I’ve enjoyed a number of performances by Knoxville singer Katy Free in recent years. Her jazzy renditions of everything from Broadway to the Beatles, from pop standards to jazz standards captivates me every time. Smooth and elegant, aggressive and earthy by turns, she covers the gamut and makes it look easy as she slips deftly through vocal runs that would fall apart in the hands of a lesser talent.
And so, with great delight, I recently learned she’s recorded her first album with a release date of June 19th at which point she’ll host a CD release party at the Red Piano Lounge (which I wish was downtown). It’s a move she’s wanted to make for several years, but when a friend asked her to sing on a demo, she discovered Steve Rutledge and Steel String Studio in Friendsville. Steve became the engineer and co-producer of the new album, “Fine Day,” which includes Katy on vocals and longtime collaborator Wendel Werner on piano.
That Katy would gravitate to music became clear to her quite early. She took piano lessons from a very young age and dabbled in musical theater. A fourth cousin to Elvis Presley, she initially set her sights on becoming a country singer. She sang LeAnn Rimes’ song, “Blue” so much when she was in fifth grade it was “outlawed” from her home. When her mother eventually bought a big-band album by Linda Ronstadt, she found her true direction. It was Wendel Werner who gave her a systematic introduction to jazz and its history, though that came later. She particularly gravitates to the music of Sarah Vaughn, Etta James, the soulful vocals of Lisa Fischer and the contemporary work of Jane Monheit whose songs she learned verbatim.
I asked Katy about her musical relationship with Werner, the long-respected keyboard player and UT professor. The two were introduced by Brenda Bailey, Katy’s high school voice teacher while Katy was still in high school. The first time the two met she sang, “Cry Me a River,” while Wendel changed styles with each verse. She hung with him change-for-change and apparently passed the audition.
She began attending UT the next year, 2007, and the two have worked together since. While at UT Katy studied Music and Culture (musicology), which wasn’t her initial intention. Determined to select a more practical major, she soon realized there was no other option for her. Rather than major in vocals, she did choose musicology with the thought of teaching – not realizing that would require a PhD, which ultimately didn’t interest her. In addition to performing, Katy teaches voice to local students.
For the new album, the two considered working with other musicians, but ultimately decided to record a pared-down showcase of what Katy does best with minimal instrumentation to distract from that core. Saying he gives her a great foundation for her vocals – which are often improvised – Katy says the simplicity seemed like the logical choice. Song selection was similarly logical: The two wanted to present her strongest work and each developed a list from which they recorded the songs both had selected.
The act of recording proved interesting in a number of ways. Katy pointed out that microphones in the studio are very different from those she uses to perform. As they are much more sensitive, Katy was forced to be very precise in enunciation as she recorded. Also requiring attention was the fact that many of her songs are longer than might be preferred for a first CD, with improvisations often stretching the songs beyond their normal strictures. Steve Rutledge was instrumental in helping select song order to insure a good flow for the larger work.
All the songs, true to her performances, are rooted in jazz and sometimes blues, but the songs themselves come from numerous genres. She characterizes it as, “vocal jazz with original creative arrangements.” You’ll find a strong representation of songs considered “classic” rock, such as the Beatles “Come Together,” Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance,” plus both “I Feel the Earth Move” and “One Fine Day,” by Carole King. She tackles Billy Holliday’s “God Bless the Child.” Classic country is represented by a signature version of Patsy Cline’s, “Walking After Midnight.”
Contemporary jazz vocalist Caro Emerald’s 2010 recording, “That Man,” is covered and offers a glimpse of Katy’s vocal gymnastics at their best. Gin Wigmore’s “Man Like That,” also adds a more current, yet retro, swing element to the mix. Michael Jackson’s, “The Way You Make Me Feel,” finds Katy at her most soulful, doing as she does, an making the song resemble nothing but her own unique style. Wanting to including something with a spiritual feel, Katy selected Paul Simon’s 2000 song “Love,” from his “You’re the One,” album. It closes Katy’s new release with its sometimes poignant lyrics, like the closing lines,”The price that we pay when evil walks the planet and love is crushed like clay: The master races, the chosen peoples, the burning temples, the weeping cathedrals.”
The song serves as a powerful ending to this very entertaining musical journey. I’d encourage you to make the Red Piano performance if you’re able and to pick up the album either there or elsewhere. It will be available June 19th on Itunes for download, as well as the other online services, such as Amazon and Spotify. A hard copy is also available for order. You’ll hear her soon on Jazz Jams with Kelle Jolly on WUOT and she’ll be interviewed by Karl Hess on WOZO, July 2 at 9:00 AM. She also has plans to travel regionally to support the new release. You can catch a preview show at Sugar Mama’s this Saturday night with both Katy and Wendell.