“I hope people don’t get bogged down by the question, ‘Is this jazz?’ Because jazz really means freedom to me.”
27 year old New York based singer, songwriter and composer Nicky Schrire, is one of few South African female artists who have the ability to daringly tread the line between traditional jazz and folk-pop – while all the while retaining well pronounced nuances from both idioms, in addition to various others. In saying that, an attempt to compartmentalise Schrire’s music into neatly defined sub-sections would seem futile; since she does not describe herself as a purist in any sense. It is evident from her debut release ‘Freedom Flight’, that deviating from clear-cut definitions is something that works well in her favour. As Bruce Lindsay (All About Jazz) puts it, “In the crowded world of jazz vocals it helps to have a distinctive voice or a distinctive repertoire. Schrire scores on both counts, making “Freedom Flight” one of the best debut recordings of 2012.”
Upon Freedom Flight’s release it garnered rave reviews and landed on “Best Releases of 2012” lists from All About Jazz, Jazz History Online, Step Tempest and Popdose, with All About Jazz praising her “warm and supple instrument that serves as a dispensary of emotional power”. While some reviewers praised it for its fresh approach, others highlighted Schrire’s affinity for telling stories and her ability to bring her own ideas to life. Ultimately, what hooks the listener is Schrire’s lightness of execution in both her approach to singing and lyrical interpretation which however whimsical, does not mask her formidable command of the jazz language. Her style is instantly reminiscent of quirky, left-field singer/songwriter Regina Spektor, but in the same vein reminds one of jazz vocal stalwart Gretchen Parlato. Having said that, she’s got her own bag – which doesn’t sound like much out there.
Schire grew up in a musical home, often listening to her father’s James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young records at home and rocking out to Blood, Sweat & Tears in the car. Her mother’s love for classical music from Mozart sonatas to Rachmaninoff concertos is evident in the clean and constructed sound of her compositions. When Schrire was a little girl, her mother bought her VHS tapes of musicals like The Sound of Music, Hello, Dolly! and My Fair Lady, which she watched endlessly. She started playing classical piano at age 8 and then tenor saxophone at 11, but it was Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Verve Songbooks that she listened to as a pre-teen that became a dramatic turning point in Schrire’s musical upbringing, ushering in her love for jazz and subsequent career as a jazz vocalist. To this day she can still recite the album’s instrumental fills and interludes.
After graduating from the South African College of Music where she grafted her saxophone chops on tenor, baritone and soprano and developed an arranger’s ear in the UCT Big Band, Schrire then pursued her singing ambitions in New York and earned a Masters of Music degree at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Peter Eldridge, Theo Bleckmann and Dave Liebman. She later was a semi-finalist in the “Jazz Voices” Competition (Klaipeda, Lithuania), and a finalist in the “Voicingers International Vocal Jazz Competition” (Zory, Poland). From there she lent her voice to New York drummer, Brian Adler’s“Helium Project”, which featured artists such as Kate McGarry, Dave Eggar and Ben Monder, and, most recently, Basak Yavuz’s debut album, which also features Dave Liebman, Richie Barshay and Peter Eldridge.
Schrire has led her quartet in performances in New York (55Bar, the Kitano), Boston (Scullers Jazz Club), London (The Forge), Dublin (National Concert Hall), and South Africa (Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival).
Schrire’s 2013 offering ‘Space and Time’ to be released by Magenta Records via eOne Distribution on September 10th, is a duet album that features the prowess of three different pianists: Fabian Almazan, Gerald Clayton and Gil Goldstein. The album, produced by Matt Pierson, who has churned out hits by Jane Monheit, Becca Stevens, Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman, is more intimate than its predecessor. Schrire says she wanted “…the focus to be on intimacy and clarity, on the song and the voice and the storytelling. In a duo format there can be a real purity of communication.”
The album will feature Schrire’s interpretations of tunes by the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, The Beatles, British trip hop pioneers Massive Attack and French star Charles Trenet.
Schrire will also be releasing 6 original songs on an EP called ‘To the Spring’, a trio project that features Fabian Almazan and Desmond White later this year.
