You might say Emma Smith was destined for great things.
The acclaimed jazz vocalist’s grandfather played with Frank Sinatra for years and her father was also a respected musician and composer perhaps best known for the BBC radio show Friday Night Is Music Night.
Being immersed in such a musical environment from a young age surely counts as a major headstart, but she would not be where she is today without the sheer talent and an enormous amount of hard work, as she says herself: “With jazz it’s an absolute open-ended pit of study and training and transcription and practice and it never ends.”
She began her singing career at 14, and the year after joined NYJO as featured vocalist. Now a member of the Puppini Sisters, she has also appeared with Sir John Dankworth's band, the Jazz Vocal Project alongside Bobby McFerrin, and at the 2015 BBC Proms.
As well as co-presenting a new BBC Radio 3 jazz show called Jazz Now alongside Soweto Kinch and Al Ryan, she is also making forays into the world of pop music under the name Espa working with producers like Shiftk3y.
As one of the protagonists in our multimedia feature Reawakening, we were fortunate enough to get the chance to chat and below you can read the full interview.
So you must be excited about the new show?
Yeah the stuff we’ve prepared is very exciting. I think this is going to be a really refreshing element to BBC Radio 3 to be honest.
Do you feel there’s a particularly vibrant young scene happening in UK jazz at the moment?
Definitely. I think people are exploring genre-blending and craving a different kind of expression and experience in the jazz scene here in the UK and really taking the lead from examples we’ve seen in New York.
It’s almost like that large amount of water separating us from New York has become invisible and there’s a huge melting pot of different cultures and different influences and a lot of New York guys playing with UK guys over here. Look at what’s happening with Guillem, and Pat Metheny and it’s just really exciting.
I feel that we’re on the brink of a new chapter in the jazz scene here in the UK and it is coming from young people.
With technology so prevalent in society these days and jazz being based around an analogue skillset honed over years and years, is this a reaction against laptop producers?
A rebellion against the electronic scene? I think a couple of those things are valid. I think it’s massively influenced it to a certain extent, artists like Snarky Puppy and Bill Laurance, who I’ve had on the show, with a heavily synthesised album. It’s improvised music within an electronic realm, which is quite exciting and unusual in itself, and artists like Robert Glasper, even Chick Corea and new Herbie [Hancock].
However I do think there is a thirst for more authentic improvised music that is a backlash against the electronic music pop scene. Using those skills and applying them to new improvised music from a jazz heritage.
And how did you get involved in jazz yourself?
I come from a family of jazz musicians. My grandfather played with Frank Sinatra for 20 years and Shirley Bassey and Judy Garland. And I grew up listening to stories about being on tour with Tom Jones and stuff. And my father was a composer. He did ‘Friday Night Is Music Night’ at the BBC for years and amazing musician. He met my mum at NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra) which is where I started in my groundwork and where Amy Winehouse first got her training and Jamie Cullum and people like that.
I went to the Purcell school of music and studied jazz there and I went to the Royal Academy of Music where I was the first female vocalist to get accepted onto that course there. And that was hugely influential for me, being considered to be an instrumentalist but happening to use my voice for those purposes. It just gave me permission to be very explorative and really boundary-less actually and I found my experience in the jazz scene incredibly challenging to a certain extent, because being a vocalist it’s been hard to prove that I’m actually a musician. But as soon as I started making my own original music I really had the freedom to portray what I really wanted to portray and that was really exciting.
I’m really into genre-bending now. I check out a lot of hip hop music and a lot of electronic music and also acoustic songwriter stuff as well because I really do think there is less and less genres, less and less labelling in our day and age.
That’s interesting what you say about jazz singers not being taken seriously. Is it something that you have in your voice that allowed you to break that barrier?
It’s a stigma that’s been present particularly in the jazz scene for so many years. Particularly in the UK compared to America where they’re much more accepting of singers being bandleaders. Look at Betty Carter and artists like my Cecile Mclorin Salvant, real proper heavy duty band-leading singers that are taking the lead.
In the UK it’s a bit more like “oh it’s the singer - turns up to the gig and all she’s got to worry about is putting her frock on”. And it’s been years and years of that being built into people’s subconscious but I think it takes singers like Norma Winston and Tina May. But there are not that many people who are proper serious studious improvising musicians that just happen to be singers but I think more and more there are people making a stand for it, the more that stigma will reduce.
I found that I just had to work incredibly hard. Perhaps harder than some of the musicians at the Royal Academy to actually be taken seriously to get on a level with. It’s pretty exciting that there are more and more female musicians coming out. I interviewed Alex Ridout who won the BBC 2016 Young Musician Jazz award and she’s an extraordinary trumpet player. We haven’t really seen a female trumpet player like this, proper improvising, real-deal, jazz musician and she just happens to be female and that’s really exciting that more and more people are coming out of the woodwork like this.
So that’s something peculiar to jazz then (singers not being taken seriously)?
Yes it is. The vast scope of training that you need in order to be accomplished, you never are fully accomplished. At least with opera you know what you’re singing, you know the notes you’re singing. You’ve got to get your technique up and work out how you’re doing it, and the same with pop music.
With jazz it’s an absolute open-ended pit of study and training and transcription and practice and it never ends.
Can you articulate how it feels to perform live?
When I’m performing this is where I’m most at home. I did grow up singing with big bands like NYJO I’ve worked with the Guy Barker big band for many many years. I really really love it. The reason why I got into music was because of my grandfather’s work with Frank Sinatra. Frank has been the biggest influence on me and the ironic thing is when I was at the academy I was obsessed with small band music and heavily free improvised music and then when I left a few years ago I just fell back in love with this tradition of big band swinging music you know.
So nowadays when I get up on stage with big band that is where I feel most at home. It’s just like a wall of sound behind you and there’s nothing more liberating than being at the forefront of that and it honestly feels like the wind is in your hair because the brass instruments are so loud. It just sort of hits the back of your head and you get this force behind you which gives you unmatchable confidence and unmatchable liberation. It’s really an extraordinary experience.
And if you play a smaller gig with a smaller band?
Oh that’s great too because there’s a lot more freedom to be creative and playful with it. Being the kind of musician I am, I’m very much in communication with my band, and I’m very open and we’re playful with the music and we actually have freedom and take risks and be elastic in the way we approach.
With big band music it’s very different. It’s almost like classical in a way. You can be a little bit free with it but there’s 20 musicians on stage so don’t get too creative! It’s a very different experience with a small band. I really enjoy it in a different way. I get to have my creative flair at the forefront.
And learning to be a jazz singer, as opposed to classical or pop, is there a special sense of rhythm and timing you need?
Yes of course.
And is that innate or do you learn it from listening?
I think there is an innate sense of rhythm in all musicians and it varies. My grandpa used to talk about the difference between the English quaver and the American quaver - how in America it was a tripletised quaver and that was in their innate nature to treat it like a triplet but with us, because we’re so square and flippin' stuck up our own arses, we like all these straight quavers and he sort of went on and on about that innate, in-built feel and metronome.
But I think you can learn it too. It just takes a serious amount of study and a serious amount of transcription and immersion in the music that you want to portray.
Witness the Reawakening here.