Carmen Lundy took a circuitous route to becoming a great jazz singer and composer. The soulfully seductive songstress is still on a unique road, with dates in Spain and South Africa after she headlines the Isthmus Jazz Fest at the Memorial Union Terrace on Saturday, June 22. Her free set is 8 p.m. at Mills Hall in the UW Humanities Building.
Lundy's 12th and latest album, Changes, has won rave reviews. Paris' Jazz Hot Magazine called it "superb," and Jazz Inside Magazine declared it "genuinely wonderful." Downbeat gave it four stars.
Her live performances are captivating as well. The New Yorker said she's "a beguiling and outstanding vocalist who deserves wider recognition," and the Los Angeles Times dubbed her "a talent that has ripened fully."
It's a talent that includes acting for stage and television, plus a journey into the fine arts. Lundy has done the artwork for several of her albums, with Changes featuring a striking mixed-media portrayal of a glowing Egyptian goddess.
The Miami native began her vocal journey in the junior choir at the church her grandfather founded, where her mother led the Apostolic Singers. Around age 12, in the mid-’60s, she took her first solo when she decided she wanted to "put my voice out there." Before that, she'd focused on the piano lessons she began at age 6.
"Singing was the furthest thing from my reality," Lundy says.
A few years after the choir solo, she took a detour into light rock and pop.
"I had no idea jazz music was where I was headed. I hadn't even heard it," she admits, noting that she may have heard a few minutes of Ella Fitzgerald on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Lundy was only 16 when she recorded a single at Miami's famed Criteria Studios.
"We just knew we were headed for the big time," she says with a laugh.
They weren't. The single went nowhere, so Lundy went to the University of Miami as a budding opera singer. Then she realized something very important, "that I really wasn't born to do mezzo-soprano roles." She says both she and her younger brother Curtis, now a renowned bassist, were "chosen by jazz."
"We were both pulled into this music and never looked back,” she says.
So she convinced the university to let her become the first vocalist in its jazz department and set about creating a career, starting with a long-term engagement at the upscale Eden Roc Hotel.
"It was the perfect environment," Lundy recalls. She had classes in the morning and fieldwork at night. "I worked my way through college, and I have not stopped working since," she notes proudly.
After graduation, she and Curtis worked steadily for about a year with a classmate, future pop star Bruce Hornsby.
"That was a lot of fun," she recalls, "and I still have those tapes."
Lundy moved to New York in 1978, where she was welcomed as a bright young hope during the dark days of disco and punk.
"I was embraced because there were so few of us," Lundy says, noting that the jazz establishment was "delighted to see us try and handle the music."
Thad Lewis and Mel Jones let her sit in on Monday nights at the Village Vanguard, and other opportunities soon appeared.
Critics were hooked from the start as well.
"She's got it all," Gary Giddins gushed in the Village Voice in 1980, praising her "harmonic inventiveness and unselfconscious brightness." His conclusion? "She is thoroughly and enchantingly a jazz singer."
But with vocal legends like Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter still in their prime, Lundy asked herself a hard question: "Who's going to listen to me, and why? They've got it covered. I can sing a bunch of standards all night long and have fun, but that will not establish any unique distinction."
Lundy took the leap and became her own primary composer. Most of her albums have drawn from her own 80 or so compositions. And she rejects the notion advanced by some critics, even friendly ones, that she has curtailed her commercial appeal by not sticking to the standards.
"Ridiculous," she says forcefully. "It's so crazy to me we just won't let this music move forward."
But Lundy is unfazed.
"If I knew critics were going to say you have to sing the Great American Songbook from the 1950s to be a success, I still wouldn't have done it," she says.
So don't expect one more rendition of "Summertime" on Saturday night. Instead, listen for the new American jazz songbook. As Lundy advises in "Dance the Dance": "Make a wish, take a chance, then you'll always know what it feels like to be free to dance the dance."