Amber Weekes Celebrates Her Pure Imagination
By Lou Fancher
Presenters and producers might hire jazz singer Amber Weekes based on the variable sound of her laughter alone. During a 75-minute interview with the Los Angeles-based performer and recording artist, her upbeat responses often begin with spontaneous laughter that bubbles with warm, mirthful, golden tones or taps percussively in a rapid titter or rumbles bewitchingly slow and siren-like from deep in her chest. A lover of stories, Weekes’s articulate, expressive words follow the laughter, bringing to mind the lyrics of lullabies, blues ballads, R&B, Motown, American Songbook, and classic jazz standards.
Weekes’s new 13-track CD, Pure Imagination, reinforces the notion that behind such a voice is a person of similar character — alternately generous, funny, forthright, teasing, alluring, powerful, seductive. The album features a strong contingent of West Coast musicians and collaborators — Grammy-nominee vocalist Sue Raney, bassist/coproducer Trevor Ware, trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, vocalist Mon David, the Bucjump Brass Band, violinist/arranger Mark Cargill, and others. Highlights on the album, Weekes says, are “a gift of love and healing for the world,” including Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me” (the ballad with David), “The Way He Makes Me Feel,” a New Orleans-style arrangement of Paul Simon’s “Gone At Last,” and several works by Oscar Brown, Jr.: “Mister Kicks,” “Brown Baby,” and “The Snake.”
Weekes’s parents brought influences from their lives in Harlem to the West Coast, where they met, married, and raised their children in a household full of music. Her paternal grandparents in Harlem owned Weekes’ Luncheonette, serving post-show fried-egg sandwiches to regular customers such as Duke Ellington, Diahann Carroll, Billy Strayhorn, Harry Belafonte, and others. Weekes has performed in venues and jazz clubs throughout Southern California, and at the New Rochelle Jazz Festival in New York and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Weekes is a frequent guest artist on Chet Hanley’s Jazz in the Modern Era and Straight Ahead Jazz Plus programs.
Let’s start with music during your childhood. Your dad was a choir soloist, among other musical activities, and your mother taught you early on about active listening. Was recorded or live music more commonly heard in your home?
Boy. [Laughs] Initially, it was recorded music ... and then we were raised around jazz musicians coming to visit, so we did hear live music at home. My dad was a choir soloist, so I heard him sing all the time. I would say it was both live and recorded. And I heard a lot of discussion about music.
Did you listen to music from genres other than jazz?
We were raised Episcopalians, so we heard classical oratorios by Fauré, [Theodore] Dubois, Mozart, and Handel. My parents also loved classical music that wasn’t religious. I was fortunate in that it was classical music, old-school R&B, jazz — all kinds of music. The more well-rounded you are, for me it gives me a broader range of expression as a singer, a different context as a listener, another way to be transcendent. I love the soundtrack from Somewhere in Time, for example, which has Rachmaninoff and some contemporary elements that are in it. [The score composed by John Barry includes repeated use of the 18th variation of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.] That gives me a different experience than listening to Ella [Fitzgerald] or [John] Coltrane or In a Sentimental Mood, played by Coltrane and Ellington.
When listening to recorded music, which vocalists were most often heard?
Even though my parents were in L.A. when I was born, Harlem was still living with us. I heard Nancy Wilson, Diahann Carroll, Nat King Cole, plus Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald. Then as I got older, we certainly heard Motown sound. Marvin Gaye — I remember learning how to do the Texas Hop to his “Mercy, Mercy Me.” There was Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops, L.T.D., Earth Wind & Fire, Bobby Caldwell — his voice is the first one I fell in love with. The clarity, tone and, later on, seeing him live, he had a slight body and all of this voice. Every time, I’m just blown away with how this man has all of this emotion in his voice.
Do your mother’s ideas and instruction about active listening influence your professional work as a singer? Did you ever resent the push?
I never resented it. I always appreciated it. Lyrics count, they just do. Even now, the melody of a song will grab me, but the lyric will grab me more. Daddy was a big, big storyteller, so my ears are pitched for that because that’s the water I swim in. I can think of times with my mom, even in the last few years, where we’ll be going somewhere and we’re in her car, so she has total control. [Laughs] She’ll pull some song out and say, “Really listen to this song. Pay attention to the beauty of all the song is.”
Do you have any favorite L.A. clubs?
My favorites are gone: the Jazz Bakery and the Sky Room in Long Beach. The Sky Room was a 1930s supper club, elegant, very high-end, with a parquet dance floor with a bandstand. The sound was great. I love to dress in a gown and perform. That’s the most comfortable for me. Even though it was a restaurant, I did feel people were listening to me. I do like Feinstein’s at Vitello’s in the [San Fernando] Valley.
Your album prior to Pure Imagination was ’Round Midnight, released in 2002. Why the gap, and why this new album in 2020?
Honestly, a big part of the gap was life in and of itself. The other part is the financial piece. As an independent artist, finding the capital to get it done really takes finding people to produce it. I did a fundraising campaign and a friend loaned money to get started. I had to be very creative.
And why now? I was driven, I thought it was the time to do it. I had been working diligently, training with Sue Raney for 20 years and was pleased with what my songs sounded like. And there were songs I really wanted to record, most notably the Oscar Brown tunes. Also, I’m really aware of the passage of time and taking things for granted. I wanted to do something that was going to celebrate the relationship I have with Sue and the opportunity I had [on the album’s first track] to record with her.
Has the coronavirus changed your perspective on the CD? Is the healing you intended, and the range of styles encompassed gained significance during a time when a global crisis knits us tighter together but also directs us to self-isolate?
