LondonJazz News: You’ve got an attachment to several cities - London, New York, Cape Town - what's your story?
Nicky Schrire: My parents are South African and lived in London for about thirty years during which time they had children. They moved my siblings and me to Cape Town, South Africa in 1991, after Mandela's release from Robben Island. So I grew up in SA and feel very much South African as a result of having spent eighteen years there.
I got my Bachelor of Music Degree from the University of Cape Town’s SA College of Music, and then moved to New York to pursue my Masters Degree at the Manhattan School of Music. I graduated in 2011 and spent the following three years living in the city, working both in music and arts-related fields, meeting musicians and playing in venues in NYC, Boston, Los Angeles and Portland.
LJN: And what made you leave New York and come to London?
NS: Earlier this year, it became apparent to me that my relationship with NYC had run its course (for now, at least). I love Cape Town and my immediate family and friends are there, but I’m not ready to live there again. New York had given me the experience of living in a real city, a place with great public transport, a buzzing cultural scene and a cosmopolitan pace. I knew that I wanted to carry on living in that kind of environment, but with a little more space (to think and live), greenery and family and friends. And that’s how I find myself in lovely London, partaking in ample scone ceremonies and pilgrimages to Jane Austen’s house!
LJN: In the course of releasing two albums and an EP, several journalists have compared you to musicians like Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens, Norma Winstone, and even Esperanza Spalding. Your music also gets labelled as “pop jazz” or “jazz singer-songwriter” material. How would you categorise or describe your music?
NS: It’s hugely flattering to be compared to those vocalists. For writers and listeners to hear even an inkling of their influences in my music and delivery is immensely validating.
Gretchen is one of the first people I approached for a lesson when I visited New York in 2007. I adored (still do!) her debut self-titled album and was thrilled to meet her in person and to enter into a kind of unassuming mentorship with her. She’s very thoughtful and chooses her words carefully creating a gentle manner of guidance. I feel similarly about Norma. I’ve only ever had one lesson with her and it was more like an extended “tea time with Norma”. I basically asked her questions about her musical adventures until she found a way to have me forcibly removed from her abode! She was incredibly generous and is quite underrated and understated while being a truly progressive voice in the jazz vocal industry-historically and currently.
I love Becca’s music and feel lucky to be part of a generation that is seeing the rise of people as creative, versatile and musically exciting as her. And of course there are other singers I’ve been likened to that, for personal reasons, make me feel like I’m on the right track or at least absorbing good things from good people-the magical Kate McGarry and Sara Gazarek are two of those people.
I really don’t mind labels in music and I understand why many people need to categorise things. I was schooled in the American jazz tradition and I learnt how to scat and sing gems by George Gershwin and Cole Porter. However, I also grew up listening to radio programs blasting Top 40 tunes and being force fed a musical diet of Julie Andrews meets Blood, Sweat and Tears thanks to my parents. As a result, I’ve found it more interesting to try and blend the various styles I love (pop, folk, contemporary classical, South African music) with the jazz foundation I’ve developed.
I’ve taken the aspects I love most in jazz-improvisation, reharmonisation- and tried to maintain their presence while reimagining songs by The Beatles and Bob Dylan, as well as writing original music in that vein. I believe in the strength of a well-constructed song. A tune with poignant but clever lyrics, a memorable melody, a grounded sense of harmony. That’s the kind of music I’d like to compose.
LJN: What repertoire will you be playing at The Pheasantry on Sunday 28 September?
NS: This concert will probably be the best balanced performance I’ve done in a while. There will be music from my first album Freedom Flight - since I moved towards playing mostly original repertoire this recording doesn’t really get a look in because it contains mostly covers. But we’ll be revisiting the token two original tunes on it. There will also be a song or two from my duo album Space and Time as well as some solo voice pieces. The majority of the music will be originals that have yet to be recorded but have been in existence for three or so years. And there will also be some songs from the South African jazz lexicon that I’m airing before performing them in New York for Carnegie Hall’s UBUNTU Festival, which celebrates South African musicians and music.
LJN: As a relative newcomer to the London jazz scene, how did you choose the musicians who’ll be performing with you?
Nicky Schrire: I spend a lot, and I mean a lot, of time on the internet doing research. This was especially true when I started contemplating moving to London. I like to know about various scenes, how the dots connect, who’s playing with whom, and which venues/festivals/movers and shakers are worth knowing about.
So, I definitely made sure I approached musicians who would be a good fit for my music and me. Tom Hewson (piano) had played with vocalists I knew and I was really impressed by a solo album of his Slightly Peculiar. His writing and actual playing spoke to me immediately. A friend recommended I check out bassist Matt Ridley and I really liked his versatility (folk, West End, world music) and the fact that he’d played with Darius Brubeck. A South African connection is a good thing in my books! (Darius founded and led the jazz program at the University of KwaZulu-Natal before moving to the UK).
I was an admirer of Adam Waldmann’s work as a saxophonist and leader of Kairos 4tet. Their last recording “Everything We Hold” was particularly moving and featured several singers, so I knew that Adam was someone who enjoyed working with vocalists. That’s really important to me because there’s nothing more challenging and disappointing than finding yourself on the bandstand with instrumentalists who loathe vocalists. Lloyd Haines was recommended by several people-always a good sign. I listened to his playing online and was impressed by his sensitivity but also presence. There's nothing worse than a drummer who sees a singer take the bandstand and switches to brushes! I thought Lloyd would be a colourful drummer and would keep me on my toes, along with the rest of the lads.
They’re all tremendous musicians, with lovely personalities, and I’m really looking forward to hearing how they breathe life into this music and put their stamp on it.
Nicky Schrire Quartet featuring Adam Waldmann play at The Pheasantry, Kings Road on Sunday 28th September, music from 8:00pm.
Nicky Schrire's website / BOOKINGS
LINKS: Review of CD space and time / Review of CD/ EP To the Spring