AWARD-WINNING Scottish jazz vocalist Niki King has switched the spotlight in her latest show from one music legend to another. On a previous visit to Eden Court in Inverness, she toured a show dedicated to Billie Holiday. This time the inspiration is Duke Ellington. Originally from Edinburgh, Niki is currently living and working between New York and the UK. She was catapulted into the international spotlight in 2001 when she won the Perrier Jazz Vocalist of the Year award at the Café De Paris in London and since then has released four critically-acclaimed albums. Her touring schedule has seen her travel through Britain, Asia and Europe, headlining at the Blue Note in Tokyo and London’s Ronnie Scott’s. In 2006, Niki was voted most stylish female at the Scottish Style Awards. After her successful Billie Holiday Songbook show, which Niki created for the 50th anniversary of the jazz legend’s death, she is now on tour with her quintet celebrating the music of Duke Ellington. Below she answers some questions from Calum Macleod.
1 On a previous visit to Eden Court, you toured a show dedicated to Billie Holiday. With the current show the inspiration is Duke Ellington. Why "Sir Duke" and what does he mean to you as a writer and performer?
Whenever I am creating a new show I am always inspired by a project that will be a challenge musically and vocally. One of the biggest challenges with my Billie Holiday Songbook show was ensuring I would put my own vocal and musical stamp on a unique repertoire of songs, while ensuring the spirit of Holiday throughout the show. I chose to concentrate on Holiday as a writer as well as a singer and the influence she had on other writers. The repertoire was very specific to this. Although she wasn’t a prolific writer many of the few songs she did co-write became such famous standards such as God Bless The Child. One of my favourite songs from that show was called Tell Me More.The lyrics are fantastic.
Last year I decided I wanted to create another exciting and musically-challenging show. I was inspired by a wonderful large picture I have in my living-room of Duke watching Ella Fitzgerald performing and I suddenly realised there hadn’t been many vocal shows dedicated to Duke Ellington’s work. He was probably one of the most prolific composers of his time and again my challenge was to put together a unique repertoire that would honour the genius of Ellington and his co-writers. Ellington’s songs are not easy and I loved the vocal and musical challenge of finding my way inside them and making them my own. I also decided that my line-up would be a little bit more original by incorporating harp into my quintet and by introducing backing vocals within the band. I wanted to create a show that was beautiful and vibrant. Just like my Billie Holiday show, I am so fortunate to be working with the most incredible players and alongside Ellington’s songs being such a pleasure to perform, this show is nothing but a joy for me and I hope this reflects through the music and the show.
2 You’ve said before that you "hate straight singing". How much of a challenge is it to put your own unique interpretation on such timeless standards as Ellington’s songs and are there ones that are particular pleasure or challenge to sing?
It is always a challenge to take any song that someone else wrote and make it sound unique to you. Especially when choosing work by someone as popular and musically-advanced as Duke Ellington. However, it is usually the most challenging songs I get excited about. Two of my favourite songs from the set are the not-so-well-known Something To Live For and Hey, Buddy Bolden. I like to give some of the background to the songs within the show and I have found, again, like my Holiday show, that many of my audience members are being introduced to these songs for the first time and are not so aware of this side of Duke Ellington’s work.
3 You will obviously be appealing to established Ellington fans, but is another aim of the show introducing his music to those less familiar with his work too? And if so, how do you strike a balance between the two?
I think this show appeals to both established Ellington fans and those less familiar with his work because the songs are so beautiful and the music should hopefully do the communicating. There are a few songs in the set even established Ellington fans may not be familiar with, alongside our specific arrangements this keeps the show fresh for everyone.
4 This is a set that obviously looks back at the past, but do you ultmately see jazz as something essentially nostalgic or current?
I don’t think of this set as looking back at the past. Again, like my Holiday show, it is more to do with showcasing how current and beautiful these songs are still today and how great music is timeless and therefore of no time other than when it’s being played. Duke Ellington never liked to be categorized and I love his wonderful quote that keeps it simple "there are two kinds of music – the good kind and the other kind".
5 You are also a songwriter. Is a show like this, with its emphasis on cover songs, a break from songwriting or an inspiration?
As a songwriter this show is incredibly inspiring. These are such well-crafted melodies with beautiful lyrics being added. The partnerships that Ellington had with his co-writers is also very interesting, especially with huge talents such as Billy Strayhorn. This show is also a great opportunity for me vocally as these songs require the full use of my range and technique and I am an eternal student so it is always exciting to challenge and develop my skills.
6 Could you introduce us to the quintet? Are they based in New York?
My quintet features the very best of Scottish and international players. The pianist is Euan Stevenson – the double bass player is Mario Caribe – the drummer is Alyn Cosker and the harpist is Alina Bzhezhinska. I am very grateful to have them all on board and part of a set unit. We are a team on stage.
7 What are the pros and cons of being a New York based singer?
Living in New York is extremely inspiring for any creative, but I think especially so for music. There is so much history there with jazz and Broadway. Every day of the week there will be live music playing at the highest level of musicianship from renowned venues such as The Blue Note to tiny little hidden bars. There is just something special about New York – it is so creative and alive, but like all big cities it can be pretty full-on so I do appreciate the balance of coming back to Scotland and being with close family and friends.
8 You recently wrote the score for a silent movie. How did this opportunity come up and how did you enjoy the experience?
I was approached by a company called Birds Eye View who work specifically with female songwriters to write an original score for their Sounds and Silents series as part of their Film Festival in London. I was commissioned to write the score to a fantastic 1920 film called Why Change Your Wife starring Gloria Swanson and Bebe Daniels. It was such a fantastic project to write for and we debuted the score live with the film being screened at the BFI in London. It was a challenging project as I didn’t have much time, but it came together in the end and the response was overwhelming.
I wrote a song-score with lyrics specific to scenes, which is quite rare for silent scores. It was a wonderful experience and I very much look forward to performing this show again.
9 What next is on the horizon?
After the Edinburgh festival season I will be heading back to the US then to Asia and then possibly back to Scotland before heading back to the US. I have a lot of travel and exciting family news and so it is a very special and inspiring time ahead. However, right now I am completely focused and excited about The Songs Of Duke Ellington shows coming up with my Quintet. I’m really looking forward to performing at Eden Court again too it has always been a great venue and audience.
The Niki King Quintet perform The Songs Of Duke Ellington at Eden Court, Inverness, on Saturday (July 26). For information about Niki and her music: www.nikiking.com