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Modern Ancestors: A Conversation with Carmen Lundy

Jazz singer, composer, and arranger, Carmen Lundy released her 15th album Modern Ancestors in October, 2019. Featuring ten self-penned and arranged tracks, the album features Julius Rodriguez on piano, Carmen’s brother Curtis Lundy on acoustic upright bass, Kenny Davis on electric and acoustic bass, Mayra Casales on percussion,

Terreon Gully and Kassa Overall on drums and Andrew Renfroe on guitar. The album has earned worldwide recognition and is nominated this year for Best Jazz Vocal

Album at the 63 rd Annual Grammy® Awards.

I sat down with Carmen to get a more in-depth look into the songs that make this album so meaningful and noteworthy. I wanted to know more about how she writes

and what inspires her. Carmen begins by saying “Writing is not much different than how we observe and participate in life around us. Pop songs get a lot of attention with lyrics like I want you baby, I need you baby. When you divert the subject and talk about what you really observe, what goes on with two human beings, it broadens the palette.”

We start by talking about one of my favorite songs on the album, “Flowers And Candles.” Carmen tells me the song came about when reading an article on the terrorist attack in Paris. The article mentioned a father taking his child to a

memorial and trying to ease the child’s fears. The child - seeing the flowers and candles - asks if they were there to protect them. Carmen goes on to say, “I was so moved by the innocence of the child, his impulse was to make sense of

that. We as humans have to find a way to smooth and ease the pain. We offer these symbols that imply a certain peaceful reassurance and an acknowledgement of what has happened.”

When Carmen first started singing the song at the Kennedy Center in D.C., it just opened with the lyrics, “flowers and candles.” She felt like she had to explain why she was singing the song, so she started it as if it was a conversation, and that’s when she wrote the lyrics “just the other day,” to set up the story. Many jazz standards start with these slow verses and so Carmen was borrowing and respecting the ancestors in the way they arrived at certain musical ideas.

We talked about another touching and poignant song, “A Time For Peace.” Carmen worked on the song for over two years. “I could never commit to recording it, I felt like it was never finished. To me there was a lot of arrogance in the way the people who lead the world treat one another, a sense of self empowerment if you will, that effects everyone. This whole need to prove yourself to be the power of all things that dwell on the earth is absolutely insane.” Carmen felt there never seemed to be one space in time where we can actually thrive in a peaceful environment. She goes on to say, “I’ve seen enough, and why can’t this be a time for peace. It might be a fantasy, you know, come on Carmen. Maybe it won’t be in my lifetime and maybe it won’t be till we are no longer on this planet but there will one day be peace. If we have the power to make war we have the power to make peace.”

Carmen used imagery in the song such as battlefields and the twin towers as references to things in our present that are not a fantasy. These moments in time make the song feel more real and urgent. Carmen knew she could just make another jazz standard record, to just cover Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan but she had something more important to say. She wanted to make you see yourself in

the light of today. “My motivation is finding ways to stay true and authentic to this beautiful music I stumbled into called Jazz and the American experience.” Being able to perform music has allowed Carmen to travel the world, so she tries to create her songs with not only a pen but with her heart. Carmen notes, “It’s a beautiful

discovery, you never know what song is going to reach people. Everyone has a way of tuning into the reality we are a part of. We manifest the experience in many different

ways. I happen to be on the creative side of life choices but you can find it anywhere or in anything. We all have the potential to fulfill the unimagined.”

Carmen thinks the album resonates because it’s an honest, well executed project with help from other creatives. “It’s not just me singing a capella. My process is that I record everything in my own space and then I take those ideas and apply them to my manuscripts.” Carmen then contacts the musicians she had in mind at the start of the project to see if it speaks to them. Carmen goes on to say, “Now it’s a collaboration. Now it’s bigger than I imagined because someone is going to bring something to that piano part or melody that I couldn’t even imagine myself. That’s what’s so cool about the evolution of an idea and the end result. All of which couldn’t be done without Don Murray who recorded and mixed the album.”

The evolution of Carmen’s work can take place in any environment. It comes about with trying to keep an open and honest connection. Carmen explains this by talking about a recent songwriting experience, “I was working on a song and there was noise outside. It was a truck backing up with that beeping sound. I was playing a chord and about to write this note. I realized it was the same note as the truck beeping, well why should I question it? I just say thank you. I’m so lucky to have found ways to express myself that other people can relate to. The best thing about what I do is taking

it to the audience.”

The audience believe it or not is still there. Many people have tried to say jazz is dead. We have young artists dedicating four or five years of formal education to this genre that the mainstream audience doesn’t support or tries to ignore. This is how the song, ‘Jazz On TV’ came about. “I wanted to raise the question to these people and find a humorous way to have a serious talk. My producer kept hearing me talk about how you can’t find jazz on television. But if you can sell soap you can sell jazz. All the songs address this modern life. It’s not that what I’m saying is radical, it’s just an observation.” There is hope in this world though. Even through a pandemic, jazz keeps trucking along. It’s still being heard and loved.

