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From Clara City to the Twin Cities to the Big Apple: Singer Nancy Harms is on the move

In 2005, Nancy Harms was teaching elementary school in Milaca, Minnesota. In 2006, she moved to the Twin Cities to pursue her passion for singing. By summer 2007, she was performing in public. In 2009, she recorded and released her debut CD, “In the Indigo.” She spent June of this year in New York City, where she sang at the Bar Next Door in Greenwich Village. On Sept. 1, she’s moving to New York.

Harms is a study in forward motion.

I first saw her sing in April 2008, when her friend and mentor (and now booking agent) Arne Fogel invited her onstage at the Times. I came home and wrote, “I like Nancy’s voice and her broad, open vowels, and her red hat.”

It’s been fascinating to observe her trajectory since: performances at the Dakota, Barbette, the Red Stag, the Bloomington Center for the Arts, the Hopkins Center for the Arts, the Capri Theater, the Jungle Theater, Hell’s Kitchen and other venues, critical acclaim and national airplay for “In the Indigo,” growing confidence and stage presence, increasing willingness to take musical chances — in her song choices, interpretations, and the musicians she performs with.

In a way, it has been like watching a time-lapse film of an amaryllis blooming. One moment it’s a strong green shoot, the next it’s a fabulous flower.

I spoke with her last year, before her CD release at the Dakota and the Jungle. This Saturday is her official send-off show at the Artists’ Quarter, so it seemed like a good time to talk with her again.

MinnPost: What have been the major turning points in your life since you decided to become a jazz singer?

Nancy Harms: A lot of them have to do with the people I met. First was Arne Fogel. I instantly had feedback all the time, both musically and career-wise. Then Robert [Bell]  came along as a producer [of “In the Indigo”], and it was great to work with him. That was a really intensive time of thinking “What do I want to say as an artist?” Later I started performing with [pianist] Bryan Nichols. That opened up a whole new world. And then, of course, there was my visit to New York City in June.

MP: What happened in New York?

NH: I had my show at the Bar Next Door and the audience responded really well. It’s a little place, it was crowded and toasty, but with great listening energy. I met a lot of people on the scene. When I sat in at a jam session at Birdland, the owner came over and said, “Great job, I really enjoyed your singing.” I got to work with Sheila Jordan at a jazz camp, and she told me, “You’ve got it. You’ve just got to go out and be heard.” I made friends with Tessa Souter, a fantastic contemporary jazz singer. She introduced me to Mark Murphy. I did some open mics. And I got to see Keith Jarrett play at Carnegie Hall.

MP: How did you feel about the city in general?

NH: It’s addicting. When you love jazz, to be in a place where it’s that abundant — it’s like a candy store. The city demands a lot from people, so you get a lot of people who are willing to face a challenge for something they love. I want to rise to those kinds of challenges.

MP: Minneapolis has been your jazz school. What have you learned here?

NH: To be myself and follow my gut rather than think about trends. To relate everything I do to my own story. I grew up in Clara City [Minn.] and no one wants to hear about that, but it’s part of what makes me who I am.

MP: What will be the hardest thing about leaving?

NH: Definitely the people. I have so many amazing friends here, in the jazz community and outside. How can a person leave something so golden? But with the world the way it is now, it’s easy to contact people. I’ll probably get a lot of visitors and come home more often than I think.

MP: Where do you want to be in five years?

NH: I would love to tour. In September, I’m performing at a jazz festival in Norway. I would love to be on a label. I did pretty well [with “In the Indigo”] on my own, but it would be helpful to have a label. I want to keep working on musicianship, take more lessons, some jazz piano lessons. I want to have better chops for arranging and writing. That really helps you to personalize what you’re doing.

MP: Who’s your band on Aug. 7 at the Artists’ Quarter?

NH: Bryan Nichols, Anthony Cox, and Jay Epstein. It’s a band I haven’t played with before. So, for people who have heard me sing, it’s going to sound different. I’m honored to share the stage with those musicians.

MP: Will you have a garage sale?

NH: No. I went through a lot of my stuff and brought things to the Salvation Army. My parents are coming to pick up the furniture I want to keep. I’m moving with very little. I’m not even driving. I’m flying.

Nancy Harms’ Send-Off Show, Artists’ Quarter, 408 St. Peter St. (in the basement of the Hamm Building), St. Paul, Saturday, Aug. 7, 9 p.m. ($10).

Listen to music from her CD on her website. Here’s her January 2010 appearance on KARE11’s Showcase Minnesota.

If you miss Nancy Harms this Saturday, she has a few more local gigs before she gets on the plane: at the Hilton in Bloomington and the Red Stag, Hell’s Kitchen and Barbette. She’s coming back in October for two shows at the Capri with Katie Gearty and Rachel Holder. Visit her website for details. And there’s at least one more event coming up in spring 2011. I don’t have specifics yet, but if you enjoy jazz singing you’ll want to be there.

Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar, blogs about jazz at Bebopified and tweets about jazz on Twitter.

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