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Rhiannon: An Improviser Resists The Urge To Reuse

Aug 18, 2012
Originally published on August 18, 2012 7:14 pm

If you ever listened to jazz vocalists and wondered if you could ever in your life scat like them, there's someone who's willing to teach you. The vocalist Rhiannon has long held the importance of improvisation as a personal credo, and in her career has blended that art form with jazz, world music and storytelling.

After leaving her farming family in South Dakota, Rhiannon studied acting in New York and Chicago, then landed in San Francisco, where she co-founded Alive! — an all-female jazz quintet. Since then, she has worked collaboratively with Bobby McFerrin, various a capella ensembles and other musicians, all while fine-tuning her voice and teaching others to do the same.

Improvisation wasn't always Rhiannon's bread and butter. She and her current band performed repertoire for years before deciding one night, at a gig in Los Angeles, to go off-script.

"It was beyond words," Rhiannon says. "We just decided it was the night to try it, because we all had this love of improvisation. We didn't use any charts that night, and it was so successful. Something happened in the room that was, not only for us, magic, but I think for the whole audience. There was this sensation of going on a journey together, without seat belts."

Rhiannon's latest release, Spontaneous, is an album-length experiment in capturing her off-the-cuff vision on tape. The band rented a studio in Los Angeles and gathered for several improvisational sessions, two of which had a live audience in the room. Rhiannon says that while such exercises sometimes spawn great ideas, reusing them after the fact is off-limits.

"I might use a thread of something from an improvisation — in fact, a lot of my [older] compositions came that way," she says. "But once it's down, I don't want to mess with it, because you know what? It's never going to be that fresh, it's never going to have quite that rhythmic context, it's never going to be quite as strong."

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If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley. And it's time now for music. If you ever listened to jazz vocalists and wondered if you could ever, in your life, scat like them, there's someone who's willing to teach you.


CORLEY: Improvisation is a great life skill, says vocalist Rhiannon. She's blended that art form with jazz, world music and storytelling. After leaving her family farm in South Dakota, Rhiannon studied acting in New York and Chicago, and then landed in San Francisco where she co-founded Alive!, an all-female jazz quintet. Since then, she's worked collaboratively with vocalists Bobby McFerrin, various a capella ensembles and other musicians while fine-tuning her voice and teaching others to do the same.

Rhiannon's newest release is called "Spontaneous," and she joins me from member station KUOW in Seattle. Rhiannon, it is so wonderful to talk to you. Welcome to the show.

RHIANNON: Oh, thank you so much.

CORLEY: Well, let's first talk about "Spontaneous," because it's totally improvised performances, although you've, of course, played with these musicians before. How much fun was it for you to step away from the music charts and completely just create new melody and harmony and lyrics for the whole session?

RHIANNON: It was beyond words. We had a performance in a wonderful club in Santa Monica, and we just decided it was the night to try it because we all had this love of improvisation. And we didn't use any charts that night, and it was so successful. Something happened in the room that was, not only for us, magic, but I think for the whole audience, because there was this sensation of going on a journey together without seat belts.


RHIANNON: And then it seemed very important to get that down on tape. So we rented a sound studio in L.A., and we invited an audience. But none of it was scripted at all.

CORLEY: You incorporate spoken word, really captivating stories, into many of your pieces. You've done that with a version of a Beatle's song "Blackbird" on earlier releases. And on this release, on "Spontaneous," you know, "Drop of Rain" made me think about your farming background and also about the drought that seize so many parts of the country. That song really did that for me.


RHIANNON: The rain fell down. It poured. Everything that was dry and afraid became so moist.

CORLEY: How much of that comes from your theatrical background, that spoken word?

RHIANNON: Huge, huge part of it. That was - it just gave me permission. And in the years I was studying theater, they were all about improvisation. So we had many, many classes that were actively engaged in teaching us to be awake to the principles of improvisation. So it's deep, deep in my life. And I'm telling you, being brought up on a farm, that is an improvisation.


RHIANNON: Watching my father navigate all the things he had to navigate - and right now, of course, I think so much about the farmers. Once you're born on a farm, you never let go of wondering how the corn's doing or how those farmers are doing or - and, in fact, I live on a small farm in Hawaii now.

My partner and I have been there four years. We left California after 35 years and moved to a small farm. So there I am out on the big island, and I'm a farmer. So my emails say singer, teacher, farmer at the bottom.


RHIANNON: (Singing) It's raining. Do we believe, do we believe there is enough? Do we believe we can make it again?

CORLEY: My guest is jazz singer Rhiannon. Her latest album is called "Spontaneous." I want to talk about a particular track on the CD. It's called "Stand Tall." And you sing about this baby's amazing - his or her - parents by scatting away in the backseat of a car.


RHIANNON: And her daddy was saying shooby-dooby-doo, honey, shooby-dooby-doo. And the baby said (unintelligible).

On my website, there is a link to the actual inspiration for that, because I saw it on YouTube, this baby just wailing like she had come into this life standing.


UNIDENTIFIED BABY: (Unintelligible)

RHIANNON: And I'd seen it that morning. And then we went into the session, and we started going. And as improvisation does, whatever's happened sort of previously that's still percolating in my mind is liable to come out. So out came this story about this baby because I was amazed at this child. And she was beautiful, and she inspired the whole rest of that song.


CORLEY: Well, you have plenty of music students. You hold workshops, plenty of those, and also teach at Berklee College of Music. And that made me wonder if - because you were singing about a baby - if you think that we all have that in us. Can we all sing or scat or - what do you think?

RHIANNON: I do think so. I think a lot of people lose it along the way but - evidenced by that baby. She had no training. She was special.


RHIANNON: But all babies, that's how we all learn to talk. So we experiment with language, shapes. And, in fact, one of the things I teach people is to re-examine that - what I call personal language, which is to say if you just start (unintelligible), you just start going. Something comes up, and it's different for everybody. People don't do it the same at all. It depends on your ethnicity, it depends on where you've traveled, depends on what languages you speak.

But there is some connection there that's very powerful for people. And it's just a muscle that needs to be exercised and some layers of fear that need to be exorcised.

CORLEY: Hmm. Mm-hmm. Although it might be difficult for most of us to master this. What makes you want to pass this skill along to us?

RHIANNON: I just believe in the power of improvisation. I believe in how it changes us. If we understand that we always have options, that's a huge life change. There's got to be, underneath all that, the skills. And in the case of music, they're defined. They're rhythm and melody and harmony. And everybody can learn those skills.

And once you have those skills underneath you, then this kind of magic is possible. That's a beautiful thing. And I've gotten to watch people change. They often come and study with me for a number of years, so I get to watch them change. And they change not just in their music life. They start realizing their options in other aspects of life.

So if there's a job that's really a bother - not just a bother but really a drag on their life, they're very liable to change it. They're very liable to make other changes that give them a whole new direction. They go back to school or they see what they can change in themselves.


CORLEY: That is vocalist, musician, master teacher and farmer Rhiannon.

RHIANNON: Thank you.


CORLEY: Her latest release is called "Spontaneous." And you can hear a few tracks at our website, Rhiannon, thank you so much for sharing your music.

RHIANNON: Thank you. It was really beautiful to talk to you.


CORLEY: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or go to And before we go, we'd like to welcome a new station to the family, WDDE in Dover, Delaware. We're happy to have you. And we'll be back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.