LaVon Hardison photo by Daniel Sheehan
By Andrew Luthringer
LaVon Hardison is more than a singer. She’s a multi-talented entertainer who simply lights up a room, raising the roof and bringing down the house. Hardison has brashness and sass when she needs it, but a warm sense of connection is her secret weapon. She has a flair for the theatrical, as well as a big sense of humor, and is as popular with fellow musicians as she is with audiences.
Drummer Jeff Busch sings Hardison’s praises: “She loves to laugh and joke, dance and swing all at once! She has wonderful stage presence and just lays her heart out there.”
Bassist Osama Afifi chimes in: “She’s not afraid to push musical boundaries and allows musicians who play with her to do the same.”
Boston-born and Olympia-based for 20 years, Hardison is an incisive and sensitive interpreter of not only jazz standards, but R&B/soul classics and gems of ‘60s and ‘70s pop (her superb 2016 release, Come Together, encompassed standards, the Beatles, Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach, and more). Hardison is adept at exploring original approaches and revealing hidden layers of nuance in unexpected material.
Can’t-miss appearances include Hardison and her regular trio (with Busch and Afifi, plus Eric Verlinde on piano), and Red & Ruby, her long-running duo with guitarist Vince Brown.
Earshot Jazz: Jazz is a central part of your music, but you have a broad palette of different genres that you sound at home with.
LaVon Hardison: I started out classically, for a minute, at Boston University, but I don’t have the temperament of an opera singer. [laughs] It’s a very specific thing. And early on, it was really clear to me: I don’t like snobbery with music. Yes, there are some things I don’t care for, like some of the metal stuff …But I’m willing to listen to anything.
Given that broad base of interest, how do you go about choosing songs? What elements draw you in?
If it’s an idea that get looked at in a different way … I’m hoping to record “Heatwave.” I did a show in Olympia, like a ‘60s musical revue, and that was one of my songs I sang. And after singing it many nights, it starts to change a little bit inside. And I start to think about it as something that can sound cheerful, but it can also sound like it’s about a woman who’s in an abusive relationship. …I like those kind of songs—can it be stretched and still have its believability?
So it could be a great song—compelling melody, interesting harmonies, etc.—but if the story doesn’t speak to you, it doesn’t make the cut?
It’s totally the story and the lyrics. …Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should! There are standards that are not in my repertoire because I don’t feel a connection to them. Even though I may sing them nicely! [laughs]
I think it’s learning how to be patient enough for the songs that speak to me. I mean, they’re like people—sometimes you meet them, and you have a vibe with each other, but sometimes it’s like, ‘nah.’
Aside from the right material, what elevates the music for you?
It’s about joy. That took me a long time to realize about myself. I tried doing the sultry jazz singer thing, and I tried to be all serious, and I’m not that girl, I’m really not. I needed to accept what works for me—i.e. not wearing my shoes sometimes, i.e. talking to the audience, i.e. let’s throw in a character because I just feel like it! [laughs] Play is definitely a big part for me. We’re ‘playing’ music, we’re interacting.
The last decade has been tough for many musicians, in career terms. Have you had to change how you work?
Something I’ve had to do is expand what I sing. So, I’m working on my Handel for my church gig coming up in December, that kind of thing. …You learn how to make it work. It’s not straightforward. …I’ve had to change what success looks like for myself, to adapt as I’m sure many musicians have. So, I find joy in those retirement home jobs, that sweetness there. I find joy when I’m able to have a good show at North City Bistro or wherever.
Plus, the music kind of chooses you, on some level.
Sometimes I feel Iike I don’t know how to do other things except sing and entertain. …that’s what I feel called for. That’s why my mission internally has to be really clear. I have to go in with, ‘What kind of light can I bring?’ I have to think that way, even when I’m feeling like crap, I still have to say, ‘I have a mission right now.’
Talk a bit about the Olympia scene. Is it underappreciated?
The Olympia jazz community is pretty amazing. We have Joe Baque there, Steve Luceno is there, and every week at Rhythm and Rye, they have Monday Night Jazz series. They’ve had that going on for years, and it’s pretty well attended. The Washington Center has their Black Box Jazz series, which has been great. I love that they’re supporting the local musicians.
What are some possible future projects you’re interested in pursuing?
I kind of like the Las Vegas show model. I know it’s not kind of cool now [laughs] … where you can have humor, that variety show feel, theatrical elements. …I’ve actually thought about a one-woman show for a long time, because that’s sort of what I’m doing onstage anyway, so why not? [laughs]
LaVon Hardison performs with Dr. David Deacon-Joyner, Osama Afifi & Jeff Busch at the 2017 KNKX 88.5 Holiday Jam
Monday, December 4, 7pm | Edmonds Center for the Arts | Free
Watch for a new album featuring Hardison and her trio coming in early 2018. For more on LaVon, and to see upcoming events, visit lavonhardison.com.