Lisa Engelken - 2013

Photo by Kevin Trexler


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 her acrobatic three-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 of 13: sheer power, technique and “Mata Hari vocals”  (Village Voice)  define Lisa’s voice, trained through perseverance 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 while 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 (a captive audience, literally) as she sang and accompanied herself on a tin gallon can.


Influenced by a wide variety of musical genres, Lisa sets herself apart with a seemingly 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 aural 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 zimmermansCutThe Loneliest Woman in the World, and You’re Beautiful, We’re the Zimmermans. Durning her time with the Zimms, Lisa was awarded the Wammie Award for Best Female Vocalist 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 and released her first jazz vocal album “Cosmopolitan[free download].  Also during this time, Sony Records representatives were flying Lisa southward to to nurture one of her alter-egos – 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 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 a new album of originals entitled “Geographically Challenged,” recorded in both San Francisco & Manchester, England where she worked with drummer/songwriter Matthew Swindells.


Ready to play her original tunes live, Lisa assembled a new San Francisco-based group, fronting the band on bass and lead vocals. 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, bandmates from her original 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. She obtained an M.A. in Italian Language & Literature (2005) 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 perform at Umbria Jazz.  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.


Little Warrior released on October 1, 2013,  and was named to the Top 10 Best Jazz Releases of 2013 by esteemed jazzologist Lofton Emenari, III, as well as other Best of Albums in 2013!


Lisa began work on Little Warrior in 2011 under the working title Anima Explorations.  She debuted Part I of The Anima Project, as a travelogue of her musical and spiritual explorations.  Performing monthly concerts, Lisa debuted new material live and engaged her audience in a dialogue about her new artistic direction.  The work and conversations paid off as Part II of The Anima Project was unveiled in February 2012, to an enthusiastic sold-out house.  Lisa went in to the studio with Bill Cantos, Sam Bevan and Matthew Swindells to record the 11 basic tracks for the album in February 2012.  Lisa produced, arranged and composed the tracks for Little Warrior.


The first live performance of the entire album were held in two raucous sold-out shows at The Sound Room in Oakland, CA.  The Little Warrior Tour is being booked for 2014!  Stay tuned for dates!


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