Vocalist Chris McNulty claims that she never sings a song unless she can connect with it personally and make it truly her own. The selection of repertoire for her seventh CD, Eternal, carried an even more deeply personal requirement, however: celebrating the life of McNulty’s cherished son Sam, who passed away in 2011. The gorgeously heartfelt and emotionally moving album, to be released March 24th, 2015 on Palmetto Records, is a sublime love letter expressing the ineradicable bond between mother and child, with an exquisite blend of jazz quintet and chamber ensemble.
To craft the lush and poignant sound of Eternal, McNulty worked closely with two gifted collaborators: orchestrator Steve Newcomb, who created the album’s stunning arrangements for chamber ensemble; and pianist John Di Martino, who last worked with McNulty on her 2005 release Dance Delicioso. The stellar trio with Di Martino on piano, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Gregory Hutchinson provides sensitive support for the singer’s eloquent vocals. Jazz combo and chamber orchestra meld beautifully and seamlessly throughout, focused wholly on enhancing the profound feeling of McNulty’s vocals. And present throughout is the spirit of Sam McNulty (aka hip-hop artist-composer Chap One), whose life, and the impact that it made on that of his mother, is vividly illustrated.
“There are lots of ways that I can honor Sam,” McNulty says. “I looked through thousands of tunes to find things that spoke to me about life in general and life after Sam, about how I was unraveling inside, and that I thought could speak to him or about him without it becoming a morose, sad story. I think the music has lots of brightness and joy in it, too. I’m a musician first, so the songs have to speak to me musically, melodically, emotionally and lyrically as they always would. I just chose the songs that made the most sense for telling Sam’s story.”
Adding to the emotionally arduous process of assembling material for Eternal was the fact that McNulty was poring over songbooks in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when she was left without electricity, heat, or running water for eight days. So she sat in front of the fireplace with dozens of songbooks strewn about the floor around her, searching for lyrics and melodies that spoke to her by the glow of candlelight.
The first song that she found was the one that ended up opening the album, Steve Kuhn’s “The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers.” At first simply curious about the eccentric title, she was immediately struck by how perfectly Sherrill Craig’s opening lines seemed to capture her own emotional state:
Late this night she waits alone / She tries to accept the truth
The pain is intense / Her heart is so sore and bruised
Wishing that the sadness had not come for its claim so soon
One life is so short, so many things left to say and do
Crying softly for the one who cannot be here
Through the rain she sees a face laughing in happy play
The face of a child, the child on a sunny day
“It was extraordinary, because I was completely unaware of that song,” McNulty recalls. “The further I got into it the more profoundly blown away I was, but I wasn’t expecting to go to the piano and hear such a beautiful melody.”
She immediately determined to record the song, though she almost lost it as mysteriously as she’d found it. Returning to her songbooks the next morning, she couldn’t find it again no matter how many indexes she searched. “I was beginning to think I must have dreamt it,” she says. As it turned out, the song was real but accidentally not included in the book’s index, but after a week of searching through page after page McNulty managed to stumble across it a second time.
Another powerful moment comes via “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” In McNulty’s interpretation the oft-recorded love song becomes a lament and a eulogy, carrying a promise to never let go of her son’s spirit. Sam himself is drawn through a composite portrait: compared to a precious flower via Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” depicted as a “strange, enchanted boy” in Eden Ahbez’s perennial “Nature Boy.” McNulty grapples with life following loss with the poignant “Where is Love” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
Along with these resonant standards, McNulty contributes her own tribute to Sam with the album’s sole original, “You Are There.” Accompanied by the spare, understated colors contributed by Newcomb and Di Martino, McNulty sings the impassioned lyric directly to her son, ending with the key message, “You will always be there.” As she explains, “I’m speaking to Sam and I’m also reflecting on different memories: being on subways with him as a little boy, seeing him with his friends as a young man growing up, how many girls loved him. It’s all in there.”
Newcomb’s elegant arrangements are born of a friendship that began in 2008, when he met McNulty while both were performing at a festival in their native Australia. They’ve discussed working together on a project ever since, and Eternal offered the ideal circumstances. “Steve is a brilliantly creative musician and a very hard worker,” McNulty says.
McNulty was reunited with Di Martino on one of her first evenings out in New York City following Sam’s passing. Unaware that the pianist was performing that night, she was reminded of his virtuosity on the bandstand – and of his humanity when he approached her after the set. “He walked over and put his arms around me and didn’t say a word,” she recalls. “That had a profound impact. A lot of people don’t know what to say or do, and sometimes it’s better not to say anything. It struck me that he handled it so gracefully, and it showed what a sensitive human being he is.”
Since her emergence on the international jazz scene in 1991, Chris McNulty has been hailed by musicians, peers and critics alike as a jazz vocalist-composer with a unique vision, boundless creative energy and a distinctive style. Her recordings and performances have garnered 4 and 5 star reviews in publications including DownBeat, The Irish Times, Jazz Wise, Jazz Journal and JazzTimes, among many others. In May 2013, McNulty won the prestigious Australian Bell Award (the equivalent of a US Grammy) for Best Vocal Jazz Album for The Song That Sings You Here. She has collaborated, recorded and performed with some of the finest musicians on the jazz scene today and performed at major international festivals around the world.
“An immense talent whose vocalizing is fearless and composing peerless.”
― Harvey Siders, Jazz Times
“One of the foremost vocalist-composers on the international jazz scene, with a voice of serene beauty, striking veracity and compelling emotional fervency.”
Peter Quinn, Jazz Wise