Pulaski High School, and Mrs. Christine Salerno was my jazz voice teacher at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. Thomas Busch introduced me to jazz and provided my first opportunity to sing. Christine Salerno was the first to introduce me to the American and Brazilian songbooks and to vocal improvisation.
What was it like growing up in such a small town in Wisconsin? Were there many opportunities to experience live jazz?
Well, I didn’t really start learning what jazz was until I was in high school. It wasn’t until I went to college that I first started to seek out live jazz. I’m sure there was more of it happening than I was aware, but there definitely were venues for it. The Weidner Center for the Performing Arts was actually a part of the campus at UWGB and that’s where I saw Dianne Reeves for the first time. Lawrence University is about 45 mins away from there and they always brought in great jazz artists, including one of my very favorites, Eliane Elias. There was also a scene of musicians in Green Bay (which included many of my teachers and mentors) who would play a lot around town in restaurants or festivals. I remember sitting-in a lot with Christine Salerno or going to a jam session or two… it was definitely enough for me to hear and learn from.
When did you decide to pursue a career in music?
When I get asked this question, I always say: I didn’t choose it, it chose me. I never thought I was going to do this professionally. I applied to college without any plan for what I was going to study. But someone literally found me the day I was registering for classes at UWGB and marched me down to the music department and said “You belong here.” That was pretty much the beginning and end of that decision. From there, I transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and then made my move to NYC and began touring with Esperanza Spalding!
Your music, especially in your new album, tends to include wordless singing as a primary medium for melody rather than exclusively for improvisation. How did you arrive at this usage of voice artistically for your own sound?
I think being a trumpet player is what influenced this type of singing for me. The trumpet and voice are very close in range and for me, sound very similar. Even I sometimes can’t tell if it’s me singing or playing when I hear it back! But I feel a sort of freedom singing this way. With no lyrics to express the feelings, I can really focus on the sound and inflection to bring them forth. I’m also very much a melody/harmony person rather than a lyrics person to be honest. My ears are my best asset as a musician, and I love playing with different vocal sounds and techniques too.
In 2017 Esperanza Spalding broadcast all 77 hours of the making of her album, Exposure. Viewed both as a social experiment and as a conceptual piece of art, the event was heralded as a deep dive into the artistic process. Given your work with Esperanza and your membership in her Radio Music and Chamber Music Societies, how would you say your creative process differs?
Ha! Well, a LOT, to say the least. Esperanza is a totally different animal that I feel I can’t really compare myself to when it comes to hard work and motivation. I actually lived with her for a while and got to experience her drive first-hand… it’s pretty incredible. Me, I’m more of a “let it come to me” type. I really don’t force it at all. Almost all of my music comes from some sort of inspiration, and that may be why my compositions are few, but that seems to be the best process for me. The best example is when I got the idea for my song “Canyon View.” I was literally sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon watching the sunset with my husband when suddenly this melody started playing in my head. I was almost frantic singing it to him to try to remember it. I made a short voice memo on my phone, got to a piano, and finally hashed out what I was hearing - which can take a looooong time for me, I’m no pianist. But it feels so rewarding when it’s finished.
Being a vocalist who seems well versed in harmony and theory - a rare combination - do you believe you approach composition and improvisation differently than instrumentalists?
I’m flattered that you think that, but I really mostly rely on my ears. I can’t even seem to focus much on chord changes. If I’m having trouble with something, I may start to get a little more technical about it, but I guess where my talent lies is with listening. A lot of times it will take me days to find what chord I’m looking for when I’m composing and when I do find it, I may not even know what it is! So when I improvise, I like to internalize the song if I can to have the freedom to soar over the top of it.
What exercises or practice routines would you recommend for other vocalists looking to improve their improvisational ability?
First, I would highly recommend learning another instrument. Be it piano, guitar, bagpipes… whatever, and learn to read music. Knowing the basics of being a musician is really very helpful. And one of the things I think helps with improvising is actually listening to it. Listen to the greats playing solos (and I mean all instruments) and then start trying to transcribe them, sing along, and try to mimic the instrument. It’s not hard to tell that I play the trumpet, because I’m typically trying to mimic its sound when I scat. It’s what I really enjoy when it comes to vocal improvisation.
