Australian artist pays tribute to Peggy Lee at Vail Jazz Winter Series
If you go …
What: Nicki Parrott’s Tribute to Peggy Lee, part of the 2017 Vail Jazz Winter Series.
When: Two seatings, 6 and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 2; doors open a half hour before each 60-minute performance.
Where: Ludwig’s Terrace, Sonnenalp Hotel, 20 Vail Road, Vail.
Cost: $35 in advance, per performance; only a few tickets remained at press time.
More information: Seating is jazz club style around small tables. Dinner service and a full bar will be available. For tickets or more information, visit vailjazz.org or call 888-VAIL-JAM.
VAIL — Nicki Parrott probably never would have discovered her vocal talent if not for the late, great Les Paul. Parrott had been a Monday night mainstay with Paul at New York City’s Club Iridium when one evening he stopped her suddenly in the middle of a set and suggested she start singing.
“He stopped me in the middle of a bass solo on stage and said, ‘Is that all you’re going to do is play the bass?’ I had never sung in public,” Parrott said. “But Les was like that. He liked to put people on the spot and make them think on their feet. He liked having a female vocalist on stage.”
Parrott launched into Ella Fitzgerald’s “Deed I Do” that night and her vocal career was born.
“He pressured me to do it, but then I fell in love with it,” Parrott said. “He seemed to have a lot of faith. You never knew what to expect with Les. He was always in the moment. He thought it was funny to catch me in the middle of a bass solo. He loved to be funny. He was all about the show.”
It’s all about the show
From composing, recording and collaborating on nearly 30 albums to performing in jazz festivals across the world and playing Broadway ensembles to winning numerous awards and sharing the stage with Clark Terry, Patti Labelle, Bucky Pizzarelli and countless other greats, Parrott knows a thing or two about the show.
Hailing from New South Wales, Australia, Parrott grew up constantly listening to classical music and started playing piano before she was 5 years old. She added the flute to her repertoire a few years later, “got serious and had some lessons,” and then joined concert bands at school. Parrott’s older sister started bringing home Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker records when she was a teenager, and both girls began cultivating a love for jazz. Playing clarinet and saxophone, her older sister started a band and asked Parrott if she’d be interested in playing bass.
“I wanted to be part of everything, so I got a bass from school. It had only three strings on it, but I didn’t think that as a problem at the time,” Parrott said. “I could read music and transcribe. I did fall in love with jazz and the bass pretty quickly.”
By the time she was 16, Parrott had moved to Sydney to study jazz and began touring Australia. One of the compositions for her debut album with her sister landed her first place in Jazz Action Society’s annual song competition. Then The Arts Council of Australia sent her to New York to study with famed bassist Rufus Reid in 1994 when she was 18. By 2000, she had caught Paul’s eye and ear and joined the Les Paul Trio.
Practice, practice, practice
Of her many career achievements to date, it’s her role in the guitarist’s legacy she names first as a highlight.
“We played the 90th birthday of Carnegie Hall — to be part of that was a real honor. But every Monday night with Les Paul was a new show. It was a very, very interesting gig,” she said. “Any chance you get to work with jazz legends like Clark Terry and Skitch Henderson, all of these wonderful musicians. Now they’re not here, but that I got some time talking with them was really special.”
As far as honoring legendary artists, Parrott loves putting her personal stamp on Peggy Lee tunes. Lee’s “Fever” has been a bastion of her set list for years, dating back to her first gigs after Paul summoned her vocal talent.
“She was one of the first voices that really struck home for me,” Parrott said. “I started to try to find new ways to do some of her classics. What I found interesting about her is how much of a musician she was. She was a composer — she composed a lot of songs — not many singers compose their own songs. She was a great performer with a very unique, sassy style. I always loved her voice. She had a wonderful delivery, with this cool, understated way of singing.”
As far as what to expect for her upcoming Tribute to Peggy Lee today at the Sonnenalp Hotel, Parrott said the classics aren’t the only tunes in the lineup.
“I like to have a varied repertoire,” she said. “The audience is going to know some songs, but they won’t know every song. I want to enlighten them about facts and songs they might not have heard. Above all, I want people to enjoy themselves.”