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A Story in a Song

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Stacey Kent considers herself as much storyteller as singer. Maybe that’s because her journey to a singing career makes for such a good story.

When Kent was in Germany in the early ’90s, the New Jersey native decided it was time for a break from the academics that had occupied most of her adult life. Kent had graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, spent most of her summers at school in Vermont, and went straight from graduation to a master’s program in comparative literature in Europe.

Visiting friends in London, Kent happened upon the Guildhall School of Music, which was advertising a one-year, postgraduate course. Disregarding that her own schooling had nothing to do with music, and that her music education was limited to childhood piano lessons, Kent applied for the program. Against the odds, she was accepted.

Kent credits it to the alternate, self-education she received from the time she was young. Wherever she was, whatever she was doing, Kent was always attuned to the music aspect of the experience.

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“My family would go to dinner or go shopping, and I’d just be off paying attention to the music,” said the 35-year-old Kent, who headlines the Ladiesing concert, the opening show in Jazz Aspen’s Winter Jazz series, on Sunday, March 14, at Harris Hall. (Singer Paula West opens the show.) “I sang always, since day one. When I cleaned the kitchen, when I was on the train, on the plane, that’s all I did. That was my world.

“When I walked in to [audition], it wasn’t a complete unknown. I knew I could sing; I knew I had a big set of ears.”

Just as improbable as being accepted into the Guildhall course, Kent began getting job offers. Clubs, organizations and individuals would contact the school looking for a singer, and the school would hand the offers to Kent with surprising frequency. By the time the school year was up. Kent had experience, a big repertoire and a reputation that extended outside of London.

Still, Kent probably would have headed back to the academic world had it not been for Jim Tomlinson.

Kent had been introduced to the English-born Tomlinson before she entered Guildhall. Like Kent, Tomlinson was on the academic path, studying philosophy. He, too, was a talented musician ” Tomlinson had been head chorister at the famed Hexham Abbey in his native Hexham as a child ” without the benefit of music training. And like Kent, Tomlinson decided to take a break from his typical studies to enroll at the Guildhall course. No surprise, then, that Kent was shocked to see her acquaintance on the first day of school.

“It was an uncanny series of coincidences,” said Kent, whose East London apartment was a block away, and on the same bus route, as her classmate’s. With so much in common, it seems a natural that the two would experience an immediate attraction. “We had instant chemistry, instant love.”

Music was a big part of that bond. Kent and Tomlinson, a saxophonist, were often paired on those school-connected gigs, and the two discovered they were as compatible musically as they were romantically. When the course ended, the two decided to pursue a music career in tandem.

“We had such chemistry that we fired in each other this desire to have a musical career together,” said Kent, enjoying a ski week in Aspen with Tomlinson prior to their performance here. “And I don’t know if we would have if we hadn’t done it together.”

On the romantic side, the two were married in 1994. On the professional side, the couple has watched their star rise, as Kent, with Tomlinson leading her band, has become one of the more celebrated contemporary jazz vocalists. At one point recently, Kent’s four albums were all in the top 10 of Amazon.com’s charts. Kent has earned a British Jazz Award and the BBC Jazz Award for best vocalist. She has appeared at festivals across Europe and the U.S., and has an annual engagement at the famed Oak Room in New York’s Algonquin Hotel. In 1996, she appeared as a singer in the 1995 film “Richard III,” starring Ian McKellan.

Kent chalks up much of her success to the joy of collaborating with her combo.

“We were musically compatible from the word go. It was very powerful,” said Kent, whose group in Aspen will include Tomlinson, but not the rest of her regulars. “It taught me something I think I knew as a kid, but hadn’t locked in ” there are a lot of good musicians out there. But to have that ability to play by osmosis, that chemistry, that’s when you get the magic.

“My band that I started in London, with me and Jim, there was a powerful connection there. There’s so much energy and interplay, and that’s a key to the band. And that’s what I heard in the music I loved, like Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, Duke Ellington and his band.”

That interplay extends to the whole of Kent’s group, but especially to Tomlinson.

“I still wake up and count myself so lucky that I have a partner where we completely get one another,” she said. “He does things that still blow me away. He plays the saxophone and I sing, but we’re saying the same thing. We have the same voice.”

Kent began finding her own voice by the unusual practice of watching television. Her must-see TV included any musical, with “Oklahoma,” “The Sound of Music” and “South Pacific” high on her list of favorites. And Kent developed her big ears by listening to a wide range of sounds, from the classical music her parents favored to Joe Jackson, the Grateful Dead, Bette Midler, an Ella Fitzgerald/Duke Ellington album she bought because she liked the cover, and her No. 1 inspiration, Paul Simon.

Kent’s recorded repertoire has focused, for the most part, on the standards of the ’30s through ’50s. Her first five albums, beginning with 1997’s “Close Your Eyes,” were comprised largely of tunes by the likes of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. “Let Yourself Go,” a 1999 recording celebrating Fred Astaire, was dominated by movie songs from Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin; “In Love Again,” from 2002, was a tribute to Richard Rodgers.

But Kent is showing signs of stretching out. Her latest CD, last year’s “The Boy Next Door,” pays tribute to a host of her inspirations, a list that runs from Tony Bennett (“The Best Is Yet to Come”) to Ray Charles (“Makin’ Whoopee”), Burt Bacharach (“What the World Needs Now Is Love”) to James Taylor (“You’ve Got a Friend”), Frank Sinatra (“The Boy Next Door”) and, of course, Rhymin’ Simon (“Bookends”).

Where the songs come from or who has recorded them is, however, not foremost in Kent’s mind. Rather, Kent has two goals for the songs she sings: to express her personality, and to tell a story.

On this first count, Kent has distinguished herself by revealing an upbeat, romantic persona. If her music is absent anguish and dark tones, it’s because the singer is, too.

“Music aside, if you were to ask me about my personality, I’d say I’m hugely optimistic,” she said. “Some people could sing this same material and be more urbane or darker. I love the joyfulness, the playfulness. I’m not saying this is the only way to do it. I love the musicians who do urbane and dark, but it’s not me. It’s not acting. It is your own personality coming through. I love Macy Gray. But I’d be silly doing Macy Gray.

“And I’m ridiculously romantic, and I love singing romantic and being romantic.”

The other goal is to convey the sense of a story in her songs. She’s had a lot of practice: as a kid, she told stories; as a student, she had a job reading to blind people.

“I feel more like a storyteller than a jazz singer. Which is why I feel closer to people like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell and John Denver than, say, Sarah Vaughan,” said Kent. “For me, it’s about the song and the lyric and delivering a very universal story and making it personal.

“That’s the single most important element ” sharing. It’s a very intimate thing that we do.”


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