Vocalist Lauren Henderson Finds Herself In Standards

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Vocalist Lauren Henderson collaborated with pianist Sullivan Fortner on The Songbook Session.

(Photo: Lauren Desberg)

Contrary to popular belief, playing standards in 2020 doesn’t necessarily require excessive innovation. In fact, with a relaxed, straightforward and familiar approach to the repertoire, vocalist Lauren Henderson’s The Songbook Session excels at refreshing jazz and Latin standards for the modern ear.

On the album, Henderson and pianist Sullivan Fortner display an ease of expression that stems from a longtime commitment to the music—and to each other as musical partners.

“When you hear Duke Ellington, you don’t hear his virtuosity, you hear the music,” said Fortner, who has performed with Henderson on six recordings during the past decade.

The kind of achievement he’s referring to can be deceptive; it means a player has to make the performance less about themselves, and more about the song’s message. It’s less about sudden, miraculous inspiration and more about living and breathing the music.

“I grew up listening to a lot of these standards, [and] Sullivan and I have spent a lot of time together watching musicals,” Henderson said. “A lot of [the songs on the album] come from classic musicals and are part of the American Songbook, as well as pay homage to my culture as a black American and Latin American person with family from Panama. I think that these standards all mean something to us.”

On The Songbook Session, Henderson, Fortner, bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Allan Mednard perform nine tunes, ranging from “Beautiful Love” and “Day By Day” to Latin staples like “Meditação” and “Bésame Mucho”—the latter two performed in Portuguese and Spanish, respectively.

After growing up in a “not very diverse” Massachusetts town and speaking Spanish at home, Henderson said the album’s aim is to share herself and her quest for authenticity and identity with listeners. While pursuing degrees in music and hispanic studies at Wheaton College in Illinois, as well as graduate business degrees from Brown University in Rhode Island and IE Business School in Madrid, Henderson spent a lot of time studying Latin music traditions in Spain and Mexico. At the same time, though, she was deepening her love of jazz.

“The beautiful thing about being a jazz and Latin-jazz artist has been being able to own my identity and what that means to me. ... [R]eally digging deeper into my identity and learning more about my roots has come hand-in-hand with exploring the music,” she said.

The Songbook Session also tells the story of Henderson’s close relationship with her bandmates, particularly Fortner, who she calls a mentor, a peer and one of her best friends. The pair’s simpatico is evident on their previous projects together and contributes to the overall breeziness of their work on this latest recording.

“The beautiful thing about his playing is I always hear new things and different ways he’s communicating to me,” Henderson said. “It’s almost like getting subliminal messages, like, years later. Listening to it, it’s almost been two years really since we’ve recorded this, and I think all of our records reflect our growing relationship and the changes it’s gone through ... . It’s really such a privilege to work with him and also to have a relationship, a constant relationship with someone.”

The feeling is mutual for Fortner, who said Henderson was one of the first singers he worked with in New York, and really taught him how to play with and for singers. Now, along with leading his own ensemble and playing with other prominent instrumentalists, Fortner has become a first-call accompanist for other prominent contemporary singers like Cécile McLorin Salvant and Jazzmeia Horn.

“Lauren’s an anchor for me in a lot of ways. I have a tendency to go crazy sometimes,” Fortner said. “She’s helped to center me and helped bring into focus certain things that I do, no matter how avant-garde or how traditional. The way she does it is, every time she sings a melody, she sings it purely. She pretty much sings it as it’s written, with maybe a few ornamentations. But it’s never to the point where you lose the original essence of the melody.”

For Henderson, accessing that “original essence” goes back to how she relates personally to the song—something she said is more challenging with standards than when presenting original music.

“It’s completely different for me working with standards. I am very sensitive to the lyrics ... . I don’t feel like I can give a strong interpretation and representation of the song if I can’t find some way of connecting to it. When we picked these songs, I thought it was wonderful: You can really appreciate what the composers have done and still have room and space to interpret it.”

Moving as one fluid unit on The Songbook Session, Henderson and company honor their roots, and the roots of the music they love, without hubris. They enhance these songs only enough to reiterate the repertoire’s ongoing durability and significance in a modern context.

This is jazz mastery.

“There isn’t a whole lot of [need for] us to work some kind of magic on them,” Fortner said. “There’s already magic in them.” DB




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