Interview with local jazz musician Tokeli (tonight @ Anthology)

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tokeliheadshotsoft“You know the joke about the difference between blues musicians and jazz musicians? A blues musician plays three chords to a thousand people, and a jazz musician plays a thousand chords to three people.”

Tokeli, a local and critically-acclaimed jazz vocalist, tells this joke as we sit at a coffee shop on beautiful Coronado Island. An experimentalist with her roots planted deeply in jazz, she’s one of San Diego’s finest independent musicians, earning recognition from the community in 2007 with a San Diego Music Award nomination for Best Jazz Album for Where Do You Start?. On this afternoon, two days before a huge show downtown at Anthology, we talk about everything from how essential music is in her daily life to her new direction with “Brazilian Groove” and unconventional garage bands. Surprisingly, preparing to play the same stage Carlos Santana once graced isn’t her biggest worry. What’s troubling her most is people losing their ability to listen, and not really acheiving an experience from of music as much as they once did. Though, it might just be the kind of involved and engaging sounds she makes that can shake the public from an apathetic daze.

How did you get into jazz music?

Jazz is my roots. My grandmother was a jazz organist, pianist and singer out of the Midwest. I used to sit underneath her organ where the foot petals are and listen to her play, while being raised on Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Horn and Nancy Wilson… all the great ones.

When did you start thinking about music as a living?

I majored in theater for my undergraduate and master’s degrees, so I was a theater person for a long time. There’s a lot of crossover there between theater and music, and I’ve been singing jazz professionally for the last five or six years. I’ve also just been really lucky… I’ve had an album nominated for Album of the Year [San Diego Music Awards, Jazz 2007] and I’ve worked with the best.

Now that you’ve released a critically acclaimed album, what’s next?

Even though I love jazz, and that is my first love… I’ve been taking a little bit of a left-hand turn. Latin jazz, and this Brazilian thing have really taken my heart, and that’s where I want to go. I started listening to this band called Bossacucanova, and I love what they are doing. Basically, they take old standards and add a funky, almost rock sounding backbeat. On top of that it’s layered with electronica, making it kind of like a hip-hop thing; it’s very urban. I decided to take that idea, except marry electronica with an acoustic sound. You can still have something acoustic be really funky and hip.

So you’re putting a newer twist on jazz?

We’re creating our own genre! [laughs] Right now we’re calling it “Brazilian Groove”.

I didn’t see that Brazilian thing too much on your web page, is that sort of a side project or…?

I have my Tokeli stuff, which is my jazz stuff. But then I also have this band I created, called Samba de Toquali, and that is the Brazilian groove band. It consists of Leonard Patton as another singer, Nathan Jerrell the guitarist, Harley Magsino on bass and Mark Lamson and Steve Haney on percussion. Mark does the electronica thing, and Steve does the Latin part.

Can we expect this fun and exciting Brazilian groove thing at Thursday’s gig?

For Thursday’s gig at Anthology, the lineup is a little different, using several different musicians, like Peter Sprague, who is very big in the area. But yes, it will be the Brazilian groove thing. Down the road though, I will only work with my own band. I’m glad I’ve always worked with different people week after week, because that’s the jazz way, and everyone’s been really talented. That’s how you get your chops and learn to be flexible and smart. But in developing a new style of music, I’m going to need to work with the same band, every time.

So basically, you want to take the necessary steps to build this newer project from the ground up?

We want to be a garage band [laughs]. Music is going in a million different directions right now, and half of us are still not making a living out of it… What am I talking about, that’s an understatement! But I think, ultimately, it’s got to be about the music, and this new thing has really got me excited. I can certainly be a jazz singer, and sit there with a piano and scat, but there are a lot of jazz lounge singers. I want to do something different! The thing now is for me to listen to these artists, like Bossacucanova and Ceu (pronounced Sayyo), and develop the music so it’s truly me.

And maybe, using your American culture, you can find a new niche in there.

