You think you know a song, then someone makes it new again. Like “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Talk about a chestnut. It’s been around since 1926. Countless versions have been recorded; there are hundreds on iTunes. But I’d never heard one that gave me chills until Nancy Harms sang the arrangement she wrote with guitarist Robert Bell.
Listen. First the bass, all alone in the world. Then the voice, lush and distinctive, with a hint of purr. Traditionally, the chorus ends “Make my bed and light the light/I’ll arrive late tonight/Blackbird, bye-bye,” but here “Blackbird, bye-bye” is gone; “I’ll arrive late tonight” stretches to fill the space, overlapped by muted trumpet, soft piano chords, cymbals.
Is “I’ll arrive late tonight” a promise or a threat? Should you triple-lock the door or throw it wide?
“Blackbird” is the first track on Harms’ debut CD, “In the Indigo,” a mix of standards, covers, originals, and a John Mayer tune. Featuring Tanner Taylor on piano, Graydon Peterson on bass, Jay Epstein and Spencer McGinnis on drums, Kelly Rossum on trumpet, Robert Bell on guitar, and Chico Chavez on cajon (wood box drum), it’s a diverse and polished showcase for an exceptional new voice.
The CD release takes place over two events this week: Thursday at the Dakota and Sunday at the Jungle.
Full disclosure: Nancy and I are friends. We go to jazz shows together. We’re both Kurt Elling fans. I contributed a quote to the back of her CD, for which I was paid. So I’m going to let others praise “In the Indigo.”
Tom Surowicz: “A terrific debut CD. … Harms’ voice is lovely, husky and lived-in, while her delivery is intimate, personal, almost conspiratorial.” Jon Bream: “Quiet confidence, an innate sense of swing and languorously seductive phrasing. … Quite impressive.” Andrea Canter: “A voice that delivers with subtle power and insight.”
Harms grew up in Clara City, Minn., singing in school and church choirs. She graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, where she was involved in the classical music program and jazz bands, and taught elementary music in Milaca before moving to the Twin Cities in 2006. Wearing my MinnPost hat, I spoke with her last week.
MinnPost: You had a job. You had a life. What made you decide to become a jazz singer?
Nancy Harms: It was really about a great discontentment. I was always wondering if teaching was what I was supposed to be doing. I thought about myself in that position five years down the road, and it was painful to me. … Friends encouraged me to move to the Cities. I wasn’t sure I would pursue jazz right away, but I was magnetically drawn to it. I thought, maybe when I’m 50, I’ll have enough knowledge to get up and sing in a club.
MP: I was just reading about jazz singer Gretchen Parlato, who came from an artistic family. That was not the case for you.
NH: My grandmother was musical, but she didn’t pursue it. My parents are not musical at all. I look like them, but they’re somewhat puzzled as to where I came from.
MP: When did you first become aware of jazz?
NH: When I was in high school, watching David Letterman. Harry Connick Jr. was swinging like crazy. That’s how it started, loving the swing stuff. … Another epiphany was listening to Kurt Elling’s “Night Moves” CD in the car. I couldn’t stop listening.
MP: Was there a particular moment when you knew this was your path?
NH: I had my doubts at first, but I also had hope: Maybe the thing you love is the thing you get to do. … One night in 2007 I was at the Fine Line, my first gig at a bigger place, and my good friends Siri and Mike were in the audience. They sat completely still the whole time. After, one of my roommates asked Mike, “Aren’t you into dancing?” He said, “I couldn’t move. I was shaking.” That night we all realized, I get to do what I love.
MP: How did you choose the musicians you worked with on the new CD?
NH: They are all people I have worked with a lot. The one I hadn’t worked with much was [trumpeter] Kelly [Rossum]. Miles Davis is my favorite instrumentalist, and I started thinking, wouldn’t it be fun to have something similar to that? Bittersweet, not afraid to be spacious.
MP: What will we hear at your CD release on Thursday?
NH: Lots of standards. Some new things I’ve been working on. I have plenty to choose from. The percussionist [Chico Chavez] will probably be in the house. Robert [Bell] will play on some of the tunes as well.
MP: How will Sunday’s show at the Jungle be different?
NH: It’s going to be more theatrical, with three different sets. The Twin Cities Hot Club will play, I’ll sing a couple of tunes with them, then Arne [Fogel] will come up and sing with my band. We’ll end the show with the CD. It will have a festive feel. I’ve invited people from out of town, from my previous lives.