Preview | Interview: Singer Marlena Studer
Singer Marlena Studer has a particular affinity for the holidays that stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve. The jazz and American popular-song stylist enjoys digging into the Christmas and wintertime chestnuts everyone knows, especially ones that evoke the love and camaraderie many people feel for their family and friends during this time of year.
Studer, as most people do, connects the holidays with memories; in her case, she recalls being taught how to sing by her mother. She remembers singing nursery rhymes and, later, tunes popularized by Andy Williams and Neil Diamond. “My mother taught me to sing when I was two years old,” she said. “She loved showing off her kids in front of the grandparents. We would stand up in front of them and sing songs and they would clap for us. I also danced and performed in theater in high school.”
After graduating Beaver Creek High School near Xenia, Ohio, Studer studied at Bowling Green State University, was an exchange student in Sweden for a year, lived in Spain for another, then picked up graduate studies in the 1980s at the University of Michigan.
Studer eventually moved to New Orleans, where she lived for 10 years and was bitten by the irrepressible bug of the Crescent City. “Aaron Neville, I fell in love with his voice,” she said. “Heard a lot of Dr. John, Cajun artists. I heard them all every year going to the Jazz Fest. Then I worked with the big band Jubilation led by Leland Bennett. I sang with them for New Year's Eve in 1996 at the Fairmont Hotel. I did that as a tribute to my mother. That's what started me.”
Studer was a sociology professor at Tulane University, and it was in New Orleans that she started digging into classic jazz vocalists. “I loved Sarah Vaughan and listened to her a lot, especially her version of 'Misty' and tried to learn to sing it like her,” Studer said. “She was exquisitely talented and I loved the way she used her voice, and that for me was what I was wanting to learn, how to express emotion I felt through jazz and using the wonderful freedom that exists.
“I began listening to other female jazz vocalists like Carmen McRae, getting familiar with their techniques,” Studer said. “I listened to some instrumentalists, but I loved listening to vocalists who use their voice as an instrument.”
But Studer eventually left New Orleans, moved to Washington, D.C., and then back to Ann Arbor in 2001. During her time back in Ann Arbor, Studer has recorded three CDs and performed many times in the area, primarily with pianist Cliff Monear's trio, with whom she’ll perform on December 10 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth. Studer has a special program geared for this gig based on her holiday CD, Jazzy Little Christmas, and along with some favorites from her two studio efforts, Crazy He Calls Me and Sip It Slowly. Some of the tunes she's planning on showcasing will include an arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” “Deck the Halls,” “Santa Baby,” a version of “Baby, It's Cold Outside,” and standards “Blue Skies,” “Orange Colored Sky,” and “Frim Fram Sauce.”
“Many times we've played at private places like at Glacier Hills, but this is the first public performance in a few years," Studer said. "I've sung at the Interfaith Center, where I'm a member; just a song here and there, not a full concert. For me it's about getting out there again, picking up my positive energy. And I just moved into a house where my next door neighbor is [guitarist] Carl Michel, so we are and will be doing some things together.”
But Studer’s special musical connection with pianist Monear is evident and he's on all of her recorded efforts. “He is just a pleasure to work with, and it's a joy to be able to connect with someone so brilliant and so able to work with and support a vocalist the way he does,” she said. “He is always amazing and does these little things improvisationally that I wouldn't have asked him to do, where he plays what sounds like snowflakes falling or he sounds like jingle bells. He's able to create a mood or feeling with the piano like it's an extension that's indescribable. I truly appreciate that, I'm not sure how many people hear the nuances but they feel them.”
Studer also manages to represent every word of the phrase “wine, women, and song” all by herself. After numerous trips to Chile for business and pleasure, Studer established the Solterra brand and imported wines from the country. She sold that business in 2011 after successfully distributing the wines in many national retail markets and major grocery store chains. Now she works for Real Estate One as a property agent.
“It's also a pleasure helping people find a home,” she said, but Studer’s really looking forward to more musical adventures. “I hope to get the gigs rolling again, and hoping to do a new recording. I gave my voice a rest, and now I think I have a lot to sing about. I want to able to share.”
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Marlena Studer and pianist Cliff Monear's trio featuring bassist Jeff Marshall and drummer Scott Kretzer perform Saturday, December 10 at 8 p.m. at Cafe 704 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, 704 Airport Rd., off S. State Street. For reservations, e-mail Al Carter at cafe704@gmail .com or call (734) 327-0270.