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Nicky Schrire: Permission to Be Yourself

Seton Hawkins By

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I don't think I was a natural fit for Jazz. Now I see that writing more was my process to figuring out where I belong, musically speaking. —Nicky Schrire
To follow the recordings of Cape Town-based vocalist and composer Nicky Schrire is to watch an artist evolve right in front of your eyes. With her 2012 debut Freedom Flight, Schrire demonstrated a supple soprano vocal technique and a knack for intelligent arrangements of unusual repertoire choices. Following it up the next year with Space and Time, she showed an uncanny ability to pare songs and performances down to their very essence, cutting away to reveal emotional truths in the pieces and singing them with an unvarnished and understated mastery. Additionally, canny listeners hearing each album also noted in Schrire a remarkable composer stepping to the forefront, as her albums began to allot more time to her original works.

By 2014, Schrire had released her third album To the Spring, marking a massive artistic evolution and shift, one that would ultimately find her leaving New York City for her home in Cape Town, transforming her performance style, and embracing a more Folk-driven aesthetic. Nevertheless, throughout these transitions, the core of Schrire's singing remained. Brandishing a clear, pure sound and a delivery that avoids affectation or overly stylized tactics, Schrire delivers music of astonishing expressive depth.

All About Jazz: Can you talk about your early music experiences, studying piano and saxophone while growing up in Cape Town?

Nicky Schrire: No one in my immediate family is a working musician, but my parents both love and appreciate music. I'm lucky that I grew up in a household that had a lot of music playing, mostly in the car. I'll be forever grateful for Cape Town's lack of public transport and for 17 years of being dependent on both parents for lifts to and from school. It's not only a great time for parent-child bonding, but you're also kind of captive in this vehicle and you have to listen and do active listening, which I think is quite hard for kids nowadays to do. If I look back on my parents' musical offerings, I can see clearly how my own composing and arranging have been influenced by their tastes. My mother was responsible for my Classical music—heavy on the Romantic and modern composers—and Musical Theater education. All that Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Oscar & Hammerstein musical repertoire is the basis for the American Songbook in the Jazz world, so there's a direct link there to my desire to sing Jazz as opposed to play it on an instrument. My father took care of popular music: Chicago; Blood, Sweat, and Tears; Levon Helm. He also introduced me to singer-songwriters that I revere to this day, like James Taylor and Randy Newman.

After initial piano lessons from my mum, I started piano lessons with Merryl Preston at the age of seven. Merryl was pivotal in my early musical education, and she would also shape the kind of teacher I strive to be. I learned about the importance of being able to read music, to practice efficiently—quality over quantity—and to develop one's musicianship. I started saxophone when I was 11 with Bob Mowday, and that introduced me to Jazz. Playing the saxophone also opened me up to the joy of playing in bands and that sense of community and "team."

I was a sax major for my first year at the University of Cape Town, but I wasn't happy. It really didn't feel like the sax was my voice. I was a strong reader but the moment a conductor pointed at me to take a solo, I felt totally incapacitated and crippled. Because of that mental block and a real desire to sing, I changed to being a vocal major in my second year of college, and something clicked for me.

I'm not a scatting vocalist by any stretch of the imagination, but I could improvise. I could hear the melodies that I wanted to create, and I could sing them. I remember my mother saying to me when I whined about not being able to improvise on the sax, "Well, maybe if you practiced more, you'd be able to do it and you'd feel better about it." And I retorted, "Well, I need to want to practice more!" I really believed there had to be that initial pull to spend time with your instrument. And I just never had that with the saxophone. With singing, I'm very happy practicing, doing technique for hours and engaging in process. I have a different relationship with the voice than I did with the saxophone.

AAJ: So when you made that switch at UCT, who was your primary teacher during that time?

NS: When I was at UCT as a singer, the vocal department was not what it is today, which is now much more rigorous and structured thanks to Amanda Tiffin. When I was there, the singers were kind of left up to their own devices. I don't know if it's that they were seen as second-class citizens, which is often the case with Jazz vocalists. But I remember that for the singers at that time, if you were in your first year as a Jazz singer, you would go to a Classical teacher for a year of technique. Then you would go to the Jazz singing teacher for your second, third, and fourth years of study.

So, even though I was in my second year, I went to the classical teacher, Anthea Haupt. I felt very much like I was behind in the technique department when it came to singing, which I was because the muscle had never been exercised. Traversing my range without Bar Mitzvah-type vocal breaks was not something I could do! What I loved about Anthea was that although she was a classically trained singer, she didn't adhere to a single training method. She was interested in newer methods like Speech Level Singing, but also used older Bel Canto approaches. What she taught me was that the best methodology is one that incorporates different schools of thought. Dominique Eade, who's a singer and a teacher that I really revere and love, subscribes to that school of thought too, if I'm not mistaken. I'm grateful for Anthea's openness in that regard and I try to practice the same adaptability with my students now, because then you really do teach the student and not the subject.

