from Jazz Times   June 13, 2012

Rhiannon: Total Improvisation
Roseanna Vitro interviews vocalist and educator about her life’s work
Rhiannon is a unique and extraordinary vocalist, performance artist, composer and master teacher whose musical vision embraces jazz, a cappella, improvisation, world music and storytelling. Rhiannon has a brand new recording just released titled Spontaneous. I felt this would be the perfect time to interview this gifted artist and mentor. I have attended three Rhiannon workshops in the New York City area, where she has accumulated a very large following of singers as well as around the world. Usually Rhiannon's workshop's run for a minimum of two days. One can expect to play improvisational exercises guided by Rhiannon that will enhance and enlighten a singer’s ability to hear and create harmony. We worked on various time feels with accuracy while improvising with lyrics and scat syllables. In general, she builds confidence and musicianship in the participants. Her classes usually breed a feeling of brother and sisterhood, a unity with a strong bond in spirituality that says: music is not simply fast chops and notes on a page.

Roseanna Vitro: What are your earliest memories of singing and music? Did you know you were a singer from an early age?

Rhiannon: I grew up on a farm on the banks of the Missouri River on the border of South Dakota and Nebraska. I went to a one room country school house for my first five grades. There were eighteen kids in the whole eight grades. That educational beginning was amazing. It served me well to be in that one room hearing everyone's lessons and having the open country as my real textbook.

I spent loads of time wandering the pastures in the neighborhood of our farm making up stories and playing all the characters. I sang out loud with no inhibition, lucky me. I don't know if I was singing songs my mom played on the piano or making them up or both. There was a period of years where I buried small dead animals that I found in my adventures. I would sing as I buried them some invented blessing for their safe journey and make up details of their animal lives. That was very important to me. I felt the power of singing as part of ceremony. I didn't tell anyone but kept it as my secret world. My mother studied piano and French in college there in Yankton, South Dakota. She had some dreams didn't she? She played throughout her life and encouraged all of us. She knew tons of songs from the American songbook and I learned many of them without realizing. There is no other reason I would know all the lyrics to those old songs because I don't remember studying them. She infused them into me. My father was a farmer and a beautiful dancer. He had some dreams too. Both of them ended up on the farm, so they did the best they could to pass those dreams on to me and my sisters. What I got from them was that improvisation was a life skill. There is nowhere better to learn that than on the farm; weather, animals, emergencies of equipment, banks, changing seasons, all of it and you need to roll with it and not resist. Just go with it the best you can.

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 AUGUST 2019
Brisbane Vocal Jazz Festival- Alan Smith
Rhiannon and Laurence Hobgood – Saturday August 3rd, 2019 

It’s Saturday night. And it’s Day 3 of the2019 Brisbane Vocal Jazz Festival.  You have just parked your car.  And if I may offer a word of advice before you come in……just for tonight….leave all of the following in that car… 

Your preconceptions about what Jazz is. 
Your yearning for the familiar, in melody and lyric. 
Your desire to tap your feet to a defined, confined, comfortable musical form and structure. 

The Duke, Count Basie, Miles, Trane, Ella, Sarah, Carmen, Billie, Frank, Chet, Nat, Kurt Elling… Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Eden Ahbez….. You can get all of that tomorrow night.    Or next week. 

For on this night, what you will need is a willingness to try something new.  To let go.  To slip into the rare opportunity of experiencing and sharing something that is oh, so very different. 

As tonight, the Brisbane Jazz Club presents Laurence Hobgood and Rhiannon, as they present a totally spontaneous and free-form show, that they have never performed before. 

And for your reviewer at least, this was indeed, something new and different. I have never experienced its like before. 

From Laurence’s first notes and Rhiannon’s introductory ooh-aahs and doo-dahs, I found myself thinking, ‘Er…hmmmmm….er.   What is THIS?’    ‘Is this self-indulgence?’   ‘What does the audience get?’   ‘Is this an ‘acquired’ taste?   If so, could I ever hope to acquire it?   Would I want to?’ 

And perhaps, apart from those who attended the workshop earlier today, and therefore had some fore-knowledge of what to expect, I felt I was just one among many in the audience, who were wondering much the same thing. 

And now, as I wonder about just how to describe the night, I have considered the option of presenting my review in a form much like tonight’s performance; as a stream of consciousness; as a sequence of words and phrases from my ten pages of notes…. 

Doo. Fah. Moo. Too.  And periwinkle blue.     Free. River. Sound.  I don’t have to hang around. 

Shenandoah.  Baby eyes.   Your hair in the morning.   Wishes.  Wise. 

With a footnote, such as, ‘Imagine this set to an improv piece by a Grammy Award-winning piano player. Then knock yourself out.  Make of it, take from it, what you will.   Enjoy yourself.  Go.  Be free.  And oh, please…sing along.’ 

