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All possible facets

Bandleader, composer and vocalist Nicola Missing plays with Quintett at King Georg. We talked to her about training in Maastricht, jazz and pop.

That there are also formidable »young talents« outside of German universities, colleges and conservatories does not need to be told at length; nevertheless, it is a happy occasion to be able to welcome one or more such talents from the distant Netherlands at the end of the year. Band leader, composer and vocalist Nicola Missing is a native of Koblenz; she says “born and raised in Rhineland-Palatinate”. From the Deutsches Eck (and at 23 at the time), she went to Maastricht Conservatory two years ago to study jazz vocals. There she met Jakob Lingen (now on drums) and Peter Willems (bass). She “hired” the rhythm section for her Nicola Missing Quartet. A few months ago they went on to Amsterdam to the local conservatory. There the pianist Chris Muller and Jeline Weening on saxophone appeared on the scene. The quartet became a quintet at King Georg.

How did you get into jazz singing?

I started playing the piano when I was five and I had singing lessons from the age of nine. In my youth, I mainly sang pop vocals, but then I also sang R&B. The bridge to jazz was relatively short.
Later, I did the one-year preliminary studies at the Open Jazz House School in Cologne – and after the entrance exam, I decided to go to Maastricht.

What brought you to Maastricht?

Maastricht is one of the nine renowned conservatories in the Netherlands, but from Koblenz, for example, the way to Cologne would have been closer …
First of all, I already knew people who studied in Maastricht. And besides, it was important to me that I wanted to study in a smaller city first. I wanted to study more inwardly, so I wasn’t interested in a particularly exciting city or a larger scene with lots of sessions. I really wanted to focus on studying and my own songwriting.

That’s an approach that I don’t think is taken that often. Is that something you would recommend to others?

For me it was a good decision.

You also decided against German universities and conservatories and preferred the internationality. How much has that influenced your studies so far?

In a very positive way. It is definitely more challenging than studying in German in Germany. But I like that. I also find it easier to express myself in English, which is the working language here. There are many more ways of describing things and more terminology that is also understood internationally. I find it very helpful to be able to communicate across borders.

The percentage of Dutch students is much lower than the international students. For me it’s even better, because I … I say: I study with one foot in the Netherlands, but one toe sticks out into the German scene.

For you as a vocalist, it’s probably even more interesting, because you’re probably not confronted with German intonation and articulation in English, which is the predominant vocal language, but with international ones.

That is actually very interesting. In technique and interpretation I have two Dutch lecturers, both of them have quite a strong accent. Here in Amsterdam, in the Jazz Vocal Department, I have a course at the same time called “English/American Pronunciation” with a US-American. So, funnily enough, I have this Dutch input, as well as this work on phonetics and articulation

Does that also change your relationship to English as the language of jazz standards?

Yes, definitely.

You also sent me a concert recording. Among other things, you interpret the Michael Jackson classic »I Can’t Help It«. This one, as you know, is co-written by Stevie Wonder. Wonder is an ardent fan of jazz. How do pop (Michael Jackson) and jazz (parts of the melody line here, for example) relate to each other for you?

I have a hard time with genre terms. For me, the attraction lies in not being able to precisely demarcate the boundary between jazz and pop. That said, I’ve been interested in jazz vocals above all else for a few years now. For me, pop chords are usually not enough; I want to express myself more and in a more multifaceted way.

Who are your idols?

You already mentioned one: Stevie Wonder. I think it’s very cool how he has one foot in pop and one foot in jazz. But I also find many traditional and modern jazz composers and musicians attractive in their work: Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, Brad Mehldau, Betty Carter, Veronica Swift.

We were just talking about the fact that you chose Maastricht to be a bit more “secluded”. I think you have a very good overview of the standards and different interpretations. Is that the result of that time you invested?

For me it’s important to have and develop a jazz-historical overview. For me it’s helpful to hear as many versions of a song as possible to really dive deep into the song. And also to let myself be influenced by different styles and stylistics. Then you can also playfully deal with the material.

What does that look like with your own compositions?

The piano is the basis in all songs. But I never sit down to it with a certain intention and try to compulsively make something new. Mostly the harmonies come first, then the lyrics and then the melodies.

Actually, you wanted to perform in Cologne with your quartet …

Exactly. I formed the quartet here in Maastricht: With a pianist, a drummer and a bass player. I started composing a lot during Corona and the three of them were optimal to realize my compositions and what I had in mind.

And now you perform with a quintet …

There were two changes. I’m performing at King George with a new pianist – and above all with a saxophonist. I feel that stylistically they fit very well with my compositions.

How does the approach change for you with the formations?

For me, the quartet is the smallest unit for my music. I also perform in duos, but I think the balance in the quartet is optimal: there is enough space for everyone and my voice. The ratio of rhythm and melody/harmony is also right. At the same time, I find it exciting now in the quintet that the saxophone opens up completely new possibilities. I like it when instrument and voice play in unison. It’s also appealing to explore again the blending relationship between voice (for the text) and voice as instrument. The saxophone helps to make my voice sound different. It’s no longer just “singer with band”. It is then increasingly about other colors, about second voices, about more complex harmonics.

Is the concert at King Georg then also an opportunity to try things out?

Yes, in several ways. It’s the first performance with the band outside of school. And you don’t study to play at school, but in front of an audience. The performance is the purpose of my studies. I’m also interested in the changed reception behavior. Where you don’t just play and listen to the songs in critical analysis and with content-related criticism, but just for pleasure.
In addition, we have never played together in this quintet version. So it is an attempt. I am curious mysel

Interview: Lars Fleischmann