Spencer Day’s rich baritone voice and confident stage presence generate instant credibility to every song he interprets. His sound is both traditional and inventive.
Day's 2009 release “Vagabond” peaked at #11 on Billboard’s jazz album chart and featured the hit single “Till You Come to Me.”
Still in his early 40s, Day has already performed at The Monterey Jazz Festival, The Kennedy Center, and The Tanglewood Jazz Festival. His latest album “Broadway By Day” celebrates the alliance of musical theater and jazz.CapRadio's Gary Vercelli spoke with Day about the new album, his recent collaborators and how he came to love jazz.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I want to begin by asking you what the attraction to Broadway musicals was that inspired you to do this album?
I think my attraction to Broadway musicals probably started when I was fairly young, just due to their entirely fantastical and escapist nature. Because I think like a lot of kids who don't quite fit in when they're growing up, I was looking for someplace where my flamboyantly large creative tastes might not only just be accepted but celebrated. I had kind of a rough family life, so discovering that music could be such a sublime form of escapism to start with was probably how I became a musician.
I grew up in northern Utah, so our access to culture was pretty limited. It was either Disney movies or MGM musicals because they were both G-rated and considered wholesome.
I opted for the MGM musicals, so I'd say my love and fascination began back then and my ability to see how a song, and especially a song that's put in the context of the show, could really transport you into another world, which was of utmost interest to me as an unhappy kid.
Were your parents musical, did you have music around the house?
I did. My mom, who ended up raising all six of myself and my siblings, could play Beethoven and was a coloratura soprano, and so even though she was working too much and we really didn't get to study with her, I think her musical talents and abilities definitely must have permeated through the air and reached us somehow. My mom was most certainly the person for whom music was her life.
When did jazz become an attraction to you?
To me at the time, jazz and the Chrysler building in Manhattan, that was as exotic as the South Pacific or Saudi Arabia to me because the only jazz that we had growing up in rural Utah was the basketball team.
So, I'd probably say I was about 16 or 17. I think first, like a lot of people, probably fell in love with “Rhapsody in Blue,” and then Billie Holiday and Chet Baker. And weirdly, for the record that we just finished recording, I never really listened to Frank Sinatra much. Maybe because from very early on in my career, if you're a baritone, you’re kind of compared to that. So, I really stuck more with the torch singers and Betty Carter and Billie Holiday.
And when did you start studying piano?
I played by ear and still primarily do play by ear. I think I started taking my first proper lessons when I was about 19 or 20, but it didn't really stick.
And then I went to CalArts ... I just couldn't afford it, and I didn't want to sing opera for one semester.
And there I was, stopped by the teacher as I was trying to teach myself “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was very ill-advised. She realized halfway through a page that I was not reading any of the notes and I was just playing it by ear. So I started playing piano bars where that skill actually came very much in handy if being able to hear a song once and then play it back, probably around 23 or 24. So I got a pretty late start.
Most jazz musicians do make it to the mecca of New York sooner or later. Was there an attraction enough for you to move to New York City at one point?
Oh, yeah. Of course, the first time I went, I never felt humidity before. Everything about it felt so exotic to me. It was just otherworldly. I think for anyone who kind of lives in a bit of a fantasy world ... I could still imagine and see New York in the Charlie Parker era that I wanted it to be.
I think for any artist, New York is a pretty life-changing mecca when you finally get to go and see the heights of what musical greatness can be reached there. I was there for 10 years.
And what about the struggle from day to day? I know that one of the songs you've chosen to interpret here is “What I Did for Love” from “A Chorus Line.” There's a struggle of day to day life in New York, right?
Oh, absolutely, I think that's where the denial and the fantasy of escaping into your “Rhapsody in Blue” world is essential. I talked to another friend about that. She's told me that we all have to live in our own black and white Woody Allen movie — just to deal with the parts of it that are so difficult. And with all the auditioning and all the noise and the rejection, it's like you kind of have to have a little bit of Norma Desmond delusion in you, I think, to put up with it.
I always thought the song was just about what you did for a romantic relationship. And as we recorded it, my producer explained the real context of how the director is asking if you had to, if you could never dance tomorrow or you could never sing, what would you say to yourself? And for me, my ability to connect, that changed profoundly because if I look back at all the years spent and it's such a blessing to do this for a living, but there's so many profoundly lonely moments, so many relationships that you have to give up. Just, you know, dating a musician is not for everyone.
One of the interesting choices you made was “I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You” from “Evita.” What's your take on that?
I just felt that with that song that it was a really underrated gem and very harmonically interesting. And during the pandemic, I found myself very accidentally quarantined in Mexico. And while I was there waiting to figure out what was going on with the world, I was able to connect with some really great musician friends, some wonderful mariachi musicians and flamenco musicians. And since I already happened to be down there, I actually replaced some of the parts we originally rehearsed, and said, “Well, let's go straight to the source.”
I think it's a really awesome fusion of jazz and then very authentic Latin American musicians who were playing on it. That's one of my favorites on the record, honestly.
One of your label mates on your new record label is Jane Monheit. Tell me about working with her and how you selected a tune from “Hello Dolly.”
Well, that was really Jane's idea. She's just probably the most swinging jazz singer that I know of out there. And so I really let her lead the charge.
What qualities of her voice make a good combination with you as a baritone?
Well, I think if you're singing with someone who's a really sensitive singer, the most important thing apart from your range is that other person is listening and you both have to be pretty egoless because in order to get a good blend or mix.
Anytime I sing a duet, you both have to be willing and able to alter your instrument just enough to make the mix really come alive. The one thing I appreciate is her ability to really just get down and dirty in terms of really understanding what's musically happening rhythmically.
She is very serious in the studio in a way that I love. She's lovely and lots of fun, but she's also very no-nonsense and she knows exactly what she's doing.
From “Carousel” you chose “If I Loved You,” and you worked here with Dave Kos. Tell me about how long you've known Dave and what he brought to the project.
Dave has actually been a supporter of mine for a really long time. We were label mates on Concord Records. This track was really fun because he really can play pretty much any genre in any style, and I was just personally very excited to hear what he might sound like in a Brazilian bossa nova/Stan Getz/Antonio Carlos Jobim style.
You've done some impressive work with the Budman/Levy Big Band, and you recorded, I guess, with them in the Capital Studios.
That is correct.
What was it like working in a studio that Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra had left their DNA in?
Well, I'm very lucky that I didn't just get to be in the room that their DNA is still hovering about, but I actually got to record with Frank Sinatra’s microphone. They brought it out almost like it was like a religious ceremony out of the sarcophagus. Such an honor.
And this little kid in me that grew up where I did still can't believe that I've gotten to do some of these things. But you turn around one day and you've done some cool stuff!
Spencer Day will perform at The Sofia in Sacramento on Sunday, April 10.