Doing it her way

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November 8, 2004 // UPDATED 4:38 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Bob Gilbert
Bob Gilbert

Jazz singer Lucia Newell shines, whether in Rio or 'Steeped in Strayhorn'

Lucia Newell grew up hearing the likes of Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz, Count Basie and Billie Holiday on her father's stereo. Now the Minneapolis resident is an established jazz singer in her own right. And somehow, between her 60-some gigs a year, Newell has recently managed to release her second CD, "Steeped in Strayhorn," with local jazz band Departure Point.

Over the next few weeks, the warm singer and renown band will perform songs from the CD at local jazz clubs (see end of article for details).

Before rebelling against the obligation of daily practice, Newell studied classical piano from 5-13. She jumped genres and began singing jazz in her early 20s. Her first gig was at the Commodore Hotel in St. Paul. She later got regular work at places like the Penthouse Lounge, then at the top of IDS Tower, 80 S. 8th St.

"It took a few years to find my voice and who I really was on stage," Newell said. "It was theater, but I had to try and not be theatrical and tone it down. I knew in my head that I didn't want to rely solely on sex appeal. If you are the chick in a band, that aura is a part of it, but it is not what I pushed. I went for sophistication and some sense of elegance."

When she was 27, a friend offered her a place to stay in Rio de Janeiro. Though she spoke no Portuguese, Newell described the decision as a no-brainer -- it was January in Minneapolis and Rio had a beach. A local acquaintance, Brazilian piano player Manfredo Fest, gave Newell a few contacts and off she went.

She sat in on a jam session with the Rio Jazz Orchestra, who then invited her to sing with them. This led to gig at Clube 21 in the heart of Rio's jazz district.

Newell spent the next two and a half years relishing life as a jazz singer in a Rio nightclub. She dug the big city, the shows (which sometimes went 'til dawn) and the synergy that developed among the band mates.

While she left her taste for cigars behind (she realized they hurt her vocal chords), Newell picked up a lifelong love of Latin rhythms from her time in Brazil.

"It is a beautiful country filled with warm people, but it also has a bit more poverty than we are used to," Newell said. Thus, with the bossa nova and samba, residents can dance their cares away -- "they swing really hard," Newell explained.

Newell also took to heart the improvisational nature of Brazilian jazz. Before returning to the United States, she took a six-month Brazilian jazz-singing gig in Mexico City.

After earning her chops before a Spanish-speaking audience, Newell decided to delve into the theory side of jazz. In 1981, she moved to Los Angeles to attend the Dick Grove School of Music.

Coming home

Besides learning the ins and outs of jazz movements and harmonies, Newell also met her husband-to-be in California, recording engineer Steve Wiese. Wiese was traveling as a front mixer (making sure the drums don't drown out the vocals, etc.) for such big-name acts as the Steve Miller Band but called Minneapolis home. Newell returned to her hometown, and the two have been married for 16 years, have a son and, literally, make beautiful music together.

Wiese not only recorded Newell's two CDs at his studio, Creation Audio in southwest Minneapolis, but served as co-producer and mix engineer, basically helping on the technical end to make sure the music sounds like it should.

Newell's first recording, "Enter You, Enter Love," was an understated album of Brazilian songs pairing Newell's minor-key vocals with the delicate, acoustic guitar of Joan Griffith, who teaches music at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Newell recorded her second CD with local jazz sextet, Departure Point. The band includes jazz artists who have played together for decades -- including Pete Whitman on tenor sax, Dave Jensen on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jeff Rinear on trombone, Laura Caviani on piano, Gordy Johnson on bass and Phil Hey on drums.

Whitman, who is also the head of the brass and woodwinds department at MusicTech in St. Paul, wrote one of the album's tracks, "MeMe's Love Song." However, all the others are covers of Billy Strayhorn's work.

"Signature Strayhorn songs are haunting with complex harmonies and lyrics that tell it like it was," said Newell. "They weren't happy love songs -- they spoke of the angst of love and life."

As a black, openly gay man, Strayhorn understood the angst of love. He is best remembered for his 1940s work with Duke Ellington. He wrote such standards as "Take The 'A' Train" (which is based on directions Ellington gave him to get to his Harlem home) and "Lush Life," (which has been covered by Natalie Cole, Sarah Vaughn and others). Both classics are on the CD.

While it may seem like a significant shift to go from Latin to swing music, Newell says it's all of a piece. "I look at a song and try not to think how somebody else did it. I try to think how does this song speak to me...What I like about jazz is that you can interpret a tune to do what you want with it. For me, it has to swing and have that feeling in your heart, your gut and your loins."

Newell and Departure Point will perform songs from "Steeped in Strayhorn" at Sophia Restaurant, St. Anthony Main, 65 SE Main St., on Saturday, Nov. 13, 9 p.m.-midnight and at the Times Bar and Caf/, 201 Hennepin Ave. E., on Saturday, Nov. 20, 9:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. "Steeped in Strayhorn" is available at The Electric Fetus just south of Downtown at Franklin & 4th Avenue South and at Lucianewell.com.