When the gifted trumpeter-singer Bria Skonberg visited Paste Studios recently, she and her band were fresh off a triumphant tour of Canadian jazz festivals in Halifax, Toronto and Montreal. And she was still basking in the glow of having received a Juno Award (Canada’s equivalent of a Grammy) for 2016’s crowd-funded Bria, named Jazz Vocal Album of the Year.
A native of Chilliwack, British Columbia, Skonberg began playing trumpet in the 7th grade and by her late teens was working with Canadian jazz veteran Dal Richards and his Orchestra in concert and on recordings. After relocating to Vancouver, she formed her Bria’s Hot Five and The Big Bang Jazz Band, both of which performed around the Pacific Northwest.
By 2010, Bria moved to New York City and in 2012 released So Is The Day, her first album on a US label (Random Act Records). The following year she became a co-founder of the New York Hot Jazz Festival and appeared at that first annual celebration of ‘20s and ‘30s music with her Bria Skonberg’s Hotter Than Sextet. Her second album, 2014’s Into Your Own, found her stretching stylistic boundaries and on 2016’s Bria, her major-label debut released on Sony Masterworks, she explored a modern-day pop sensibility in the spirit of fellow Canadians Michael Bublé and Diana Krall while keeping one foot solidly grounded in the classic jazz of Sidney Bechet and Cole Porter.
For her Paste Studios appearance, Skonberg is joined by Mathis Picard on piano, Sean Eugene Zbigniew Cronin on upright bass and Darrian Douglas on high hat, snare and tambourine on tunes from her recent OKeh Records release, With a Twist. They open with Bria’s tango-flavored original “Same Kind of Crazy” before tackling Valaida Snow’s 1934 hit “High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm,” a vehicle for some Armstrong-inspired playing and scatting. She puts her own stamp on the iconic “Whatever Lola Wants” from the 1955 musical Damn Yankees by drawing on the Uma Thurman character from Kill Bill for inspiration while also contributing a nice plunger trumpet solo along the way.
“I had been playing jazz for several years before I went to New Orleans for the first time and experienced the music firsthand,” she says of the magical pull of the Crescent City. “And every time I go there I just feel like I’m just getting it on a deeper level.”
Bria nearly brings down the house with her chilling reading of an older original, her mournful torch song “So Is The Day,” which sounds like a cross between a New Orleans funeral dirge and a version of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” As she explains, “That’s a song I wrote a long time ago and it stuck with me for many years, for many reasons. It evolved for me over time about its own meaning, and what it means in the moment is always different. So it’s just nice to share more of myself with this audience by singing it.”
Her affinity for New Orleans comes across on several tunes on With a Twist, including her slow grooving Professor Longhair-influenced re-imagining of Ed Sheehan’s hit “Thinking Out Loud,” which concludes her Paste Studios session. “I had been playing jazz for several years before I went to New Orleans for the first time and experienced the music firsthand,” she says of the magical pull of the Crescent City. “And every time I go there I just feel like I’m just getting it on a deeper level.”
Skonberg, who cites Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Chris Connor and June Christy as her main vocal influences, mentions a few non-jazz singers who have also caught her attention over time. “One of my all-time favorites is Lauryn Hill,” she says. “I also love Eva Cassidy, Mariah Carey from the ‘90s. Why not? I fall in love with these artists, their personalities. I think we first get to love their music and then get to know their personalities and like them that much more.”
“I’ve always been interested in a lot of different kinds of music,” she continues. “And to be honest, when I moved to New York I saw it as kind of an opportunity to try a bunch of new things. Because I was strictly in hot jazz, recreation, doing a lot of Louis Armstrong type stuff, which I love and is a very important part of musical education, especially in jazz, to learn that stuff. But when I moved to New York I was just overwhelmed by the sights and the sounds and smells and the people and the culture and everything. So I just immediately started sponging that and trying to infuse it into my music in a lot of ways. And so writing the music, doing original music, has been a great playground to access and experiment with those ideas. But also I was very lucky to tap into an incredible community that is here in New York that focuses on the roots of jazz. So even as I stretch farther out, I’m still learning more about the history of the music, especially where it came from—this wonderful country from an immigrant culture. It’s just been a very satisfying experience, especially coming from Canada, to learn more about the roots and the history of the music. So I’ve learned to love the music even more from being here.”
Check out Skonberg’s Paste Studio session in the player below.