Gail Pettis
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CD: Here in the Moment
The Urban Music Review

Review by Peggy Oliver

When a jazz singer revisits a standard that has been tackled time and again, it is quite the task to express their musical personality without having to alter the integrity of the original. The experienced jazz vocalist should set the tone for his or her self and their accompanists to create a colorful musical canvas for their audiences. As one who has successfully transformed standards into new gems during her short recording career, Gail Pettis recognizes the power of time-tested lyrics. And her musicality equally matches her interpretative skills. Her finely tuned instrument swings with shear ease, caresses the senses, produces soulful gusts and oozes the blues; all sans the excess vocal gymnastics and fanfare. Besides all those gifts, Pettis never forsakes her musicians in the process, which in the long run makes another lasting imprint when singing jazz, pop and blues classics. Not bad for someone who did not pursue a professional music career at an early age.
Considering Pettis’ short time as a full-time jazz stylist, she has won critical acclaim and plenty of fans throughout various festivals in Japan and the Netherlands. This well-traveled talent has also won the hearts of audiences in her current hometown of Seattle, WA. In fact, she records on the Seattle-based Origin Records, which was recognized by JazzWeek - an online site tracking the best in all of jazz music - as Record Label of the Year in 2009 (the other nominees included some of jazz’s top independents: Heads Up! and Sunnyside Records.

Even though Pettis was a ‘late bloomer’ in the industry, she was born into some musical blood. Her grandfather - blues singer Arthur Pettis - recorded a few sessions in the late twenties and early thirties. Pettis and her sister partook in classical and gospel music. Eventually Gail followed in her immediate family’s non-musical footsteps. After finally closing her orthodontics practice in 2006, Pettis now spends full time investing in her love and respect for the standards; first with her debut May I Come In (2007) and now her latest disc, Here in the Moment. And there are many moments that even non-jazz loyalists might find attractive from this gentle, yet persuasive alto.

The opening track, “In the Still of the Night” (usually heard in doo-wop or in ballad format) and “Day In Day Out” is executed in full swing mode. The strains of the pop and jazz classic, “Canadian Sunset,” thanks to bassist Anderson’s foundation, accentuates the beauty of “The Very Thought of You.” There is Latin flair with “Nature Boy,” as Pettis’ voice runs circles underneath the samba rhythm, and “I Could Have Danced All Night” is injected by drummer/percussionist Mark Ivester’s lively conga rhythms. The later track brought back some memories for me; specifically Peggy Lee’s tribute to Broadway music hyped with Afro-Cuban beats: Latin ala Lee! (1959) on Capitol Records. Pettis sprinkles soft blues nuances on a jazzier angle of the Etta James’ R&B hit, “At Last,” “How Did He Look?” demonstrates Pettis’ ability to understate but still convey heavy emotions towards a lost love. Petti also treats us to duets with Anderson’s in-the-pocket bass on “Snap Your Fingers” and Halberstadt’s sensitive piano gracing the exquisite, “I Thought About You.” ThroughoutHere in the Moment, the two piano (Darin Clendenin & Randy Halberstadt)/acoustic bass (Clipper Anderson & Jeff Johnson) tandems backing Pettis are deservedly given ample room to develop their solo voices.

No matter what the mood dictates, Here in the Moment proves Pettis’ calm but articulate style speaks plenty of volumes. She is also quite comfortable in reinterpreting the standards repertoire; an art form in which Pettis truly excels.


CD: Here in the Moment
Stage Door Music Reviews

Review by Jason Gladu

For someone who ran a successful orthodontics business for nearly two decades, Seattle-based jazz singer Gail Pettis sure can swing. Only on her second release, Pettis bebops her way though a wide range of emotions and skilled melodic paraphrasing that some jazz singers have taken decades to realize. Even though, Here In The Moment is a collection of jazz standards it is Pettis’ unique interpretations that make it such a wonder to hear.

Under the guidance of Seattle’s creative giants; Pettis’ opens with one of two Cole Porter tunes; “In The Still Of The Night” bounces and sways as Darin Clendenin’s (piano) and Clipper Anderson’s (bass) solos breeze into Pettis’ playful vocals. The second Porter track, “Night And Day” is pulled into twilight as a mysterious shadow is brought on by pianist Randy Halberstadt, in the background the band plays on as if they have had one too many drinks – but it’s these moments that sweep you into the groove. Other choice cuts include the tender piano-vocal duet, “I Thought Of You” which brings to mind lone taxi rides home, while the gossip chatter of “How Did He Look?” will surely bring a smile to the ladies.

