How Singer Ashleigh Still Brings the Personal Edge Back to the Jazz World
By Scott Berman
It’s pretty darn difficult to make it in the music biz—just about everyone knows that. In the world of jazz, achieving financial success is even harder; the genre’s not exactly selling like Lady Gaga dance pop. Thus, many jazz and blues artists resort to manufacturing music for mass appeal, packing their songs full of bells and whistles and melodrama in order to draw attention. However, the truth is,fans know shtick when they hear it.
That’s one thing that makes “Lush Life” performer Ashleigh Still so refreshing. The singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist excels at intimate, soulful music that always maintains a sense of unwavering honesty. She cites Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Girard, Jeff Buckley, James Taylor, Whitney Houston and Alison Krause as some of her chief influences. However, Still says she recalls her “earliest soul-shattering/soul-healing experiences with music in Pentecostal churches or in the confines of my bedroom, playing Debussy or Chopin on the piano.”
Still’s been compared to Eva Cassidy because of her tone, general roots music style, and intangible bluesy depth. However, her genre, while in the jazz/blues/folk/R&B realm, is hard to pin down as her material ranges from traditional blues with jazz sprinklings (“She’s A Good Time”) to folk Bossa Nova (“Violet Dress”). She delivers her vocals with a nu-jazz inflection and Etta James-esque clarity. The core of Still’s style is crisp melodic phrases wrapped in breathiness, each delivered with purpose and a sensual, spine-tingling vibrato.
Whether she’s singing an ethereal ballad (“A Little Present”), a backbeat groove (“Be”) or a folksy, acoustic blues tune (“Tiger”), Still ties her music together with consistent phrasing and tone. Most songs are slow-to-mid tempo and her instrumentation is usually pretty minimalist; often just a guitar, bass and/or piano for accompaniment. This leaves space for her vocals to resonate, especially on ballads.
Sample some of her music here:
Another of Still’s endearing qualities is how she experiments with taking the music in new directions while maintaining a clear sense of self. Her track “Unspeakable” is a perfect example of how, even when playing with electronic vocal effects and song structure, her distinct, feminine voice and soul shine through. She also experiments with the recording process. Some artists try to create a dry, sometimes noisy quality to mimic the sounds of the past. Still keeps her effects subtle and pleasant, sometimes adding a low background static (“MMagnum” and “March no.31”) to lend an old-school, vinyl feel to a modern sounding tune.
Her latest album, Firefly,consisting of duets with local bassist Nick Salisbury, thoroughly showcases her personal touch and move toward more traditional pop-music. Songs like the title track capture her rounded, airy sound. Also, rather than just singing genteelly about love and the pretty morning sun like many of today’s jazz artists, Still is willing to perform material with edgier lyrics. A perfect example is her cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” which contains expletives. Still’s strong desire to find both joy and independence in life is explicitly conveyed and an underlying message of the album.
At “Lush Life,” Still will be performing “Alfie” because, in her words, “the sentiment of the lyrics and the music are so gorgeously aligned… also, the IV # minor seventh chord slays me.” She’ll also be singing “Big Spender,” “because of the sexy bass line and sneaky responsive chords.”
Expect a somewhat “straight” performance of these tunes at “Lush Life,” but “Still-ified” by her unique, bluesy vocal swagger. On the future of the jazz standard, Still believes that while “the jazz standards and tributes to the founders of the art will remain, the heartbeat and heartbreak that inspired those first chords and melodies will continue to become stronger and less confined.”
To hear musical samples and find more information, you can visit Ashleigh Still on MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, and her website. Firefly is available on Itunes.
Scott Berman is a Strategic Communications major at the University of Minnesota.