Nestled into an overstuffed couch at Lola's, sipping on a glass of cabernet sauvignon might well be the perfect way to introduce yourself to the voice of Annie Ellicott. Her features and mannerisms indicate the dichotomy that surrounds her professional identity: a young voice brimming with power and a sophistication and presence that belie her years.
Creating her set list in the moment, she bounces through a number of jazz standards, touching on Mingus and Monk and even complies with a request for "Twisted." Although she introduces it with a disclaimer that it's not something she does regularly and may miss a few notes, she nevertheless glides through it with ease, leaving a table of admirers elated and appreciative.
Tulsa jazz aficionados are more than happy to embrace a young talent like Ellicott, especially when she shows such reverence to the genre. Her soothing voice catches your ear immediately but shrouds the complexity of compositions as she navigates the arrangements with an apparent ease that most singers of her age could not begin to muster.
Other gigs, such as a night sitting in with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, might better showcase Annie's scatting abilities and intuitiveness in the moment, but, no matter the setting, it's obvious the girl can sing. She's also got a firm grasp on the jazz form, striking a delicate balance between structure, improvisation and control. It's no wonder Ellicott is building a reputation as one of Tulsa's most promising young jazz talents.
Although she's only 23, Annie is no newcomer to the Tulsa jazz community. When asked about her background, she chuckles slightly, recalling her first professional gig, at the age of 16, performing at Border's with Jack Hannah for store credit.
Since then, her career has continued to build steadily and Ellicott now appears poised to make an even bigger impression on Tulsa. Her recent appearance with the Annie Ellicott Trio on the Jazz Hall's spring concert series and role in the April production of "Glowstick" at the Nightingale Theater reflect only a glimpse of what Annie currently has on her plate.
Lighting the Fire
What I'm really interested to know, however, is how does an impressionable teen end up in a jazz ensemble when most other kids her age would be more likely to start a garage-rock band?
It's easy to assume that Annie's father, Rod Ellicott (who plays bass in the Trio with guitarist Frank Brown) would be the catalyst, feeding his daughter a steady diet of jazz classics. Annie assures me that wasn't the case, however, saying, "I grew up on stuff like Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers and The Carpenters.
"My dad got me a Carpenters CD because Karen Carpenter and I have the same vocal range and he thought I would like it," she continued. "But I got really into big bands myself, listening to Big Band Saturday Night, actually, on KBEZ.
"I listened to Big Band Saturday Night," she said, "and really fell in love with the song 'Stardust' -- the Nat King Cole version. Instead of waiting to hear it every Saturday night, I decided to go buy a Nat King Cole CD and it kind of grew from there. Nat King Cole was the first CD that I bought, and then I branched out, started getting into Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker. And then, a couple years ago, I started getting into the 60s crowd -- Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Mingus...
"Actually, those people have been what I've been listening to a lot of to develop my soloing style. Like when you're scatting, that's kind of like playing a part."
So what exactly was the draw to jazz, especially at an age where most kids are listening to pop radio and singers like Britney, Christina, and Mariah? "It was definitely a choice," Ellicott said. "It's just got a really nostalgic feel to it and makes me happy. I can't really say other than that. I almost feel like I'm reincarnated or something."
So is she an "old soul in a young body?"
"Maybe, I don't know," she said. "I had extensive fantasies when I was younger of living in the 40s just purely based on the music I heard, nothing historical, you know? I also like the clothing -- I'm kind of a throwback when it comes to style and fashion, too."
But how does that translate into a budding career as a jazz performer?
"Well, that's the really neat thing," said Ellicott. "All I ever did to get myself into this position was to be really into the kind of music that I'm into and listen to it a lot and sing along to it. The rest just kind of took care of itself."
A Local Starlet on the Rise
If you haven't heard much from Ellicott in the past, you definitely will in the future. Besides carrying a standing Wednesday night gig at Lola's at the Bowery with her trio, Annie is a favorite daughter at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of fame, having performed at the Hall several times as part of a number of different band configurations. Ellicott has also been included in the Performing Arts Center's fall "Divas" concert in the past and even raised her profile with the younger, avante-jazz crowd, working and performing with the members of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey over the past year.
Annie's got a full plate in front of her as she plots out her future, participating in a number of different projects, each with a separate focus, and the opportunity to follow her aspirations, whatever they may be.
"What I'm really excited about is this band I'm in called BEN.BEN.", Ellicott said, with semi-controlled glee. "It's a five-piece and it's me, Chris Foster, Jeff Davis, Jonathan Taylor -- on drums, he's from St Louis, so he doesn't live here -- and Brian Haas."
"It's really cool," she continued. "All of the music is original, pretty much, written by Jeff Davis, who is also the guitar player in the band and one of the vocalists.
"There's also .NEB.NEB, which is ideally BEN.BEN. Add horns. And then there's one more band that is kind of the same musicians and it's called the Shuffle Band. And that's kind of more listener-friendly, less challenging roots music. You'll hear a lot of blues and country and jazz."
Over the past year Ellicott has developed a musical affinity with keyboardist Brian Haas, not only working with him in the BEN.BEN. project and sitting in with JFJO, but also booking some duo performances over coming months.
And of course, we can't forget Annie's recent starring role in "Glowstick," where she was able to utilize her acting and theater training as well as her vocal chops as the little girl searching for the meaning of life (i.e. what makes a glowstick glow).
What You Know vs. Who You Know
The question remains, however, how does a girl go from listening to Big Band Saturday Night to singing at Border's for store credit to becoming one of the city's most in-demand jazz vocalists? Indicative of her humility (and, perhaps, awe of the opportunities she has been presented with), Ellicott neglects to acknowledge that she's been born with a natural ability or mention the fact that she was part of the Tulsa Youth Opera when in elementary school.
