Singin’ the Blues from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan: Bria Skonberg performs with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra featuring conductor Christine Jensen, Orpheum Theatre, Friday, Jan. 17 and Saturday, Jan. 18, 8 p.m. For more information visit vancouversymphony.ca/event/from-billie-to-bob-with-bria-skonberg.
“Now in my day I’ve made some foolish moves/ But back then, I didn’t worry ’bout a thing/ And now again I still wonder to myself/ Was it her sweet love or the way that she could sing?” – Bessie Smith, "The Band"
Bria Skonberg wants to showcase all the colours of the blues.
As the trumpeter and singer contemplates the quintessential American music that Willie Dixon once referred to as “the roots” while “the other musics are the fruits,” she notes it’s important to know that the sound of the blues is much more than just doom and gloom.
Wynton Marsalis once said that “everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle,” while Buddy Guy has opined that people think the blues is sad, but when “B.B. King sings ‘I got a sweet little angel/I love the way she spreads her wings,’ that don’t sound too sad to me!”
The blues, she says, encompasses a rainbow of colours and a symphony of emotions. She’ll be adding her contribution to that bluesy discourse as she sings it from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan over two nights with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
“I chose this theme because I specialize in a lot of roots, classics, American jazz – which came out of the blues – and the blues is a really universal feeling that transcends a lot of musical genres,” Skonberg tells the North Shore News from her home in New York City. “This is a feeling that everybody can relate to, the feeling of having the blues, whether it’s wanting, or missing, or melancholy, there’s actually a lot of colours within the blues, and they’re not always sorrowful.”
Noting that many of the bluesy numbers will be peppy and up-tempo pieces, Skonberg, who’s primarily known as a jazz musician with a penchant for the genre’s old timey, New Orleans-inspired heritage, is set to perform music by everyone from Leonard Cohen and Louis Armstrong, to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, “one of the empresses of the beginning of the blues.”
“It’ll be really interesting to hear the juxtaposition of that with the pristine strings and the elements of the orchestra,” says Skonberg, on her and her band performing alongside the lush arrangements provided by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. “Music, for me, a lot of it is visual. I like to imagine a scene. By inviting more sound into it, it just creates a richer, fuller scene.”
A Chilliwack native who studied music at Capilano University and would eventually be profiled by DownBeat magazine for a series on 25 musicians destined to shape the future of jazz, Skonberg is reluctant to call her new album a jazz album.
Instead, Nothing Never Happens, while featuring her sultry vocals which evoke 1930s lounge singers, is built upon bluesy, gritty undertones, according to Skonberg.
Secluding herself on several writing retreats, Skonberg shut the door, drowned out the sounds around her, and waited to see what would come out. She also workshopped some of the material, which includes numerous original cuts as well as a Queen cover and a Beatles/Duke Ellington mash-up, at Joe’s Pub in New York, described as an eclectic venue not necessarily made up of jazz aficionados.
“The point behind the album was I got so overwhelmed by basically the white noise of everything going on in the world … and that’s the music that came out, there’s a tension to it, it’s conflicted, but there’s ultimately a silver lining of hope and optimism,” she says.
Growing up, before she picked up the trumpet and showed off her vocal chops, Skonberg started off by banging out tunes on the piano, but the rigidity of formal piano lessons proved to be too much, she says.
“I do remember getting in a little bit of trouble because I didn’t want to play what was on the page,” she says. “That tendency to want to improvise or riff on things, has always been there.”
Skonberg says she’s excited to play songs for her new album, alongside a bunch of masterpieces that owe a debt to the blues, during her return to Vancouver.
Citing a theme from the new album which could encapsulate the entire worldview espoused by generations of blues musicians, she says the records deals with these hectic times and that constant, ever-longing search for catharsis.
“Even when things look dire, if you keep going something will happen,” she says.