Jazz is and always has been an amalgam of styles and influences. In fact, that's what keeps it interesting and vital and always moving forward. Musicians from different backgrounds and cultures bring different sensibilities to the music and add new sounds and attitudes. Like the search for a beautiful melody that hasn't yet been discovered, sometimes finding a new combination of experiences or influences can be tough. Vocalist Sophie Milman brings a background to jazz that won't be duplicated. Born in Russia, she moved to Israel at age seven, and then on to Toronto at sixteen. Now 28, she's an international jazz star with four CDs, a Canadian Juno award and numerous international tours under her belt.
In spite of, or maybe because of, the fact she spent her formative years in lands far from the birthplace of jazz, her style is fairly conventional straight-ahead jazz. Her selection of material tends to concentrate on mid-20th Century jazz standards. In that sense, she is similar to Roberta Gambarini
, a vocalist born and raised in Italy who also concentrates on jazz classics. At her November 27, 2011 concert in Denver, Milman explained how she first heard American jazz from her father's record collection, that he accumulated while in Russia and brought to Israel. One of her favorites was Mahalia Jackson
. She liked to sing along even though she didn't know who this "Jesus" was that Jackson kept singing about. For Milman, jazz was exotic, something not found easily (or at all) in Russia or Israel.
This unlikely and circuitous route has led Milman to land solidly in the upper tier of female jazz vocalists on today's scene. Her powerful yet sensuous and sultry voice seems custom-made for standing in front of a jazz quartet interpreting timeless classics. Sunday night, she was completely at home onstage with casual and effortless delivery.
While Milman's style was nothing but tasteful, her backing band ratcheted the intensity meter up several notches when allowed to solo. Guitarist Perry Smith
and pianist Paul Shrofel each took several hyperactive solos that contrasted nicely with Milman's laidback vocals. In yet another contrast, Smith used a slide on several of his guitar solos, something commonly heard in the blues arena, but much less often in a straight-ahead jazz context.
Not all of Milman's repertoire consisted of the standard jazz canon, as she performed a song by fellow Canadian Leslie Feist, "So Sorry." As a singer/songwriter/rocker, Feist is a long way from jazz, but Milman's adaptation of her song fit right in with the evening. Another offbeat choice was Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," with Milman explaining that a song's lyric must speak to her before she can properly perform it and this one fit the bill.
Milman drew the majority of the material for her set from her latest album, In the Moonlight (Eone, 2011), including "No More Blues," which received the bossa nova treatment. Her international experience shone through on "Ces Petites Riens," which she sang in French, making it sound like it was straight out of a Parisian café. She cut her latest album with some of New York City's best jazz musicians, along with strings on several tracksa first for her. For the most part, the strings on the CD are not too obtrusive or overly lush, and the live versions of those tunes got along just fine without them.