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Singer's Voice Becomes 'Instrument'

July 22, 1987|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — His mouth is filled with syllables, each glued to a different note.

Some, he swallows. Others, he spits out in a voice as raspy as a Charlie Parker alto saxophone blast. Or as smooth as a Stan Getz tenor sax solo. Or as fluid as an Oscar Peterson piano run.

In the tradition of such celebrated vocal stylists as John Hendricks, Eddie Jefferson and Johnny Hartman, Elliott Lawrence has learned that singing jazz requires more than a set of strong lungs and an ear for melody.

It takes an ability to play your voice like an instrument, open to both manipulation and improvisation, so that you can twist and contort that melody into a colorful collage of sound.

"When you're singing jazz, you apply yourself vocally to the music just as any instrumentalist would," Lawrence said. "You learn your phrasing in the same way as a pianist listening to McCoy Tyner, or a trumpet player listening to Miles Davis, or a saxophonist listening to Ornette Coleman.

"Frank Sinatra learned his elongated vocal phrasing from Tommy Dorsey's trombone. Johnny Hartman's smooth singing style was influenced by Dexter Gordon's horn. And Betty Carter's scat singing is directly related to Ornette Coleman's saxophone.

"It's a fundamental approach to music, with your voice becoming just another instrument."

Since moving to San Diego from Atlanta last year, Lawrence, 40, has been singing regularly at local jazz nightclubs. He will be at the Bella Via in Cardiff on Thursday and Vic's in La Jolla on Friday and Saturday.

He's usually backed by four of this town's most respected jazz musicians: bassist John Schiflett, drummer Kirk Hoffman, guitarist Dan Papala and keyboardist Bob Hamilton.

His repertoire is built around such oldies as "Love for Sale," a Tin Pan Alley tune from the 1930s; "My One and Only Love," from the Swing Era of the '40s, and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," a "cool" jazz song from the '50s.

Also included are jazz interpretations of more contemporary songs, like Van Morrison's "Moondance," the Carpenters' "I Won't Last a Day Without You," and Michael Franks' "Don't be Blue."

"The old songs are so good and meaty and beautiful, but it's hard to find a place where you can sing only oldies," Lawrence said. "Club owners usually look for results rather than art, so you really have to think about putting some contemporary value into your performance, just to bring in the crowd."

A native of New York, Lawrence took up jazz singing in 1976, after several years of performing in musicals.

Upon graduating from New York State University in Albany with a degree in drama in 1973, Lawrence toured the country with such road shows as "Feel'n Good," 'Electra," and "Olympiad."

His 1974 tour with "Bubbling Brown Sugar" ended with a two-month stint on Broadway. After appearing briefly in another Broadway production, "A Matter of Time," Lawrence returned to the road in 1975, this time as "Simon" in "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Later that year, he rejoined the "Bubbling Brown Sugar" troupe in Miami, but when the road show left town, Lawrence stayed behind to study jazz.

"The money was good, but I found the quality of what I do to be more important than the quantity," he said. "When you're doing theater, everything you do is for the theater.

"I wanted the freedom to explore all my talents and relate to my own music, rather than the music that related to whatever role I was playing."

So, in 1976, he enrolled in the University of Miami, where he studied jazz theory, harmony, and composition "to learn what jazz musicians are trying to say through music."

He subsequently started singing in Miami jazz clubs. As his reputation grew, he was asked to open shows for Spyro Gyra and the Dixie Dreggs. He also sang at the Big Orange Jazz Festival in Miami and, while touring Europe with a Dutch jazz group in 1982, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.

By 1983, Lawrence said, the Miami jazz scene had "pretty much dried up," so he moved to Atlanta before a similar fate prompted yet another move, this time to San Diego, in 1986.

"Every city has a cycle," Lawrence said. "For awhile, jazz is really big, but then the audience drifts away, the clubs close up, and the musicians leave town."

Today, Lawrence said, the San Diego jazz scene is the healthiest it's been in years. But even if that changes, he added, he has no intention of moving away.

He supplements his nightclub earnings by teaching jazz singing for the local branch of the Learning Annex, a nationwide network of adult-education classes.

And San Diego's proximity to Los Angeles, one of the music centers of the world, makes his quest for a recording contract a lot easier than if he was living someplace else.

"All the top studios and record companies are up there, just a couple of hours away," Lawrence said. "As a result, I can earn a living down here while venturing up north now and then to work on my demonstration tapes.

"My biggest goal is to get a record deal. In the medium that I work, that's how you sell yourself."

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