I’ve been thinking lately about taking other kinds of music, for example, songs in rock or pop, and turning it into a samba sound. You know, like an Elton John tune, and putting a groove thing on it. We have to be really conscious of the fact that not everybody’s going to know all the Brazilian stuff. Maybe even start using sampling. It’s something that jazz artists really haven’t had the opportunity to work with, so we need to sort of step up and use that technology.

Given that jazz is considered an elite form of music, do jazz musicians look down at all on pop at all?

It depends on the pop tune. There are great pop artists that jazz guys love, like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and we don’t shy away from that kind of stuff. That’s sort of an easy choice though; I still want to go further outside the box.

You mentioned hip-hop earlier. Do you ever see yourself going there?

I’ve got to do more research on that. You have to think about who your audience is. One of the places I’d really love to work, believe it or not, is Winston’s. I saw The Pimps of Joytime there—this Brooklyn funk band—and I was really taken away with the dance crowd and the energy in the room. They were a laid back, really cool band, with a large sound. For a gig like that, at Winston’s, I want to bring an eight-piece band.

Touring is definitely a big thing, have you thought about touring?

I want to tour really bad. I did New York City a couple years ago and that was great. But I booked it all myself, and that took me two or three months on the phone, pretending I was my British assistant in order to get any kind of legitimacy!

No way!

I don’t have management.

But you have a critically-acclaimed album.

Right, with no management. It’s great, but now I need management. The amount of time I have to spend on the phone just to book a San Diego gig is crazy. But I really want to tour, the band wants to tour, and we’re just so close to being ready to do that with all this funky new stuff… yet, I don’t know how to make it happen.

What do you like to do when you’re not making music?

It’s all music [laughs]. I have two jobs, and they are being a mom and being a musician. I listen to a lot of music, and am constantly creating playlists on my iPods, giving myself an education in music on my own.

In your life, what have been the most defining moments that have influenced your music?

There are two things. I ended a difficult period in my life where I was working in advertising and I was horribly unhappy. A friend convinced me to quit my day job and I was struggling, but it was balls to the wall. I did a hell of a lot of gigging, and I finally found a job being a private voice instructor. The second defining moment was finding my boyfriend. For years I’ve been singing sad songs and blues, and now I find myself unable to write sad lyrics. All my lyrics are about feeling sexy and in love. I sound silly and cliché, but I’m totally in love.

The fact that you have a hard time writing sad songs, many people would love to have that problem.

I mean, I feel a lot of passion when I’m on stage, and I can certainly tap into the sad songs, but lately the songwriting has just been about love, and discovery of new love. I took a long break from love.

You mentioned playing a gig recently at the beautiful Marriott Hotel overlooking the bay, with food and drinks and music… and your boyfriend was the only one who showed up.

Oh God, it was horrible! On the bay, gorgeous skyline, beautiful day, free, and there was just my boyfriend. People are losing their ability to listen. People don’t leave their house.

It’s a deep-rooted problem. There are so many things on the Internet and television it’s overwhelming. It’s easy to get distracted.

It is, but it’s not the same thing listening on the Internet! Sure, I spend time on there updating my website, doing all my marketing, and two or three hours go by and I’m like, “Where did the time go?” I get that. But there’s something missing in our connection with people! When you’re having a real conversation, with real people, out at dinner having a drink over gorgeous music and listening, it’s an experience. It becomes an event in your life that stays with you.

It’s not just the music, it’s everything that you see and feel while you’re listening to the music.

Exactly. It’s many-sided. Jazz is a very intellectual art form, as well as our own indigenous music. Which is why it’s kind of sad that we don’t know how to listen to it. That’s part of the reason too that I want to bring in the whole Brazilian thing. It’s really cool, and a lot more urban, and maybe I can bring in that younger audience.

Flirting with Brazilian groove and committed to jazz, Tokeli takes the Anthology stage June 11th at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 and may be purchased through the venue here. For more information, visit

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