Winding down with the extra groovy, “Snap Your Fingers” (a smooth duet with bassist Anderson), it’s clear that Pettis’ knows how to craft a jazz record for the masses. Here In The Moment is a timeless collection that has SOUL running though it’s very veins, simply one of this year’s best jazz records. (OA2 Records)


CD: Here in the Moment
Downbeat Magazine

Review by Frank-John Hadley

A former orthodontist, Pettis finds new vistas of emotion in the words and music of standards and surprises on her second album. Her wonderful version of "I Thought About You," usually identified with Ella Fitzgerald, reflects the melancholy of a sad-faced train passenger with an intimacy that few singers in any genre have knowledge of. Another ballad, "How Did He Look?" a favorite of cabaret singer Mabel Mercer, is rendered poignantly with an easy elegance built of curiosity and lingering heartbreak over a lost love affair. This granddaughter of a Mississippi bluesman freshens Cole Porter's "Night And Day" with exhilaration over sharing "sweet love" with her partner. Similarly, the directness of feeling she reveals about a blossoming romance does more than ample justice to Etta James' old r&b hit "At Last." All the other songs, too, whatever the tempo or mood, each graced by the surety of her delivery, have an unmistakable air of honesty about them. Minor compliant: Pettis' two pianists and bassists are clearly talented by their solos don't so much develop the songs as mark time between verses. 

* * * * (of 5)

(excerpt of a two album review, Gail Pettis and Pamela Rose)

CD: Here in the Moment

Review by Christopher Loudon

In our continuous search for the dazzle of the complex, the beauty in simplicity is often dismissed or overlooked. Such is the case with Gail Pettis, an unlikely addition to the vocal jazz pantheon (having spent three decades as an orthodontist before turning her attention to singing), but a very welcome latecomer. With the 2007 release of her debut album, the flute-voiced Seattleite demonstrated a fine interpretive gift, one that hugged tightly to the melody while enhancing the lyricists' intents in gently persuasive ways. Pettis follows the same, slightly curvaceous path through Here in the Moment, simultaneously maintaining a retro air that hints at the silken sophistication and storytelling elan of the young Nancy Wilson.

Consider, for example, her "At Last", every bit as sexily jubilant as Eta James', yet unfolded on soft waves of contentment rather than ecstatic wails of satisfaction. Then there's her "I Could Have Danced All Night", its exultant joy contained within easy, dreamy swirls, and a "Nature Boy" with its inherent mysteriousness enticingly enhanced by a lightly heated salsa beat. Best indicative of Pettis" sly integrity is, however, her "How Did He Look?"., stripped of the overt pain with which so many others have painted it and instead shaped as a casual conversation with a trusted friend, the deep heartache bleeding through her facade of nonchalance.


CD: Here in the Moment
Icon Magazine

Review by Nicholas Bewsey

Gail Pettis is a singer from the Seattle area who stepped into the jazz spotlight later in her life, only seriously turning to music in 2001 after a professional career. Her self-produced debut, May I Come In? was revelatory—hearing it for the first time was to discover a refreshing and fabulous new vocalist who made this listener a committed fan. It was a rare first recording that I still listen to and play for friends, who usually have the same enthusiastic reaction to her. Put Pettis at the top of my list of favorite singers.

I was super excited to get my hands on her sophomore recording, Here in the Moment, and several spins later, I found myself under Ms. Pettis’s spell. Her reading of standards and American Songbook staples are consistently rhythmic and soulful and she embraces these songs with a deeply felt, emotional honesty. Best of all, Pettis puts a reliable twist on the overly familiar, and her delivery on these tuneful arrangements shake up what would otherwise be just another jazz singer’s record. Among the 11 strong tunes, “In The Still Of The Night” is a clever romp played at a jackrabbit’s pace, delightfully sung and featuring a snappy solo by pianist Darin Clendenin. The briefest tune, “I Thought About You,” is a poignant duet between Pettis and the pianist that’s simply a knockout. With a clear-as-a-bell voice, Pettis is playfully upbeat on “Day In, Day Out” and her lively trio swings for the fence. Also great is “Nature Boy,” here given a Latin-inflected treatment that highlights her gentle and refined scatting with in-the-pocket solos by Clendenin and bassist Clipper Anderson.

