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Katie Thiroux: Walking a Classy and Swinging Line

R.J. DeLuke By

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When I'm playing and I'm seeing the audience having a good time … They're excited and moving, I feel really good about the music. —Katie Thiroux
Katie Thiroux, a young musician out of Los Angeles, plays the bass and sings with equal conviction. Her musical experiences began with classical, but a career in jazz is what she eventually focused on and Thiroux—who received several accolades while climbing the tricky stairway of such a career—is making good strides.

A sideman on the contrabass with LA jazz groups going back to her days in high school, Thiroux is also a strong vocalist. Her study of voice is not a recent development. She had roles in the LA Opera and Opera Pacifica by the age of 10, and at age 12, was taking voice lessons from renowned jazz singer Tierney Sutton. One might think of Esperanza Spalding as an inspiration for combining bass and voice, but not so. Thiroux has always gone her own way and her journey to this point in her budding career is exclusive.

A shining example of where Thiroux stands today is in her first recording, Introducing Katie Thiroux, produced by drummer Jeff Hamilton. It's a collection of standards and a few originals done with her working quartet.

"It feels great to put something out that came so organically," Thiroux says. "No one told anyone what to do. I put the record out on my own. We're all really proud of it because we got to play what we wanted to play and do the songs we wanted to do, and the arrangements. It's a clear depiction of who we are. The tunes came together from stuff I had been hearing and playing for years. Like 'I'm Old Fashioned.' I probably first learned that when I was 14 or 15. You have to sit with material until you find your voice in it. I picked all the material... It feels great that the music is out there speaking for itself."

She met Hamilton when she was in high school and won the Los Angeles Jazz Society's Shelly Manne New Talent Award. It was a quick meeting, but a few years ago she went to see his trio play at a club. She stayed until late in the morning. there was a recognition, and the two spoke. She made it a habit to keep "bothering him," she says. "I would go see him play and ask him questions about Ray Brown, who is my ultimate hero. Jeff did so much playing with him. I took a couple of trio lessons with Jeff when I was still doing my master's degree. It blossomed into a nice friendship. It's been nice to have him around because he really, more so than anyone else I've met, really fosters young musicians."

The album features Thiroux's strong bass and smoky, swinging voice navigating tunes like "There's a Small Hotel," "Wives and Lovers," and "Shiny Stocking" with a strong sense of style, character and musicality. Her phrasing is evocative, never dull. It's a memorable start to a recording career.

The liner notes are penned by bassist John Clayton, a frequent colleague of Hamilton, but someone she met separately, at the Vail Jazz Workshop when Thiroux was in high school in 2005. Upon her return to LA after college and teaching, she reconnected and took some lessons from him, "or sometimes he'd say, 'Let's go for a hike.' I spent a lot of time with him and I'd get to ask him everything I needed answered."

Thiroux also had plenty of encouragement at home in a family full of musicians. She was playing violin at age 4, and it was her mother, a bassist, who suggested she tackle the large instrument when she was 8. Its been her instrument of choice, along with her voice, ever since. She took private lessons and played bass in the jazz band in middle school. Her high school, Hamilton High School, was an arts academy so her talents were nurtured further.

"I played classical music until I was about 12. I was singing too," she says. "I started singing jazz before I started playing jazz. I started studying jazz voice with Tierney Sutton. With all our lessons and practicing harmony, she said, 'You play the bass, why don't you play the root on your bass, and then sing the rest of the chord on top of it.' From there, it grew into a way for me to practice. I naturally started accompanying myself. Once I started transcribing bass solos—I just love doing that—I would transcribe Paul Chambers bass lines, and then transcribe Miles Davis trumpet solos. Then sing them and play them simultaneously."

While she had been involved in classical and opera singing for some years, "opera never moved me as much as jazz music. I didn't like having to do the same thing over and over again."

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