Music lovers are in for a rare treat as iconic contemporary trumpet players and vocalists Bria Skonberg & Benny Benack III embark upon a swinging celebration of the Great American Songbook with a 45-city North American Tour titled Sing & Swing: Our Great American Songbook, which will land at the Midland Center on Thursday, February 22nd at 7:30 PM as part of their 2024 Matrix:Midland series.
Labeled as “one of the most versatile and imposing musicians of her generation” by the Wall Street Journal, Bria Skonberg is a singular talent who has performed with everyone from Jon Batiste, Wycliffe Gordon, U2 and Sun Ra Arkestra to the nation’s top symphony orchestras. Her music has garnered tens of millions of streams worldwide; and the Juno award winner’s seventh studio album What it Means, which was recorded in New Orleans with the Crescent City's finest, will be released in Fall of 2024.
An Emmy-nominated trumpeter and vocalist, Benny Benack III (affectionately known as BB3) was recognized in the 2022 DownBeat Critics Poll as a Rising Star Male Vocalist and a top Rising Star Trumpeter. Part of a family of Pittsburgh jazz notables, he follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, trumpeter, and bandleader Benny Benack, Sr. (1921-86), and his father Benny Benack, Jr., a saxophonist and clarinetist who gave young Benny his first professional experience.
He has performed internationally as an Emcee/Host for Postmodern Jukebox, and appeared as a trumpet soloist for Josh Groban, Diplo, fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi, as well as cabaret legends such as Marilyn Maye and Melissa Errico. His TV credits include appearances in the house band of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as well as NBC’s Maya & Marty.
"We're both fans of the classic songbook era and the artists that made it possible," says Skonberg. "The fact that we're still playing these songs 75 to 100 years after they were written is a testament to their quality. Naturally, we gravitated towards the great pairings of trumpet players and vocalists, like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Prima and Keely Smith. We've listened to that music as long as we have played the trumpet. Also, the band with us is exceptional, so we'll discover and highlight everybody's hidden talents." The show, she notes, "will have a friendly variety show type of feel."
"I didn't grow up in a big city. I grew up in a small town," says Skonberg, a native of Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. "There was no way that anything from Jazz at Lincoln Center would come there. It will be a real pleasure to connect with people from different towns along the way. It's going to be a joy to get to spread the word."
A Decade of Soaring High, Digging Deep, and Discovering One’s Voice
It is upon rare occasion one hears a new artist give a performance, which thanks to a seamless combination of talent, artistic instinct, and creative vision coalesces into a major chord of harmonic perfection; but such is the case with Bria Skonberg the first time I saw her perform ten years ago at Bay City’s State Theatre.
A remarkably gifted trumpet player, a beautiful vocalist, and a composer who embraces a broad pallet of popular music with open arms, Skonberg constructs a dynamic and innovative sound, full of subtlety and nuance, yet built upon a firm foundation of Dixieland based Jazz mixed with equal amounts of innovative experimentation and rhythmic dexterity.
Saginaw’s legendary jazz-man Dave Oppermann first experienced Skonberg while performing with his New Reformation Jazz Band at a festival down in New Orleans and was immediately impressed with her. When he found she was on a tour and appearing in Ann Arbor, he booked her first appearance in this region at the State Theatre, which for me was a total excursion into musical joy and by all indications, indicative of the fact she was carving a road into a much broader and wider scope of success.
The Wall Street Journal stated that Skonberg was “poised to be one of the most versatile and imposing musicians of her generation” and in 2013 she earned a Jazz Journalists’ Association nomination for ‘Up & Coming Jazz Artist of the Year’ and is also included in Downbeat Magazine’s ‘Rising Star Critics’ Poll for 2013.
Her first professional gig was as a big band singer at age 16, doubling on trumpet; and at the age of 26 she moved to New York City, blowing people away with her powerfully controlled and brassy dexterity on the trumpet, in a style that seems like a fusion between Harry James and Louis Armstrong, all tempered and nurtured with a feminine sensibility that remains fluid, cultivated, and never forced.
As an original composer, Skonberg demonstrates a remarkable range and sensibility, and daring sense of experimentation, as witnessed on the outrageous and exhilarating Winin’ Boy Blues, where she works her trumpet with a processed patch embedded into her mute that harkens the experimentation of Miles Davis and a sound akin to the distorted soaring guitar lines of Jimi Hendrix.
The daughter of teachers, Skonberg is deeply committed to education. She is the co-founder and director of the New York Hot Jazz Camp, and has served as faculty at the Teagarden, Centrum and Geri Allen Jazz Camps, in addition to presenting hundreds of concerts and clinics for students of all ages, both independently and on behalf of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Jazz House Kids, and the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
As I began this interview with Bria, I decided a good place to pick up was with where we left off the last time we spoke about her then rising career back in 2014.
REVIEW: It’s hard to believe 10 years have passed since you last performed in the Tri-Cities and how the trajectory of your musical career has rocketed into the stratosphere with articles in Vanity Fair and the New York Times, major recording contracts, international performances, and pretty much being ordained as the Ambassador of jazz for a new generation. Looking back over the past decade, how do you feel about the arc of your musical career? When we last talked you were doing very experimental and creative original compositions, using a wah-wah petal on your trumpet and fusing jazz into other idioms, and now with this latest Lincoln Center tour you’re moving back to the more traditional pop forms of jazz music.