I stayed with Anthea for all three years that I was a vocal major. In my fourth year, I also learned from Andrew Lilley who is head of the Jazz Piano Department at UCT. He is a wonderful teacher and now a dear friend. The UCT Jazz Department doesn't do a lot of instrumental crossover like they do at New England Conservatory or the Manhattan School of Music, where a voice major can learn with a drum or a sax teacher. Without knowing it was the norm in American or international universities, I kind of pushed for that. I thought, "Well, Andrew's a fantastic jazz musician and I could learn a lot from him."

AAJ: While you were at UCT, you were among a number of really remarkable Jazz students who were studying there at that time. Can you talk about that community, and about the Cape Town scene at that point?

NS: The Jazz students at the College of Music vary in strength from year to year and that often shapes the Jazz scene itself. Cape Town is so small and the school system feeds the professional scene.

I was very lucky to be part of a strong wave at UCT that turned out particularly prolific jazz musicians. Some of those people are doing brilliant work now and are not just the future of South African jazz, but are the present: if you want to hear what South African Jazz sounds like and what its influences are today, listen to them. Bokani Dyer, the pianist, was a year ahead of me when I was at UCT. Bassist Shane Cooper was in my year, and so was the trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana, who now lives in Johannesburg. Chris Engel, who lives in Dublin and plays with a great Irish band called Umbra, is one of my oldest and dearest friends. The vocalist Nomfundo Xaluva and trumpeter Mandisi Dyantyis were a couple years ahead of me but were very much part of that wave too.

It was a rich, varied, and versatile group of people. And of course our lecturers, like Mike Campbell and Darryl Andrews were there and were great forces in the Cape Town Jazz scene. There were many more Jazz venues like the Green Dolphin and Manenberg's, as well as corporate work, and UCT Jazz musicians fed into the local Jazz industry. It was a very vibrant time.

AAJ: You spoke about coming to folk music, rock bands, Classical music, as well as the Jazz out of America's tradition. When did you start to encounter some of the original music, particularly Jazz, going on in South Africa?

NS: There wasn't really any South African Jazz in my musical upbringing. Compared to peers like Bokani or Chris, I was very uneducated about SA Jazz. Chris grew up listening to South African Jazz, specifically a lot of the Cape Jazz players like the Dyers brothers [Errol and Alvin], Kippie Moeketsi, Winston Mankunku Ngozi. Bokani's father Steve Dyer is a South African Jazz musician, so Bokani also grew up listening to local players and was ingrained in SA Jazz. It was actually through Bokani and Chris that I was introduced to Bheki Mseleku's music. Bokani organized a Bheki tribute concert at the College. I remember Chris playing "Angola" for me in the car and saying, "Listen, I've spoken to the guys [Bokani and Shane], and we think that maybe you can come and sing with us on this song. But listen, if it's not good, if it's not up to par, we won't use you." And I remember sitting there and nodding solemnly, determined to do a good job so I could play with them and be "one of the boys."

People ask me, "Who's your favorite South African Jazz musician?" Even with my limited knowledge—although it's better now than it was when I was at university—Bheki for me is in a league of his own and so underrated. I also feel like he gets overshadowed by Abdullah Ibrahim, which is a pity.

AAJ: It's interesting you bring up Bheki, as one of your notable projects found you setting Bheki's instrumental music to lyrics. When you played at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola as part of the Carnegie Hall Ubuntu festival in 2014, I know you performed your lyrical setting of "Closer to the Source." It seems you've since added lyrics to a number of his pieces now.

NS: For the Dizzy's performance, I needed more South African repertoire, and because my mother tongue is not isiXhosa or isiZulu, the SA Jazz Vocal repertoire options are somewhat limited. So I decided to write my own English lyrics to one of my favorite Bheki tunes, "Closer To The Source." Subsequent to that 2014 performance, Nomfi Xaluva [Nomfundo Xaluva] has sung those lyrics to that song, as have several students at UCT. There was clearly a need for more SA Jazz rep with English lyrics.

When I started teaching at UCT, decolonizing the university's syllabi was very topical, and the arts is one of the places where you really can incorporate more South African artists and writers. The singers need songs to sing beyond "Yakhal' Inkomo" or "Seliyana" or "Ntyilo Ntyilo," and the minority of our current Jazz vocalists are first-language isiXhosa or isiZulu speakers. Yes, they must learn to sing in those languages the same way singers should learn how to sing in passable Portuguese. But I also wanted to give them the opportunity to engage with the material and lyrical content, so I took a bunch of Bheki's tunes and wrote lyrics to them. Then I organized an internal concert at UCT where Nomfi, trumpeter Mandisi Dyantyis, pianist Andrew Lilley, and I performed the songs for the students. It's great because now the songs are on rotation and I'll get emails from people all over the country saying, "Do you have a chart for 'Adored Value'?" It's given a lot of vocalists an easy way to expand their SA jazz rep, and Bheki's music is now being explored by a new generation and shared with people who may not be so familiar with his work.
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