Five questions with Philly jazz vocalist Lili Añel

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Lili Añel | photo by Joe Del Tufo | courtesy of the artist
Lili Añel | photo by Joe Del Tufo | courtesy of the artist

A staple of the Philadelphia jazz and singer-songwriter scenes since 2004, Lili Añel is back this spring with Another Place, Another Time — her first outing since 2013’s I Can See Bliss From Here. It’s her first EP and her eighth release overall, and it is a warm and inviting set, incorporating inspired arrangements and a throwback sound for an instantly classic effect.

The EP is inspired in part by the passing of Philly guitarist Jef Lee Johnson; Añel covers his “Traffic Jam In a One-Horse Town” in tribute and dedicates her own song “I’ll Never Forget You” to her late friend. It is also a testament of living one’s life to the fullest and continuing to push forward, and even 20 years out from her debut record, Añel tries new things on Another Place — from falsetto delivery to vocal improv.

With an EP release celebration tomorrow night, May 6th, at Wilmington’s World Cafe Live at the Queen, Añel and I swapped emails to discuss the new album and the inspiration that fuels it.

The Key: This EP hearkens very strongly back to classic jazz vocal records from the 50s and 60s — particularly the bossa nova of the opening title track. What led you to that sound this time around?

Lili Añel: The songs I wrote took their respective forms in how I wrote them rhythmically, pretty much. I grew up hearing jazz at home and Brazilian music was amongst one of the styles that influenced me along with jazz of the 50s and 60s. “Another Place, Another Time” is a Bossa Nova. I could not imagine it sounding any other way. I treated each song individually, as I always do, and I will guess thematically, the music just happened to have a more jazz standard vibe to it. “I Don’t Care (Groucho’s Blues)” has a lighthearted jazz/blues shuffle groove to it. “Forgotten” is very cinematic and sounds like it could be in a film from that period. I didn’t intentionally set out thinking of a particular period of time, although I am somewhat influenced by music the jazz and R&B music of the 50s and 60s; how can I not be? It’s great!

TK: Remembering Jef Lee Johnson is obviously a big component of this record. Did your friendship ever extend into the world of collaboration, and if so, what was he like to work with?

LA: I was fortunate that Jef Lee played on my CD Every Second In Between, that I recorded at MorningStar Studios. I was familiar with his recordings, in particular his work with Rachelle Farrell. His playing was an integral part of the successful musical outcome of that CD. Jef was easy to work with, although I got very nervous once before we began a take he said “Lili, check your D string.” I was totally mortified, not only being out of tune, but called out by Jef Lee Johnson. He even knew which string was out. I quickly checked my tuning only to find the D string was off by a hair.  At a break I apologized to Glenn Barratt, the producer, saying “I hope I didn’t waste anyone’s time, but really, I wasn’t very out of tune…” Glenn proceeded to tell me “relax, it’s ok; Jef Lee has perfect pitch. He usually drives everyone crazy at sessions.” I bought Jef’s discography straight out. He was an incredible writer, to say nothing of his singing capability. We had spoken of touring together and he introduced me to his agent in Europe. At the time he was working with Esperanza Spalding. I was just thrilled at the thought of playing music with him on a daily basis. He’d said “we’ll do it when I get back (from the tour).”  I suspect that from a consistent working together, a collaboration might have happened, but fate intervened.

TK: Why did you choose that particular song of Jef’s to cover?

LA: I was attracted to “Traffic Jam In A One Horse Town” as Jef Lee doesn’t really solo on it, so it was a bit obscure to me. The other thing that attracted me was his singing in falsetto. It was flawlwess. It was a challenge for me to sing out of my range, but I truly enjoyed doing so.  It was different for me. It’s good to go outside one’s comfort zone every now and again. It was difficult choosing one Jef Lee Johnson song to cover. His discography is vast and full of brilliant songs. I hope to record a full CD of Jef’s songs. I know I will have a time of it narrowing down which songs to choose.

TK: You adapted your rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” to reclaim it from being a purely religious song. Can you explain how you changed it, and what it means to you now?

LA: This song is very fundamentally religious if you listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s original version. I did not totally identify with its complete message, a song of redemption, depicting a punishment from God for not living “right.” While I do agree that eventually you reap what you sow in this life, I wanted the song to represent me, so I wrote a bridge to it. I wanted it to be more positive; I wrote “if I run, I run, if I fall, I fall, if I sing, my heart is rejoicing, nobody’s fault but mine.” You can be responsible for you own happiness as well as your own downfall, basically and that’s what I wanted to bring out. When I sing, I am in a different place and feel my most “me.” And THAT’s nobody’s fault but mine.

TK: You’ve been a musician for over 20 years and yet you’re still pushing yourself to try new things, different vocal techniques. What, to you, is the importance of doing that, and what are some other things you’ve never done before artistically that you might like to tackle?

LA: The importance for me in trying out different vocal techniques, musical styles, approaches or ways of recording, amongst other things is that exploring allows you to find different parts of yourself as a person, as a musician. You discover other aspects you like, or turn out to be good at. Mostly it’s in the “learning” of it all. I believe it’s important as an artist/musician to learn and incorporate what you learn to move forward musically. I certainly don’t want to do the same thing over-and-over again. I’d like to eventually do a vocal recording of covers that I love, concentrating on singing and not even playing guitar. I would like to include a Michael Brecker composition, adding lyrics to his lines and solos. I know that will be a major challenge. I have always loved his playing and if all was right with the world, I would love it if my voice could sound like a tenor sax. I know this may sound strange to most, but for me, that is the best sound there is in the world. I don’t mean “vocalese” in this instance. I guess time will reveal how I handle it and if I am successful at it. I would also like to record a “soul” record.

Lili Añel performs upstairs at World Cafe Live at the Queen on Saturday, May 6th; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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