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February 24, 2012

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Jazz vocalist: I sang in many other lifetimes

LEGENDARY jazz singer and pianist Diane Shuur (right) has embraced the jazz of her parents' generation and the pop music of her own.

The 59-year-old American performer, blind from birth like Stevie Wonder, has won two Grammy Awards and earned three Grammy nominations for her eclecic work.

Shuur discovered the world of jazz through her piano player father and her mother, who had a big collection of Duke Ellington and Dinah Washington records at home.

A disciple for many years of Washington and other legendary jazz singers of the 1940s and 1950s, Schuur has explored the diversity of the American musical landscape, from scat singing to country ballads. She's known for a rich and velvety voice and can sing in almost every style. She has been nicknamed Deedles, in part for her scat singing ability.

If listeners don't see her, they think she's black, Shuur said.

Shuur was in Shanghai last weekend as the headliner of the re-opened Fairmont Peace Hotel's Cin Cin Wine and Cigar Lounge. She talked with Shanghai Daily.

Q: How were you interested in music?

A: I was always exposed to radio and records when I was a little girl. Mom loved different shows related to music on TV, I was just lying on the bed. And the beautiful melody together with the scent of sandwiches that my father made on Friday night are always fresh memories to me.

I started to sing since I was about two years old. I sang inside the closet. Mom and dad would hear me and they came to tell me to shut up. But I didn't listen. It wasn't that they didn't like the song, but I often sang at midnight and that woke them up. Because of my sight, I didn't have a concept of time. I just got up whenever I wanted to.

As for jazz, it brings me fascinating feelings. It tells what life really represents - joy, sorrow and the whole range of human emotions.

Q: How did Dinah Washington make an impression on you?

A: I love what a difference she made. Tunes like "I Won't Cry Anymore" and "I Remember You" really got me.

I was also influenced by Sarah Vaughan. She made an album named "After Hours." It is just beautiful. She mentioned ghosts around us in the song.

Q: Was it hard to learn to play piano?

A: When I started, I used only three fingers. It wasn't until I was six years old that I started learning to use all my fingers. My piano teacher was also blind. She taught me how to do it without needing sight. It's like touch typing. You know where you have the typewriter home row. In music, your home row is where the C is located.

I studied piano with different teachers. I went forth and back all by myself by bus. I learned to be independent from an early age. I try to be as independent as I can. I can get around my house and in some small hotels in the Europe all by myself.

Q: You sometimes combine pop and country elements with jazz. Your latest album "The Gathering" (2011) is jazz-styled country music. How did you decide to do that?

A: There was a similar country album in the 1960s. The only difference is that I put more jazz elements into the songs.

But for some songs, ballads especially, I sing them straight without much jazz embellishment because I don't want listeners to be distracted from the story line by too many notes. I try to keep it simple and eloquent at the same time because I really want to get the message across.

Q: You mention Eastern philosophy and ideas of energy and balance.

A: Exactly. I believe in energy and I believe that positive thinking attracts positive results. I am also a firm believer in reincarnation, though many Western people today hardly think about it. I think I was given this vocal gift in many lifetimes. I might have been black, because my singing and voice are like that. People don't know that I am white if they only hear my singing. I had an amazing experience here that might link me with Shanghai.

I was doing a television show on which a very good Chinese jazz singer sang the Chinese song "Night Flower" and though I may not pronounce every word correctly, I was able to follow the song and melody.

I promise that I hadn't known the tune before, but I could follow it and interact with the live band.

I feel Shanghai is a great city for jazz - the boat on the Huangpu River just whistled. See? That's key of C sharp. I want to come back as often as I can to Shanghai and any other places where Chinese people would like to have me sing.

Q; Any plans for a new album?

A: I've never done a Christmas album. It's in the talking stage.


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