Vocalist Tiffany Austin’s tradition-rooted yet totally modern style has established her as one of the fastest rising jazz stars in Northern California. Before earning a law degree at U.C. Berkeley, she’d performed on three continents—around her native Los Angeles while attending college, then for a year in England, and eventually for five and a half years in Tokyo. However, instead of taking the bar exam, she decided instead to devote her life to her first love—music.
Austin’s music and voice draw upon influences such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin, yet she also infuses songs with her own signature style that is precise, intelligent, and soulful. In fact, her arrangements vary from classic swing to contemporary R&B à la Robert Glasper or Jose James. Her emotional and nuanced delivery has caught the attention of eminent artists, whom she has joined onstage: vibraphonist Roy Ayers at Motion Blue (Japan), drummer Tommy Campbell at the Blue Note (NYC), and saxophonist John Handy for a three-night engagement at Dizzy’s (NYC) commemorating his 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival performance.
Her much-anticipated debut recording, Nothing But Soul, has received a warm reception from audiences and critics alike, including a four-star DownBeat Magazine review, a feature on NPR’s Fresh Air radio program, and inclusion on KQED’s Top 10 Bay Area Jazz Releases of 2015 list. She has also been featured in publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury, and Oakland Magazine.
Austin’s debut CD, Nothing But Soul, released in June 201 on her own Con Alma Music label, reimagines compositions by the great American songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. For the recording, which was produced by saxophonist Howard Wiley, Tiffany was joined by bassist Ron Belcher, drummer Sly Randolph, and Glen Pearson, one of the busiest and perhaps most versatile pianists in the Bay Area.
Nothing But Soul is made up of six Carmichael tunes—“Baltimore Oriole,” 'Stardust,” “Skylark,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and “Sing Me a Swing Song (And Let Me Dance)”—as well as two non-Carmichael numbers that he recorded as a vocalist: Henry Sullivan and Harry Ruskin’s “I May Be Wrong (But I Think You’re Wonderful)”; Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”; and “Tete a Tete,” a wordless a cappella duet by Austin and Wiley based on the chord changes of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.”
Austin created three of the arrangements heard on Nothing But Soul,asing “Baltimore Oriole” on Lorez Alexandria's version but replacing Latintinged rhythms of the original recording with a souljazz boogaloo and turning “I Walk the Line” into a barrelhouse blues shuffle. Wiley arranged three, giving “Stardust,” usually performed as a ballad, a twobeat swing lift in tempo; treating “Skylark” to a somewhat offkilter rhythmic twist that he characterizes as cross between Pharoah Sanders and QTip (“She’s sitting on top of the pillow real nice,” the saxophonist says); and reconstructing “Georgia” with a J Dilla-like hiphop groove and vocal harmonies by both Wiley and Austin.
“What I love about Howard’s arrangements is that the musical inflections range from classic swing all the way to [contemporary Robert] Glasperesque R&B,” the vocalist says.
Austin’s arrangement of “I May Be Wrong” opens with Wiley and Pearson using the melody of swingera hit “Lullaby in Rhythm” that Parker had played on a 1951 live recording. Parker’s original recording was mistitled “I May Be Wrong” when issued on an album years later. The two tunes, however, fit together quite well.
Austin and Pearson perform the ballad “I Get Along Without You Very Well” as a duet. “Every time I sing that song,” she says, “it brings tears to my eyes. When we perform that song live, a hush just falls over the crowd like a meditation.”
“Sing Me a Swing Song,” which gave Ella Fitzgerald her first hit record in 1936 when she was a member of Chick Webb’s orchestra, is creatively rendered as a voice and bass duet. “We really gallop though that song,” Austin says of her and Belcher’s hot treatment of the tune.
Tiffany Austin was born in Los Angeles and spent most of her time growing up at her grandmother’s house in the city’s Watts neighborhood, where she was first exposed to jazz on the radio. She studied classical voice while attending Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. During her junior year at Cal State Northridge, from which she would graduate with a B.A. in creative writing, she went to England on an exchange program and began singing in London clubs. Back in Southern California, she joined a disco oldies band before moving to Tokyo in early 2004. She spent the next five and a half years there singing a variety of music, including some pop, jazz, and gospel music, six nights a week.
“As I worked in those styles I could hear a different quality coming out in my voice, and I wanted to explore that further,” says Austin, who also received lyric writing commissions and recorded for television, film, and album projects during this period.
Austin’s time in Japan was her first opportunity to pour herself fulltime into her art. “Around 2006, I met the drummer Tommy Campbell, who is also an improvisation coach,” she says. “My work with him illuminated the jazz my grandmother played on her little plastic radio, and also showed me a new world of musical playfulness and communication.
“I also fell in love with Japan, and when I left there it was with tears in my eyes,” she adds. “I was struck by how the artisans I met would not settle for anything but the best of themselves and their craft, and would work with such patient diligence. That work ethic resonated with me, and I find myself summoning up memories of Japan when I brace myself for big challenges.”
In 2009, Austin returned to the United States to attend U.C. Berkeley Law School, with an emphasis in entertainment law and copyright. “It was my dream to advocate for creative artists and be a resource of expertise from both sides of the music business,” she says.
Each year while attending law school, Austin would book a Japan tour during session breaks. During one of these breaks, in the spring of 2010, she performed with vibraphonist Roy Ayers’s band as a featured and backing vocalist at Motion Blue in Yokohama.
After law school graduation, she found herself at a crossroad. “I could have gone into a law firm, which can be rewarding, particularly if you’re helping an underserved community, but my calling has always been to do music,” Austin says. “I’ve been telling people that I want to lead a more soulful life. I don’t just want to make decisions based on money. I want to feel connected to my art and my community. I want to really be in touch with my soul.
