Lady Sings the Blues

Emma Pask hits the right note Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Ex-boyfriends of Emma Pask beware. Her favourite party trick at shows is to publicly condemn her “doozy” exes. Whenever she performs at jazz venue 505 in Sydney’s Surry Hills, Pask stirs the sleepy club from its slumbers with her sheer effervescence and endless talent.

Her renditions of “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” and “Hard Hearted Hannah” are forces to be reckoned with as she spits and wails her way around the blues classics, while her ability for interpretation is second to none. She has a penchant for the golden-age standards, breathing life back into “I Only Have Eyes for You” and singing “Stardust” like Sarah Vaughan reborn.

But no matter what she’s singing, she’s always Emma.

Pask tells a cringe-worthy story of her performance at the prestigious Jazz in the Vines festival.  While introducing her acclaimed pianist Kevin Hunt on stage, Pask (under the influence of a few vinos herself) became tongue-tied and announced to the audience of thousands, “and tonight on piano we have the magnificent Hevin K-” Except she didn’t stop there.

Mortifying spoonerisms aside, Pask’s onstage patter is unpretentious and self-deprecating, endearing her to audiences everywhere from London to Kuala Lumpur.

And then there’s that voice. It seems to come from another place, another time. It swings seamlessly from bluesy and ballsy to sublimely heartfelt and sensitive.

Hunt describes playing with Emma as “always a thrill”.

“She has wonderful rhythm and diction and she has a lot of fun with it. She is a truly great jazz singer.”

Turning up at Katipo coffee house in Bondi to interview one of the biggest names in Australian jazz, I am somewhat taken aback to be recognised by Pask before I even recognise her.

Pask recognises me from her 505 gigs and even promises to do a rendition of her all-time favourite standardMy One and Only Love” if I come to her next show on Thursday, June 21.

Over chamomile tea with honey (a girl after my own heart), Pask tells me of her love of photography, travel, acting, languages and, in hushed tones, her secret job moonlighting as one of the Dorothy the Dinosaurs for her good friends The Wiggles.

“Talented, talented, talented” is how Wiggles manager and original Captain Feathersword Paul Field describes Pask.

And she is so emphatically nice and normal in person that it’s easy to forget just how far she has come. Her refreshingly natural stage presence has captivated audiences of up to 80, 000 including the late Princess Diana of Wales, Princess Mary of Denmark and the 230 guests at the 2006 Manly star-studded wedding of Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban at which Pask sang the Bridal Waltz.

I’m struck by Pask’s simplicity when asked what her jazz philosophy is.

“The most important thing I have ever learnt is to sing the melody,” she explains.

“A song was written for a reason. Someone has structured this beautiful melody around these beautiful chords. So first up, I like to state the melody. Then you can extemporise and do whatever you like. But most importantly: melody, melody, melody.

Pask’s life reads like a jazz fairytale. Discovered at the tender age of 16 by legendary Australian trumpeter James Morrison during one of his regular visits to high schools, Pask has been touring the world with Morrison and his big band ever since.

Reflecting on that fateful day, Pask describes her teenage self as “shitting” at the prospect of having to sing with Morrison in front of the entire student body of Kirrawee High at the inspired request of her music teacher.

“How did it feel? It was like a weight fell from my throat down to the pit of my stomach. I’m just standing there gob-smacked. I was petrified. I didn’t know what I was doing. And my mum, my dear old mum who is the quietest, most beautiful petite thing was in the fifth row freaking out. She was sitting in the audience miming the lyrics to help me.”

Almost apologetically, she names Ella Fitzgerald as her biggest jazz inspiration. “It just sounds so stock standard, but it’s true. She was the first.”

She loves Carmen McRae for her rawness and grit and for not conforming to any rule of goodness in sound. “She just kind of smacks it out.”

Pask’s favourite pre-show memory reduces her to fits of giggles as she tells of a particular night when she had painted her nails and was sucking on a throat lozenge two minutes before she was due on stage.

“Suddenly this lozenge sticks to the roof of my mouth. I mean suctions. So hard. And obviously I can’t put my fingers in my mouth. So James Morrison pulls out a camera and starts filming me, and [bassist] Phil Stack becomes this German doctor trying to pull it out. And I’m freaking out – all because I couldn’t smudge a nail.”

She speaks of her band with warmth and deep respect: “We’ve grown up together musically. We trust each other.”

In an experience most musicians could only dream of, Pask was invited to sing for Tony Bennett at the after party for his April show on the Gold Coast.

“He was so gracious. He looked you in the eye and listened,” she says of the man who made all those standards she so adores come to life. “I lost my guts. I could hardly speak.”

Pask is most proud of the fact she is still working, still enjoying her craft and still able to do what she loves.  Asked what the future holds, the 35-year-old replies: “Someone told me recently that as a jazz vocalist you don’t really peak until you’re in your seventies. Oh God! I’ve got a long way to go.”

The last time I saw Pask at 505 she had a new boyfriend. Wearing a ruffled dress and a red flower in her hair, she performed a sultry Spanish rendition of “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” in homage to her new South American lover.

The very lovely and talented Pask is performing with her quartet this Thursday at 505. Will any ex-boyfriends be getting into trouble this time?

Quizás, quizás, quizás.


The Emma Pask Quartet Live at 505 club
280 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills
8.30pm, Thursday June 21 
Tix on the door – $25/$20 concession


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