Jazz music is all about embracing the unexpected. Mississippi-native and classically trained singer Meghan Stewart never planned on moving to New Orleans and becoming a jazz singer, but a leap of faith landed her in the Crescent City.
“It was a complete spur-of-the-moment decision, which is not like me,” Stewart said. “But right now, it’s definitely the best decision I’ve ever made. I might have to start making all my decisions like that from now on.”
Stewart will be performing with her band Too Darn Hot!, which consists of Stephen Lands (trumpet), John Maestas (guitar), Trey Boudreaux (upright bass), and Chris Guccione(drums), at the Spotted Cat at 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22. Stewart said that she likes that the Spotted Cat is a smaller, more intimate venue, which works well with jazz music. She also said that though she and the band play jazz standards, they like to put their own twist on them.
“Recently I’ve been taking a newer direction. When I first got here my goal was just to sing the classic jazz standards. But recently my trumpet player has been arranging jazz standards and some pop standards and even sometimes re-harmonizing them to give it a more contemporary feel. To me, jazz has always been change,” she said.
Stewart admitted that this aspect of jazz often conflicts with how she was trained in college, where she sang opera and classical music.
“The nature of jazz is to change a little bit. But then the part of me that was trained classically wants to come back and fight to preserve the standards. I believe in keeping the melody more than anything. That’s the reason the song was written.” Stewart said.
One would never suspect that she could sing a mean soprano solo from an Italian opera if they heard Stewart belting out a jazz classic at one of the band’s many gigs around the city, because singing jazz calls for a completely different kind of voice.
“I was trained in the Italian school of singing, which is kind of a more natural, floaty kind of singing that doesn’t hurt your vocal chords,” she said. “Nothing is straining.
“But with jazz, you can do so much by manipulating the voice. With jazz you just vary between control of the voice and lack of control. It changes depending on what you’re feeling. So improvisation is definitely the main difference. In classical, you can’t change anything,” Stewart said.
Like her decision to move to New Orleans and the jazz music she now sings, the forming of Stewart’s band was an organic process.
“Around Mardi Gras of last year I started forming the group, and the musicians in it have always been changing. But right now I am so happy and excited about the people I’m playing with. I couldn’t ask for better musicians. The way everyone has pitched together, the ideas people bring and the energy,” she said.
Stewart said she thinks the music scene in New Orleans is often more collaborative than competitive.
“We all have our set bands, but I’ve definitely had singers ask if I could cover for them if they couldn’t make it that night,” she explained. “Normally you’d think it would be so competitive you wouldn’t want any singer to headline your group.”
This sense of community, combined with the passion for music for which the city is well-known, helped Stewart feel like taking a chance on being a jazz musician in New Orleans was the right call.
“Musicians here in New Orleans, I mean, it is like a family. Everyone’s so willing to help another musician, so it was actually really easy coming here and feeling welcomed,” she said.
Meghan Stewart and Too Darn Hot! will perform at The Spotted Cat from 3 p.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22. More information about Meghan Stewart can be found at http://www.meghanstewartjazz.com