Sound It Out: “20 Questions” #15 — Lucia Cadotsch

Another installment of the recurring “Sound It Out: 20 Questions” feature on, with an artist answering a survey inspired by the famous Proust Questionnaire…

Only a very few special jazz singers come along every decade or so, those vocalists with something completely individual to add to a great – and inevitably daunting – tradition. Lucia Cadotsch, born in 1984 and raised in Zurich, is one of these very special jazz singers. Her Berlin-based trio Speak Low – featuring Otis Sandsjö on tenor saxophone and Petter Eldh on double-bass – created a beautifully ingenious debut album, Speak Low (Yellow Bird/Enja), as well as an inspired follow-up, Speak Low Renditions, wherein they invited various collaborators to remix the album tracks. The trio comes at the Great American Songbook from a “retro-futurist” angle, the eschewal of a harmony instrument helping to free the group to recast the songs for 21st-century ears.

I have written quite a bit about Lucia, in DownBeat and elsewhere. In that old-school way, a CD of Speak Low arrived in the mail, and I was so bewitched by the music – and the trio’s arthouse video trailer on YouTube – that I pitched a review to DownBeat last summer and, after that, a feature story. In the feature, I put it this way: “When Cadotsch sings standards with her kindred-spirit trio mates, songs from a half-century ago feel renewed, as timeless art is refracted through a modernist prism. The uncanny blend of these three performers – the cool precision of the vocalist, the free-jazz edge of the instrumentalists – such songs as ‘Willow Weep for Me’ and ‘Moon River’ have fresh textural and emotional resonance.” And from the five-star review: “The subtly intense swirl of the instrumentalists – Sandsjö’s multiphonic effects, Eldh’s visceral thrum – helps reinvest such songs as ‘Don’t Explain’ and ‘Strange Fruit’ with tension and truth. For all its Northern European cool, Cadotsch’s singing has an intensity of its own. Her tone is deceptively neutral, with lightly accented English; but she cuts to the heart of these songs from another angle, with an almost classical purity of intonation and a serene sense of rhythm. She has internalized the jazz message of vintage Billie Holiday – the hand-in-glove fit with her players, an artful sense of the bittersweet – without aping timbre or phrasing.” It wasn’t just me who was intoxicated by Speak Low, as the group garnered rave reviews from the likes of The Guardian and other European publications. And Lucia was awarded the Echo Jazz Prize – Germany’s equivalent of a Grammy – as Best Vocalist of the Year.

Lucia grew up with the record collection of her father, adoring his Dinah Washington, Abbey Lincoln and Getz/Gilberto LPs. But she really fell for the storytelling art of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, for the former’s phrasing and rhythmic timing, for the latter’s improvisational sense and the way she made most any song utterly her own. Lucia met Petter while they were studying in Copenhagen, the two initially starting an electro-acoustic band there. Once in Berlin, they started exploring standards as a duo, but things didn’t click until Eldh brought in Otis, his fellow Swede. Then “it was crazy goose-bumps from the start, a magical moment when we tried ‘Don’t Explain’,” she told me. “A sound that I had been looking for – all of a sudden, there it was.

“I want to be subtle and melodic in my phrasing, but I also need roughness and intensity in music,” Lucia added. “Otis and Petter say in the songs what I don’t say myself. While I’m the still center, they can storm around me.” In their recasting of standards, the trio will take a high-register clarinet part in “Deep Song” from a Billie Holiday LP and turn it into a bass line; they echo an intro improv seen in a live Nina Simone video of “Ain’t Got No” in their arrangement; and they re-purpose a marimba line in Johnny Hartman’s version of “Slow, Hot Wind” as an outro hymn melody. “What we do is like sampling culture in hip-hop,” Lucia said. “We might quote a detail from an old recording, but change the register and tempo and then loop it into our arrangement organically.”

Lucia, Otis and Petter are making their U.S. debut as Speak Low debut in January 2018, including a January 13 performance in the Sound It Out series at Greenwich House. Touching upon their European roots, Lucia, Otis and Petter have lately added to their live repertoire an arrangement by the great Italian modernist composer Luciano Berio of the Anglo-American folk song “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” as well as an English translation of the dark “Ballad of the Drowned Girl” by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. About the storytelling resonance of old songs, whether sung by Lotte Lenya or Billie Holiday, Lucia told me: “Times change, but humans don’t seem to, for better and worse. That said, I could never sing something like ‘Tea for Two,’ with those ‘a boy for you and a girl for me’ lyrics. I really do like dark, I guess, or at least the bittersweet.” — BB

  1. What was the first jazz album you fell in love with and stayed in love with?

Ballads by John Coltrane.

  1. What do you think is one of the most overrated jazz albums ever?

Don’t want to give it another platform here…

  1. What’s one of your all-time favorite non-jazz albums?

Folk Songs by Luciano Berio/Cathy Beberian. 

  1. What’s the last album you listened to from beginning to end – and did you like it?

Go Get Some by Tys Tys. I love that album.

  1. What’s your favorite film score?

Kill Bill.

  1. What was the most recent concert – of any genre – that made you fall in love with music all over again?

Tricko (with Kit Downes on piano and Lucy Railton on cello) at Kollektiv Night in Berlin.

  1. Which are your very favorite and least favorite venues for live music?

My favorite is the Bimhuis in Amsterdam: amazing sound and good programming, with an open-minded audience. My least favorite: A new venue in Berlin called Neu West. I have never been there myself, and I never will – because I’ve heard how poorly they treat artists economically.

  1. What’s your favorite quote about music?

“Play the way you want the world to be.” — Wayne Shorter                         

  1. If you could have a drink with any late artist of the past, who would it be?

Nina Simone.

  1. What are the top three tools of your trade?

My record collection, laptop, typewriter.

  1. What’s your most indispensable piece of technology that isn’t music-oriented?

My bike.

  1. What are your top media sources of writing/opinion/news about music?

My friends and bandmates.

  1. What non-musical/non-technological quality is most important to being an enduringly creative musician?

Being open-minded, being playful, and staying independent from commercial goals.

  1. What living person do you most admire – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most admire?

Maria Laurette Fries. Her way of embracing the moment she is in – her performances make me forget that I exist.

  1. What living person do you most despise – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most despise?

Anyone who abuses their power.

  1. What’s your favorite place in the world?

Berlin! It celebrates diversity, rebellion and freedom.

  1. If you could live in another time period, when would that be?

From a musical perspective, I would definitely want to live in the 1960s. But, then again, as a performing female artist, I would never want to go back in time…

  1. What book would you most like to read again?

Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky.

  1. What film haven’t you seen that you feel like you should?

Metropolis by Fritz Lang.

  1. What aspect of the past do you miss most – and what’s one thing you look forward to about the future that doesn’t yet exist?

I miss the limits on consumption and communication, pre-internet. I look forward to an era of a basic income provided for everyone.