Bria Skonberg: It’s been a very interesting and exciting ride because sometimes with an artistic career you continue to forge your own unique experimental path, but then you start to look back at the body of your career and rediscover what your voice is, which is kind of what I’m coming into right now, although I’ll probably add things and explore the more I figure it out.
Before I moved to New York City in 2010 I did a lot of music from the classic jazz era from 1900 up through the 1940s and 50s, but my goal once I moved there was to try new things and stretch the boundaries of jazz, so what you saw me perform ten years ago was a unique branch from my tree that was starting to grow and flower.
But now, I’m exploring the stuff at the foundation of where it all began - strong melodies, songs that tell memorable stories through the lyrics of the people that created it - and that’s the trunk of the tree. Then you’ll see different branches I’ve created along the way, as I’ve fused interests and experiences into my work. I think it’s healthy to do that, but I always come back around to the basics. My big thing ten years ago was not to get pigeonholed and not do the same thing I had done before.
REVIEW: Actually, over the past ten years there’s been so many mash-ups and fusion stuff going on with different styles of music that it’s hard to pigeonhole any style of music these days. Country sounds like Rock, Jazz is embracing Hip-Hop, so what is your impression of the state of modern Jazz today? By going back to these classic forms you’re actually preserving the heritage of jazz - especially Dixieland jazz.
Bria: I continue to play classic forms of jazz because it continues to challenge me and solidify my foundation. It’s like a house - you can build a lot of different things on top of it, but you need a solid foundation.
Because the pandemic was so disorienting, a big thing I’ve been doing since it happened is coming back to the roots of jazz music, which is why I’m ecstatic to be doing this tour. I recorded an album of new material in New Orleans last year that will come out later in 2024 that we can talk about another time that contains a couple mash-ups, but I like to think of music like puzzles and finding commonalities between artists of different eras, because this reminds people that music has a lineage - you’ve gotta know where you came from in order to build out new branches respectfully.
REVIEW: Have you ever worked with Benny Benack before this upcoming tour?
Bria: This is the first time we’ve collaborated together, but I definitely knew who he was. Trumpet players are usually playing on opposite gigs, but the first we made music together is with that version of Duke Ellington’s In a Mellow Tone that is the lead single from his latest album. We nailed that song on the first take, which kind of frames the entire spirit of the show because that’s how it used to be - jazz artists did everything off-the-cuff to see where they could take one another.
The main Jazz at Lincoln Center team had the idea to pair us up and I had done a lot of stuff for them individually over the years, but about two years ago one of the directors called and said, ‘Hey, what do you think of Benny Benack because we’d like to build a concert around pairing up the two of you,’ so I said, ‘He’s great - let’s do it!”
The rest of the band we pulled together by making a list of our top 3 players for each instrument, which was an interesting mix of up-and-coming voices and some more established talents that also love the style of music we’re going to be performing, but this is also a long trip so they had to be nice people as well.
REVIEW: How did you decide on what songs to perform and how has audience response to your collaboration been thus far?
Bria: There’s a huge repertoire of material to select from that era, but we’re focusing more on the classics. Benny and I spoke for five minutes, exchanging what songs we liked from and the hardest part was deciding what not to play, because our list had far too many songs to do in one concert. But we shared a lot of the same songs so it’s easy to sync up with somebody musically when you listen to the same things. We made a list and went with what inspired us in the moment, because the emotional component is important when it comes to telling a story and making sure the voices and trumpets match.
The audience response has been good. We did a couple nights at Dizzy’s Jazz Club in New York and a working class in Florida and Benny and I both have a lot of natural energy and like to play for people, so the audience was very enthusiastic. This music is infectious. The melodies are timeless, as are the messages. Once somebody’s exposed to this music they fall in love with it, regardless of age.
REVIEW: When you look back over the past ten years are there any career highlights or experiences that truly stand out in your museum of recollections?
Bria: So the funny thing is, things had been building wonderfully for my career and in February, 2020, I got to play at Carnegie Hall, which was my biggest concert to date in New York City. It was an absolutely phenomenal experience. But then the Pandemic started and two weeks later I was playing ukulele on Facebook Live for tips.
Those were both extremely stark differences, but also both meaningful to me in terms of musical growth and a way for me to understand how people needed music and how I need people. It’s all about that physical connection and the momentum of a career and how we all got the rug pulled out from under us, which was very humbling - being forced to ask yourself what to do and how to do it? In retrospect, that experience of connecting through people during that period was informative of how I perform now.
Plus, I actually became a mother. I knew before the pandemic happened, but then having a baby during the pandemic was extremely isolating as well, and like so many of us that have had mind altering experiences over the last few years, all of that came into my music in different ways. I couldn’t wait to connect with people and dug in really hard to the minutiae of playing the trumpet, because after having my baby I had to learn the instrument from scratch.
I relearned both the trumpet and my voice at this point in my life again, and I think it’s been extremely beneficial to get reconnected and go back to the basics. I’m excited about this tour because Benny is a great trumpet player and singer and I know we’re going to be sparring a lot on stage because trumpet players are known to be competitive.
I’m just happy and excited to be back on the stage and in front of people, because this show is going to be different every night and a lot of fun. You start with the foundation and spin off from there.
Sing & Swing: A Jazz at Lincoln Center production featuring Bria Skonberg & Benny Benack III takes place at Midland Center for the Arts at 7:30 PM on Thursday, February 22nd. Tickets start at only $16.00 and can be purchased by visiting midlandcenter.org or calling 989.631.8250.
9th February, 2024