If there is one thing history has shown us, it’s that women have been extremely underrepresented in jazz. Do you believe the field is ready for more inclusion?
Yes I do, and I see it happening. I’m finally seeing some of my colleagues and classmates (women like Sara Caswell: violin, and Melissa Aldana: sax) being nominated for Grammys for their solos on jazz records. Many of the female jazz artists I’ve worked with are a part of the new Women in Jazz Organization and are breaking barriers. I can’t even tell you the amount of female talent I was surrounded by while living in NYC, and that’s just in one place!
How do you feel your career has been different from your male counterparts in the same genre? What obstacles did you have to overcome to be accepted as a performer/composer?
Oh, it’s definitely easier for men. I’m like a triple-whammy too, being a female, an instrumentalist, and a vocalist. I almost never bother going to jam sessions because it’s assumed that I have no idea what I’m doing. There’s also a lot more pressure on looking a certain way when you’re female. I’ve had to prove over and over again that I can hang. It gets tiring for sure. But it does feel oh-so-sweet when I finally hit the stage and see the surprised faces. I guess I just try not to get too stuck on things, I just continue to do me and to do what makes me happy as a musician. You can’t worry about what others think too much.
Which came first, trumpet or voice? Was it difficult transitioning your improvisational ideas from either instrument or voice?
I guess I’d say trumpet came first. I mean, I sang from a young age, as most people do, but trumpet was the first instrument I really learned and took seriously. To answer your question honestly, it’s difficult. The things I hear and are able to sing do not come to me as easily on the trumpet… not even close! I honestly feel it’s one of my short-comings as a trumpet player. It feels so easy and free to improvise vocally, it’s far more difficult and time consuming for me to bunker down and try to force the same ease on the trumpet. I’d say I do have great tone and lyrical sound on the trumpet, but as far as improvisation is concerned, trumpet has definitely become a secondary instrument at this point, my true joy lies in singing. It’s what fulfills me as a musician.
Your album cover features multiple superimposed pictures of yourself wearing different clothes and embodying varying lifestyles. Could you elaborate how this represents your debut work as a musician? Do you feel that women in particular are expected to conform more frequently to the expectations of society than men? How has it affected you?
My album is a culmination of many years of music that I finally put into fruition. I’ve played many roles throughout the years, hence the cover. The newest role for me has been becoming a mom and I think taking on all these roles as a female is difficult to say the least - especially when you add the career of a musician. I’ve found that, unfortunately, it isn’t just men in the industry who think you should act and be a certain way. I think a lot of women who decide to start families as musicians are shunned to a certain degree. Furthermore, it can be competitively isolating if you aren’t on the scene in New York. What I am really trying to convey with my album cover is that you can be and do many things and still be successful and happy.
You have a couple of upcoming live performances in Connecticut, which is seeing a rise in jazz performers. How do you feel about the scene here? How do you think jazz can reach new audiences?
Yes, I do! I have a show coming up at The Packing House in Willington, CT on Feb. 22nd and another in May at The Poli Club in Waterbury. I’ve found the scene here to be very welcoming! The musicians and the audiences here have been so kind to me this past year since moving from Brooklyn, NY. It’s hard for me to pinpoint what exactly would bring jazz to more audiences, or live music in general, for that matter. It’s hard to believe there used to be a time when you could only hear music live! Now it’s in the palm of your hand. But I was actually very surprised with the amount of jazz lovers and listeners there are here. Hartford has a very tight music community and a lot of it surrounds the Hartt School at University of Hartford. I believe we should keep jazz in our schools, so the next generation can spread it. And…perhaps Hartford could expand its capacity for jazz to more than just Monday nights!.
Lastly we always ask, what’s your favorite jazz album of all time, and why?
For me, on a personal level, it’s Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable album. It’s the only jazz tape (TAPE!) my mom owned and the only jazz I ever heard as a child. From the first time I heard it, I loved it. I made her play it over and over in the car. It wasn’t until much later that I realized it was really Nat King Cole that I was appreciating. It was his legacy that Natalie was reproducing and it was his voice that I loved. It was because of this album that I started singing jazz in the first place. I even paid homage to it on my album.
To keep up to date on news and upcoming events, follow Leala on her social accounts: