I don’t much enjoy getting unsolicited CDs in the mail—especially when they don’t come with a SASE. My first thought is, who gave this artist or manager my contact info in the first place and how am I supposed to fit it in my workload (invariably it’s someone looking for coverage of an upcoming gig date that I set aside a month ago for someone else). On the up side, the Twin Cities music scene is so rich that, unsolicited or not, only once in a blue moon do I pull a package out of my post office box, put the disc on and wrinkle my nose, thinking, what kind of crap is this? Nine times out of ten, I find myself scrambling to find room to write about it and, if that happens to be in time for the upcoming gig, well, everybody’s happy.
Such is the case with jazz vocalist Nancy Harms, who has recorded In the Indigo. I got blindsided with an e-mail asking if I’d listened to it (didn’t even know it’d been sent) and had to think about what kind of juggling I could do if was any good. Thankfully, it isn’t just good. It is a very interesting disc, artfully crafted in a distinct style.
It isn’t easy to sing traditional jazz songs without sounding like every other singer who ever had the same idea. Harms, however, has her own signature. It’s a wizened, reflective air coloring a particularly inventive hand with melodic phrasing. For instance, she turns that jolly-good jaunt “Bye Bye Blackbird” into a dark, oddly haunting, strangely seductive ballad. The title cut, on the other hand, is a breezy, upbeat affair that practically grins at you with whimsical beauty. The quintessential torch song “Cry Me a River” gets an inspired re-working. All the material showcases Harms’s voice to strong effect.
The musicianship is excellent, principal players being Tanner Taylor (piano, Hammond B3), Graydon Peterson (bass), Jay Epstein (drums), and Kelly Rossum (trumpet) with ace axmen sitting in here and there. Harms does a fair amount of her own arranging. She’s also in creative cahoots with her skilled producer Robert Bell and vocal director Arne Fogel (yes, that same Arne Fogel: vocalist and Jazz88 broadcaster). So with In the Indigo, you have an artist who’s very much hands-on instead of coming into the studio, singing at the mic, and then sitting somewhere in a corner while someone else decides what she sounds like. The results are rock solid.
Like I said, getting a disc out of nowhere is not my preferred method of finding out about an artist. This time around, I was done a favor.
How do you come by your tonality?
I have always been singing and am constantly doing so. I enjoy playing around with the sounds my voice can make. I have had some great lesson and ensemble experiences that have helped me to understand the mechanics of vocal production and gave me great tools for vocal growth. But, the two greatest factors that have led to my tonality would be the fact that I am constantly exploring with my voice and that I listen a lot to other singers.
Lots and lots of listening! Spending time listening to great singers and instrumentalists has made the biggest impact on my phrasing. When I’m really drawn to something I listen over and over until I internalize it and then in some mysterious, indirect way it combines with all of the other things I’ve internalized and it shapes what comes out of my mouth every time I get on stage. Attempting to sing from an honest place is something that also is a strong contributor to my phrasing. Just as everyone speaks differently, if we sing as ourselves and not as our favorite singer or something we just think is cool, our phrasing will reflect our individual personalities and, without effort to do so, be unique.
You co-wrote “In the Indigo” and “Surprised By the Morning”. What did you contribute to the songs? How do you choose songwriting partners?
“In the Indigo”…earlier this year, I was meeting with Robert Bell weekly to talk about arrangement ideas and song choices for the album. When he had an idea for an original song, he would present it to me on guitar and I’d record it and take it home to think about lyric possibilities. I was drawn to this particular idea and had some thoughts for lyrics almost right away. I wrote up a scratch lyric and presented it to Arne Fogel, a mentor of mine, since he has a great familiarity of and appreciation for lyric. We got together and he helped me polish what I had and added great new ideas and also contributed to the melody. “Surprised By the Morning” was an instrumental by bass player [and] composer, Michael O’Brien. Michael used to live here but has moved to NYC. After I met him, I fell in love with the tune “Drinking in Sunnyside.” To me, the piece conveyed such a beautiful sense of hope. I talked with my writer friend, Siri Myhrom, about lyric ideas and she gave me permission to base some of the lyric off of her poem “Bus Stop.” In addition to the lyric, I had to write a melody for the “A” section since there was not a singable melody there. The melody that existed is still played under what I’m singing as part of the arrangement.
What went into picking these musicians to do the album?
I had worked with most of the musicians on the album a lot before we went into the studio. We have had a lot of experience and success together on stage. I can’t really remember where the thought came from, but I wanted to try to play with Kelly Rossum. He hadn’t played with many vocalists, but I really dug his sound and sense of adventure. We only got to do a gig or two before we recorded, but I knew it was going to work out well. Not only did our sounds complement each other, but he is a positive addition to any group with great ideas and forward-moving energy.
Do you have a regular backup ensemble for club gigs?
I work freelance, as do the musicians I hire, but I do end up seeing a lot of the same faces from gig to gig. It’s actually been very helpful in some ways to not have a regular backup band because it really forces one to stay flexible. You have to be willing to adjust to the different ideas and personalities that the players present to you.
How pleased are you with the album?
I am very pleased with the album! I feel that I was able to communicate something I find meaningful and did it in a way that suits my voice and personality.
The release event for Nancy Harms’s In the Indigo is at the Dakota Jazz Club, Thursday, November 19th, 7 p.m. in downtown Minneapolis. Call 612-332-5299. Harms is also appearing at the Jungle Theater, Saturday, November 21st in Uptown Minneapolis. Call 612-822-7063.