Kate Hammett-Vaughan
interviewed by Josephine Ochej
December 2001
Kate Hammett-Vaughan
Kate Hammett-Vaughan
at The Cellar, December 2000
Photo by Brian Nation

One of the great things about jazz that earns it lifelong fans is that at its core it's about change, taking chances, and being receptive to new ideas. So long as your ears are open, it'll never get boring. During the last few years, Vancouver vocalist Kate Hammett-Vaughan has shifted the ground beneath herself a few times in the name of growth. Her former Quartet underwent a personnel change when guitarist Ron Samworth departed and pianist Chris Gestrin entered. Shortly after, long-time friend and occasional collaborator saxist Jim Pinchin became a permanent member of Hammett-Vaughan's group (along with bassist André Lachance and drummer Tom Foster), making it a Quintet.

Vancouver jazz musicians and fans alike know that not many groups get to play together regularly in their entirety, and practice time is rare, so a lot is riding on finding the right combination of talent, skill and chemistry to connect with. It starts amongst the musicians and, if you're lucky, opens up to include the audience. The Kate Hammett-Vaughan Quintet has that 'certain something' and you can see it play out with the musicians on stage and hear it in their music.

"Devil May Care" is the follow up to Hammett-Vaughan's sublime 1999 debut recording as a leader and as she gets set to release the disc, Hammett-Vaughan took some time out to chat about this ever-changing world of jazz we live in.

JOSEPHINE OCHEJ: "How My Heart Sings" feels like it just came out and yet here you are with another album, "Devil May Care". Is having a great working Quintet part of the inspiration for getting more material documented?

KATE HAMMETT-VAUGHAN: Having a working band of any size is an amazing thing, but I feel especially blessed that Tom, Jim, Chris and André have been a part of this unit for so long. It offers a greater sense of freedom and more open communication in the music. And we all share a sensibility that is definitely helping in developing a real sound for the group. And we like to play music together! So, yes.

JO: What effect (if any) did getting a Juno nomination for "How My Heart Sings" have on you as a vocalist?

K H-V: None. Well, I guess I shouldn't say none, really, as it is very nice to be recognized in your field and all that. And it did inspire Maximum Jazz to get behind the production of "Devil May Care", which is great. ("How My Heart Sings" was a self-funded project that Maximum put out on their label). But as far as having any effect on my singing or my life as an artist, I would have to say none. I've been doing what I've been doing for such a long time now that being nominated for an award (or winning one!) is just a nice sort of recognition. Losing won't stop me from playing and winning won't inspire me to play more. This is just what I do.

JO: Tell me about choosing material for "Devil May Care".

K H-V: As always, I'm looking for songs that suit the character of the band and that haven't been over-recorded or over-performed by other vocalists. A lot of my contemporaries are in the same boat now. We're looking for material, and a lot of us are fishing in the same pool, looking at songs by Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, etc. We've got a Tom Waits tune on this record ("Strange Weather"), and a Nick Drake song as well ("Poor Boy"). As far as standards are concerned, there are so many great songs to choose from. I've dipped into the Monk, Duke, Mingus pool again, and added a couple of other long-time favourites like "I Remember You" and, of course, Bob Dorough's "Devil May Care".

JO: About the recording process for the "Devil May Ccare", did you decide on any major process differences from the last one (recording "How My Hear Sings" live at the Western Front)?

K H-V: This time, working with Brian Watson at Maximum Jazz, we actually had the opportunity to record in a studio with isolation rooms and all that stuff. We worked at Turtle Sound in White Rock with Larry Anschell, and had a pretty good experience with making this recording. The isolation and headphones thing make it difficult in a way, because jazz is music that people play 'together'. You know, I'm used to the sound of the band around me in an ambient way, so it's hard to imagine the same sense of spontaneity and interaction, and just the plain physicality of the sound, when it's coming at you through headphones. I know this separation of sounds is a common and much-desired thing in our modern recording world, but even the greatest engineer on the planet can't put those separate sounds back together in a way that sounds truly live. So, we got great sounds for the most part and it's a kick to be able to adjust things so minutely, but the live recording thing has its charms as well. Especially, for me, in the way the sounds gel.

JO: What had you learned last time around - or since - that affected this project?

K H-V: Well, we were excited to try a different recording process. Recording your music is always such a great learning experience, and every method has its pros and cons. What we decided to do this time was to just go in and play without over-rehearsing or planning too much of what would happen. I think it was successful in a lot of ways, but we definitely found that we had to plan some of the things. And, as I said, the headphone/separation thing can be problematic where spontaneity is concerned. You just have to hope for the greatest headphone mix in the universe.

JO: Were you working with the same team, i.e. Shawn Pierce, and Brian Watson at Maximum Jazz? Tell me about those relationships and how they're developing.

K H-V: Shawn and Brian are just the greatest. It's like a dream relationship, really. There's total respect around the table, very open minds and hearts, and Brian cuts me so much artistic latitude (let's talk about the cover art)! Maximum Jazz is really getting behind a number of Vancouver artists, and I think they're going to make a big mark on the national, and eventually the international, scene. And Shawn Pierce is so fantastic to work with. Very creative, musical, hip, calm, open, hardworking, reliable… I really love working with both of those guys.

