A One-Woman Genre

Photo by Sonia Seelinger

Most musicians bristle when listeners and reviewers try to label their work. But Shana Tucker decided to help out instead, even trademarking her own sound: “chamber soul.”

“A lot of people say to me, ‘Oh, you created your own genre!’” says the Long Island native — she now lives in North Carolina — with a laugh. “In conversation, I found myself explaining more about what my music wasn’t: ‘Well, it’s kind of classical, but not. It’s kind of folky, but not. And it’s definitely not cool jazz.’ That’s too much!”

She is, however, a classically trained cellist. “I love chamber music,” says Tucker, who cherishes the musical conversation that happens between the musicians, characterizing it like this: “The melody is now with me, and then I transfer it to you, and somebody else is saying something underneath it all.”

She notes that chamber music is designed for intimate spaces, but that doesn’t mean it has to be played in a small room. Her own blend, which fills theaters and performing-arts centers around the world, has strong elements of soul. “The stories that I write in my lyrics are not unique to me, so when I write from a place of intentional truth, that’s how I hope it’s received: soul to soul,” says Tucker, who also spends a lot of time leading workshops and community-outreach programs.

Paradoxically, the “chamber soul” label gives her freedom to move her music in many directions. “I can play a movement from a cello sonata, and then I can shift into a Bill Withers tune. And then I can do a jazz standard, and then something by the Police.”

For Tucker, it’s all less about the genres, and more about expressing an idea: “This is music that I like, this is music that I write, and this is the sum of my parts.” Her facility on multiple instruments is the key to the scheme; in addition to cello, she’s proficient on piano and guitar. “And I play a mean shaker,” she adds.

Her onstage setup also includes a melodica (“because I wanted to explore some chordal components with it,” she explains) and one piece of modern gear: a loop station that allows Tucker to play a phrase on a selected instrument, and then have that phrase played back or “looped” while she adds additional elements on another instrument or vocal.

Such great versatility gives her a songwriting advantage, although the instrument most often associated with looping, the guitar, was never her first choice. “One of the reasons why I picked up guitar late, late, late in life is because my piano chords started sounding the same,” Tucker explains. She gained inspiration when she read about Joni Mitchell’s development of alternate guitar chords to accommodate her limitations as a polio survivor.

Tucker entered Howard University with a classical background that left her unprepared for discovering the innovations of artists like John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Herbie Hancock. But she fell in love with jazz nevertheless, and it came together for her in 1992 when she first experienced the Uptown String Quartet. “They were doing a performance at the Kennedy Center,” she recalls. “Four black women playing string instruments? I’d never seen that before.” The ensemble played songs by James Brown and Otis Redding. “I thought, ‘How do they have so much soul and rhythm, and they’re playing this music on classical instruments?’”

Tucker’s dizzyingly varied background also includes a five-year run as part of a Cirque du Soleil production in Las Vegas. And the irrepressible musician learned lessons from the performing acrobats, ones she would soon apply to her own work. “In Cirque, there are a bunch of people who are ridiculously talented — not just in the thing that they were hired to do, but just in general — and they’re not afraid of claiming ownership of all those things they do well.”

And — like “chamber soul” — that description perfectly fits Shana Tucker and her approach to music. “Cirque taught me there are no boundaries. Go do your art. Go do it. Period.”

Shana Tucker (shanatucker.com) teaches an Arts Outreach for Kids workshop at Tryon Fine Arts Center (34 Melrose Ave.) on Wednesday, January 31, at 10 am ($7/general admission, $3/for students and educators). She plays the Main Stage on Saturday, February 3, at 8pm. $17-$40. For tickets, go to tryonarts.org or call 828-859-8322.

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