Editors' pick

Lena Seikaly

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Lena Seikaly photo
(Leah Appel)

Editorial Review

'Lovely Changes' fits singer's evolution
By Jess Righthand
Friday, December 16, 2011

While most recent college grads have been floundering, flailing and generally grasping at straws to find any kind of employment, 25-year-old Lena Seikaly has instead managed - against all odds - to become one of Washington's preeminent jazz singers.

She put out an album, and a good one at that. She was selected for the Kennedy Center's prestigious Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead program. Strathmore named her an artist-in-residence, along with five other young local artists. And she performed at just about every jazz venue in the city.

"It kind of made me think, okay, I might actually be able to do this," says the Falls Church native.

Now scarcely more than three years out of the University of Maryland, where she majored in vocal performance, Seikaly has released her second independent album, "Lovely Changes," an exuberant collection of reimagined jazz standards, originals and selections from beyond the jazz canon. Her CD release party in October was at Blues Alley, and she packed the place. Twice.

And Seikaly is actually supporting herself, a feat that even some of the most seasoned jazz veterans never accomplish. Sure, she's young and resilient, lives in a group house and has no extra mouths to feed. But this singer sings and gets paid for it.

"Before being famous, or being an institution or anything, I just wanted to try to make a living," Seikaly says.

"Lovely Changes" can be interpreted both in literal jazz-speak (i.e. chord changes) and in the larger, metaphorical sense of musical evolution. Seikaly says the name originated on the bandstand, when, after playing a reharmonized version of "Skylark," her guitarist praised the arrangement, saying, "Man, those were some lovely changes."

The chord changes on the album truly are lovely. In songs such as "The Way You Look Tonight," the Elliott Smith tune "Waltz #1" and the original composition "Here Again," they sound effortless yet contemporary, soaring and then descending with poise and elan. This is, in part, a tribute to pianist Dan Roberts, but the sounds are also built into the arrangements. It is the chord changes, she says, that are "signature" to the recording.

As for more overarching changes, with this album Seikaly has unequivocally come into her own.

"I feel like I have a sound now. I have kind of a definitive, distinct style," she says. "I think it's just kind of a confluence of listening to a lot more singers and composing more and that sort of thing. Not only did my voice undergo stylistic changes, but the way that I wrote music, the way that I arranged music just became a little more sophisticated."

In the beginning, Seikaly says, she sounded much like the singers she listened to the most - namely, Ella Fitzgerald.

"I listen to recordings of myself in high school, and I sound like a mini Ella. Not that I sound just like her, but I definitely sound like she's all I listen to, and she was for a time."

Gradually, though, Seikaly began internalizing the styles of other great jazz singers - Sarah Vaughan, Anita O'Day, Carmen McRae and Betty Carter. Then came local artists and singers with nontraditional approaches to vocalizing, such as Gretchen Parlato, one of the hottest young voices in jazz.

"I don't know what it is about jazz," Seikaly says. "When I was studying opera in college, if I was trying to learn to do something, or how to do a run a certain way, my voice teacher would never say to listen to this recording or listen to that recording. You work it out on your voice on your own. But there's something in jazz, where it's more important to listen than it is to practice in the shower, almost. It's really just an osmotic process. You get to the point where everyone starts informing your sound."

Her sound is unmistakably rich, luxe yet agile. It's classic at a time when a softer, subtler approach is more in vogue.

Seikaly does give a nod to that more nuanced style in her version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste," laying out a harmonized a cappella vocal intro that feels like a page right out of Parlato's book. At the same time, though, the song remains entirely hers, with a brief but adept scat solo and robust, softly sustained notes in her lower register. It's a dynamic arrangement that demonstrates not only the vocalist's many influences, but also her ability to synthesize them into one cohesive, unique style.

So, what other lovely changes might be on the horizon for the young singer? Getting picked up by a label would be nice. She has lived in the Washington area her whole life, so maybe a move to New York at some point. Even Beirut - where Seikaly has family and where Arabic-jazz fusion is all the rage - is a possibility.

Seikaly says that with the arrival of her new album, she's not ready to go anywhere just yet. But don't assume she'll stick around forever.

"To be honest, any trajectory is possible right now," she says.

For a singer so open to her own musical evolution - and who has already done so much in such a short time - you'd better take her word for it.