“Although cliché, it’s true,” she continues, “that law school teaches you how to think, how to work efficiently, how to teach yourself, and how to be tenacious. Since graduating, I’ve started my own music company (Con Alma Music), put together my album, deepened the study of my crafts (vocalist, lyricist, songwriter), and began independently studying harmony. I feel like every bit of my education and experience has come together, in a marvelously unlikely way, to make me an artist.”
In Northern California Tiffany has appeared at the SFJAZZ Center, Yoshi’s in both Oakland and San Francisco, the Fillmore Jazz Festival, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in San Francisco, and the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. In New York she has performed at the Blue Note with drummer Tommy Campbell and Dizzy’s Coca Cola with saxophonist John Handy. Besides working with Marcus Shelby and Howard Wiley, Austin has sung with the bands Orgone, and MoonCandy, and has recorded with, among others, Orgone, The Monophonics, The Droptones, and on UnderCover Presents Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! tribute project.
Austin, who also teaches voice technique privately and at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond, California, has received two San Francisco artist residencies to develop her Creole music project: a 2015-2015 residency at the Presidio via the San Francisco Friends of Chamber music, and a 2014 residency at Red Poppy Art House. The project was inspired by memories of her grandmother, who spoke Creole French, and by recordings from the 1920s and ’30s by Louisiana Creole accordionist Amede Ardoin, whose innovative style had a profound impact on the development of both Cajun and zydeco musical styles. “I couldn’t believe that such an influential artist’s name wasn’t more prevalent in musical circles,” says Austin.
Although Austin’s debut album consists almost entirely of songs written by or associated with Hoagy Carmichael, her inspiration for titling it Nothing But Soul s the Norman Mapp song “Jazz (Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul),” recorded by Betty Carter in 1961.
“When we talk about jazz and blues and pop, I think the expression ‘nothing but soul’ is perfect for what good music is,” Austin explains. “If we brush aside all the labels, good music is soulful music. Nobody has a monopoly on being emotive, putting your whole soul into making music. That is my approach not only to my music but my life.” •
Tiffany Austin's debut album "Nothing But Soul"
Album Release Date: June 2015
DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE REVIEW (4 STARS)
NPR FRESH AIR REVIEW
ALBUM REVIEW: "NOTHING BUT SOUL"
Bob Karlovits - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 25, 2015
ALBUM REVIEW: "NOTHING BUT SOUL"
Andrew Gilbert - NPR/KQED California Report, Two New Albums Are Latest Blooms From S.F.’s Red Poppy Art House, June 27, 2015
CONCERT REVIEW: TIFFANY AUSTIN AT SFJAZZ: JUNE 12, 2015 CD RELEASE CONCERT
Walter Atkins, All About Jazz
FEATURE ARTICLE: TIFFANY AUSTIN LAYS ASIDE LAW FOR JAZZ SINGING
ARTICLE: SFJAZZ FESTIVAL: 10 SHOWS TO CATCH
ARTICLE: DUKE ELLINGTON TRIBUTE
FEATURE ARTICLE: PRAISE FOR AMAZING WOMEN
"★★★★" “Austin’s vocal strengths are showcased—clarity of tone … and outright presence …”
– Yoshi Kato, DownBeat Magazine (Dec. 2015)
“A vocalist to keep an ear on.”
- Kevin Whitehead, NPR’s Fresh Air (Aug. 2015)
"She offers energetically and passionately done versions of classics in original and distinctive ways... [a] clean, unerring, rich voice..."
Bob Karlovits - Journalist (July 25th Tribune-Review Article)
"Austin delivers an impressive debut that only hints at her potential."
Andrew Gilbert, NPR/KQED California Report, Two New Albums Are Latest Blooms From S.F.’s Red Poppy Art House, June 27, 2015
"Aside from her sensuously pearlescent sound, what's most impressive about Austin is how far she's come in a relatively short period of time."
Andrew Gilbert, San Jose Mercury, Tiffany Austin explores music of Hoagy Carmichael, June 9, 2015
"...An incredibly strong debut, placed in a setting that is straight out of the gate live and interesting. ...A strong and clear voice, full of emotion, nuance and heart. "
Jeffrey Wood - Music Producer/Studio Director, Fantasy Studios
"Tiffany breathes new life into every song she sings, creating that delicate balance between a profound respect for tradition and a fearless sense of soul. ... A brilliant star on the rise."
Rebeca Mauleón - Pianist/Composer/Author and SFJAZZ Director of Education
"When I first heard Tiffany Austin sing, I was truly stunned by her grace, sophistication, and talent. Her tiny stature stood out in great contrast to the emotional depth, strength, and power of her voice.
Over the 30+ years I have been honored to witness emerging jazz vocal talent, Tiffany stood out to me as someone definitively positioned to make her mark on the jazz scene. She is clearly doing that and well deserves it."
Stacey Hoffman - Executive Director, Living Jazz
"Tiffany has an incredible instrument - and she pours her soul through it!"
Tony Peebles - Saxophonist/2014 GRAMMY-Award® Winner, Pacific Mambo Orchestra
"A fresh new sound... with her feet planted firmly in the African American musical traditions of Blues, Spirituals and Jazz."
Rhonda Benin - Vocalist and Producer of “Just Like A Woman: A Celebration of Bay Area Women in Music” (April 2015)
"A beautiful voice and presence ...Tiffany is a serious artist with equal parts discipline, soul, and intelligence."
Darren Johnston - Bandleader/Composer/Trumpeter