Sharron McLeod and the Griots
Talking with Sharron McLeod is like communing with a musical repository. We’ve known each other from the music scene in Toronto, Canada, since the early 1980’s. She is now based in Nice, France. Her references shift with ease from Sun Ra, Butch Morris, Cecil Tayler, Joni Mitchell, opera and the Gustav Holst Military Suites. We discuss her musical influences and her choices of repertoire as a jazz singer.
“I need to have an emotional connection to the music that I sing. I no longer sing My Funny Valentine. It means nothing to me,” she says. “There is more resonance for me as a Black woman, as a mother, as the mother of a Black man in almost in anything by Gil Scott-Heron. His tune Must Be Something, for example, is very simplistic but also very direct. I sing the Black Mountain Blues. The lyrics for this by Bessie Smith speak about the social realities of Black people. It might not be politics specifically, but emotional connection to social realities.”
McLeod is drawn to artists whose repertoire and styling embodies the history and legacy of the art form of jazz. “I like to use the term ‘griot’,” she says, and then lists her griots of American music ̶ Abbey Lincoln, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. “They all have this deeper subtext. While Abbey didn’t do the virtuosic sorts of things that Sarah Vaughan could do, emotionally, I would say that she was going into Coltrane territory.”
McLeod wrote The Griot’s Lament, fittingly written after a mentorship in New York City with Abbey Lincoln. This tune and The Ballad of the Six Parables were recorded in Toronto, with George Koller on bass, Mark Hundevad on drums and Kevin Barrett on guitar. There seems to be a kind of kinship and long-term mutual respect going on with the quartet.
Kevin Barrett recalls hearing her low alto voice for the first time at Fat Albert’s Coffee House, Toronto’s longest running open stage.
“It must have been the late 1980’s. She got up at the open stage and sang Duke Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss ̶ a capella ̶ and blew my mind! I chased after her, saying ‘I wanna play with you!’ Of course, she just thought I was some weird kid with a guitar. Since then, they have performed together many times and developed a musical kinship that spreads into attention to social issues. They had a recent joyful reunion in Europe.
“We played a duo gig in this tiny bar in downtown Nice. Everybody was smoking rolled cigarettes. They had very little cups of coffee. There were book shelves all over the walls with books that I’m fairly sure had been there since 1930’s and it was the hottest, for sure I’ve never been so hot in my life while playing guitar. We’d play a set and everyone would run out to street with their beers to get a little bit of moving air and then come back in.
Mark Hundevad is another long-term collaborator first knew Sharron as a flautist. “I was playing with Wayne Cas band at Clinton’s Tavern and he had her sit in. I didn’t even know that she was a vocalist.” McLeod eventually had him join her on multiple gigs. “His range is so incredible,” she says. “He is a drummer who could span all of my musical interests, from Joni Mitchell to Curtis Mayfield, without any kind of elitist attitude. He has an almost photographic memory. Max Roach, 1960 — he can be right there. Elvin Jones, 1963 ̶ he can be right there. He’s a serious student of Cecil Taylor, can play blues, straight ahead jazz, reggae, whatever you need….”
George Koller who also produced the recordings, brings up another side of McLeod’s musical career. “I knew Sharron as college radio host first. She had a handle on a variety of artists that I’d never heard of.”
“I had this musical double life in high school, where I would listen to Elton John and pop music and on the weekends when I hung out with my friends in St. Jamestown, I would listen to Stevie Wonder, Parliament, Funkadelic and the Ohio Players. I brought that in to school. People were like, what’s that? I’ve always had a bit of the DJ in me,” says McLeod.
Her first radio show was CKLN’s Face the Music. “In 1990 I took over as host from Richard Underhill. I also did another program with Chloe Onari, called Dat Dere from the Bobby Timmons tune. It was an open format, African diaspora based show. It was close to the end of CKLN and Chloe and I were booted off the air. There’s a story there, but not for today,” she laughs, steering us away from the saga of the radio station’s demise. With her extensive knowledge of jazz, she went on to spin for the CBC and FLOW FM. “I got in the groove at FLOW. I was fortunate to be doing jazz that nobody really had a clue about.”
Perhaps her ear was tuned to find the obscure due to the vast well that she pulls from musically. Along with studies on trombone, euphonium, flute and piano, she grew up in a household filled with opera recordings, her mother Madge Barbara McLeod’s passion. Solfege studies with Art Levine, and of course later work with Lincoln helped to crystalize approach and vision. Says Kevin Barrett, “I am certainly very aware of the Abbey Lincoln influence on her. The Nina Simone trajectory, through Abbey to her, I really feel that in her music.”
Building a repertoire is ultimately about choice, vision and sometimes opportunity.
“I’m just realizing how lucky I was at Trane Studio, Frank Francis gave me a lot of free reign to do stuff there. I did Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Gil Scott-Heron and Nina Simone tributes. That stuff has remained a part of my repertoire.”
Ever evolving, McLeod continues musical explorations into areas such as conduction, an ensemble practice of improvisation, and may return to the radio in the future. “I feel that Sharron is kind of a Keeper of the Flame,” says Koller, “whether she is a broadcaster or a singer.”
Two fantastic new standards bring emotion and gravitas to the aural lineage of the jazz griots with McLeod’s rich, low alto, wrapped in the warmth and musical kinship of this gifted quartet.