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22

Nicky Schrire: Permission to Be Yourself

Seton Hawkins By

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AAJ: This discussion of Bheki's music and the performance at Dizzy's highlights a pretty wide geographic loop in your career. After UCT, you came to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music, and you worked in New York for several years. You then relocated to London, and ultimately moved back to Cape Town. Can you talk about the initial decision to come to study at MSM?

NS: I said earlier that my influences were not South African Jazz vocalists, or even the kind of traditional American singers—Billie, Carmen, Betty—whose voices tended to be lower or more mature than mine. I was drawn to people like Jane Monheit, Stacey Kent, and Tierney Sutton. Basically, I heard the possibilities of my own instrument when I listened to them because they were also white women with soprano voices, to put it plainly! It was an era of MySpace, and I discovered Kate McGarry and Gretchen Parlato on the Internet. Geographically, it became a bit of a no brainer as to where my ears had wandered. While at UCT, I also attended Jazz in July in Massachusetts because Sheila Jordan was teaching there and I wanted to learn with her. At the same time I went to the Stanford Jazz Workshop on the West Coast so that I could learn with Madeline Eastman and Dena DeRose. I also reached out to Kate, Gretchen, and Dominique Eade for private lessons, which they agreed to. At the time, Kate was still living in New York and teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, and she was encouraging when I mentioned that I was thinking about applying there for grad school.

I applied to MSM to learn with Kate, and I also applied to NEC to learn from Dominique. I didn't know how long I'd be in the States and I wanted a life education too, so I chose to go to New York, because if you were a Jazz musician, that's what you did. As I accepted a place at MSM, I got an email from Kate saying that she was moving to North Carolina but that I would be in good hands learning with Peter Eldridge. Though I adore Kate, still had the opportunity to learn with her, and count her as a mentor, meeting and learning with Peter Eldridge changed my life. I don't know, maybe it was meant to be. So that's how I ended up in NYC and studying at MSM.

AAJ: In terms of the two schools, UCT and MSM, can you talk about the differences of approach in pedagogy? How did your own artistic work develop while you were at MSM?

NS: I wanted to complete my Masters through coursework, and not through writing a thesis. You can't do a Masters of Music through coursework in South African universities, so the United States' Graduate School approach appealed to me for that reason.

The level of musicianship at MSM was ferociously high because American students get such a high level of Jazz education from such a young age, as well as access to some of the best teachers and players around. I had 25 Masters classmates and there were three women—singers, obviously!—amongst them. It was an international group, a lot of kids from Germany, Austria, Australia, so a good mix and far more international than anything I would have experienced in South Africa. I was wildly out of my comfort zone in terms of being "Jazz Smart." I remember being assigned a "Giant Steps"-related assignment and realizing everyone else in the class had analyzed "Giant Steps" while they were undergraduate students. I'd been left up to my own devices at UCT and my self-devised curriculum certainly did not include "Giant Steps"!

So I felt a little underdeveloped in terms of some of the theoretical things, but I learned a lot in a short amount of time and thrived on feeling so challenged and out of my depth. I loved the balance of the vocal program. We had weekly master classes with Peter, Theo Bleckmann, and Darmon Meader, which taught me about arranging and band leading. My voice lessons with Peter covered technique, songwriting, and developing my musicianship. And artist-in-residence Dave Liebman came in once a month to regale us with tales of playing with Jazz legends and chromatic concepts. His approach to harmony and melody wasn't something I took to naturally but I let it wash over me. I ended up absorbing those sounds and feeling aurally stretched. In hindsight, it shaped me hugely.

AAJ: All of this leads nicely to 2012, when a lot of these things came together with your debut album Freedom Flight. On it, we see the music of James Taylor, Bob Dylan, and Loudon Wainwright representing some of the folk music you had grown up with. We also see original works of yours, and to your point of growing up with musical theater, we hear "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Camelot. The band also shows a community of MSM students and faculty playing with you. Can you talk about the decision to make that album, and the way you began to assemble these tracks?

NS: Freedom Flight came about in a very organic way, starting with the musicians on the recording. It's probably the closest that I've gotten to being in a working band. It was a special journey, and the product means a great deal to me as a result. I met Nick Paul, Sam Anning, Jake Goldbas, Paul Jones, and Jay Rattman because we were at MSM together. Brian Adler was the first musician I met in NYC outside of school. We played repeatedly at venues around the city, doing odd gigs while we were studying. They all played my final recital, and we recorded a lot of that material on the album. So it was a very natural progression from musicians to repertoire. I think a lot of people, especially when it's your first album, will say, "Well, that person is too young to record." But you're going to do it when you want to do it, and the truth is that it's a very expensive but necessary tool in self and musical development. The stuff that you learn recording an album you will not learn anywhere else, and those things make you a better musician. It's a labor of love, but it's kind of an extension of whatever education you've had up until that point. It just felt like a natural progression. I was out of school and so we went into the studio.

The repertoire had been honed during Grad School, largely under Peter or Theo's guidance. It's funny how Dave Liebman's influence has seeped into some of that recording too. There's some angular writing on my piece "Ode to a Folk Song," and I hear the Liebman influence on the soli on "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." His "chromatic approach to Jazz harmony" wasn't going to be a natural go-to for me because I'm a much more diatonic, melody-driven person. But there's some chromaticism on that album, and it's quite nice to know that it somehow seeped in!

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