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Bria Skonberg: In Flight

R.J. DeLuke By

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It's like you have these wings... you can glide anywhere your imagination can take you —Bria Skonberg
Bria Skonberg's roots are in a city more than 2,000 miles—and a different country—away from New Orleans and the traditional jazz music identified with region at the mouth of the Mississippi River. But when she puts her trumpet to her lips and plays, whether with her own quintet or another formation, running through a standard or original song, the spirit of the Crescent City emerges.

Traditional jazz—particularly Louis Armstrong—is what first inspired the young girl in Chilliwack, British Columbia, to follow the musical road and take the fork that led to jazz. Her strong chops and brisk attack on trumpet have led her to the music mecca of New York City and fostered a strong career. She plays venues around the world and can be seen at all the major festivals. (This summer will mark her first appearance at the Montreal International Jazz Festival).

"My number-one hero is Louis Armstrong, for many reasons," she says. "He was an innovative, great, incredible trumpet player. An excellent communicator of songs and lyrics and rhythm. And a great human being. He was a great humanitarian. When he met people, he took them at face value."

That style isn't the only thing in Skonberg's bag. She is a serious player who incorporates all aspects of jazz. She listens to all kinds of music and that has an effect on her playing as well. As does life in general. And she sings. Quite well, in fact. Like her trumpet, her voice is bright and expressive; her phrasing brings a story enchantingly to the listener.

It has all been woven into a career that is on the rise. Signed to Sony Music Masterworks' OKeh Records, her well-received first recording on that label, Bria, came out last year. On April 2, it won the Juno award in Canada, the highest music award in that nation, similar to a Grammy, in the Best Vocal Jazz Album category. A second album has been recorded and comes out in May.

Skonberg has an incandescent charm and a striking smile. Her exuberance comes through on the stage where she has a natural rapport with an audience. It also comes through when she talks about jazz in general and her new recording.

"The album that was released in September was kind of a milestone for me, in that it helped me harness finding my voice. How my singing and trumpet come together with all the sounds I'm interested in," she says. "I'm often inspired by older styles of jazz—New Orleans, Ellingtonian type stuff. Sidney Bechet influences. It takes everything that I accomplished, as far as pulling together my style, on that album. The new one bumps it up with more adrenaline and excitement. I think it's pretty uplifting. What can you do in this cray world climate we're in? I wanted to put some love and positivity out there. Try to keep things upbeat."

Jazz, she says, is "the closest I can get to flying. When you have a good rhythm section, it's like you have these wings that support you and you can glide anywhere your imagination can take you. It's a beautiful, very free feeling to improvise. And it's about getting a sense of people's character when you hear them play. You get in situations where your on the bandstand with people for the first time and you don't even speak the same language. Yet you're able to communicate with music. That's really fun to me, to get a sense of people's personalities without saying words, is really fun. Or to listen to what you have in common is exciting."

Those flights of fancy carried her to France, Scotland and Hungry in March. The release of the new album will bring about a U.S. tour. The release party will be June 2 at the Highline Ballroom in New York City, part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival.

"It's really exciting. I wanted to capture the sense of love and adventure," she says of the new project. "Some of the tracks have 13 pieces on it. Everything from viola to trombone to marimba. On top of my regular quintet rhythm section. So there's a lot of different soundscapes going on. I'm lucky, thanks to the label support, to say, 'I have some ideas. Now I can try to exercise them.' There's a mixture. There's a few original songs on there, but there's stuff like 'Cocktails for Two,' inspired by Spike Jones. There's also an underlying theme of strong women. There are some nods to Peggy Lee and Nina Simone. I did one for Valaida Snow, who was a trumpet player in the '30s and '40s. There are standards. 'My Baby Just Cares for Me.' 'High Hat Trumpet and Rhythm.'"

Gil Goldstein did some arrangements for the record.

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