An interview with Sophie Milman: We can bring new standards into jazz … Video

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Jazz interview with jazz singer Sophie Milman. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Sophie Milman: – I grew up in Russia and then in Israel. I moved to Canada at age 16. My interest in music has been strong since birth because music was always an important part of my family’s life. In Russia it was kids’ music and Russian bards and poets, along with some Beatles and jazz tunes. In Israel, my parents began exposing me to classical, Brit rock and more jazz. My father had put together an extensive record collection as a young man, mostly by trading things on the black market because the Soviet Union has a complicated relationship with jazz and western music, and albums weren’t readily available. This collection formed the foundation of my understanding of and love for music. And then I built on it as I matured.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the jazz vocal?

SM: – Ella, Mahalia Jackson, the Platters, the Beatles, Edith Piaf and Louis Armstrong, among others, were big part of the record collection above and I fell in love. There was something about the quality of the voices, the passion and the interesting bends and inflections in their styles that just hit me in the gut.

Plus, we didn’t have a lot of frills when I was growing up. We couldn’t afford a car for a while and when we could, we couldn’t afford a stereo, so I took requests and sang. Then when we moved to Canada and I was a lonely teenager, having to adapt to a new land and a new language, music was my friend and my escape.

JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the jazz vocal?

SM: – My first teachers were the jazz greats I heard on record. I sang along to them for hours and that’s how I developed my initial style. A high school teacher in Toronto was supportive and heard something unique in my voice shortly after I moved here. After that, I worked with teachers on technique, mostly to learn how to sing healthily because being self taught, I developed some very bad technical habits. However, stylistically, I’ve been shaped by the people I love listening to and the musicians I’ve played with on the road.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

SM: – My sound is a merger of North American and European jazz, French chanson, Eastern European Klezmer, Israeli music and Russian tradition. Honestly, I’m a mish mash of where I lived, my cultural heritage and the immigrant experience.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

SM: – My rhythm hasn’t improved through exercises. I got better though listening on stage and responding to what my musicians were doing rhythmically and harmonically.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

SM: – That’s Greek to me. I never studied music formally and I don’t approach music this way. I sing what sounds and feels good and respond to what’s happening around me on stage.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

SM: – To be honest, it’s hard to stay positive in an industry with dwindling revenues, where music is stolen or devalued with streaming rates that are so tiny, they’re laughable. And everything follows- people lose the habit of paying for something, they listen to music and watch videos at home for free, they lose the habit of going out to shows. Think about it, an evening out at a concert is expensive- it’s a cab, admission, dinner and drinks, a babysitter. Someone needs to really see it as a priority in order to make the effort. And at the same time, the costs of performing – touring, flights, hotels, gas, lessons, music education, instrument maintenance – aren’t going down; they’re climbing. I’ve been involved in advocacy work on behalf of music rights collectives over the years and the economic landscape is pretty dire.

But, and this is a big BUT: more than almost any other profession, we are entrusted with people’s emotion; their happiness. We help them feel and process what they’re feeling. There was a time when musicians could make a decent living playing music; it’s less likely now with the advent of digital technology, but as long as young musicians have realistic expectations, they are less likely to be disappointed. Don’t sell yourself for cheap and work hard, take lots of gigs and become well versed and diversified, both with respect to your instrument and in business, but always remember- when you’re on stage, you’re a keeper of people’s souls, burst your own bubble and go for it. I’m working on it myself. It isn’t easy; not by a long shot.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

SM: – See above.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

SM: – We can do that by being authentic and genuine and speaking the universal language of emotion. We can do it by modernizing standards from a harmonic standpoint or by choosing original instrumentation. Or we can bring new standards into jazz and translate them into our own language. Carmen McRae covered Santana and Stevie Wonder tunes; Ella covered Beatles tunes. If you think about it- the demographic that’s into jazz now- boomers etc- many of the standards we sing, are before their time too; but people reach a certain level of maturity and look for more than top 40. They look for music with universal themes and people who can play instruments, who can sing live. Jazz can satisfy that need.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

SM: – I think he meant that music is his language on the deepest possible level. It comes from a deeper place than just the combination of lungs-exhalation-reed-horn. That’s just the technical tip of the iceberg; the music, the feeling, the emotion, its ability to move and touch must come from deep down, from the soul. I think that’s what he means and I agree. I wouldn’t ever put myself at his level or presume to totally understand his genius. Coltrane spoke the language of jazz better and more fluently than I, or most, ever will. But when I’m on stage, and digging deep into a song, its lyrics, its soaring melody, I’m channeling something…. my essence, my life experience, my disappointments, my joys, my loves, my dead grandparents and those still alive, my parents hopes for me, my hopes for my children and the world…. And it’s a collective instinct, impulse and feeling. Probably, like for Coltrane, it’s more than lungs, air pressure, vocal cords, mouth. It originates from deep within.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

SM: – Ha, that’s a big one. I have young children and haven’t been performing as much as I used to. They’re on programs and get me sick a lot, which has been hard. And as any young parent knows, sleep is hard to come by; and the voice doesn’t work well without sleep. It just doesn’t. So when I have performed, I’ve had some anxiety because it isn’t a regular occurrence. I’ve also spent the past year retraining and learning a new singing technique that’s healthier and leads to far less tension and better stamina. It’s been hard but incredibly rewarding.

As far as the future goes, I look into the eyes of my beautiful children, and must believe that the future is bright, that things will work out, that I will find the right balance between family and the career fulfillment.

But on some pretty fundamental levels, the world fills me with both gratitude and fear. I’ve lived all around the world and haven’t been sheltered from its problems even as a kid. Global warming fills me with anxiety, guns fill me with anxiety, the political climate fills me with anxiety, xenophobia and tribalism fill me with anxiety, everyone screaming their opinions and insisting that their view is the only correct one fills me with anxiety as does the internet’s tendency to amplify and magnify absolutely everything. And our disappearance into the narcissistic world of social media away from the the world of history, art and great ideas fills me with anxiety as well. We were told that social media will spread democracy and enlightenment. Has it? On a certain level, we haven’t come much past he world Marvin Gaye captured in What’s Going On. I listen to that song a lot.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

SM: – I’d like to put out an album in 2019 celebrating an important, personal, 20 year landmark. Stay tuned 🙂

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

SM: – Sure, almost everything is fusion. Perhaps only old classical music is pure in form… Handel, Bach, etc. Or African drumming and chants or Native American or Canadian drum circles and throat singing. Everything else is fusion: a hodgepodge of influences. Jazz, originally, emerged at the intersection of African hymns and rhythms and European instrumentation and technique. Then it evolved to include Jewish influences, Cuban and Brazilian rhythms, etc. It’s been touched by every country, language and subculture. And that’s a great thing!!

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

SM: – Gregory Porter, Prince, Leonard Cohen, kd Lang, Michael Jackson, Rachmaninoff, Carmen McRae, Cassandra Wilson, Bill Evans, Clark Terry, Cannonball Adderly, Finjan, Paul Simon, among others.

JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?

SM: – Married with two kids 🙂 and a dog.
Oh musically? Piano, bass, drums and sometimes guitar.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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