(In December, jazz singer Sage Bava and I went to meet Grammy nominee Robert Glasper for a show in Los Angeles. During our compelling conversation, Glasper said he wanted young jazz singers to bring their own voices and contemporary thoughts to jazz to making the music grow. Bava sang a snippet, to him, of the original song “Podcast” by New Orleans-based musician Gabrielle Cavassa. Cavassa heard Bava’s powerful vocal performance and commented on her Instagram. , both of which were so loud and worked so brilliantly to move the music forward like Glasper wanted to talk directly to each other this is the very musical conversation between Bava and Cavassa which I’m sure you’ll find as fascinating and educational as I have the privilege of editing it. — Steve Baltin)
Sage Bava: Looks like you have a good group around you. I love to see you play with Ryan Hansler. It’s such a great energy you have and it’s so rare to find someone like that together.
Gabrielle Cavassa: You’re so right. I connected with Ryan, probably one of the greatest musical connections of my life. I met him in New Orleans. I had moved there in October 2017 and I want to say that he moved in December. We were both kind of new to that area, and he quickly really made an impact on the scene there. And I started a session in this place called The Starlight. I had no connection and I was fairly new and I just called the best people I knew. We weren’t friends or anything [but] yes, I called him, I called Jamison Ross and I called a different bass player than was originally on the session, and I ended up being later on the session. But I literally called the best people I knew and they said yes, which was crazy. He took a chance on me. And I think that session became a very sacred place for all of us. It was once a week and we developed a real band sound and a real community around that session.
Bava: It seems the story is that you visited New Orleans, fell in love with and decided to move from California to New Orleans?
Cavassa: Yeah, I lived in the Bay Area, which I also love, and I vacationed there with a friend. And I just fell in love instantly. It was the right time in my life. And I felt like it was something I had to do for my education and both my duty and my privilege that maybe I could move there and just learn and grow there.
Bava: I would like to know your earliest memory of jazz. I really admire your conviction from an early age to be a jazz singer and stick to it. It’s so common to see people do a little bit of this and a little bit of that and then never really realize anything. I imagine you’ve done so many different genres and explored them in so many different ways. When did you decide you wanted to be a jazz singer?
Cavassa: I don’t know. I have always been a researcher, from an early age. I wanted to know what I liked about music. I was around some excellent singers growing up but my family wasn’t necessarily super musical so they didn’t give me the keys to the kingdom or anything and so I started doing research. First with my parents’ CDs, which had some jazz on them. There was this great Christmas album they had that had Nancy Wilson on it and it was like winter songs. It wasn’t even Christmas per se, but it was like Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald. And those were some of my probably first encounters with ‘Jazz’. But I didn’t know anything about what that was, I just loved that sound. I loved Nancy Wilson’s song. I remember being really obsessed with it, it was “The Things We Did Last Summer.” I didn’t necessarily plan to be a jazz singer very young, but I really fell in love with some of those singers, like Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson, and a little later Dinah Washington. And maybe it was my voice compared to the other really great singers I hung out with as a kid. One of my best singing friends growing up, she is now a Broadway star and she had very early success, her name is Allie Trim. And just being around that excellence and purity of vocals was extremely inspiring to me and showed me what excellence was. But I also knew I wasn’t. I had a scratchy voice. And I was really inspired by these other ways of expressing that kind of thing that were more in line with my personality. I was really inspired by a lot of the styles of singers like Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson, also Amy Winehouse. And then, I think, it wasn’t until college that I really got into the jazz catalog. I just got such an incredible history lesson. You can go so deep into it, it’s structured and there are values that change and expand over time. I really got into it.
Bava: What was your favorite performance so far?
Cavassa: My favorite performances are still some of those nights at The Starlight. When you feel really comfortable somewhere and of course the goal is to get on stage and feel comfortable wherever you are. But some of my best musical moments really were in that crowded little club full of my whole community and with this band that I trust completely. I really just owe a lot to that period. There I developed many of my skills as a bandleader and arranger and also as a collaborator. When we started, yes, I definitely did my jazz standards. Great American Songbook and then it formed our joint arrangements of those songs and a lot of New Orleans music. And then in that period I started writing songs and putting them out there. We tried everything and the things that stuck, we kept doing.
Bava: I absolutely love your writing style. It’s very jazz to me because people take a little motif and they keep expanding that. I would love to hear your writing inspiration because it is very unique.