The album closes with a tune that was a 1985 hit for jazz/blues singer Johnny Adams. Over a background of finger snaps and a deliciously thick, walking bass line, Pettis slips into sustained groove singing, “Snap your fingers, I’ll come running/Back to you, on bended knee/Just snap your fingers, I’ll come running/I’ll be true, take a chance on me.” So there you go, Gail Pettis is the complete package—a singer with a tender heart and the confidence to forge ahead—a genuine soul singer, I tell you. And, as you can see, I am not stingy with how she rates.  * * * * *

CD: Here in the Moment

Review by Howard Dukes

It’s easy for listeners to forget, but a jazz vocalist ignores this basic fact at his or her own peril: the voice is an instrument. A whole lot of contemporary singers don’t realize that they are band members. Those singers want to be the center of attention. Their vocal acrobatics limit the creativity of their fellow musicians, turning what is supposed to be a musical democracy into a cult of personality dominated by the singer. Of course, there are some legendary jazz singers who were loved by the men and women playing those pianos, drums, trumpets and other instruments that had to be purchased – Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Johnny Hartman come to mind. Musicians loved Ella because she understood that she was a member of the band, and she was up to the task of being as creative with her voice as the other musicians were with their instruments.

Gail Pettis approaches jazz singing with the sensibility of an instrumentalist on 2007’s May I Come In and on the upcoming Here in the Moment. Jazz musicians hear a tune – I love how they call songs tunes – and they think about how they rearrange it melodically, as well as seeing how far they can go in creating solos that deviate from the melody and still return seamlessly to that melody. Being part of the most democratic of musical forms, jazz musicians manage to do this while also engaging in an instrumental conversation with the other members of the ensemble. The effective jazz vocalist also understands that a song’s melody is a canvas, and that theirs is but one hand creating the musical picture. The musical picture can be representational, but it will also include more than a little abstract expressionism. A jazz vocalist has to have equal parts Degas and Pollock and have the ability to switch from one form to another, all within the course of one song.

Pettis once again proves that she is an adept musical artist. She can sing bluesy numbers such as “Snap Your Fingers,” and proves she can tell a jazzy story, ala Nancy Wilson, on the torchy ballad “How Did He Look.” Her work on rearranged tunes such as “The Very Thought of You,” “At Last,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” the Latin tinged “Nature Boy” and “I Thought About You” shows that Pettis is up to the challenge of pouring new wine into old wineskins. And lets face it, if singers are going to continue returning to these classics, they need to be able to do something new with them lest they grow stale.

Finally and most importantly, Pettis knows when to relinquish the stage to her fellow musicians and let them create. She is more than generous in the space she gave her fellow musicians, and they respond with inspired work. Musicians matter on jazz records, so I’m sure Pettis won’t mind if I give them a shout out: Darin Clendenin and Randy Halberstadt both manned the pianist bench, Clipper Anderson and Jeff Johnson played the bass and Mark Ivester served as drummer and percussionist. And also give it up to Gail Pettis, the singer who plays her voice like a master. Recommended.


CD: Here in the Moment
The Star,  Toronto Edition

Review by Ashante Infantry

This is the 51-year-old Seattle performer's sophomore disc after making the transition from orthodontist to songstress in 2002. With two different ace rhythm sections she shows aplomb as she makes her way through standards such as "The Very Thought of You," "Night and Day" and "I Could Have Danced All Night." Kentucky-born and Indiana-raised, Pettis is by turns elegant and sultry, recalling the likes of Nancy Wilson and Anita O'Day with great clarity and risky phrasing. Here's to midlife crises. Top Track: A soulful "Thought About You" with only piano accompaniment.

* * * * (out of 4)

CD: Here in the Moment
All Music Guide

Review by Ken Dryden

Gail Pettis only started performing professionally as a jazz vocalist a few years before she made her first CD, as she had a full-time career as an orthodontist. Yet because Pettis had been singing since childhood in addition to playing French horn as a youth, she was no newcomer to performing. Gifted with an expressive alto voice, her embellishments to the familiar songs she performs show the skill of someone who is likely a natural, as she never overplays her hand. With a superb trio that alternates between two different pianists, two bassists, and drummer Mark Ivester as the one constant, Pettis catches one's attention right away with her adroit interpretation of "In the Still of the Night." The unusual 5/4 arrangement of Anthony Newley's "Who Can I Turn To?" (a favorite of the late pianist Bill Evans) provides a rich backdrop for her expressive vocal. "Nature Boy" is almost a cliché in the hands of a typical singer, but Pettis makes the most of the hip Afro-Cuban arrangement without sounding too serious.

