Evergreen sounds of jazz | Nadine Axisa

Jazz vocalist Nadine Axisa will be performing her debut album Velvet in its entirety on March 11 and 12 at the Robert Samut Hall, Floriana. She speaks to us about her musical evolution

Nadine Axisa • Photo by Bernard Polidano
Nadine Axisa • Photo by Bernard Polidano

How did you first get started on the musical path, and what would you say were some of your most significant early experiences in music – both as a student and as a practitioner? 

I was a music lover from a young age... I remember recording radio tunes on cassette tapes and trying to find the chords on my guitar, while experimenting with harmonies. When I was 7, I started vocal coaching with Irene Dillon, who I remember very fondly. She discovered me from the school choir, gave me my first solo and soon after I started performing for school events such as musicals and concerts.

The musical ‘Oliver Twist’ was one of my very first performances as a student. I spent most of my early years working on backing vocals for other artists, something which I learnt a lot from and enjoy doing even up to this day.

Positive experiences which happened quite early in my career are my contribution to Vinny Vella’s album and concerts ‘The Beatles’ Works’ (2003) and my first performance in the Malta Jazz and Rock Festival (2008) and later in the Malta Jazz Festival (2011).

Just like any other discipline, it is a continuous learning process, so I have attended a number of vocal workshops and masterclasses with internationally renowned artists such as Tina May, Iain Mackenzie, Guillermo Rozenthuler, Donna Mc Elroy, Dennis Montgomery III and Anne Peckham, among others. And I look forward to more of this!

How did you find yourself drifting towards jazz? Did you set your eyes on that genre since the beginning, or did it happen gradually? 

I discovered my inclination towards jazz when I started performing in clubs and hotels. I started building my repertoire and interpreting American jazz standards and immediately felt comfortable and interested in further exploring this genre. A number of musicians also encouraged me by saying that my vocal timbre fits well with this style. So I continued learning standards while listening to a number of jazz vocalists. The great thing about these tunes is that they are evergreen: you get to sing them with all musicians who are familiar with these standard tunes, so you feel like speaking the same language, even if this would have been the first gig.

Like most musical styles, jazz has various sub-sets and sub-genres within it. Is there a particular style of jazz that appeals to you, and how would you say you approach the genre? 

As you say, jazz is quite vast. I mostly stick to interpreting smooth jazz, and I have a soft spot for Latin jazz (namely Brazilian bossa nova tunes) and swing. I listen to everything which falls within the cool and West Coast jazz forms. My inspirations are Ella Fitzgerald, Diane Reeves, Nat King Cole and the artists of today... Diana Krall, Al Jerreau, Elaine Elias, Kurt Elling and Gregory Porter. I do my best to give my own interpretation, allowing space for variations and improvisation.

While as an artist it is vital to be satisfied with one’s performance, I also give due importance to how the audience feels about my music. I feel great when I see that those who are listening are on board my musical journey.

You continue to perform abroad quite often. How did you first establish contacts abroad, and what would you say is the key difference between performing in Malta and abroad? 

My experiences abroad have been quite different, performing in small jazz clubs to large venues; with the accompaniment of one pianist up to an eight-piece band. Contacts and opportunities came up from other gigs and performances.

For example the Italian Jazz Festival in Berlin came up from my contacts and previous work with fellow Italian musicians, the trip to Bulgaria was with Trania (I am the lead singer of that band) while the latest performance in Frankfurt was with the Dominic Galea Jazztet; Dominic being an artist with whom I work with quite frequently on a local level.

The key difference in performing abroad would be the importance to leave a good impression with people who are being exposed to my work, most probably for the first time.

How would you describe your debut album, Velvet?

Velvet is my debut album, which I launched in 2014. It includes twelve original compositions in the smooth jazz style involving 38 musicians; most of them are people who I work with frequently, with whom I shared achievements and memorable experiences.

When I thought about what I really wanted to do, I decided that my first album would not be an interpretation of jazz standards, but would include original compositions and this would be the work of composers, authors and musicians with whom I worked during the past decade.

While my previous work was oriented around singing tunes which a number of artists had already covered, this album would consist of newly made compositions, taking into consideration my vocal qualities, and the style which suits me best.

What do you make of the local music scene? What would you change about it? 

I believe that the local music scene has grown and matured. There is an increasing number of bands forming in every musical genre; these young people are so promising and talented, and the work they produce is admirable! What amazes me even more is that some of them are self-taught, and they are able to make music which merits attention and exposure.

In the jazz scene, the number of albums and projects which have been released in the last couple of years is admirable! One can mention albums released by Dominic Galea, Vinny Vella, The Ranch, f trio, Carlo Muscat and Manuel Pulis, amongst others.

I am also aware that Carlo Muscat and Noir are currently also in the process of recording their respective albums. So lately there has definitely been a surge of material in the jazz scene.

In general, opportunities for gigs and performances have improved quite a lot, however I still believe that the younger generation can be provided with more opportunities.

Nadine Axisa will be accompanied by Joe Debono (piano), Oliver Degabriele (double bass), Joseph Camilleri (drums) and Walter Vella (saxophone and flute). The concert will take place at 20:00 on each night. Bookings:  www.ticketline.com.mt

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