Jazz singer who looked af­ter Barry White’s pet dogs

The tire­less Ali Af­fleck on her time in Cal­i­for­nia, and how she jug­gles sev­eral bands at once

The Herald Magazine - - Arts MUSIC - ALISON KERR

IF ever there was a liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of get-up-and-go, it’s Alison “Ali” Af­fleck, the Scots-born Amer­i­can jazz singer and band­leader who – in less than a decade – has estab­lished her­self as a popular fix­ture on the Scot­tish mu­sic scene and one of the busiest singers in the busi­ness.

While oth­ers strug­gle to get gigs, Af­fleck – whose name is syn­ony­mous with early New Or­leans jazz and blues – is jug­gling sev­eral bands and has so many projects on the back (and front) burn­ers that she must have a su­per-size Aga in her of­fice.

At to­day’s Is­lay Jazz Fes­ti­val, the ebul­lient thir­tysome­thing is play­ing vir­tu­ally back-to-back gigs with the up-and-com­ing Tenement Jazz Band, a six-piece out­fit from Ed­in­burgh, and with reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tors Colin Steele and Graeme Stephen. This comes a fort­night af­ter she com­pleted an Ed­in­burgh Fringe run com­pris­ing not one but three dis­tinct shows, as well as a hand­ful of one-nighters.

Af­fleck’s ca­pac­ity for cram­ming a great deal of ac­tiv­ity into a short time makes the sto­ries of her ad­ven­tures be­fore she re­turned to Scot­land in her late twen­ties far less like tall tales than they would oth­er­wise have been. Af­ter all, in the first 15 min­utes of our con­ver­sa­tion, we have cov­ered five coun­tries where she’s lived, two col­lege de­grees, one fi­ance and sev­eral en­coun­ters with one Barry White.

Wait, what, rewind – the Barry White? “Yes,” laughs Af­fleck. “I looked af­ter his dogs. I used to work as a vet nurse in Cal­i­for­nia. I went to com­mu­nity col­lege there and one of the cour­ses I did was vet medicine. I ended up work­ing in a prac­tice for a while and one of the clients was Barry White. He hap­pened to need help with his dogs – jet-black Al­sa­tians, a fa­ther, mother and son called Bear, Isis and Sokar.

“I got on well with them so I would groom them, take them out and then re­turn them to his house. He was a nice guy, not the sharpest tool in the box, though. His PAs used to say: ‘We think for Barry so he doesn’t think for him­self’. Sadly, we never dis­cussed mu­sic. I was only in my early 20s – and not as ballsy as I am to­day.”

White’s Cal­i­for­nia man­sion was a far cry from Af­fleck’s home city of Dundee. Her tal­ent for singing was ev­i­dent from an early age, es­pe­cially to her mother – who had wanted to be an opera singer. “My granny’s side of the fam­ily is mu­si­cal,” says Af­fleck. “In fact, we are re­lated to the Aus­tralian opera singer Dame Nel­lie Melba – some­body re­searched our fam­ily tree and it turned out that she’s my great, great, great aunt.”

Her singing tal­ent was also ob­vi­ous to her pri­mary school teach­ers. “I be­came aware of the power in my voice when I was ad­mon­ished by my teacher for not tak­ing part in some­thing we were do­ing. She said: ‘You’re not singing. If you had been singing, we would have heard you above ev­ery­one else.’”

Dur­ing this pe­riod, Af­fleck was mostly singing Scots songs and per­form­ing for fam­ily and friends. She won the pres­ti­gious Leng Medal, awarded in Dundee schools to chil­dren per­form­ing Scots songs and keep­ing the tra­di­tion alive.

Through her grand­mother, who had an im­pres­sive record col­lec­tion, Af­fleck first heard such iconic jazz singers as Bil­lie Hol­i­day and Ella Fitzgerald for the first time but it was only when she was liv­ing in San Diego in her late teens – “I went there to study pho­tog­ra­phy” – that she got into jazz singing as a re­sult of a new­found in­ter­est in swing danc­ing.

By the time she moved to New Or­leans three years later, she was well on her way to be­ing a jazz ob­ses­sive. “I got fever­ishly into re­search­ing the songs I was learn­ing,” she says.

The mu­sic that grabbed her is that of the early jazz singers. “I have mas­sive af­fec­tion for th­ese pi­o­neer­ing women, par­tic­u­larly Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Al­berta Hunter, and I love the sto­ry­telling na­ture of the songs they sang.”

With her pow­er­ful, gutsy vo­cals and ob­vi­ous skills as a sto­ry­teller her­self, Af­fleck is well qual­i­fied to re­vive the songs that th­ese strong black women in­tro­duced. But she doesn’t do it in an im­i­ta­tive way; she puts them in con­text with a bit of back­ground in­for­ma­tion and brings out the hu­mour, feel­ing and drama in them in a way that makes them feel cur­rent, fresh and time­less.

Of course, it helps that Af­fleck also has a gift for sur­round­ing her­self with the best mu­si­cians. Re­turn­ing to Scot­land af­ter a long res­i­dency in the States, Af­fleck was lucky to land in Ed­in­burgh just as new op­por­tu­ni­ties were flour­ish­ing for would-be singers. Whigh­ams, a wine bar and res­tau­rant in the west end, had just launched its jazz club and weekly ses­sions in which singers could have the chance to sing with the house rhythm sec­tion, and Af­fleck, who had fi­nally de­cided to fo­cus on mu­sic af­ter dab­bling in numer­ous aca­demic cour­ses and jobs, be­came a reg­u­lar.

“It was great for me,” she re­calls. “It gave me an in­stant way to meet peo­ple. The Jazz Bar’s Tues­day night jam ses­sion was way more in­tim­i­dat­ing.”

Also lucky was the fact Ed­in­burgh has a rel­a­tively high con­cen­tra­tion of ter­rific jazz mu­si­cians who can play in the style that Af­fleck loves. Through Whigh­ams, she met reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tors Dick Lee (clar­inets and saxes), Steele (trum­pet) and Roy Percy (bass), who have been “a great sup­port – es­pe­cially when­ever I’ve thought of pack­ing it in”. Lee was in the first band

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