CD: Here in the Moment
Jazz Society of Oregon

Review by George Fendel

Seattle singer Gail Pettis has released her second CD for OA2 Records, and it’s another winner! I love her singing because she’s a natural. Pettis doesn’t go over the top with unnecessary fluff. She’s blessed with a great voice and lets that voice do its thing. With a couple of Seattle trios led by pianists Randy Haberstadt and former Portlander Darin Clendenin, Pettis works comfortably on 11 delights.

Prelude Feature:  "A Whole New Reason to Smile"

Jazziz Magazine

Jazz vocalist and seattle resident Gail Pettis spent nearly two decades working as a successful orthodontist. Also an accomplished swing dancer, she injured her knee in 2001. For her, There was hidden fortune in that injury. When I was unable to dance anymore, Pettis recalls, "I began looking for other creative outlets. I took some cooking classes, experimented with home coffee-roasting, and eventually ended up in a jazz workshop at MusicWorks Northwest."

Pettis' MusicWorks instructor, saxophonist Darren Motamedy, invited the aspiring singer to sit in with his band. After the workshop ended, she continued her studies and was soon playing with groups throughout the Seattle area. Her first paying gig came in late 2002 at an assisted-living facility. From there, it was local restaurants and clubs, and eventually to jazz festivals in Boise, Idaho, the Netherlands and Kobe, Japan.

"It feels like I've been looking for this all my life," says the 51-year-old vocalist, whose second album, Here in the Moment, will be released on January 12 on the Origin/Oa2 label. "Jazz invites you to be yourself, and that really appeals to me. You're not required to sound like anyone else nor do you ever have to sing a song the same way twice. Jazz only asks that you live in the moment. That is tremendously freeing."

Here in the Moment--which arrives two years after Pettis' debut release, May I Come In, also on Origin/OA2--consists of 11 tunes, mostly standards, some of which had long been staples of the singer's repertoire, some of which were less familiar to her when she went into David Lange Studios in Edgewood, Washington, to record in late 2008 and May 2009. Pettis is ably backed throughout by pianists Darin Clendenin and Randy Halberstadt, bassists Clipper Anderson and Jeff Johnson, and drummer Mark Ivester--all frequent collaborators.

The disc is an entirely lovely affair. What veteran music critic Don Heckman wrote in the liner notes is on the money. "What makes Gail's musical overview so special is her remarkable combination of a sumptuous sound, a storyteller's capacity to find the deepest layers in the lyrics of a song, and an irresistible rhythmic lift in her phrasing. Add that to her gift for melodic paraphrasing, and a selective ear for finding a new way to sing old songs, and the results completely fulfill the definition of the word 'unique.'"

Soon after moving to Seattle in 1996, Pettis opened a private practice as an orthodontist. She sold that practice in 2006. Today she could probably still fix your teeth, but she'd much rather sing you a song.


CD: May I Come In?

Review by Howard Dukes

I always like it when jazz musicians move away from the "same old, same old" while making a record of standards. As much as I like hearing Gershwin or Porter, they weren't the only ones writing great songs back in the day. However, it's real easy to fall into the trap of giving people what they want. It seems that sometimes the corporate suits (or whoever is making these decisions) forgets that jazz fans aren't going to get too excited when they hear "Someone to Watch Over Me" for the umpteenth time.  On May I Come In, vocalist Gail Pettis doesn't give the listener warmed over renditions of the same Great American Songbook entries. Many of the 13 tracks on this CD could be rightly called much under-used standards. Pettis gives us something different. She also gives us a lot of substance. Pettis' phrasing is tight and her diction is clear. She seems to put as much effort into saying each word as the writers put into writing each word.  Pettis understands that it might be first time - or at least the first time in a very long time - that the listener has heard tunes such as "May I Come In," or "Help A Good Girl Go Bad." She wants the listener to come away with a feeling that they've heard something solid and memorable. What the listener hears is a singer who sings with intimacy and a sense of swing.  Pettis also sings some well-worn tunes such as "Moonlight in Vermont," "Black Coffee," and "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face." One of the album's highlights is Pettis's performance of the song "Desafinado." Many jazz listeners are familiar with the bossa nova tune. Turn on any jazz station, and you'll eventually hear Stan Getz's 1962 instrumental version. Pettis makes a bid for a little radio airplay with a lively version of the song.  Anytime a new jazz vocalist emerges, people can't seem to resist the temptation to make comparisons. For me, Pettis' precise diction and intimate delivery reminds me of Nancy Wilson. If May I Come In draws those kinds of comparisons, I think Gail Pettis will be very happy. Recommended.