And, if you had been here, that might actually be enough to capture the essence of the night. 

But these two outstanding performers and their unique performance, demand much more… 

Beyond the unmasked scepticism of my initial reaction, as the performance progressed, I began to sense the subtlety with which Rhiannon and Laurence were challenging us to shed our preconceptions;  ‘Let go, and climb on board with us, as we explore who we are.  Who I am.   Who you are.   As an individual, alone.   As one among many.  As one among the choir.’ 

And while short on spear-throwing gestures and threatening tongues, their challenge had no less power than an Aboriginal War Dance or a Maori Haka. 

And for many of us, it worked.  With a steady, grounded, believable, trust-able and skillful collaboration and on-stage presence, they guided us on a wonderfully free-form meander, through a colourful, busy, buzzy and vibrant landscape. 

Across fields, they took us.  Along rivers.  Among the stars.  Sharing love.  And loss.  And danger.  And exhilaration.  And exploration.  And discovery.  Challenging us to step beyond the expected; beyond our comfort zone; to experience a new view, a new sense, of the world. 

At this time.   In this place.   In this very moment. 

Indeed, the performance was so spontaneous, and so ‘in the moment’, that at one point, I found myself musing about a sudden burst of flooding rain and a rising Brisbane River. And I felt quite certain that, even in such a dramatically changing circumstance, tonight, these two artists would have simply embraced this new element of the moment, and played on. 

Later, in a chat with Rhiannon and Laurence, I asked… 

In your flawless collaboration, who is following whom?The response included, ‘In a typical two-person conversation, 80% of the focus will be on what YOU want to say. For us, on stage, 80% of our individual focus is on what THE OTHER PERSON is saying/doing, and where they are going.’ 

Do you have anything resembling a Set List?   Broad smiles, and a resounding ‘No’, was the reply. 

And when it was all over, a grateful and supercharged audience rose to applaud the power, the wonder and the magic of this performance. 

So, thank you Rhiannon and Laurence for your guidance on a wondrous journey, and  for taking us, so skillfully and sublimely, from ‘Hmmmm?’……to a standing ovation!! 

Alan Smith 

Brisbane Jazz Club

JUNE 2018

Bobby McFerrin is spontaneously spot on at the Dakota

Review: Vocalist amazes with a cappella improv extraordinaire.
By Jon Bream Star Tribune

Wait! Was that really Bobby McFerrin holding open the door to the Dakota Jazz Club just before 7 p.m. Wednesday? Yes it was. Why not? McFerrin did just about everything else during his first show Wednesday at the Dakota. More


Broadcast Notes

"Blizzard conditions outside while inside I am on the line with Rhiannon in Hawaii. Her book, Vocal River, carries a strong current of music/love/music = all musicians can relate to this well crafted work discussing the art of vocal improv. It's as much about technique as it is about fearlessness; it has as much to say about freedom as it does about collaboration. Who would think growing up on a midwest farm full of wheat fields would have anything to do with music?! She makes perfect sense of it. You will love hearing her masterful singing voice + her voice of reason making music analogous to life. Find out more at Women On Air is very pleased to bring you this interview; she has been on the play list for 25+ years."
Susan Lachmann, Women On Air

Great News!! Shapeshifter Lab was selected by DownBeat Magazine in the Feb 2014 issue as one of the 150 great jazz venues in the world.  And the New York City Jazz Record has picked two of the performances Shapeshifter Lab presented in 2013 as best performances of the year: Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, Matt Garrison Trio, and...Rhiannon!

Pinpoint musicality, soaring invention and irresistible passion.
Don Heckman, LA Times

Rhiannon.....singer phenomenon 
...daughter of a Dakota 
...purveyor of priceless vocal jazz purrrrfection 
...reincarnated Sumerian Priestess 
...vanished mother of goddesses 
...changer of lives 
...leader of those who care to dare 
...improviser of stunning vibrancy 
...looker of stunning vibrancy 
Say you there, reader of these notes.....WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED?!! Get it!  You'll thank me, but mostly you will forever thank Rhiannon. 

Mark Murphy

One amazing voice emanating from a truly wonderful lady in one of the most honest and passionate performances I've seen... Rhiannon's vibrant personality and larger-than-life stage persona are matched only by the smorgasbord of vocalisations she manages to conjure up... magical.
Patrick Shepherd
Christchurch, New Zealand

Rhiannon,the grand sorcerer, lures all whom she meets, her collaborators, I being one, her students, and her audiences, into the mysteries of her enchanted world of song. How lucky we have been.
Ruth Zaporah

That concert at Shapeshifter was AMAZING!
There’s still a buzz in the NYC jazz vocal community.

Laurence Donohue-Greene,
Managing Editor, The New York City Jazz Record