It takes jazz singer Kelsey Jillette of Greenwich just three words to describe her vocation. "It's a blast," she says.
Jillette is a part of New York City's vibrant jazz scene, where she often sings at the legendary 55 Bar in Greenwich Village and other jazz hangouts. But her singing is less known in her hometown where she lives with her husband, Tom Abbott, a saxophonist and clarinetist, and their 2 1/2- year-old daughter. But Jillette is doing her best to change that. The other night she was singing and being filmed in town in a backcountry barn for a video that will introduce her new musical group initiative -- the Americas Project -- which she describes as "a Latin percussion-based quartet that plays beautiful melodies from the two continents."
Just how did this backcountry girl -- who still rides horses at her family's Kelsey Farm -- become a jazz singer? Greenwich Citizen caught up with Jillette to learn about the rugged road to her career in music.
What did you dream of being when you were a little girl?
Up until the age of 11 or 12, I dreamed of being a singer, and then not again until I was about 22. In my childhood home in Washington, D.C., my mom's records of show tunes and Christmas music, Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino and Peter Paul & Mary kept me singing along in my room and in the house all the time. I tried to imitate whatever tapes and records my mom had lying around, some of which I'm still fond of. Those singers who had solid vocal technique -- Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, and Julie Andrews -- their influence I am grateful for.
When I was 11, my dad gave me my first stereo and three CDs: Paul Simon's "Graceland," a Mozart CD, and Don McLean's "American Pie." My dad played Sam Cooke and The Platters around his house, more of the Motown side, and I always loved that. And, in fifth grade, my childhood friends hipped me to Whitney Houston, whose first two records I stayed up nights for over the next year and a half, secretly listening to them under the covers. Once I hit seventh grade, any idea of being a singer went out the window. I was far too insecure and awkward of a kid to do more than sing by myself when I thought no one could hear me. I dreamed then of being a professional horseback rider -- whatever that meant -- and I spent the rest of my adolescence as a barn rat on my family's farm here in Greenwich, immersed in ponies and horses.
When did you decide to seek a career as a jazz singer?
I didn't get into music until I moved to New York City after graduating from Brown with a degree in theater. I'd done some acting, but virtually no singing. Theater didn't stick. At school, I had had a friend with a band of sorts with whom I'd sung -- Pink Floyd and a Sade cover -- and when we both ended up in New York he got me dabbling in singing with a band, going to open mikes and working with some singers/songwriters at late-night sessions and a few unpaid bar gigs.
It wasn't until I sat in on a pianist friend's gig on a Wednesday night in the Garment District that things started happening. I sang "Summertime," and "My Funny Valentine" -- the only jazz tunes I knew well enough to sing -- and the owner hired the pianist for a weekly gig on the condition that I be on it with him. That was in 2002, if I remember right. I started learning tunes fast, jazz standards by the dozens, and we added a bassist, Taylor Bergren-Chrisman. He was the roommate of my now-husband, saxophonist Tom Abbott, who I got to know on those Wednesday night gigs when he would come sit in. It was on that gig that I realized I needed to get educated about jazz and harmony if I wanted to pursue a career as a singer. I started studying at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music the following year. That was my first trio, then quartet, and we played countless restaurants and small clubs while I got my music degree.
After wondering what to pursue, being half-good at a fair number of things and not especially passionate about any of them, making music was an epiphany. It felt like it both came easily and was infinitely challenging. Still feels that way. It's endlessly interesting and sometimes profound, and some form of it is always running in the background of my consciousness. And I think the people drew me almost as much as the music did. I was far more at ease and at home in a room full of musicians than actors. As I came to know it, here was this small world of hard-working, passionate, socially awkward people, finding ways to make a living at making music. I fit right in.
What does your current musical career look like?
At the moment, I have a few distinct musical projects going that I love, in addition to freelancing for other bandleaders. The Lovesome is a straight ahead jazz quartet of the 1950s cool variety -- it's delightful and swings ever-so-lightly. The Kelsey Jillette Group is my organ group that plays a mix of jazz and funk/'70s lounge grooves, and it's soulful and sexy and feels good. And the Americas Project is a Latin percussion-based quartet that plays beautiful melodies from the two continents. I work with these groups and love all of them, but this band, The Americas Project, is where my heart is.
What drew you to this Latin fusion group?
I went to a bilingual charter school in D.C. and there learned Spanish from pre-K. I love the language, and over the years have gotten progressively more into different styles of Latin music. When guitarist Tony Romano and I first got together, it was to work as a jazz duo, singing the American Songbook. But as we opened it up and started playing our favorite songs, we started leaning towards Bossanova and Latin rhythms in combination with my old folk song favorites. Tony called in David Silliman, a percussionist from California, and David has really anchored the group with his deep feel for Afro-Peruvian rhythms. I asked Daniel Foose to join us on bass, because he's as flexible and confident a player as you could ask for. These fellows will take on anything I bring to the table, and they bring in music as well. It's a song-based group, rooted in Latin percussion and poly-rhythms; we play the Canadian folk ballad "Tall Trees in Georgia," the Mexican mariachi favorite, "Cucuruccou Paloma," Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower is Lovesome Thing," Peruvian Inti Illimani's "Azucar de Cana," Paul Simon, George Gershwin -- you name it. We haven't been together long, only a year or so, but a cohesive, energetic, beautiful sound is growing, and it's exciting to be part of this group.
What is it about the jazz singer's life and the art that motivates you?
When I'm playing a good show, I find myself wishing I could perform every night -- doesn't matter if it's a big room or a small one. I just want to make good music and be fortunate enough to have people to share it with. Then I get the big-dream feeling of childhood, and I can feel the possibilities, even if I'm not sure of the path. But I'm also kind of a homebody, wanting balance, a little scared, wanting to just feel satisfied at the end of the day, not just with music, but with being a good parent and partner and person in general. And the reality of life is that besides music, I have a little kiddo, husband, and three part-time jobs (admissions assistant at a university three days a week; North American sales representative for my brother's Hamlovers.com business and professional rider for a show barn two days a week).
So, with balancing dreams and life in mind, Tony and I are bringing this band out into the public eye little by little, and I'm quietly very excited about it.
What's next for you?
We've just done this live video and audio recording that will be released track by track, starting at the end of this month. We'll be doing our first Americas Project studio recording in January and February. And we're lining up some great shows, starting with Dec.16 and Jan. 21 at Greenwich Village's 55 Bar, a Prohibition Era jazz haunt that's one of the legendary New York City venues for live music. As for my other projects, New Year's Eve I'll have a sextet version of The Kelsey Jillette Group at the J-House in Greenwich with some top-notch players. I'll be there again with a straight-ahead quartet on Jan. 22 as part of their Wednesday Jazz series. And, ongoing, The Lovesome, a group I perform with, is playing jazz brunches at the lovely Purple Yam in Brooklyn most Saturdays.
Sometimes it feels like my music career should be all or nothing; like this modest way isn't enough. I try to imagine what I would give up to do music full-time and, the fact is, as much as I love it, I wouldn't trade a whole lot.
I do sometimes wish I had two lives going at once, so that I could be at home with my baby, ride horses, take walks with my husband, get us health insurance and also be a full-time performer. But these days, I think I've nearly found a balance -- all the parts of my life ground my music and keep me grateful.
And for the times that I lose sight of things, the working musicians that make up most of my community remind me to just keep trying to make it good; that's the thing that matters in the end anyway.