Broadway’s Capathia Jenkins returns to the MSO Pops

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: Guest Artist, Pops, Vocalist

Capathia Jenkins may sing power ballads with the full range of vocal stylings, but she never forgets her training.

Jenkins, who will sing with the Milwaukee Symphony on this weekend’s Patriotic Pops concert, has starred on Broadway and on national tours and released albums of pop songs. “But I trained classically in high school and college,” she said recently by phone. “I learned how to breathe and how to place my air. It’s still the way I approach a gospel song or a jazz song; it’s just the way I let my air go.” For pop songs, she places her air forward; for classical, it resonates in the soft palate. “But it’s all coming from the same breathing technique. And good technique gets you through eight shows a week, which is a real grind on the voice.”

Reflecting further on the difference in approaches, Jenkins said, “Classical singers are trained to sing the ink on the page. Pop singers are often raw talent, not trained – sometimes it’s about the sound of the voice, the way they emote. They bring all of themselves to whatever they’re doing.”

For herself, “it’s about honoring what the composer wrote down.” Singers of jazz and songbook standards are accustomed to taking interpretive freedom with the printed music, but Jenkins will usually establish the melody before varying things. “I want to bring my full self to something. Although I trust the melody, I’m telling a story based on my own experience, the specific way that I’ve lived with these lyrics. There’s a fine line between being an artist yourself and singing someone else’s work, but I think there’s a way to do that.”

What singers have influenced her? “Ella,” she says, referring to the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. “Sarah Vaughan. Whitney Houston. Sinatra, one of the all-time great phrasers. I love them all for different reasons.  Billie Holliday – the raw pain and emotion in her voice. Sade can set a mood like no one else, and her voice is like the sound of an oboe or clarinet. I love trying to figure out how they’re singing that, how they’re holding their breath.”

For this weekend’s program, she will first sing through the lineup in order by herself, “so my voice has a bit of muscle memory.” That is especially important preparation for something she’s never sung before – in this case, a new arrangement of “America the Beautiful” (“more like the Ray Charles version”) and “I Can Cook Too,” from Leonard Bernstein’s musical On the Town. She’s happy to be reunited with guest conductor Stuart Chafetz, “who I love so much. He’s really good at putting together good programs.”

Chafetz, for his part, said that Jenkins “has a way of lighting the place on fire. To see the orchestra light up in rehearsal, that’s a good litmus test for what the audience is in for. They know.” Programming “I Can Cook Too” was his idea – “I heard it, and I said, ‘Oh my God, Capathia has to sing that.’ I can imagine what it’s going to be like – but I can’t wait till the piano rehearsal, because I know it’s going to be better.”

Jenkins got her start on Broadway and says she’d go back for the right opportunity, but “I really like symphonic work a lot. I’m having such a great time. I love traveling and meeting new people. It’s sort of like a dream I didn’t even know I had.”

Having appeared with the MSO in the Holiday Pops concert a year and a half ago, she is “looking forward to being back in Milwaukee with those musicians. And the people who run that organization are pretty cool, too.”

And getting a chance to sing for Memorial Day weekend reminds her “how wonderful and great it is to be in this country,” she said. “Even when things are rough or hard, to sing ‘America the Beautiful’ – you exhale and go, ‘We have it pretty good here.’”