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The ‘Confessions’ of Veronica Swift

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The new album by self-assured 25-year-old jazz singer Veronica Swift begins with an auspicious announcement of sorts: “I may be unknown, but wait till I’ve flown,” she confides over a delicate, insinuating piano introduction. “You’re gonna hear from me.”

With those lyrics, courtesy of a 1965 song by André and Dory Previn famously sung by Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Nancy Wilson, Swift stakes her claim as one of the most irresistibly talented jazz vocalists of her generation.

Although it’s her major label debut, Confessions (Mack Avenue) is not her first. That came in 2004 when she was a precocious child. Produced by her father, the late jazz pianist Hod O’Brien, that early effort featured backup vocals from her mother, noted jazz singer and vocal instructor Stephanie Nakasian, and Richie Cole on saxophones.

Listening to the 9-year-old Veronica sing bebop standards like “Twisted” and “Donna Lee” is a mildly unsettling experience. She isn’t in the least intimidated by the material, and she scats with abandon. Yet, while she remains firmly in tune, she couldn’t, at 9, sing with precision the complicated bebop lines in her head. But what’s in her head is incredible.

Back then, when Swift was just a talented kid, she accompanied her parents on the road, sometimes taking a nap backstage in the bass case. Today, Swift is headlining at jazz festivals around the world, including Monterey, Montreal and, this past summer, Umbria, Italy, and Marciac, France. In December, she performed with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on their annual holiday tour and has appeared as a featured performer with trumpeter Chris Botti.

The new album, two years in the making, is a carefully curated collection of standards. An artist who clearly relishes jazz tradition, Swift manages to find the contemporary in American classics, bringing a combination of passion, humor and just a touch of millennial insouciance to her readings of lyrics that might be 50 or 70 years old. Accompanied alternately by two immaculate, powerhouse piano trios—led by Benny Green and Emmet Cohen playing Swift’s own arrangements—she takes on repertoire from composers like the Previns, Dave Frishberg, Mel Tormé, Dietz & Schwartz, and longtime family friend Bob Dorough. There is one original: “I Hope She Makes You Happy,” a composition that sounds like a vintage tune, perfectly suited to the collection. “She is an amazing creative spirit,” Nakasian said recently in a phone interview from Rhode Island, during a break from her own summer tour. “I’m proud all the time.”

Nakasian, who first gained fame in the mid-1980s touring and singing with vocalese legend Jon Hendricks, said she and O’Brien were protective parents, never pushing Veronica onstage. But one night, when the couple was performing at New York’s Jazz Standard, they allowed their daughter to sing a number with them. “And afterwards she said, ‘Mommy, I’m sorry!’” Nakasian recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘I got more applause than you did.’”

Then there was the time when Nakasian and a 12-year-old Swift went to see bebop singer Annie Ross (the Ross of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross) perform in New York, and the youngster sat in on a number. Afterward, Ross said to her, “My goodness, Veronica, that was amazing ... but don’t come back too often!”

Fast forward to 2019: an evening in late June, and Swift is singing at Birdland, where she used to hold a residency on Saturday nights, way back when she was 23. Now a seasoned pro, on this night she’s a special guest of the Django Festival All Stars, the virtuosic exponents of Django Reinhardt and Le Jazz Hot, with whom she has appeared off and on for two years. “Two years is a long time when you’re 25,” she told the packed house.

On her first number, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” she displayed exquisite control and nuanced phrasing, wringing fresh pathos out of the familiar lyric, and commanded the stage in a way that’s highly unusual for someone her age. A scat conversation with the group’s accordionist, Ludovic Beier, followed, Swift imitating the timbre of a muted trombone with gusto and imagination. Many of her best qualities were represented during the performance: her remarkable gift for scat singing, her vulnerable emotionality and commitment to the lyric, her mastery of her vocal instrument, her pure tone (which often calls to mind Ella Fitzgerald) and her flirtation with time (influenced by her admiration for Anita O’Day).

A few hours before the Birdland show, Swift arrived at Elephant & Castle, a brunch spot in Greenwich Village. She’d just come from an on-air WBGO interview with Michael Bourne for his “Singers Unlimited” program. It wasn’t her first time on the show, either. Years ago, the radio host interviewed her parents, then asked the young prodigy a few questions; she was 10. What did she have to say? “You think I remember?” she joked. “Probably something like, [assuming a little girl’s voice] ‘Hi, I’m 10. I like jazz.’”

Swift adopted her stage name, with her parents’ permission, before her childhood debut album. “My dad was adopted,” she explained. “His biological father’s name was Swift. I wanted to establish my own name.” Even then she had a sense she would be an artist with her own identity.

She doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t listen to jazz. “That was all I was exposed to. Before I was even born, in utero, Mom was doing concerts. I was always hearing bebop ... it’s like when you hear your language growing up. There’s a language and vocabulary to the music. I’ve been hearing it before I even could speak.

“When I was 4 or 5 years old, I was obsessed with Stravinsky and Bach. The Rite Of Spring was—is—my favorite piece of music. It evokes every emotion I’ve ever felt in one sitting. I was singing Bach lines before I was in grade school. I didn’t think I was anything special. I just liked to sing stuff that kids my age didn’t listen to. So, I knew I was different.”

Her current path has not been without a few twists and turns. Before coming in second at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2015 (Jazzmeia Horn won that year), she had been thinking about doing something completely different.

“When people ask what I do, yeah, I’m a jazz singer, but I’m really a storyteller,” she said. Her mother remembers her as a child telling stories from the back seat during long drives, “for 20 minutes at a clip. It was an early sign of her abilities as a storyteller.”