CD: May I Come In?
Cadence Magazine

Review by Alan Bargebuhr

"May I Come In?" brings to light the hitherto recondite vocal gifts of Gail Pettis. Despite having established herself in and around her Seattle base, and in various foreign ports of call, such as The Netherlands, where she was recently artist-in-residence at the Amersfoort Jazz Festival, and in Japan where she was guest artist at the Kobe Annual Jazz Vocal Queen Competition, here at home she remains more or less unknown east of the Cascades. This CD, if it gets any sort of distribution and notice, should help to rectify that, and this is my contribution to setting things right. Happily, she's made it easy, for here, on her initial release, we find her with all her vocal plucks in town, and one is only left wondering, why this is only her first recording. She has a lovely contralto voice, with depth of texture and tone, and breadth of range. She phrases beautifully, enunciates clearly, and obviously understands the necessity of conveying the song stories convincingly. She sings in tune and makes it sound as natural a breathing.

This recording is the result of at least two separate sessions, as there are two distinctly different trios in support, albeit with an overlapping drummer. Halberstadt and Johnson are two thirds of the trio backing her for six tracks, Clendedin and Anderson for another five. Ivester is at the drum kit for both. Bassist Jeff Johnson is Ms. P's sole support on a stunningly nuanced "Accustomed," and pianist Halberstadt her only assistant on "Before," which, incidentally, is his own tune: both music as lyric, as his is the only credit listed. Unfortunately, it's not a very strong vehicle for such an accomplished singer as Pettis, but let's not question its inclusion on the program. It may be about the regard with which each views the other. The song is one of those you're-the-love-I-waited-for celebrations, and contains far too many cliched lines, if not ideas. The performance, however, is all but rhapsodic and comes close to redemption. But the track, positioned as it is near the end of the program, is part of the album's final four flaw, in that these last tracks are, from the point of view of repertoire, a considerable let down when measured against the first nine. "If I Were You," is not the song Billie recorded in 1938, nor is it the Rodgers & Hart song of identical title, nor-finally-the song Maria Muldaur sings on her Southland CD. It is, as far as I can determine, a song Ray Charles "used" on one of his country & western digressions. Strange that Ms. P. chose to resurrect it for her initial recording. "Dream" is a disposable Bobby Caldwell tune, but I'm relieved to be able to report that Ms. P. sings it as "The Guy I Dream About," just as she corrects the gender on the final track, when she sings, "He Spoke To Me," which, if anyone's terribly interested, is no the Prince tune of similar (but not identical) title. Still, the first nine tracks are more than enough to carry the session(s). Gail is deliciously soulful on "Come in," seductively playful on "Good Girl," as she stirs memories of Ruth Brown, rhythmically sure footed in accelerated waltz time on "Show Me," and happily scatfull on "Just Found Out." The first nine tracks, then, are all that's needed for a most formidable recorded debut.


CD: May I Come In?
Earshot Jazz

Review by Peter Monaghan

Gail Pettis's May I Come In (Oa2 Records) won't disappoint anyone who has found the vocalist one of the finest in the region.  And if you have a surpassing-fine voice and want to do it full justice, you can hardly go wrong having Randy Halberstadt accompany you on piano, among other able sidemen including pianist Darin Clendenin, bassists Jeff Johnson and Clipper Anderson, and drummer Mark Ivester.  Their maturity and subtlety of sentiment match Pettis's vocal expression.  She shows that sometime-anodyne lyrics need not obscure feeling, and may even at times dutifully keep out of the way of the affect that is vocally conveyed.