JO: You have some very sexy photographs in the new CD package. Tell me about the process of coming up with artwork ideas regarding how you wanted to present the visual aspects of the project?

K H-V: The artwork was totally a matter of happenstance and whimsy. We were taking photographs on this lovely little beach in Vancouver and I had brought a couple of things to wear, like I would to an indoor photo shoot. Chris Cameron, a wonderful friend and fantastic photographer, was shooting (he did the photos for HMHS as well). So, my friend Stephen was helping out, being stylist and photo assistant and general all-around Mr. Indispensable, and I was changing behind a sheet on the beach. I pulled this velvet dress up to my waist and looked at all the sea colors in it and cracked a joke about being a mermaid. So we did a bunch of shots of me as mer-babe with my arms over my breasts and a couple of shots from behind too. It was starting to rain, so eventually we thought we'd call it. But I was standing on this big flat rock, and Chris says to me "we have to do the Venus on the half-shell shot, you know". So I took off my dress and we shot these demure nudes at dusk in the rain. And when I saw the pictures, I loved the feeling of them. I was just certain that this was the way to go. So the mermaids are on the cover and the Venus nude is on the actual CD. My standard response when people ask me 'why' is to crack that I may never be this old and look this good again, so why not?

JO: What would make "Devil May Care" a success for you?

K H-V: To sell enough CDs for Maximum to consider it successful, for the record to open some doors for us so that we can tour and enlarge the audience for the Quintet's music,

JO: Anything unexpected on "Devil May Care" that you can share?

K H-V: Hmmm…

JO: Where will the record be distributed?

K H-V: Maximum Jazz takes care of distribution, but it will be available all across Canada. I'm sure they're making inroads to the US and European markets as well, so I hope it will eventually get there, and to Japan (and take us with it!).

JO: What are your thoughts on the state of jazz in Vancouver?

K H-V: I'll try not to make you sorry that you asked that question. I'd have to open a lot of cans of worms to really tackle it (oops! sorry about the fishing metaphor… and the bad pun…). It would be easiest just to say that, big picture, this is a city of fantastically talented and committed artists who are living and creating art that exists, sadly, on the margins of Vancouver's identity as a 'world-class' city. Archaic liquor and public assembly laws play a large part in that, but the people of this city have to take more responsibility for supporting live music (and other arts) year round. The jazz festival is always a fantastic thing, but I think that the fact that the fest audience sees us on major stages during that ten days maybe contributes to their perception that our lives are full of those performance opportunities and that we're all living well off the huge dough we make as jazz players. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is more like this: we just work on projects and occasionally make CDs, gig when we can (the Cellar is Vancouver's only real 'listening' jazz club), and mostly just work hard to stay committed to our art and creativity in a society that undervalues art perhaps more than any society in the history of civilization.

JO: What are your thoughts on the state of jazz in the world beyond Vancouver?

K H-V: Jazz is in big transition, I think. There are plenty of people in the Wynton camp who are taking care of the tradition, but jazz as an art form is essentially about growth and experimentation and communication, and I hope more people will start to dig that. A guy like (New York trumpeter/composer) Dave Douglas is the epitome for me of what a modern 'jazz' artist is. He's got a wide range of musical interests, his cultural and historical references are really hip, and his music sounds totally individual and creative. Wide open ears. Years from now, the creative music that gets labeled as jazz may bear only a passing aural resemblance to the music that Bird or Trane or Miles or Billie laid down, but the roots will be deep. You have to know where you've come from to know where you're going. That's what makes Dave's music so happening for me. It's not a fly-by-night sort of fusion of stuff. It's really considered and artful and played with real passion.

JO: Does your teaching world give you hope for the future of jazz and music, in general?

K H-V: I think the future of jazz as a vital art form that reflects its time is up for grabs, given all the commercial pressures placed on artists to conform and play 'what sells'. Everybody wants to make a buck doing what they like to do. But I always have faith in and hope for the future of music. Music that comes from the heart is inherently a force for good and for peace. Working with young musicians every day helps me keep that faith alive, just knowing that so many creative spirits are being nourished and encouraged. Teaching is great for me. I really love it.

JO: Do you have a long-term plan, say for the next couple years or even beyond?

K H-V: To continue growing and exploring, as a person and as an artist. That's long-term and short-term.

JO: Do you have any touring plans?

K H-V: Across Canada next fall, I hope.

JO: Any other projects you're working on?

K H-V: Lots. I'm learning a new music piece by a young composer named Matt Rogers that my friend Katherine Harris (a classical soprano) and I will premiere in February, I'm singing Kurt Weill's music in a cabaret trio with Katherine H. and Marguerite Witvoet, and I'm working toward a night of original cabaret music and art songs for later this year. There are always a few irons in the fire.

JO: Anything else you want to add?

K H-V: That you're the greatest. Thanks for all the support you give me and my guys, and all the artists you write about and photograph. You swing!

Writer/Photographer Josephine Ochej is a regular contributor to The Jazz Review, the Westender and Coda Magazine.

More jazzie . . .

Related links:

Kate Hammett-Vaughan
Coastal Jazz & Blues
The Cellar

Josephine Ochej's previous interview with Kate Hammett-Vaughan, on the occasion of the release of "How My Heart Sings" can be viewed here.