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 and her operatic training 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. 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” which was awarded the 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 of Yitzhak, 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. Lisa continues to teach privately and in a language school in North Beach. She also serves as a translator, proofreader and Italian/English interpreter.
Whilst on Italian Cultural Institute Fellowship to Italy, Lisa attended two glorious weeks of the Umbria Jazz Festival. It was then that she decided to cut her jazz vocal album Caravan in order to return 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 Caravan. Lisa solicited tenor saxophonist/composer David Alt to tutor her in theory & harmony. Six months later Lisa entered the Bay Records Studio in Berkeley as both producer and arranger for 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.”
Lisa was plotting and scheming in dank, dark studios and did little “live” performance during the recording of Caravan. But when she did walk onstage, she captivated a capacity crowd at the San Jose Jazz Festival, with a band that included both seasoned jazz greats like Frank Martin (Sting, Al Jarreau, Fourth World) and trumpeter Mike Olmos (Etta James). Lisa also had the delight to work again 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 in San Francisco.
Caravan was released on Kansas Day 2010 to critical acclaim that launched here into the national arena. Caravan was named to the “BEST of 2010” by the Jazz Journalist Association and was picked up by Sirius XM Real Jazz Channel. Since its release, Lisa has been playing to enthusiastic sold-out audiences across the U.S.
Little Warrior, Lisa’s follow-up album toCaravan, was released on October 1, 2013. Lisa again served as producer and arranger for the entire project and composed four tracks on the album. Little Warrior was named to the Top 10 Best Jazz Releases of 2013 by esteemed jazzologist Lofton Emenari, III, was listed among the Jazz Journalists Association’s Best of 2013, and has been picked up by Sirius XM Real Jazz Channel.
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 had been shopping for the right pianist to take in to the studio. One night in early January 2012, Lisa went to see Brazilian great Dori Caymmi in concert. She fell in love with the playing (and singing) of Bill Cantos, pianist in Dori’s band. One month later, Bill came up from L.A. to join Lisa, along with her long-time collaborators bassist Sam Bevan and drummer Matthew Swindells, to record the eleven tracks, lovingly referred to as The Valentine’s Day Sessions at 25th Street Recordings in Oakland, CA.
The first live performance of the Little Warrior were held in two raucous sold-out shows at The Sound Room in Oakland, CA. East Coast dates are scheduled for October 2014. Engelken looks forward to expanding her audiences here in the U.S. and abroad.
In January 2014, Lisa crossed yet another item off her “bucket list” and enrolled in the CCSF School of Broadcasting, concentrating on audio engineering and video production, to hone her production skills. It seems to be going allright, and she was delighted to be awarded the 2014 Phil Brown Scholarship by the CCSF Broadcasting Faculty.
ad astra per aspera