My sense when I did it was the same as now: It’s a gift of love and healing for the world. I think that still applies. What I find, though, is that there are things in the album that weren’t the ones I put most of my emotion into that now, I’m hoping are inspiring to people. Ironically, it’s the first cut and the last cut. The lyrics of Pure Imagination, I’m hoping people can hear it and imagine something different for themselves.
This is our Superman moment. You know the first movie where Christopher Reeve was Superman and then has to back off, recreate himself for 12 years to build the muscle, and emerge and serve humanity in his highest manifestation? The things we’re required to do now: we’re all in that space where we need to determine what our true calling is. And with “Gone at Last,” it’s hoping people can close their eyes, listen to the second-line arrangement, and imagine what it will be like when we can step out of the pain of this and put it behind us. It’s in the line in the chorus: “I’ve had a long streak of bad luck, but I pray it’s gone at last.”
You’ve been working with Sue Raney for 20 years: Why and what have you learned?
The first thing that comes to mind is that from the very beginning, my first lesson, she said, “One of the best things about you is that you have your own sound. And not everybody does.” Over the 20 years I’ve worked with her, she has continually supported me in owning my sound; making it as powerful as it can be and owning my breath, phrasing. There’s a way that I speak where I emphasize something, where I kind of growl. Hear it? I just did it. I do it when I sing, when there’s something that hits me in a certain way.
In what primary ways did your early study of viola and classical music impact your work as a jazz vocalist?
Good question. The viola is unique; it has its own clef. It has a rich sound, so I’d say I see myself the same way. I like to have a warm sound. Classical music, well, on this new album you can hear my appreciation and need to have strings be incorporated into some of the arrangements. Just like the human voice and how it evokes certain emotions, strings enhance that.
You’ve said in other interviews that jazz speaks universally but also allows freedom for you as a singer. Using as an example a track from the CD, will you talk about that dichotomy?
An example is the bossa-nova version of (Manilow/Mercer’s) “When October Goes.” It’s a contemporary standard and it’s a song that’s loved and appreciated by so many people. Typically, you hear it as a ballad, but to twist it and do it as a bossa was exciting. In recording it that way, I got to bring a sensuousness to the longing expressed in the lyric. There are a lot of ways of longing: a melancholy longing, but also regret the person’s not there, a sensuous longing. I’m making it a siren song to pull someone back.
Tell us about Brown’s “The Snake”: Why did you include it and what did you discover in recording it?
First, I need to say I did three songs in tribute to my father. With this album, I also wanted to do a tribute to my mother. Her exposing me to Oscar’s music was the best thing she’s ever done. “The Snake,” no matter what I did, I knew it had to be included. I love the lyric, the story. Being really frank, the song came on the radio right after my parents were divorced. I knew there was a lot of hurt and this is me interpreting as an adult the hurt I saw at the end of her marriage.
The life message continues to resonate with me. There are things that we choose to ignore, and then later, the hurt comes. Looking back, we see the telltale sign was there from the beginning. We want to presume the best, so we ignore it. We want everything to have a happy ending; not everything does. I’m not a cynical person, I’m an optimist, but I recognize there are things like that. Maybe sometimes pain is best digested with a spoonful of sugar. The arrangement itself I love because it’s seductive. It’s feverish on purpose.
And “Gone at Last”?
Honestly, the song for me is a stretch. I have a tremendous affinity for New Orleans, but I’d never done a second-line tune. It’s a style or arrangement that is a signature of New Orleans music used in parades and funerals. People are familiar with the New Orleans style funerals: There’s the dirge as the casket is taken into the cemetery, something on the order of “Saint James Infirmary Blues.” Then as the attendees leave, it is the stylist tune that’s played, most commonly “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It’s not just used in funerals. I was in New Orleans last year at this time, at a festival. The parades were playing second-line tunes. It requires gospel-feel singing. We recorded it wanting to give that feeling of a loved one gone and celebrating that departure. It’s a mixture of joyful and sadness, all at once. It was the most emotionally draining song to record because I had to really place myself there. I had to think about a best friend I lost to cancer the same year my father died.
Mon David joins you to sing “The Way He Makes Me Feel.” What was your experience?
Wonderful; I adore Mon. He’s a deeply spiritual person, generous in his delivery and as a human being. The sensuousness with which he sings I’ve always appreciated. I wanted to do it as a duet so it would be unique. It required me to be a better singer to sing with Mon, because he’s such a tremendous vocalist. He drew out my best. Early on in the song, there’s a point where he’s singing and I come in with just a little hum. It enhances the exchange between us. Things like that happened.
You find special connection to Oscar Brown, Jr’s music: will you tell me about meeting him near the end of his life?
I had met him several times before that. “Hazel’s Hips” was the first song of his I ever wanted to record. He told me several times he’d never heard a woman do it. I was so intimidated, I dropped it. I tried to get in touch with him when I wanted to record it for my first album. In 2002, he was performing at the Jazz Bakery. Sue told the owner about me, reminding him, and I met him in the green room.
A few years later, Oscar (due to a long set of circumstances) stayed with me as a house guest. I got to talk to him, to introduce him to my mother, to tell him my mother was responsible for my appreciation of his music. I actually eventually got to perform Hazel’s Hips with him at a fundraiser for the documentary film they were making about him in December of 2004. It was a huge moment. Performing it with him was fun because in addition to being a great songwriter and singer, he’s also an actor. I acted the song out with him. At the end of the song, I left the stage and it caught him off guard.
What are you doing now to reach audiences, in light of not being able to tour and promote CD?
I’m working with someone on social media to put out extra video clips on my website that tell the story of the album. People can learn about the album itself and hopefully, it will pique their interest. I’m lucky in that I’ve been getting a lot of radio airplay. Between social media and stations playing my music, I hope people at home will listen and listen and then, listen more.