In 2013–’14, while studying at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, Swift said she went through a rough patch emotionally; she cited the loss of her childhood home in a fire and difficulty adjusting to the demands of college as contributing factors. She dealt with it by taking a semester off to explore goth-rock as both composer and performer, writing an alt-rock opera called Vera Icon about a nun with a dark side. “I did rock ’n’ roll stuff for two years,” she said, “and I felt free and at peace with myself onstage from singing rock ’n’ roll.”

In all, she said, she has written three musicals and three screenplays. “I couldn’t be the artist I am today without having sung the rock stuff. I think it gives me that edge. It helped me find my own voice.”

She first met pianist Cohen, 29, when she attended a concert he played at the Frost School (the pianist is also an alumnus). When she got to New York, it was Cohen who took her under his wing and introduced her to the jazz scene, including players like bassist Russell Hall, drummers Kyle Poole, Evan Sherman and Bryan Carter, and singer-trumpeter Benny Benack III, who gigged regularly at Smalls, Dizzy’s and Smoke. He also introduced her to several living jazz masters with whom he’d played, including Jimmy and Tootie Heath, Jimmy Cobb, Houston Person and Ron Carter.

Cohen, winner of the American Pianists Association’s 2019 Cole Porter Fellowship award, said, “We had instant chemistry. She hadn’t felt that from a peer up until that point, and neither had I from any singer I’ve known. She can access the emotion of a song more directly than any other singer I’ve ever worked with, feeling the sadness of a lyric and relating it to her life. I’ve seen tears well up in her eyes when she sings.”

Swift and Cohen’s compatibility is based, in part, on a shared interest in vintage songs, he said. “Whether it’s the repertoire of Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller or Thelonious Monk, I like putting a modern twist on them, and so does she.” One example from the new album cited by Cohen: a minor but clever update to Frishberg’s immortal lyric to “I’m Hip,” revising “I’m gettin’ my kicks/ Watchin’ arty French flicks with my shades on” to “I’m gettin’ my kicks/ Yes, I’m watching Netflix with my shades on.”

Confessions, as the title implies, has an aura of autobiography to it, even if the lyrics might not directly correspond to events in Swift’s own life. “My parents taught me never to sing about something I hadn’t experienced,” she said.

“She simply won’t sing a song that doesn’t have meaning for her,” Nakasian said. “It’s very personal with her. What you see on stage is who she is. I learn from her, seeing her go for the jugular all the time. I like who she is. She’s loving. She could she get a tougher skin, but she’ll get that as she goes on.”

Although her mother never gave her formal voice lessons, both parents gave her hard-won wisdom about programming and managing a music career. Swift said this included “being grateful for what you have, and—maybe the most important thing—how to manage my time. My mom and I both tend to say yes to too many things. You have to make priorities constantly.”

The way she brings drama to her songs is something she shares with another leading jazz vocalist, Cécile McLorin Salvant. “The drama part is important to her,” Nakasian said. “Jon Hendricks said to me, ‘In real art, there is no competition.’ She and Cécile are both theatrical, although very different. There used to be a distinct line between cabaret and jazz. It’s more blurry now. Now, it’s not unhip to be theatrical.”

Having learned so many songs from her parents gives Swift yet another advantage. A good example is her choice of “A Little Taste,” the second cut on Confessions. The song is a classic instrumental by Johnny Hodges to which Frishberg wrote a wry, witty lyric about indulging in adult beverages. It’s rarely been covered.

“That song was her choice,” said Green, whose trio accompanied her on the tune. “She comes up with this really hip repertoire, obscure songs with a brilliant lyric or an intriguing melody. She owns that now, doesn’t she?”

Swift had the opportunity to perform the song for Frishberg, now 86, at Portland’s PDX Jazz Festival, along with “I’m Hip” (written with the late Dorough). “He said he was touched,” Swift said. The memory overwhelms Swift with emotion.

Losing her father at a young age has clearly had an impact on Swift. Hod O’Brien, a bebop pianist who played with Chet Baker, Donald Byrd and Art Farmer, died of cancer on Nov. 20, 2016, at the age of 80, when Swift was 22. “I was born when he was 58. I always had the oldest father of any of my friends. So, I was aware of his mortality,” she reflected.

“He wasn’t much of a talker. But I learned from him when to talk and when not to talk. And when he did talk, everyone listened. He had a spiritual presence.” She takes some comfort knowing that, before his passing, “he saw me arrive,” she said. “I feel lucky that we had a complete relationship. That’s all we can hope for. There’s no perfect ending or closure. That’s a fallacy. But a complete relationship—that’s a beautiful thing.”

In the past few years, Green, 56, has become a special kind of a mentor to her. “Playing with him is like playing with a long-lost older brother,” she said.

“All the older cats love her,” Green said. “It’s important for Veronica to feel that connection with older musicians. For me, working with her has been an inspiration. I’m very particular. I mostly work as a leader these days. So, for me to work with someone younger, and for them to lead my trio, is a bit of a stretch. Ultimately, it’s not about how old the person is or how well known they are. It’s about, ‘Are we on the same page musically?’ It’s really a gas to play with someone who’s so right-now and old-school at the same time.”

Or, as Cohen put it, “She’s the total package. Once I asked [drummer] Tootie Heath if he missed the New York jazz scene. He said, ‘Nah—I am jazz.’ When I meet someone like Veronica, that’s what I feel—she is jazz.” DB


Read the full piece from: Downbeat

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