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Child prodigies—defined as a person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output at an adult level—come along in one out of 10 million or so births. Jazz singer Veronica Swift qualifies. At nine she recorded her debut album, Veronica’s House of Jazz, and also began touring with her parents, pianist Hod O’Brien and jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian. Her second album, It’s Great to Be Alive, was released four years later. In between, at 11, there was an appearance in the Women in Jazz series at Dizzy’s Club. Early video shows a youngster with poise, advanced skill and a vocal tone already rich and warm.
Swift has just turned 25 and has already had a full and important career to which other performers would aspire. Confession, her latest album and Mack Avenue debut is due out at the end of August, with pianists Benny Green and Emmet Cohen’s trios. Yet, growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, she says she had a very “normal” school experience, despite knowing that hers was not an average childhood. “It wasn’t until high school that the other students really got what I did,” she says, “but I never had a problem connecting with other people my age.”
In the 2015 Thelonious Monk Competition she was the second place winner and earned a Bachelor’s degree in jazz voice in 2016 from the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. That same year, her father died after a battle with cancer; to deal with the anger she felt she wrote a gothic-rock opera, Vera Icon, about a homicidal nun. Intensely self-aware, she muses that, in art, nothing ever fulfills its purpose or reaches its full potential. “So it’s just the beginning for Vera Icon,” she says. “Writing it was the greatest joy of my life—very much how it must be to be pregnant.” One of her goals is to bring Vera Icon to the New York stage in an Off Broadway production.
Swift’s drive was no more evident than in a recent performance at Birdland, where she has found a New York home. Club owner Gianni Valenti was quick to spot her talent and sign her to his AB Artists career management company. During the set in the newly opened Birdland Theater, Swift was in a contemplative mode, having just experienced the loss of a friend. She is aware that great songs can come from unhappiness— anger, sadness, dejection, grief—as well as the interpretation of them. Her therapy is the music, in putting those dark feelings into her work. She honored in song her father, “Uncle” Bob Dorough with “Nothing Like You (Has Ever Been Seen Before)” and Jon Hendricks with a vocalese rendition of Mercer Ellington-Ted Person’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. It became obvious that Swift, with her natural presence and beliefs about the dark side of life, knows how to harness the wind.
She uses the word “edge” to describe a certain angst or energy from underneath that flows through each and every song, adding intensity and yearning to it. “For me edge is mostly these negative, but powerful, energies that one experiences and are being channeled through these songs with the power of love,” she says. “If that aspect isn’t represented in these songs,” she affirms, “then you’re not seeing a true person on stage in front of you.”
Swift’s repertoire is extensive, changes with each performance and includes numbers from the ‘20s-30s, plus Swing Era standards and other classics of the songbook. She’s also at home with the bebop canon and much more. Her personal listening and tastes have been wide-ranging; she cites such disparate influences on her work as Anita O’Day and Marilyn Manson to opera. All of these elements inform her performances in specific ways, serving their own purposes. She explains: “Jazz allows me to feel warm, safe and grounded. Rock and metal and opera give me strength and empowerment. Electronic music makes me feel as if I’m high or in a trance-like state.”
With an uncanny ability to deliver flawless vocalese, she says she well understands that this vocal style is not for everyone, especially since the words fly by so quickly. She discloses that for her, the very attraction to it is the words. “When written well, vocalese is an ingenious way to tell a story through more complex narrative and deeper emotional concepts,” she explains. “The fact you have more melodic lines to put words to gives you the opportunity to tell the stories of these songs in a completely new light. You’re writing a musical in a sense, creating characters and such.” Swift adds that vocalese also allows her to solo in an instrumental form, often mirroring and mimicking instrumental lines, particularly horns.
In the few years since graduating from college, Swift has enjoyed a full-time career as an artist, leading her own bands and starring with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Chris Botti, Michael Feinstein, Clint Homes, Nicolas King, Benny Green and many more.
A little surprisingly though, she admits there’s more satisfaction for her in acting. “I am most happy performing when I am in a stage or film production,” she reveals. When she can be someone else, deal with props and work with other actors, then that story becomes a gateway to another universe. “When I can enter someone else’s world and tell their story, that’s when I’m at peace and most satisfied with my work,” she says.
As to the future of jazz in the hands of her generation, Swift cites Cécile McLorin Salvant, Cyrille Aimée and Jazzmeia Horn as jazz singers who bring fresh sounds yet also honor tradition. She admires their ability to maintain their own integrity and passions. Swift considers herself, as well as these artists and those like them, as voices who will preserve the art form but add to it as well.
“We just have to keep creating and staying true to our roots in this music,” she concludes. “As long as we do that we will be able to communicate and reach those across borders of all kinds.”
Read the full piece from: New York City Jazz Record