We talk to Clare Teal about big band music, jazz and growing up in Yorkshire

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Jazz singer and broadcaster Clare Teal certainly likes to keep herself busy. An extensive autumn tour schedule includes concerts with a duo, trio and Big Mini Big Band.

She chuckles when it’s suggested that might occasionally get confusing. “I like it, actually,” says the singer, who grew up in Kildwick, near Keighley. “I think in December I’ve got 11 different shows that I’ve got to get right, but I really enjoy that part of it, it keeps you on your toes and it just keeps things fresh.”

Her repertoire adapts for the occasion. “Most of the stuff that we work on goes through the trio first, that’s where everything is played initially for the first arrangements or if I’ve thought of a song I’d really like to do I will do a rough chart for the trio and then we’ll have a play and if it’s got legs then I’ll give the arrangement to Jason Rebello, who plays piano with us, or I’ll sort it out myself.

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“If we really like it, that can get blown up to maybe the nine-piece band or even for orchestra or big band, so there’s a lot of stuff that has different versions of the arrangements.”

In December, the 46-year-old will perform two big London dates, one with the BBC Singers at the Barbican and the other a festive concert with her friend Guy Barker’s Big Band at the Royal Albert Hall. “We do the one with Guy every Christmas, I think this is the fourth one we’ve done, and that’s encouraging, it’s going from strength to strength,” says Teal. “I think the date’s in already for the next one.”

The show with the BBC Singers is intended for broadcast on BBC Radio 3; there’s also a concert looming for BBC Radio 2 in January. “Increasingly there are fewer slots for live music of that kind of stuff I find now,” she says. “In general I think the big ensembles are struggling. We still have the Proms, which is fantastic, but it would be good to have a few more live concerts to hear our kind of music.”

Teal has presented her Swing and Big Band Show on BBC Radio 2 for the past decade. She finds it the ideal place to share her passion for music.

“I’ll tell you what else it does,” she says, “because we do about 70 shows a year sometimes if you’re not careful, music can become a job, like anything else, and you stop listening to other stuff so you’re not getting the enjoyment that you need to hear inspiration from other things. So having to sit in a room and listen to music probably a day a week has really reignited that love of music.

“I have to listen quite broadly, I’ve got to think of all the spectrum of what we have to play, so it might not necessarily be stuff that I might lean to immediately, but what I find is the more you dig the more you learn to love stuff that you didn’t think you might. That’s been really good. It’s helped with my knowledge of arrangers and listening out for ideas and thinking ‘I wonder if we could do that’. It really has helped the live show just by bringing in new ideas.”

Teal’s love of big band music was fostered through her father’s record collection. “I was born in 1973, [into] a working class background, we didn’t have loads or records so every record had value,” she says.

“Even the ones you thought, ‘this is ridiculous’. We had a few Harry Secombe records, I’ve no idea why, so I got to know them, I got to know all the Reader’s Digest stuff, that was quite curious. What it did switch me on to was ‘that’s what Hawaiian music sounds like’ or ‘wow, that’s a Viennese waltz’.

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“I listened to everything we had and because there wasn’t loads you learnt to know every single record. When I was allowed to use the record player to play these 78s – I had to use an old record player because Dad didn’t want me to wreck the new one – and it was an old Dansette. Those 78s spoke to me. Often big bands would re-record versions of stuff from the 30s and 40s in beautiful hifi quality stereo and I thought, ‘that doesn’t sound half as good’, because that was the sound that caught my imagination. I think it started from there. We didn’t have any jazz records, we had big band records. So the jazz bit I sort of picked that up as I went along.”

Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington have remained abiding inspirations for Teal. “It’s the longevity of their careers and the fact that no matter how successful they became they still strived for excellence in what they did but also grew and learned and would create new stuff. I find that very appealing. So Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, people with long careers who were out on the road honing their craft and then developing their skills and learning new things along the way, I find that hugely inspiring because it’s something that I strive to do myself.”

It’s 15 years since Teal signed a reputed million-pound contract with Sony Jazz and had a top 20 album. Looking back, she admits she felt extra pressure being on a major label.

“Thinking about it, I actually got quite lost. It was such a weird time. I’d hardly done any gigs. I’d been touring for a few years but it was at a time when mainstream jazz, the kind of thing I was doing, was probably the most unfashionable thing you could do. I was playing in jazz clubs and it was tiny and then for suddenly everything to change overnight, I wasn’t ready for it, and as much as people can try and help you, no one can prepare you for how that feels,” she says.

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“A few years later, when you get spat out the other end… I think I’d just won Jazz Singer of the Year consecutively, three of them in a row, and I got called into Sony, which had now been merged with BMG, and they said they wanted to keep me on but could I not do that jazz stuff? The thing I learnt from that, because that second Sony record sank without a trace, was you’ve just got to do it for yourself, you can’t please everybody.

“In 2009 we set up our own label and I’m much happier being my own boss and creating what I want when I want with whom I want and sending it where I like and that works great, I much prefer it.”

Teal’s last record from 2016 featured the Hallé Orchestra. She is busy working on a new album at the moment. “I’m hugely behind on it but I’m getting there,” she says. “What I want to celebrate this time is that kind of small group swing, like the records that Billie Holiday was making with Teddy Wilson where she might have two or three horns and a rhythm section.

“There was an intimacy there but they swing so beautifully. I’ve also always been a fan of western swing, things like Patsy Cline. I put an Elvis song in the show recently because he was a big influence on me when I was a kid and I thought I’ve never acknowledged that, so I threw a bit of that in. I think the next record will be small and swingy with a slightly different palette of instruments to usual.”

Clare Teal plays at Settle Town Hall on November 21. www.clareteal.co.uk