Cavassa: It’s not on purpose, I’ll say that. I’m just pulling off what I know. I definitely like lyrics, and I feel like the music follows that. I love Amy Winehouse. I love Frank Ocean. I like SZA. Those are really modern influences. I love Morrissey’s songwriting, how just really honest and candid all those people are. I love Jeff Buckley. And then I’m also really inspired by the lyrics of the Great American Songbook and that romantic vibe. It’s probably just a mix of everything I like.
Bava: You’ve talked about your intuition and how you trust it and how that’s a really important part of your work as an artist. Do you have any advice for other young people who are navigating music and their intuition and have conviction with that because, as you know, it’s such a chaotic space?
Cavassa: Intuition is all we really have, I mean really. You know that song “Podcast” you sang to Robert Glasper? It’s so cool. That was just a song I wrote, it’s very fragmented, it felt like it wasn’t done to me. And I almost didn’t release it because there was a producer who was very high up in the industry and said, “This isn’t a song. These aren’t songs and these aren’t really going to do well in the jazz canon or the jazz music.” market today.” And I was like, “Okay.” But I just had to follow my intuition and the truth is that the songs are accessible to people my age, and that’s important. It’s so important to follow your intuition in instead of doing what you think someone else will like or what has worked for others in the past it is paramount to believe what you have and believe the ideas that come to mind because you really have nothing otherwise worth something.
Bava: You really sing like an instrumentalist. They say that about all great jazz singers, especially with scatting of course, you imitate an instrument. It’s so great to see you embody that. Was that always part of you in terms of the way you use your voice and the way you use your body?
Cavassa: I remember when I was little my singing teacher said, “Speak up, you don’t say any words at all.” And I didn’t care about the word, which is funny, because today I’m so into the text of the story. But yeah, when I was little I just wanted to make sounds, I like sounds. I’m just as inspired by instrumentalists as I am by singers. I think Ben Webster and Errol Garner have as much influence on my sound as Billie Holiday and Betty Carter.
Bava: Is the next album very different from the first?
Cavassa: It’s totally different, very much a product of COVID. It is largely a collaboration with Ryan Hansler. So there are only strings and Ryan. So there are no other instruments that are new to me. I’m looking forward to doing part two of my first record, I really am. But this feels like a departure. There is a lot of Italian music on it, something I really wanted to do in recent years. It’s very weird, beautiful or just dramatic music. There is a lot of Italian influence on it. And there’s a lot oh deep emotion, so it’s not as playful as the first one. It’s a little dark.
Bava: So what’s the story of the big blue guitar?
Cavassa: I started playing guitar during COVID. I played a little bit in high school. But I’m a much better singer. And it’s so much easier for me to express myself singing that I went that way. And I really stopped playing so many instruments, even though I played everything pretty badly. And then, without my band and COVID, I was like, “Oh my God, I just have to love hearing music behind me and I want to make that.” So I started playing. And I bought that guitar. And I’ve been working on it ever since. And that’s how I write all my songs now. Which I really like.
Bava: It’s a beautiful guitar.
Cavassa: It’s a D’Angelico, which is great. It’s a brand in New York. I like writing on guitar. I feel like a real songwriter like Bob Dylan on the guitar. I also like Bob Dylan, that’s definitely a songwriting influence.
Bava: Who do you think are your top three current artists in the jazz scene?
I love Cecile McLorin Salvant. I just totally adore her. I love Melissa Aldana. And I love Robert Glasper. There are a lot of people, I might say, a lot.
Bava: What’s on your bucket list? It could be music, it could be life.
Cavssa: I’m so headstrong, I want to make albums. I want to travel. I want to live in Italy, in Naples or near Naples. I think there are locations that are bucket lists for me. And collaborations. For example, I would really like to sing with Robert Glasper. I would like to play in the Blue Note. And bigger too, like I’d love to play at Carnegie Hall. There are things I have in mind. And of course those are the things I’m chasing.
Bava: I love how you write from love because there are so many vulnerable places you can go as a woman. And to have that really warm base of love is really great for the world. There are so many fragile topics that need to be shared and I appreciate your belief in keeping things based on love.
Cavassa: Yes. I like love songs, I really do. Those are my favorite songs in the world. But on my new album there are a few songs that aren’t about love, which is brand new to me, so I’m really growing here. But yes, I like love songs. You don’t have to have a shared experience, but love is universal. That’s pretty much what life is about, so it always touches me and that’s what I mostly want to write about.