It was her sophistication as a storyteller that leapt out when I saw the Canadian trumpeter-vocalist Bria Skonberg’s “Love Songs from the Big Easy” at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in February. It was a few days before Valentine’s Day and she basically told love stories, both in her banter (which was word-for-word in both sets) and in the songs she played and sang. Each had, in word and music, a narrative line. This was fairly specific, as would be expected, in the lyrics, but present in subtler, more evocative ways in the arrangements: arcs of experience associated with one or more instruments – emotional, sensual, energetic – stories in sound to be filled in by the listener.
The show was, even when posed in the present-tense, about things in the past: narrative is a telling, from a certain distance, of events in the there-and-then. This week at Joe’s Pub, I heard something different from her: jazz in the here-and-now, the crafted song reborn in the heat of the moment. Impulses hit her, or seemed to, and she followed through; emotions quivered as if never touched before; the echo gave birth to the sound. It was partly a matter of attitude. And maybe she, as a person, is at a different place, now, in life; her first big label album, from Sony, is, for one thing, out in the fall. The song selections were different, of course (with some overlap), and weren’t tied to a theme, and the venue (which is, along with Dizzy’s, one of the best in New York), had a greater intimacy. She was, in any case, there with us, and then, and we with her, and with an immediacy that I suspect is her normal element.
Which is all the more impressive given the historical allusion in her music. Most of the tunes are original, yet they sound like standards you can’t quite place. You hear something contemporary in the lyrics of a song like “So is the Day,” but it has a classic spirit, the past happening, uncannily, in the present. She calls out Satchmo as an influence, and New Orleans is at the base of her sound, always big but only deceptively easy. When she isn’t singing and playing her own compositions, she’s revivifying some old familiar song, like Sidney Bechet’s “Egyptian Fantasy” or Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” She is, herself, vividly present, like an enduring myth. Nordic and golden-haired (I heard someone say at Dizzy’s that “she looks like a Viking princess”), her persona calls up collective memories and makes new ones.
The going between trumpet and voice isn’t easy to convey on CD. Her first, So is The Day (2012), comes closest to capturing the dynamism of an artist who has, effectively, two voices. The second, Into Your Own (2014), reads mostly, to me, as a vocal album. Hearing her live enlarges the experience of each. There’s a spatial force to the drama with which she goes from voice to trumpet, or the other way around. It makes a difference whether the instrument is hooked on her elbow or out of reach, so that she has to dramatically recuperate it. It matters whether she holds it high, or bears down on the mike, or the first rows of the audience, or where she puts it when she’s ready to sing. She’s as supple on it as she is with her voice, growling, whispering, crying out, or shouting in triumph either way; when she goes from one to other – which way doesn’t matter – it’s to capture and follow an emotion in the moment. Singing and trumpet playing are both, of course, rooted in the breath, but there’s a rare continuity, in her, among them, two talents fused, hotly, at the source.
Playing with Bria Skonberg at Joe’s Pub were Evan Arntzen (clarinet/saxophone), Ehud Asherie (piano), Jerome Jennings, (drums/percussion), and Eric Wheeler (upright bass). For information on tour dates and CDs, visit her here. Click on Joe’s Pub and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for upcoming events at those venues.