"It's really just people," said Annie. "You meet people and you they open doors for you and you let them. Be open to it, notice it happening and make decisions based on where you want to go."
Ellicott is quick to credit Sonny Gray as a key figure in her development as a jazz musician and vocalist.
"Sonny Gray was the one who got me singing in my high school jazz band," she said. "I played saxophone and he was like 'You're a singer? You should be the Jazz Band's singer!'"
Annie also credits local jazz figures like Buddy Bruce, who helped her compile an initial song list, Fred Moses, who pushed her to develop her song book and Gayle Williamson, who brought her into his own band just out of high school.
"I started getting more well-known through Gayle Williamson, actually, by singing with his band, Soundz Good. People started recognizing my name a little more, so I did that for a couple of years and then the trio with my dad (Red Ellicott) and Frank Brown."
Ellicott's time singing in Soundz Good also developed her relationships with trumpeter Jeff Shadley and bassist Ed Garcia, who initially introduced her to Brian Haas. The personal connections continue to string together as Annie connected with Chris Foster when doing a scratch recording for a friend last year. A couple of months later, she met Jeff Davis while he was visiting Foster, which resulted in her joining BEN.BEN.
"Basically it's just been people seeing that I really love this stuff and I have potential," said Annie. "So they want to help me and I let them and that's it, you know?"
That's a nice thought and serendipity may play some part, but without true talent, Ellicott wouldn't be drawing the attention she has -- especially within jazz circles. Everyone who has encountered or worked with Ellicott readily acknowledges that she has a true gift in her vocal abilities.
A Search for Self
When discussing the arc of Annie's relatively short career and the variety of groups she is currently involved it, I couldn't help but ask what the future might have in store. After spending years singing jazz standards, does she feel a desire to move in a more "pop" direction, follow a more avante-jazz muse or continue to develop her voice with the classics? What drives Annie to continue on in her jazz career?
"Well, it's always been my motivation, but maybe I realize it more now. I'm still searching for my identity. It's like I find it in all of these [projects]," said Ellicott. "And it may be that I never find it, or that I find it every time and then it changes. My motivation for doing what I do is definitely to try and speak my own truth, artistically."
So, does that "truth" include speaking through another person's songs?
"Well, that's the thing," said Ellicott. "I've always loved acting and singing, and it's interesting because they're both the same thing in that I get to take somebody's art and kind of bring it to life, portray it and give it to people.
"That may be just what I do, but I'd really like to do some original stuff someday. And so all of these experiences, I feel, are kind of working toward me maybe performing my own stuff."
Out of "all these experiences," Ellicott acknowledged that current associations with JFJO and BEN.BEN. are pushing her creativity to a new level.
"The fun thing about Jacob Fred is that a lot of it is being on your toes, making eye contact, making sure to be on everyone's wavelength, because it's so much improvisation," she said. "In that sense, I think I've been able to express myself better through doing that stuff with them than everything else so far."
Of BEN.BEN., Ellicott said that it's the most challenging material she's ever had to do. And while she is excited about the originality and creativity level of the material, Annie also said that it "puts me in a very drastically different mindset when it comes to music, which is also helping me find my voice. So it's like combination of learning and experiencing it on my own."
Where to From Here?
At one point in our evening's conversation, Annie said, "I really feel like it seems like everything I ever wanted, if I just think about it, imagine it happening, it happens. I don't know, I personally feel especially lucky -- like I was born under a lucky star or good karma or whatever you want to call it. In the right place at the right time, good timing."
When questioned further about that concept, Ellicott responded thoughtfully. "Well, it seems to me to be a running trend in my life. Like, I would watch Jacob Fred when I was 14 at Mayfest or Jazzfest or whatever and think 'It would be so cool to sing with them,' you know? And, of course, thinking it to myself and having no idea what I would do if given the chance."
So is the pressing question "How big can you dream?" or rather, "How big are you willing to dream?"
"I'm not sure if it's THE question," responded Ellicott, "but it's definitely a question I've been asking myself more and more."
"I wouldn't say that I'm really into astrology, but I'm kind of interested in it," Ellicott said. "I've got this birthday book and I read about my birthday and it says, 'Figure out what it is you want and don't be afraid to go as far as you can go.' That really struck me because I'm afraid of a lot of stuff and I still have these little fantasies of what I want to do, but I'll be stuck in the way of achieving it if I'm scared, so..."
"As far as imagining stuff and it happening goes," Annie continued, "I always wondered if people can just have premonitions and see the future or if they're creating it. It's kind of that existentialism vs. essentialism, basic freewill vs. fate thing."
"I used to think that a lot of stuff is predestined for a long time and a while back, it may have been about a year ago, around the time that I met Brian Haas and things started going on, I started being more of the mindset that you do control some things," she explained. "Maybe you do have the power to pretty much do what you want. I'm pretty sure it's a combination of both, but it seems that it really does make a difference."
Over the past year Ellicott has really started to come into her own. She has her options laid out before her like a map and we can only wonder where her career will take her next. Although unlikely to forsake her roots in classic jazz, she has many possible paths ahead of her.
Ellicott could branch out into progressive jazz with BEN.BEN. to see where that leads and possibly break out to the next level with regional success. There's also a possibility that her association with JFJO could propel her into a successful future in modern, post-bop and avante-jazz.
Of course there's also the option of staying on course and allowing her career in classic jazz continue growing organically. Even so, with the talent and focus Ellicott displays, it's only a matter of time before she's well known outside of Tulsa jazz circles.
So the question still remains: Annie, How big can you dream?
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