Sarah Elizabeth Charles Explores Where Jazz Is Headed Next In 'Free Of Form'

Apr 12, 2018

Jazz vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, a native of western Massachusetts, has been making a name for herself nationally.

Charles, 29, is among a new generation of musicians determined to redefine the genre for a 21st century audience. She recently released a new album, Free of Form.

Charles says she once wanted to sound like Sarah Vaughan and perform the American songbook repertoire from the 1930s and '40s traditionally associated with jazz singers.

“I realized that there was something else going on,” Charles said. “As I started to learn more theory, and I was getting better at the piano, the chords that were coming out weren’t that. The melodies that were coming out weren’t that. And I kept trying to suppress it. Eventually, some great teachers came in, and said, why are you forcing that? You really got to let your sound be what your sound is.”

To be clear, Free of Form is not your typical-sounding jazz album. But given that jazz musicians historically have resisted defining the music, Charles asks: who gets to define its boundaries?

“What’s interesting to me is when people try to tell me that I’m not certain things. ‘You’re not a jazz vocalist.’ Historically, the tradition has been so many things, and it’s grown. And I’m interested in what it’s going to be. What’s the next movement? What’s the next wave? And I think we’re living it right now.”

On her first two albums, Red and Inner Dialogue, Charles featured mostly original compositions, as well as songs outside the traditional jazz repertoire, such as Haitian folk songs from her father’s home country.

A graduate of the Community Music School in her native Springfield, Charles continues to showcase her songwriting on Free of Form. It’s co-produced by trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and released on his label Stretch Music. Scott has featured Sarah Elizabeth Charles on his own recent recordings -- he released three last year – and he’s also heard on this project.

“My last record was called Inner Dialogue,” Charles said. “It was about my inner world. Free of Form is me turning outward, and looking at the outside world, and commenting on a lot of different issues.”

Those issues range from social media, to race and gender relations and criminal justice.

Charles says the song “Change to Come” was inspired by the death of Eric Garner in July 2014 at the hands of police.

“Recording it was really difficult, because we really had to think about how to embody what we were trying to communicate, and there wasn’t enough space in the original song that was written,” Charles said. “The arrangement of it leaves much more space, inserts Christian Scott as this soaring voice that’s also seemingly in pain, and it has layered vocals that sort of allowed me to -- it was cathartic. It allowed me to get so much sadness and anger out.”

Charles says the breathing at the end of the track was something that happened in the studio.

“Eric Garner’s last words were, ‘I can’t breathe.’ That’s become such a huge part of the Black Lives Matter movement, such a huge saying that we use, because he said it in that moment right before he died,” Charles said. “The breathing is meant to symbolize, and also honor, that last moment, just to really be able to sonically have our listeners hear and feel that. So it’s very intense. But it’s like that for a reason, because through the music, we really want to evoke what we’re trying to capture, and the message that we’re trying to convey, which is one that is real, and meant to hopefully create some more dialogue, in addition to what’s already happening.”

The album’s lone cover song, “Zombie,” was written by the late Irish singer Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries. One of Charles’s favorite songs growing up, the song was inspired by the death of two children in an IRA bombing 25 years ago.

Charles said the song’s message is still relevant today.

“For me, I think it’s us really being careful of becoming too conditioned or too hardened and becoming zombies,” she said. “Becoming people who aren’t able to be fluid and flexible, and empathize with one another, and feel where the other person is coming from, and people who get too boxed in. Please don’t get hardened to where you are, and what you are, and what you think, because we’re fluid beings.”

Visit NEPR's Spring Music Series for more stories.