Q&A with Vocalist Fay Claassen: Getting at the Whole Picture


​Vocalist Fay Claassen doesn’t have any immediate plans to tour the States, but says there’s “a very modern, free scene” in Germany.

(Photo: Stef Nagel)

Dutch singer Fay Claassen’s assured sense of time and impeccable phrasing cover a wide terrain. On her recent, disc Luck Child (Challenge), she finds improvisational possibilities in Paul Simon’s “One Trick Pony,” Ennio Morricone’s wordless “Cinema Paradiso” and a track that trumpeter Kenny Wheeler penned just for her, “Fay.”

She sharpened her voice’s swinging instrumental qualities through extensive training in conservatories, on bandstands across Europe and alongside such mentors as pianist Barry Harris. Claassen spoke to DownBeat from her home in Cologne, Germany, where she lives with her saxophonist husband, Paul Heller, and daughter, Inga, who inspired the disc’s title.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

There’s so much diverse material on Luck Child. I was wondering how much of that comes from your origins in The Netherlands, which also has such remarkable diversity in its population.

I like diversity very much. I stick to jazz all the time, but Luck Child goes in a direction that I feel more free to also use pop songs. Even now, I have a project with the WDR Big Band, a tribute to The Netherlands, and we chose all kinds of music: theater songs, old Dutch pop groups. And it was fun, because it was all material I knew from my youth. I did theater in school for a while, and it was all tunes I loved and it was a lot of fun to bring it under my umbrella, and to give it a jazz sound with a big band, or just to make a nice fun arrangement with it.

I also like to make musical colors or stories, like paintings. Some songs can be a painting, and I love the picture of “One Trick Pony.” I was actually looking for a ballad, another song from Paul Simon, and by coincidence heard this song on the LP. Listening to this groove I thought, “This is unbelievable.” The groove together with the lyrics, I just got the whole picture right at that moment and found I had room to make my own interpretation. Some are more deep or have more complicated structures or lines—I also love that. But this tune was just grooving, light, has wit and functions very well live.

How did Kenny Wheeler’s “Fay” come about?

My husband, Paul, and I know him, and Paul played with him in several large ensembles and asked him to write this tune for me. Also, he liked the way I sang and that gave him the idea to write this song. It was one voice and then trumpet and saxophone, and I just decided spontaneously in the studio to sing all the voices, just to try it out. It was such an honor, such a big gift. What can you say? He’s an amazing composer and musician. I felt like a queen with a crown, you know? There are some moments in my life when I thought, “This is a special gift.” That was one, and the other was when I sang with [trombonist] Bob Brookmeyer, where I said to myself, “I have to sit down and enjoy this.”

What did you learn from working with pianist and composer Barry Harris?

Barry is very lively with his timing and phrasing. When he worked with us in the conservatory, he showed us how to sing over the bar lines and work on another rhythm over what was happening with the music. That gave me a lot more freedom. Also, in everything he does, you notice his love for the music. And that’s something you cannot learn in a conservatory; that’s something else.

It would be great to see you perform in the United States. Do you have any plans to come here?

I would love to come to America, but it is very hard to organize a tour. I have to put more things together, not just for one gig. I’ve never really played there, and the music I’ve learned is all very connected to America. But now I have a family here, a daughter of 7, and so it’s not easy. I am working a lot here in Europe. Paul organizes concerts here every month at the Stadtgarten. And he had a band with German musicians who came out of the developments in the 1980s. It’s a lot of fun to hear about that. There’s also a very modern, free scene here. I also like that; I love different styles in jazz, not only swinging.

Amsterdam also has a renowned free-jazz community. Have you worked with some of those musicians?

Before I started recorded under my name, I worked with several people, like [saxophonist] Yuri Honing and [bassist] Tony Overwater. We played together and did some CDs. But it didn’t survive. That would be one of my dreams, to work with [drummer] Han Bennink—have a musical conversation with him.

Oh, Han Bennink is such a wildman.

Yes, but he’s also a great person. DB

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