CD: May I Come In?
Platter Chatter

Review by George Fendel

Maybe a few of you remember a very talented, generally unheralded singer named Ethel Ennis. Well, Gail Pettis reminded me a bit of Ms. Ennis, and that's to say, she's very good and sings effortlessly and with no "frosting." Great tunes here like Black Coffee, Desafinado, Show Me and lots more. Ms. Pettis' trio accompaniment includes Randy Halberstadt and former Portlander Darin Clendenin, both of whom are classy piano practitioners.


CD: May I Come In?

Review by Doug Ramsey

On her recording debut, the Seattle singer chooses a mixture of familiar standards and less well-known songs, delivering them with warmth and intelligent interpretation. Pettis concentrates on serving songwriters'  intentions, but her delighted treatment of Jimmy McHugh's "I Just Found Out Sbout Love"  includes one of two scatting episodes in the collection.  She scats with musicianly understanding of harmony.  There is not of lot of that going around among singers. Pettis gives "Black Coffee its bluesy due but avoids the affected emotion with which many singers are tempted to smother the song.  In "Ive Grown Accustomed to Your Face", bassist  Jeff Johnson, with his customary strength and sensitivitiy, is the singer's sole accompanist.  "We've Met Before" is a duet between Pettis and pianist Randy Halberstadt.  With this lovely song, Halberstadt may have composed a new standard.  He and Johnson are on half of the tracks.  On the other half, Darin Clendenin is the pianist, Clipper Anderson the bassist, Pacific Northwest stalwarts in good form, as is Mark Ivester, who plays drums throughout. Pettis keeps her considerable vocal power in reserve, using it with restraint and taste.  In the burgeoning populaiton of new singers, she is a standout.


CD: May I Come In?

Review by Adam Greenberg

On her debut recording, Gail Pettis shows off a nice sensitivity to her music. The songs, a mix of standards, originals, and lost classics, are given a touching respect. Maybe more importantly though, Pettis is singing along with the band, as opposed to singing in front of a backing group. The piano (alternately played by Randy Halberstadt and Darin Clendenin) comes out front nearly as often as Pettis does, and when the time is right other instruments come to join it (in particular, Marco de Carvalho's guitar on the classic "Desafinado"). Pettis has a nice quality to her vocals that goes along with those sensitivities as well. Her tone is more relaxed than that of many singers, with a natural touch to it. The songs sound like they're simply part of her day, not overpracticed or overdone. There's interplay between her vocals and each instrument individually (even a bit of a duet with the bass in "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face"). This has the feel of catching an underappreciated songstress at a small club -- the romantic ideal of the jazz hole-in-the-wall. There's passion in her singing, and the execution is excellent on the part of Pettis as well as her two trios. Definitely worth a spin.

Gal Pettis Dappere Pettis geeft Jazzfestijn glans
maandag 15 mei 2006
'Ondanks jetlag zingt
Gail Pettis over De Liefde
met hoofdletters'

(full article opens in new window)

Earshot Jazz July 2005 cover

Evermore, with Feeling:
Jazz Vocalist Gail Pettis
Touches the Essence
and Soul of Song

Article by Todd Matthews, Earshot Jazz

For vocalist Gail Pettis, it isn't enough to simply know how to sing the jazz standards. Crooning ballads and familiar tunes is nice, but Pettis is a vocalist searching for more. If you've seen her recent performances at Bake's Place in Redmond, the Fireside Room at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle, or La Spiga on Capitol Hill, then you've probably witnessed that exploration. A performance provides Pettis the opportunity to process, learn, reflect, and quite often unpack a tune in search of its core feeling and emotion. It's a goal that Pettis frequently achieves, and with a soulful grace that makes the process seem almost effortless.

It's remarkable, really. And it's something I asked Pettis about in May, when we met at a Broadway coffee shop, on what happened to be her forty-seventh birthday. "Having coffee, which I love, and talking about music, which I love, is a great start to my birthday," she said. During our interview, Pettis exhibited a quiet assurance as she explained what she was looking for through music. "As I experience it, the currency of jazz is emotion," she explained. "That's what you give and hopefully get back. Many of my song selections are a result of how I feel after listening to a particular song for the first time. Several of the tunes I perform were chosen after hearing only an instrumental version and discovering the lyrics much later."

That's how Pettis settled on tunes such as "In the Wee Small Hours" and "The Touch of your Lips," two songs, when performed by the Randy Halberstadt Trio several years ago, resonated for her — and that she performs quite well. "But it's about more than just the song choices. I like to share with people what I experience when I sing. So far, people have responded positively, and that has been very gratifying."

