LISA ENGELKEN is a fearless singer with a daunting stage presence. Her horn-like phrasing and tonal clarity puts a chill back into contemporary jazz vocals and “defines the ‘extra’ in extraordinary“ (Jazz Times).
Part freight train, part junkyard trombone, Engelken alternately locomotes and floats through a myriad of moods & vocal styles, spicing her tunes with Portuguese, French, Spanish and Italian. But her operatic and theatrical training couldn’t polish off the rough edges and she wields an acrobatic 3-octave range like a weapon, like a wand, intensified by sheer joy, crankiness and irony.
Engelken hails from Big Skies, Kansas and attributes her vocal development to her birth order – the youngest child in an enormous family: sheer power, technique and “Mata Hari vocals” (Village Voice) define Lisa’s voice, as she persevered to be heard above the constant din and chaos that surrounded her.
Lisa’s first concerts were performed to an imaginary camera whilst riding tractors or tying bales under the relentless summer sun, retrieving the family’s milk cow from across the fields, or when weeding a giant garden that produced the most succulent tomatoes ever known to mankind. The entire Joni Mitchell box set was performed for the cattle, always apt & attentive (a captive audience, literally.) as she sang and accompanied herself on a tin gallon can (having no way to roll the piano out to the fields and her alto sax experimentation proved too aggressive for bovine appreciation).
Influenced by a wide variety of musical genres, Lisa sets herself apart with a visceral need to convey a song’s story not only through the lyric but through vocal attack, arrangement, and harmony:
“Musical tones have very distinct colors and can be used to paint a sort of sonic picture. And there is no reason why that sonic canvas should be limited by tradition or set rules of genre. I find musical ‘mutts’ much more fun, much more interesting.”
Lisa’s fluency in Italian inspires her to reference romance languages and repertoire in performance (She once sang in Japanese, whilst performing the traditional Fan Dance in full Geisha attire, under the coaching of Japanese performance poetess Shizumi.).
Engelken arrived in San Francisco from the East Coast where she’d co-founded the DC-based sextet The Zimmermans with Jonathan Spottiswoode. The Zimmermans recorded four albums: the zimmermans, Cut, The Loneliest Woman in the World, and You’re Beautiful, We’re the Zimmermans. While with the Zimms, Lisa was awarded the Wammie Award for Best Female Vocalist as the notorious front-woman and appeared at such festivals including South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, North By Northeast (NXNE) in Toronto, New York New Music Festival and the Philadelphia Music Conference. Lisa has played the Knitting Factory, Bottom Line and the Mercury Lounge (New York); Blues Alley, 9:30 Club and the Black Cat (Washington, DC) as well many other venues across the U.S. and Canada.
While in DC, Lisa also co-founded & fronted the jazz/lounge quintet Black Olive which resulted in her releasing her first jazz vocal album “Cosmopolitan” [free download]. While in DC, Sony Records representatives shuttled Lisa to shows down South to nurture her alter-ego and to front the outrageous theatrical pop-rock band the Sugar La-Las of Birmingham, AL (Yes, that was a real pistol that Lisa was slingin’ at her debut performance with the La-Las.)
After a brief stint in New York, Lisa moved to San Francisco, and set to work as composer and vocal coach for the Bare Bones Theatre Company (Sam Shepard‘s “Seduced“ and “A Lie of the Mind” (Dean Goodman Award). She wrote and produced “Geographically Challenged,” an album of originals, recorded in both San Francisco & Manchester, England where she worked with drummer/songwriter Matthew Swindells.
Ready to play the original tunes live, Lisa assembled her new San Francisco-based group, fronting the group on bass and vox. The band was gaining momentum when Engelken accepted the role as Yitzhak in the San Francisco production of the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Lisa was awarded the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal as Hedwig’s boyfriend. By the time her stint with Hedwig had ended, her bandmates from heroriginal project had dispersed across the globe.
With Hedwig over, Lisa continued to gig some, but (re)turned her focus to her second passion: Italian literature & culture (2005). She obtained an M.A. in Italian Language & Literature and accepted a Lecturer position in the Italian Program at San Francisco State University.
Whilst on Fellowship to Italy, Lisa attended two glorious weeks of the Umbria Jazz Festival. It was then that she decided to cut the jazz vocal album (Caravan) with the goal of returning to Umbria Jazz as a performer. Soon after her return Stateside, Lisa experienced the shock of losing a brother and biggest supporter of her music. Her loss spurred her to begin writing the arrangements for the album. Lisa solicited tenor saxophonist/composer David Alt to tutor her in theory & harmony. Six months later Lisa entered the Bay Records studio in Berkeley to record the basic tracks to Caravan.
One month before that session, Lisa was struck by a car whilst crossing a city street on foot. And as she was being whisked away to SF General by paramedics (having been propelled 10 feet through the air to land on her hard head), the final two-line tag for “From the Earth” came to her, thus giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “happy accident.”
Whilst plotting and scheming in dank, dark studios, Engelken did little “live” performance. She did have the opportunity to captivate a capacity crowd at the San Jose Jazz Festival, with a band that included both seasoned jazz greats like Frank Martin (Sting, Al Jarreau) and trumpeter Mike Olmos (Etta James). Moreover, Lisa had the delight to work once again with (and to perform live with) New York writer/director John Cameron Mitchell [Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Shortbus, Rabbit Hole] in 4 riotous sold-out shows at the Victoria Theatre (Marc Huestis Presents) in San Francisco.
Caravan was released on Kansas Day 2010 to critical acclaim and was named to the “BEST of 2010″ List by the Jazz Journalist Association. Since its release, Lisa has been playing to enthusiastic sold-out audiences across the U.S. The new year has Lisa looking forward to expanding her audiences here in the U.S. and abroad.
New album: “Little Warrior” a/k/a Anima Explorations. In March 2011, Lisa debuted Part I of The Anima Project, a musical exploration that parallels that of her spiritual journey. Performing monthly concerts, Lisa debuted new material in front of live audiences in order to begin a dialogue with fans about her new artistic direction. The work and conversations paid off: Part II of The Anima Project was unveiled in February 2012, to an enthusiastic sold-out house. Lisa went in to the studio to record the 11 basic tracks for the album in February 2012 and continues to work producing and writing “Little Warrior.” The album is scheduled for release in 2013. Stay tuned for an exciting announcement coming in February 2013 regarding your chance to work on the Little Warrior CD Project!
ad astra per aspera