After a lifelong pursuit of the piano, a distinguished career as a music therapist, and decades dedicated to being a wife, mother and music educator, Atlanta jazz singer Virginia Schenck finally found her voice eight years ago.
“The penultimate moment came in 2007, when I was looking for continuing education credits to keep up my therapist’s license, and I ended up studying with Bobby McFerrin,” Schenck says, sipping a cup of coffee at a Virginia-Highland cafe near her home.
McFerrin, the vocal improvisation great, maybe best known for his late ’80s hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” helped Schenck discover another path to making music.
“It did a 180 for me. My sonic ears got turned upside-down,” says Schenck, who has a degree from Florida State University’s School of Music. “He does these things called CircleSongs. It’s all about improvisation and communal singing. I started hearing harmony in a whole different way. And I loved this notion of just creating. So I thought, if I’m really going to do this, I need to dig back into my jazz roots.”
But looking back, it seems that the seeds of her vocal style, which easily ranges from straight-ahead jazz to free improvisation and takes on traditional song, were there from an early age.
As the youngest of four in a musical family from Winter Park, Fla., Schenck recalls hearing her father’s family singing barbershop, her mother’s family playing bluegrass, and her brother strumming folk and pop songs on guitar.
“And I do remember being 7 years old, and holding a baton, and singing ‘I’m A Jazz Baby’ from the movie ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie,’’’ Schenck offers with a snicker.
Schenck is celebrating the release of her second CD, “Interior Notions” (Airborne Ecstasy), with a May 17 show at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur. The eight-song recording tracks the richer, more complex material she’s been exploring, lately, while performing live with her band, Schenck says.
The core of the band — Kevin Bales on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass, Marlon Patton on drums — has surrounded her since before Schenck’s well-received first CD, “VA” (Airborne Ecstasy), was released in 2012.
They’re joined by kalimba player Kevin Spears and drummer Kinah Boto Ayah, to create a powerful quintet that can find unfathomed spaces in the likes of the 1930s Irving Berlin standard, “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Or recapture the energy of the 1940s Eden Ahbez/Nat King Cole hit, “Nature Boy,” through the primal interplay of percussion and vocals.
Closer to Schenck’s own time, and heart, perhaps, is her stunning arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” mixed in a medley with the equally sad-eyed “Meaning of the Blues.” And she covers one of her singing and songwriting idols, Abbey Lincoln, with a piano and kalimba-driven version of Lincoln’s Zen-like cabaret classic, “Throw It Away.”
Speaking of Lincoln, Schenck says, “I like to have a good wail and sing the blues sometimes; it’s cathartic. But I agree with her. I want my music to take people to a deeper place, give them an experience and something to take home. A magic carpet ride. A pilgrimage to a new place.”
Both the cover and the title track of “Interior Notions” conjure the outer reaches of Schenck’s musical and spiritual journey, which has deepened in the wake of a divorce and an empty nest.
On the cover, Schenck is dressed in birdlike garb that suggests a Native American dreamcatcher. On the track, which closes the CD, she launches into full-on free improvisation, with vocalizations that spin into something like speaking in tongues.
“I don’t know about other people, but vocal improvisation does seem to have some of that element for me,” Schenck says. “There seems to be a switch in my being of letting go to allow the more free-flowing creativity to happen. As I learned from Bobby, it’s what we call ‘original language’ — just letting the sounds come.
“I never had to work very hard at that. I have had people approach me after improvisations and tell me that there were some actual other languages happening — languages I don’t know. Who can say where that comes from? Sounds. Language. It’s definitely creativity.”