The journey leading to that experience traces back to Gary, Indiana, where Pettis grew up. Her parents were music fans: Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, Gloria Lynne, and Maxine Brown records filled the home. Pettis's mom, Evelyn, and dad, Arthur, sang casually around the house, and her grandfather was a blues guitarist in Chicago during the late-1920s and early-1930s. Pettis and her sister, Terre, sang in church, school choirs, and musical theatre productions. As a young person, Pettis joined the high school band. Initially, she wanted to play the tuba. The director, however, needed a French horn player. If Pettis could learn to play it, she could join the band. "I became fairly proficient and grew to really love it," she said. "One of these days, I would like to pick it up again and see if there is room in the world for jazz French horn."

Two years out of high school, though, and Pettis had stopped playing the horn. She occasionally performed choral work, but music was not the priority that it is today. "I lived in Memphis for about ten years," she recalled, "and I don't know if I stepped foot in any place on Beale Street the whole time. That was blues territory, but I wasn't into blues or jazz at all. Can you believe that?"

She arrived at music again through dance. When Pettis moved to Seattle in 1996, she learned West Coast swing: a style of swing dance that is less about the jitterbug and ponytails and big skirts, and more about communication and improvisation. "I was dancing heavily," she said. "It was the kind of thing where if you did it enough, there was kind of a Zen that you got into and really enjoyed. West Coast swing really lends itself to improvisation. Mastering the fundamentals gives you the freedom to respond to anything happening in the music. For example, if there is an interesting bass line, you can interrupt or replace part of the basic dance pattern to mirror what you hear in your footwork. Meanwhile, your partner is either joining in or responding to a different component of the music — but it all works."

Pettis danced for about three years before a knee injury permanently kept her off the dance floor. So she turned to jazz. In 2002, she enrolled in a jazz performance ensemble workshop at MusicWorks Northwest taught by Darren Motamedy. It was her first formal music course since leaving high school in 1976. "I was the only adult and the only vocalist in a room full of middle school and high school horn players," she recalled. "It was interesting because they were so conversant in music theory and musical terminology, and I knew very little. Whatever I had learned in 1976 had long since been forgotten. Darren would ask the class a basic theory question, and I wouldn't have an idea. I taped the classes so that I could learn because I couldn't take notes using the terminology that was being used."

The following year, Pettis enrolled in jazz workshops taught by Dee Daniels (at the Experience Music Project) and Greta Matassa.

Earshot Jazz July 2005 cover
"[I]t's about more than just the song choices," says Pettis. "I like to share with people what I experience when I sing. So far, people have responded positively, and that has been very gratifying."
Looking back, Pettis can see that her past experience with West Coast swing actually informed her new experience with jazz. "I feel like jazz is a pretty natural transition from West Coast swing because there are a lot of similarities — mostly listening and responding," she explained. "And you can dance with the same partner to the same song, but no dance is ever the same. You hear something different and you feel something different each time."

Perhaps the records her parents played while she was a growing up influenced her decision to sing. She recently opened a box of her father's old records, and she is currently fixing her turntable so she can listen to the them and, perhaps, identify some influences. "As I was unpacking these records," she said. "I started to wonder how many people may have been an influence byond the ones I actually remember hearing. I'm anxious to find out if music from the more unfamiliar artists resonates on some level."

To be sure, Pettis has found inspiration and influences from varying sources.

She adores the work of Bobby Caldwell and Kevin Mahogany. "I love the way I feel when I listen to them," she said. In particular, a Caldwell album of standards continues to inspire. "When I heard him sing those standards," she recalled, "I fell in love with every song."

And jazz singer Greta Matassa, with whom Pettis studies, has also provided inspiration. "Greta is a wonderful and generous," said Pettis. "She has a natural gift for teaching and she knows how to zero in on exactly what needs attention."

She also finds inspiration and support within the Pacific Northwest jazz community. She networked early with some of the region's top jazz musicians — pianists Randy Halberstadt and Darin Clendenin, and bassists Jeff Johnson and Clipper Anderson — with whom she continues to perform today. "I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to play with musicians of this caliber," she said. "I have grown so much by working with them and being influenced by their musicianship, professionalism, and the sheer love of what they do."
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Copyright ©2009 Gail Pettis
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