Singer, broadcaster and ambassador for the artform – over the years China Moses has played many roles. Fitting then, that on her newest album and run of gigs, she finally gets to cut loose. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to jazz royalty about family, songwriting and the Great American Songbook.
From a young rapper, to a broadcaster and custodian of the arts, to a versatile singer and social commentator, it’s been quite the journey for singer China Moses. Born into jazz royalty, the daughter of the legendary Dee Dee Bridgewater and pioneering African-American theatre director Gilbert Moses was always going to have massive boots to fill, but rather than try and follow where they lead, Moses has simply done what she’s wanted to do, leading her to become a headline jazz singer in her own right, by way of European hip-hop and the Great American Songbook.
This journey has brought her to the release last year of newest album ‘Nightintales’, a mature piece of work that sees Moses fuse soul, jazz and r’n’b into cogent, compact pop, dealing with modern issues like alienation and anxiety. Though it released last year to critical acclaim, Moses has been living with the record for a lot longer. “The album was finished in 2015. It took me two years to find a label that wanted to release it! I met the lovely people at MPS Records in Germany, and they’re a small label, so their release calendar was really backed up, so they asked ‘would you mind waiting a bit?’. That was in 2016, and I asked ‘how long?’, ‘cause I’d been touring this project already, trying to keep my live work going. And they said ‘if you can wait until March of 2017, we’ll be all yours.’ And I’m very, very glad that I waited. ”
In keeping the record to short bursts of accessible, whip-smart pop, Moses has invested ‘Nightintales’ with the kind of brevity that is the soul of wit to modern-day, streaming-centric audiences. That immediacy was at every level of the album’s creation, from writing, all the way into working with collaborators in studio. “I’m very proud of the way the album sounds. It was recorded in the jazz tradition of keeping everything to one take. The musicians are one-take, I re-recorded my vocals as there was a lot going on, and we had way too little time. So, what you hear, piano, bass, drums, are all one take. Them boys, they can play. I still love it. The reason I can still love it, is the songs are still very short, on purpose, on the album format, so in concert we can stretch them out. It’s an opportunity for the musicians to play, to interpret the song the way they’re feeling it that night. I find that as a vocalist, we often have a tendency to concentrate on the voice, but for me, and this is what my mom taught me, you are nothing without your band.”
Over the years, Moses has also worked comprehensively with the accepted Great American Songbook, across numerous stage shows and heritage projects. No great surprise, of course, considering her roots, but an important and distinct influence on her creativity and frame of reference. “I didn’t graduate high school. My deal with my mother was I would get a GED (Leaving Cert-equivalent diploma for school leavers in America) after my first album. I’ve always lived with two ‘burdens’. Having Dee Dee Bridgewater as your mom is definitely not a burden, I can attest to that. She’s a great mom and an amazing artist. But that’s one thing, trying to live up to what she’s done, and on the other side, I had the burden of not knowing who I was musically. So, when I did two (blues-influenced albums), it was like I went back to school, and ‘Nightintales’ was my thesis. It was like, ‘how do I take my heritage, my Black American musical heritage, and tell my story, my testimony, respecting the past while staying in the present?’. I didn’t want it to sound like something that could be mistaken for being recorded earlier in time.”
In 2012, Moses performed for UNESCO’s first annual International Jazz Day in Paris, alongside her mother and numerous other jazz luminaries, among other performances for the organisation over the years. It was a landmark performance for Moses, and it all came together on the day, while also tending to her duties as a broadcaster and interviewer at the event. “UNESCO are awesome! I went to Mexico this year, for UNESCO Mexico, for Culture Week in the region of Guadalajara. On the Jazz Day, at first I was just supposed to co-present the evening, then they came around and asked me to sing a song. I was like ‘whaaaaat?’ (laughs). It was crazy. I remember being scared, completely freaking out for the first song I did, and I think it really sounds like that. When it got to the finale, we did ‘On Broadway’, which was crazy, because I didn’t rehearse. I was co-hosting and interviewing everybody. I didn’t have time to rehearse the finale! I thought I was just singing background vocals, and right before we go on stage, my mom says ‘you have the third verse’. And ‘On Broadway’ keeps going up in key, the last verse is the highest, and I have a lower voice than my mom. I’ll never forget seeing George Benson’s face when I started singing. I had Uncle George’s approval! I was over the moon. It was so much fun, so laid-back, hanging with all these greats.”
As an aside to her music career, Moses has worked comprehensively as a broadcaster in France, including time with Canal Plus’ ‘Le Grand Journal’ music show, radio shows on JazzFM and TSFJazz, and documentaries with arts broadcaster ARTE. Music and broadcast media are odd yet complementary bedfellows for creative types, and Moses is quick to discuss her experiences on the ‘other’ side of that equation. “TV made me a better stage performer. It taught me to speak to a group of people at once. A lot of artists aren’t trained for that. I have no problem hyping up a song like Nancy Wilson or Frank Sinatra, who could set up a song. It’s also kept me extremely humble. There ain’t nothing special about me. I’m just doing what I do, the best that I can, and having a lot of joy doing it, and if it makes someone else happy for the space of a concert, or if I can make ‘em feel different kinds of emotions, take ‘em on a journey, shit, man, I’m happy. My job is done. Radio keeps me connected to music, to my love of what I do. Without music I would be a crazy person. It’s not just my passion, it’s my anchor.”
Moses is coming to Cork for her first Jazz Festival excursion this year, performing on a double-bill with the Pablo Ziegler Trio at the Everyman on Saturday October 27th. The appeal and enthusiasm of Ireland’s jazz community for getting behind major events is what stands out to Moses ahead of the big event. “I was in Dublin for the Cork Jazz Festival’s press event there, and I played for twenty minutes. Last year I was in Bray, for the jazz festival there, that was my first time in Ireland. It was a beautiful day, I wanted to live here, but then I thought of all the rain I hear about (laughs). I had the most amazing time in Dublin. It was a joy, and what was funny was, I didn’t recognise any of the people there, I found out the day after that they were all these social media influencers and tastemakers, and it was neat to see them discover jazz. I’ve never had so much love!’”
China Moses plays the Everyman Palace on Saturday October 27th, in a double-bill with the Pablo Ziegler Trio at 8pm. Tickets on sale now from guinnessjazzfestival.com