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Emma Gilmartin: A love affair with jazz

Emma Gilmartin

Jazz singer

“Think about the instrumentation you enjoy. If you love singers, go see some singers. If you love guitars, go see some guitarists. Or just jump in and try something. You can’t go wrong with anything at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.”

The night is just beginning at the Paris Cat Jazz Club. Jazz lovers will soon be strolling into the residence of one of Melbourne’s oldest live jazz venues but for now a low hum of activity wafts through the three-storey warehouse on Goldie Place.

Staff pad around preparing for opening time. A band sets up in the new Parisian Loft on the uppermost floor. And in the softly lit Basement, Emma Gilmartin gets ready to sing for a camera and an invisible audience.

She stands in the spotlight, microphone in hand, smiling to herself while waiting for her cue. When she hears it, she draws in a breath and releases her pure vocals into the room. As she sings to the sole accompaniment of the camera shutter, it’s clear why is she is lauded as one of Melbourne’s most talented jazz singers.

Simply put, Emma Gilmartin’s voice is beautiful. And that’s without going into her pitch, technique and stage presence. But she has a confession that's related to the last observation.

“It doesn’t come naturally for me to be up there like that,” she laughs. “I love singing and connecting with the audience and my band but I’m a little bit shy on stage. It takes a lot of effort to feel comfortable up there. I’ve come a long way but there’s still a long way more to go.”

Emma's right about one thing - she has certainly come a long way. With two albums in collaboration with Tony Gould and a place in the Melbourne International Jazz Festival for a second year running, she's worked hard to get to this point and is hardly going anywhere any time soon. As least, not as long as jazz is still alive.

"Jazz is certainly not dying!" she says earnestly. "People think of it as an old-fashioned style but it’s absolutely ageless. Its beauty is so great that anyone can appreciate it."

You only really discovered jazz as a teenager. What were you listening to before that?

A lot of musical theatre. I always participated in school musicals and community theatre. I was also encouraged to write and perform my own music in a soul band. And then when I was exposed to jazz, I fell in love with it.

How did that love affair begin?

A wonderful secondary school teacher had all the senior girls over to her place for a celebration, and she played some Chet Baker and Vince Jones. I remember being absolutely blown away. I had heard jazz before but nothing had struck me like Chet and Vince. I fell in love with their voices; the way they phrased the songs and interpreted the music.

Do you remember exactly when you decided to make jazz the rest of your life?

I don’t remember there being one single moment. It was very gradual. I pursued a Degree in Media Studies at RMIT, which I really enjoyed, but I had this niggling feeling that I should be studying music. So I auditioned for the VCA (Victorian College of the Arts), got in and that desire was met. If I hadn’t made that decision, it would have gnawed away at me.

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Your voice has been described as "a crystalline purity of vibrato-less tone and flawless pitch that is so perfect it is almost unsettling.” Was it tough to find your own voice when your early jazz education involved greats like Chet Baker and Vince Jones?

One of my turning points was singing in a five-piece a cappella group called Coco’s Lunch in 2007. Even though I had sung jazz for many years, it wasn’t until I started singing with those women that I really felt a connection between my voice and body. It all started to fall into place. I was able to explore improvisation, and just being with other women felt like I was being nurtured personally and musically. The confidence I gained in those early years began to feed into my singing.

So here’s the big question. Could you train as jazz singer if you weren’t born with that voice? Or is it a gift?

Such an interesting question! There are certainly ways to change your sound and improve your pitch, breath capacity and range to become a more accurate singer, but that natural voice that you’re born with is yours.

I remember a student who was tone deaf and we spent a lot of time playing single notes on the piano just trying to get her to match each note as instinctively as possible. She improved an awful lot but it’s a long way from there to performing songs confidently.

So I think there’s an element of one’s voice being a gift but that’s the initial starting point. There’s a lot of work to be done. Over the years I’ve seen singers who haven’t had the most beautiful sounding voices succeed in taking the music to extraordinary lengths because of their work ethic.

You’re also a jazz teacher. Does that bring you as much joy as performing does?