She will be launching her new work at the Blue Whale in Los Angeles and at Ivories in Portland, OR. In September, she will perform a string of homecoming shows in Cape Town.
We asked Nicky some questions about her experiences in the largely male dominated world of jazz. Here’s what she had to say:
1. Do you find that being a woman in the jazz industry comes with more challenges?
The reality is that jazz is a man’s club. There are simply more men to women in the industry and jazz world. However, jazz singing tends to be dominated by women. So my particular world is a little more balanced on the gender scale-the industry at large is predominantly male, but my niche is saturated with women. The biggest challenge doesn’t have to do with being a woman, but with being a singer and dealing with the singer-instrumentalist divide. This often gets confused for a gender divide because of the high percentage of vocalists who are women. I find that I’m aware of my being a singer more than I am aware of my being a woman, and the challenge is often proving to my fellow instrumentalists that I’m as knowledgeable as they are and that I’m a musician whose chosen instrument happens to be the voice. It’s very important to me that I make a good impression (which usually starts at a rehearsal) – I like to have arranged all the music myself (although I’m very much open to input from fellow bandmates). I need to have my charts printed and taped, clearly notated, I make sure there’s an amp at the venue or I bring my own with extra cables and two microphones (one uses phantom power which some systems don’t have). These sort of details have helped me dodge any stereotyping based on my choice of instrument or my gender. So it’s a possible challenge that is easily dealt with. At the end of the day, it’s incredibly challenging being an artist in any medium – it’s an unorthodox vocation that usually comprises a whole host of different daily activities. The biggest challenge in the jazz industry has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with trying to build something from scratch in a systematic, strategic manner that guarantees career longevity. It’s no small feat.
Musically speaking, I was and am hugely inspired by women who have similar vocal ranges/timbres to mine and who use their ranges to their full capacity. Many of these vocalists made me want to move to/study in America where I felt there were more ways in which to sing and express oneself vocally. You didn’t have to belt or be an alto, you could use your soprano range to interpret the actual melody and not merely as a colouration devise when improvising. Kate McGarry, Tierney Sutton, Stacey Kent and Jane Monheit had a huge influence on my early love for jazz singing when I was studying at the University of Cape Town. They’re all intelligent singers, with gorgeous tones, who perform well-thought out arrangements of tunes whether they’re standard or non-standard material. Down the line I was very much inspired by Norma Winstone, Maria Pia de Vito and Gretchen Parlato. Recently, I’m influenced by singers that I think are meticulous songwriters – Laura Veirs, Laura Mvula, Jesca Hoop.
3. What advice would you give to aspiring female jazz artists?
Learn about your craft, don’t rest on your laurels, and spend the majority of your time discovering what you like and what you don’t like through listening and analysing. This will help you figure out what “your sound” is, what your schtick is. The goal is to whittle away the excess, everything you’ve absorbed and started to mimic, until you’re left with a honed version of you. Your concept/sound will change over time as you grow and develop different musical interests and tastes, but being aware of this process and trying your best to facilitate its occurrence makes the journey a little easier and more within your control.
People always say to me that it must be so challenging to work and live in NYC. And my response is always that it’s challenging everywhere – whether it’s NYC, London, Scandinavia or South Africa. Public perception is a funny thing and I try to dispel any myths or preconceptions people may have. Jazz is always going to be a minority genre and industry. As a result every community is small – sometimes that results in a great sense of camaraderie and support amongst musicians, other times it creates territorialism and petty competitiveness (both of which are an immense waste of energy). Either way, the NYC jazz scene, despite being geographically larger, is as small as the SA scene – it’s just more saturated with musicians. So it becomes an amazing, bubbling over pot of creativity and shared inspiration. The calibre of musicianship is also incredibly high because there are so many amazing learning opportunities and people come from all over the world to share their skills and aesthetics. I do think, however, that there are people in SA doing totally wonderful, creatively exciting things. But you have to seek them out – there aren’t as many of them as in NYC. But because there are so many musicians in NYC, you have to go through the same process of finding people who you like and who contribute positively to your musical ideals.
Find Nicky Schrire at www.nickyschrire.com or keep up with her on Facebook, Twitter or Soundcloud.
[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/105194767″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]