Carmen Lundy Deciphers 'Code Noir,' Being a Jazz Vocalist & Her Love Affair With Art

Lawrence Sumulong
Carmen Lundy   

Jazz vocalist Carmen Lundy is celebrating the highest debut in her 15-album journey with Code Noir. Released in February, the set bowed at No. 9 on the Jazz Albums chart.

Now at No. 20, the 12-song Code Noir encompasses the independent artist’s love of jazz, blues, Brazilian samba, African rhythms, pop and other influences as she delivers timely and thought-provoking messages about perseverance (“Live Out Loud,” “Whatever It Takes”), social issues (“Black and Blues”) and love (“The Island, the Sea and You”). Lundy, who wrote or co-wrote and arranged all the tracks and plays keyboards/guitar, is accompanied by musicians Patrice Rushen, Ben Williams, Jeff Parker and Kendrick Scott.

Also a skilled, self-taught visual artist who works in oil and “found objects” (wood planks, wine crates, etc.), Lundy recently exhibited one of her pieces, “Blue Woman,” at the Whole 9 Gallery in Culver City, California. The same piece will go on exhibit at jazz station WBGO’s art gallery in Newark, New Jersey, from April until June.

Ahead of traveling to Washington, D.C., to mentor young music artists for two weeks at Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center, Lundy chatted with Billboard about her statement-making music and art.

Why do you think this album is resonating so strongly?

I couldn’t have dreamed what this album has ultimately turned out to be. There’s a depth of quality in the overall sound and feeling of it. But I also tried to focus on the voice and not so much on handing it over to [instrumental] solos on every track. Most of the songs were written a year ago or more. But it seems like I put out the record only a month ago its lyrical content about what’s happening today. I don’t know … sometimes the audience doesn’t know it’s looking for something new, different and fresh until they hear it and go yes, that’s right on time.

The album title popped into my head last October while I was home in bed with a cold, reflecting on memories of my family’s roots in rural Florida and the experience of writing and recording the tunes. The term actually refers to the first law written by a person in power of a sovereign nation—the King of France Louis XIV—to make illegal the integration of the African race into white European society.

Listen to Code Noir here:

Two pieces of your art appear on the album’s jacket sleeve. Why did you include them?

I wanted to make a statement about where we are in society with both the album title and my art. I wanted there to be a thought process triggered by listening to the album and knowing the title. And on the inside sleeve, you see the sculpture of a female dripping in different colors [titled “Person of Color”] with an old segregation sign on her chest. All of it has to do with making a statement about this being the 21st century and how some of what’s happening isn’t making sense. It’s also my statement as a jazz vocalist in the 21st century: what does Carmen Lundy look like singing a song at 62 years old?

What does it mean to be a jazz vocalist in the 21st century?

What’s happening is a lot of R&B artists are being booked on jazz festivals, which leaves us jazz vocalists with little or no space. At a show I did last summer, Macy Gray was on one stage and I’m on another at the same time at the same festival. The audience is confused. Smooth jazz is not really jazz. It’s like a slicker R&B with a little improv on it. The average 18-year-old kid who grew up in the black community doesn’t know who Miles Davis is.

Perhaps it’s because jazz has become more and more defined as existing at a certain period of time in history and that certain time in history has become the definitive sound that we associate with the music. After Miles, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard and others passed away, the only persons we’ve got in an iconic sense are probably Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. We don’t have the same iconic figures representing the music.

How does art feed your music and vice versa?

I can paint and it’s done. There’s no applause, no rehearsing the band but I’m still in a creative mode. Painting became something I added to my day. It wasn’t my source of income, so it didn’t matter what I painted. It’s a wonderful release, a way to realize an idea without having any judgment or critique associated with it. And the colors represent the same feeling that you convey in a note, chord change or rhythm.

What do you want your music legacy to be?

Ultimately, my contribution to this music, whatever the continuum is, lies in what I’ve brought to my own honest presentation of how jazz has affected me. That’s why I continue to pursue this end of my artistic expression rather than just represent the traditional jazz singer with tunes written by others and interpret the heck out of them. At the end, when you drop that needle, you’ve got to hear me. And that’s where Code Noir has placed me: when you’re listening, you’re hearing something new that sounds like something you know.


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