I love teaching. I probably get just as much out of it as I do performing. And hopefully my students do too!

What do you teach them aside from technique?

To find their own voice and not emulate another singer too much. You have to listen for ideas and inspiration but as soon as you try to copy someone else, the art is lost. I encourage them to be true to themselves by finding their own sound, writing their own music and managing performance anxiety so they can step into their own confidence on stage. It can take a long time to develop that sense of effortlessness and ease.

I also teach them to remember the joy in the music, because if they’re not practising with a sense of joy and passion, then it becomes very mechanical. Another good tip is to play with more experienced jazz musicians. Don’t be afraid to play with people you look up to even if it’s scary. All you have to do is follow their lead.

You’ve toured extensively around Australia. How does the jazz scene in other cities compare to that in Melbourne?

It’s very strong in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. The scene in Perth, especially, is really growing. A wonderful saxophone player, Jamie Oehlers, heads the jazz course at the WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts). He’s instilling a high work ethic there and many great players are coming out from the WAAPA.

Melbourne’s jazz scene has so many amazing musicians and new jazz clubs like the Lido Jazz Room and The Jazzlab. It’s growing and thriving. I remember finishing my degree and finding it quite hard to get gigs at different places. Now it has become quite easy to move between venues and still get a reasonably sized audience.

You were a regular at Bennett’s Lane. It must have been difficult to hear that it was closing down.

Yes. When I finished my third year at the VCA in 2001 I did my recital at Bennetts Lane. That led to a deep relationship with them. There was something very special about that city venue. It was such a hub for Melbourne jazz musicians. I had watched performances by my teachers and mentors there many times.

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How would you explain jazz to the uninitiated?

The beauty of jazz is that you never hear a song sung the same way twice. The music is always new depending on who’s in the ensemble and what happens on the night. I was saying to my students today that with other music styles - and life in general – there’s such an emphasis on doing it the right way.

In jazz, it’s about letting go of the thinking so you can be fully present in the moment and respond musically to your fellow band mates to create something brand new every single time. The true art of jazz is listening and interacting in the moment. The more you let go of that internal chatter, the more joy you’ll find in the music. But it’s not always easy.

Do you have a set practice schedule? What does it look like?

I have a two-year-old son and if I try to formally sit down at the piano, my practice goes out the window. He will say, mum stop singing! Or he’ll want this nursery rhyme or that song from this show. So a lot of my practice is listening. I’m singing along with solos or new pieces or I’m listening to recordings on my headphones.

In the early days I was more formal with my practice and had the time and space to sit down at my piano for long sessions. But now I have to grab them in between lots of other things. Another big part of my practice is yoga; it helps me manage my performance anxiety and be present in the moment.

Every singer has a dream collaboration. Who's part of yours?

I ask my students questions like that all the time! There's a piano player named Sam Keevers whose playing I love. We’ve been trying to do a gig together for a year now and it still hasn’t worked out yet. I’d also like to collaborate with Josh Kyle.

I’ve recently had a phase of listening to Gretchen Parlato and wouldn’t mind doing something with her. And I’ve always dreamed of doing an album with Vince Jones. That’s dreaming big because he’s one of my idols!

In A Snap:

Favourite non-jazz club: I don’t go to any non-jazz clubs! That’s how narrow I am!

Restaurant you’d stand in line for: The Moroccan Soup Bar

Favourite yoga studio: Prana House in Thornbury where I also teach

What makes a true Melburnian? Someone who rugs up in winter and goes into the city to visit galleries, walk the streets and go to bookshops and jazz clubs. That’s what I love to do.

Complete this sentence. A great jazz club is…one that values fine musicianship, has integrity when it comes to booking bands, doesn’t compromise on the quality of music in order to make money, has a good selection of wine and coffee, and has the right lighting and welcoming atmosphere.

Emma Gilmartin performs at the Lido Jazz Room on 3 June 2017 during the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, and at the Paris Cat Jazz Club on 30 June.

*Special thanks to Paris Cat Jazz Club for allowing this photoshoot to take place in their beautiful venue.

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