Acclaimed jazz vocalist Lori Williams is turning a corner in 2017. In possession of a most impressive resume as a performing artist, educator, songwriter, producer, support vocalist and musical theater actress, her reputation and level of respect are top shelf and unimpeachable. However, Washington, D.C.-native Lori is electing to let her hair down to pursue a more relaxed passion path in the realms of the Quiet Storm and R&B-leaning Soul-Jazz. Kicking off this current (and surely to evolve) direction is a special double-A sided single “I Like the Way You Talk to Me” (which she co-wrote with prolific contemporary jazz producer/keyboardist Bob Baldwin) banded with a tasty remix edit of her recent cover of the Isaac Hayes gem “Déjà vu” (made famous in 1979 by Dionne Warwick). This single will lead into the forthcoming release of her fourth album, Out of the Box.
“When you reach the milestone of 50, many things begin to cross your mind,” Lori declares with a chuckle. “Out of the Box is a deliberate breakaway from me being stereotyped as ‘Lori only does this’ – this being straight ahead jazz. For me to be recognized and respected within that music has been quite an accomplishment but there is more to me. Out of the Box is a Neo-Soul Jazz project. When I hear my voice on these new songs, it’s a sound I really like. It’s not as intricate, heavy or filled with tricky odd meter explorations. It’s feel music with catchy lyrics that people can remember and walk away singing.”
“I Like the Way You Talk to Me” and “Déjà vu” showcase a lovely, tasteful sensuality from Lori that both men and women will appreciate. It is but the first of such love song collaborations that Lori has created with Bob Baldwin, a major player who is proving to be quite the simpatico contemporary partner for her writing style. “We’d known about each other for years but our paths never crossed,” she shares. “Then in 2016, we both recorded versions of the classic song ‘The Island.’ He played both on his radio show “New Urban Jazz Lounge,” dropped me a line to tell me and we started talking. He invited me to sit in with him singing ‘The Island’ at Rams Head in Baltimore and we really connected. Bob’s music has a broader fan base that I want to tap into…comparable to artists I’ve arranged and sung background vocals for like the Stanley Clarke/George Duke Project, Phil Perry and Maysa. Bob and I have been working together ever since.” That work includes a stunning and stellar 30th Anniversary performance celebrating Baldwin’s 30th anniversary as a recording artist at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club in Maryland.
Lori Williams already has three well-received CDs to her credit – all of which she self-produced: her highly personal 2010 debut Healing Within (a miracle project in that circumstances dictated she had to re-record all of it a second time), 2012’s triumphant Eclipse of the Soul (featuring “Mother Black Crow,” “Scream Freedom” and a cover of The Emotions’ Skip Scarborough-penned “Don’t Ask My Neighbors”) and 2016’s outstanding Behind the Smile, the title track revealing compassionate transparency into the heart and soul of Lori as a woman. “That song speaks to our current state of affairs as people…the way we sometimes go about life is almost by rote,” Lori laments. “Someone asks, ‘How are you,’ and you give generic reply, ‘Fine.’ We’ve become immune to the needs and cares of the world and our neighbors. I want to know what’s really behind the smile…to be more cognizant of people and how they’re really feeling. I brought that approach to the whole CD.”
None of this is surprising when you consider that Lori and her sisters Robyn and Vanessa were raised by strict Baptist church-invested parents – a Deacon and a Deaconess - their mother also an English and Humanities professor. Gospel was the first music Lori fell in love with but by high school she got turned on to Michael Jackson and Prince, and by college Anita Baker and Whitney Houston.
In her heart, she always wanted to be a singer but studied Communications/Mass Media Arts at Hampton University with the intention of becoming a television broadcaster. However, she hit a roadblock.
“Back then, the demographics were such that a chocolate sister with natural hair like myself was not ‘the desired one,’” she shares. “In college, they steered me to behind the scenes or on the radio. Racism in our own culture plus in society was still quite harsh. My mother was the one who inspired me to work on the education side – my safety net to do the things I’m doing now. I’ve been teaching for 22 years. What keeps me from being stressed is I take my personal leave to do music tours. It’s my escape from reality. I feel like Cinderella when I travel overseas to Europe, Japan and such. I bring those experiences back to my students and they get to go with me thanks to social media like Facebook Live and Snapchat.”
It was while Lori was doing radio at Hampton that she also became close with musicians and professors in the Music Department who encouraged her to enter a talent show. Lori took 2nd Place at the “Budweiser Showdown” and got to record her song “What Have I Found In You.” Then she met Professor Effie Gardner, joined her vocal jazz group and promptly fell in love with jazz, haunting every club she could find. In 1988, Lori took a train to New York City to compete on TV’s “Showtime at The Apollo.” She sang “Summertime” from “Porgy & Bess.” “They had a viewing party on campus and everybody saw it,” Lori reminisces. “I didn’t get booed! I felt like a superstar. The campus and my Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. are family to me…highly motivational.” The jazz singer who has been Lori’s greatest living inspiration is Dianne Reeves. “She is my unspoken mentor. The way she carries her business, her style, her singing and how multi-faceted she is in her repertoire. She is also an advocate and spokesperson for positive things. She guides and supports me…even retweets some of my posts! I look up to her.”
Today, many aspiring singers, students and tastemakers look up to Lori as well – be it in classrooms (currently Director of Vocal Music at Woodrow Wilson High School), the multiple church, community and concert choirs she conducts, or the clinics she runs. She has received many honors as an educator including the 2010 Vincent E. Reed Teacher of the Year. As a performing artist, Lori was nominated for a 2014 Helen Hayes Award as an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Musical for her role as Ella Fitzgerald in "Ladies Swing the Blues: A Jazz Fable."
Ultimately, it is her international work as a singer that most satisfies her and has brought the widest amount of recognition. With each performance in a new territory come fresh admirers that sponsor her to other countries. Though her work has also included background and featured singing for artists such as Gospel’s Yolanda Adams and Walter Hawkins, R&B’s Howard Hewett, Will Downing and Phil Perry, Contemporary Jazz’s Stanley Jordan, Nathan East, Norman Brown and Tom Browne, Traditional Jazz’s Slide Hampton, Terri Lyne Carrington and Winard Harper, super producer/composer/singer `Angela Winbush, and Tap Dance sensation Savion Glover, Lori is most focused on unveiling songs of love from her “dream book” for Out of the Box in 2018.
“I am a woman of vision and hope,” Lori concludes. “Much of my music could very well have been written from a perspective of tragedy. I prefer possibility. Nothing in life happens by accident. My heart knows love is there and can be found. I’m in a happy place now and eternally grateful.”
By A. Scott Galloway