Being a nationally-renowned jazz vocalist is not an easy life, but through touring and recording, it’s possible to make a respectable living. But when a jazz singers work in a local scene, they usually have to supplement their income to remain active. MaryLynn Gillaspie has seen both sides of the equation. In the 1980s, she was a founding member of Rare Silk, a world-class vocal group that performed with Benny Goodman, and recorded three acclaimed albums. When the group broke up, Gillaspie switched gears and became one of Denver’s best-known portrait photographers. Through the encouragement of friends and musicians, Gillaspie has launched a solo singing career as a sideline to her photography studio. She has recorded a self-produced album and has booked a few nightclub gigs in Denver. On March 4, she sang for a nearly-full house at Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, performing a generous two-hour set featuring several songs from the CD and a classic arrangement from the Rare Silk book.
Gillaspie’s solo repertoire mixes classic standards with songs by Bill Withers, Djavan and Amy Winehouse. Her loosely-phrased interpretation of “Stella by Starlight” was especially effective against the tight funk beat set up by bassist Dwight Thompson and drummer Peter Gregory. Withers’ “Can We Pretend” featured brilliant solos by pianist Eric Gunnison and guitarist Michael Schuller, and was capped off with an outstanding scat solo by Gillaspie. Later, she improvised an amazing melodic variation on “Willow Weep for Me” and oozed sexiness in a sultry reading of Bob Dorough’s “Small Day Tomorrow”. Schuller’s arrangements were fresh and inventive, with plenty of room for improvisation. Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” was set in a 7/4 samba, and on an ingenious recasting called “Howl High the Moon”, an atmospheric and spooky opening led to a theme statement over a modified calypso beat.
Yet the highlight of the night came with Todd Buffa’s Grammy-nominated Rare Silk arrangement of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay”. For this performance, Gillaspie was joined onstage by Abbi Chapman, Leila Heil and Joseph Meyer. Although the group was formed especially for this engagement, they sang as a true ensemble, with a rich blend, fine diction and superb balance (Gillaspie should keep this group together; they’re just too good for a one-off gig!). Buffa passed away a few weeks ago, just as Gillaspie convened this group for its first rehearsal. But this was a joyful celebration of Buffa’s work. Gunnison, who played on Rare Silk’s original recording of this chart, outdid himself with a phenomenal solo that built in intensity as the performance progressed.
Gillaspie’s album, “Starlight”, featuring Schuller, Gunnison and Gregory, is currently available at the singer’s gigs, but a PayPal option for purchasing the disc may soon be available on Gillaspie’s website. Also, Lannie Garrett (who, in addition to co-owning the cabaret, is a fine singer in her own right) was very impressed with the turnout. Garrett should consider adding a jazz series to the cabaret’s schedule. Centrally located, this intimate room has excellent acoustics and a very good sound system. It would be a worthy addition to the Denver jazz scene.
Photo by Thomas Cunniffe. L-R: Leila Heil, Abbi Chapman, Joseph Meyer, MaryLynn Gillaspie.