We turn our conversation to “Burden Down, Burden Down.” Carmen starts to talk about her ancestor’s experience of being black in the world. She thinks about people like Harriet Tubman. “It’s a story, within a story, within a story. One

person’s life allowed for a lot more generations to walk free. I think about seeing an image like mine on currency. When I was in South Africa, I had to exchange money and I saw Nelson Mandela’s face. I still have that in my wallet right now. That’s my way of saying someday I’m going to pull out a dollar and there is going to be someone who looks like me. That’s what ‘Burden Down’ is saying, we will eventually get

there. Sooner or later we won’t have to sing songs like this.”

As a young vocalist wanting to attend the University of Miami, Carmen only had a choice of going into classical singing or music education, but she wanted to be a jazz performer. At the University of Miami, they had a great Jazz program but not one that included singers. Luckily, the people around her were open minded and helped her become the first Jazz Vocal Major in the Jazz department. “It changed my life. My mother sang gospel, so my early childhood memories have to do with music and I wanted to copy her by being a vocalist.”

In high school, a friend introduced Carmen to the likes of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis. She loved it but thought jazz was strictly instrumental until she heard the album, Ella Fitzgerald: Live in Berlin. In the twenty five years performing in Miami and New York, she went through the whole American songbook. While in New York she met longtime collaborators Julie Raynor and Marilyn Redfield Castilaw. Their song, “Meant For Each Other,” had always inspired Carmen. She later decided to put it on her Modern Ancestors album, adding some signature chords and voicing that don’t collide with the vibe of the song.

Along the way in those early years, she realized if she was going to make a name for herself and make a distinctive contribution she had to try writing and composing herself. That’s when things turned a corner. “The key is finding your own voice, we don’t need soundalikes, there is only one Louis Armstrong. At the end of the day you have to get them to hear you.”

Later on, Carmen spent eighteen years as a clinician at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program at the Kennedy Center in D.C., where she met a lot of talented young musicians. She would find opportunities to get them on her bandstand. She felt if they played with veterans they would get a chance to develop in front of an audience, all the while being supported and tutored. This is how she met her pianist on Modern Ancestors, Julius Rodriguez. “He knows where to find a groove, where to give me my space and support me. He is gifted that way.”

Having a vision is what is most important to Carmen. She feels if you have a vision it helps others to follow it. The song, “Ola De Calor,” has a distinct vision. It pays homage to our modern ancestors, those great Brazilian and Spanish speaking artists who have contributed to the overall expression of jazz. Paying homage to even more current modern ancestors is the song, “Eye Of The Storm”. Carmen’s parents suffered during Hurricane Andrew and her whole family was devastated, life was never the same. Carmen explains, “When I wrote that song, there was another horrific storm coming straight for Miami and everyone was re-living Andrew. A way to work through my stress was to identify with what it felt like for them. It then became this thing about our political climate and the reality in which we live. Many songs on this record evoke a lot about our times even though the inspirations might not have anything to do with it.”

Right after the storm comes “Clear Blue Skies.” This song was written from Carmen’s friendship with the late great pianist Geri Allen. “I love how she expressed her music, how she organized her thoughts. She had a soft manner but intense at the same time, there was a gentle quality and ease in how she would arise at her fieriness. Her speaking voice was soft in tone, but her music had so much depth and understanding. It’s hard not to be impacted by her incredible artistry.” Geri was also featured on some of Carmen’s albums. They toured together often. Carmen remembers, “The way she would organize harmony in a chord, the way she played a chord and a totally different chord on top of that one, it sounded like one big fat chord. She was a child of

Detroit, talk about how one person can have such an impact, we lost her too soon, and I wanted that simple little tune to be what Geri might say.” It’s a perfect example of how her pianist, Julius, listened to Geri Allen. He did his homework delving into the unique qualities of Geri and brought them into the tune.

The album finishes with two beautiful songs “Affair Brazil” and “Still.” The song “Affair Brazil"; Carmen notes, was inspired by an old song from the 40’s where the singer is using the metaphor of a ship as she’s waiting for the love of her life to come in. It is here she decides to start the song much like “Flowers And Candles.” Opening it like a conversation, giving you the backstory about taking a trip. The song “Still” Carmen developed in the 80’s and wanted to give it one more try. It was a song where she could feature her brother Curtis on bass.

Carmen’s artistry flows into painting and creating art as well. The album cover is actually a wall sculpture she was making while recording the album. The sculpture used for the album cover represents her ancestors. There is an old broken

banjo on the cover. Carmen explains, “It invokes a lot of hostility, it’s hard for me to make friends with that instrument. It’s what it represents for my ancestors. It’s a link to our journey and fits perfectly in the sculpture.” Carmen’s art helps her heal and helps tell her stories. She reminisces, “When I moved to LA I began to paint - painting is therapeutic for me. I used to also sew my wardrobe in my New York days. It was like piecing your life together. It gave me an appreciation of the end result. Painting was a way for me to remember the impact my family had on me. My earliest subjects were family. My modern ancestors.”

Modern Ancestors is a multi layered piece of art. Each word and note has myriad meanings. From start to finish the album takes you on a journey through time and space making us question both our past and future. It is artists like Carmen Lundy who give us hope and fill our ears with beautiful music.

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