NATASHA MILLER: SpinVintage (release date Sept 14, 2010)
Sooner or later, most singers get the urge to make a standards record. “And they always try to make it different,” says Natasha Miller, the sterling Bay Area-based jazz singer prized for her rich sound, streamlined phrasing and unforced feeling. “I wanted to make a standards album that was different different.”
Miller pulls that off brilliantly on her pleasing new CD, “SpinVintage,” a collection of classic songs that sound anything but standard. She puts a bracing spin on some of the best known tunes in the American Songbook, among them the Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” A deft musician with a keen sense of dynamics, tone color and timing, Miller brings spontaneity to the music while staying true to the melodies and lyrics. Her supple voice dances and floats through Adam Theis’ daringly original arrangements. His quirky and grooving charts, with their popping horn lines and moody film-noir flavors, frame and underscore the graceful melodies Miller sings, creating the yin-yang that gives this recording its singular sound.
“Adam is a wild man genius,” says Miller, who’s worked with the creative Bay Area arranger, trombonist and bandleader and his genre-crossing Jazz Mafia crew over the years. “I needed his playful insight into this music. I wanted him to take the standards I’d chosen – songs that were familiar to listeners and were my favorites – and basically create new songs from them.”
Produced by Miller for her Poignant Records label, “SpinVintage” is a major departure from the vocalist’s last two successful recordings, “Don’t Move,” from 2006, and “I Had a Feelin’,” releases two years earlier. They both featured the music of Bobby Sharp, the brilliant but forgotten songwriter who composed the 1961 Ray Charles classic “Unchain My Heart.” Miller brought Sharp back to public attention, showcasing many of his songs that had never been performed until she brought them to life.
With this new record, “I wanted to give the audience something they didn’t expect from me,” says Miller, a highly trained classical violinist from Des Moines who played with orchestras and chamber groups in the Midwest before moving to San Francisco in 1995 to write and perform her original songs. She worked in advertising while performing at night until the music took over and she gave up the day gig. Her signing career took off. Miller became a favorite on the Bay Area club and festival scene, and her two Bobby Sharp recordings brought her wider acclaim. Reviewing a performance of Sharp’s songs, Los Angeles Times jazz critic Don Heckman praised the way Miller sang the material “with sensitivity and insight, her cool musicality and clear articulation illuminating the unfamiliar pieces.”
A versatile jazz artist who can create a mood of hushed intimacy or hothouse exuberance, Miller draws inspiration for a wide range of musicians, from the classical violinists Itzhak Perlman and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg to singer-songwriter Ricki Lee Jones, the Police and operatic diva Frederica von Stade.
Miller does the one operatic number on “SpinVintage” -- “Summertime” from the 1935 Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess” – in a decidedly un-operatic manner. She sings it in a lower octave than the original, giving the song a bittersweet reading in a dark-hued Theis arrangement set in 6/4 time. It’s followed by Ray Noble’s lovely “The Very Thought of You,” which sails along in relaxed bossa nova groove perfectly suited to the smiling sensuousness of Miller’s vocal. “I wanted to bring out the beauty and simplicity of the song,” says the singer, who turns up the heat on a funky and joyous ride through the classic Etta James vehicle “At Last.”
The hip-hopping “Blue Skies,” with its darting, angular horn lines and “uppity attitude,” as Miller puts it, features an unexpected and delightful free-form rap by Dublin, a poetic Bay Area rapper who exchanges playful improvised riffs with Miller and trombonist Theis. Miller sings the very bittersweet “What’s New” with a kind of sassy irreverence that made her feel a little like Eartha Kitt. “The arrangement connotes her mentality and attitude,” says Miller, who enters after a strange intro featuring Sheldon Brown’s spooky bass clarinet. The soaring melody plays off the dark sounds bubbling beneath it.
Brown and other members of the blazing Jazz Mafia horns – trumpeters Erik Jekabson, Rich Armstrong, and Mike Olmos – appear on various tracks, along with other prime Bay Area jazz players such as pianist Matt Clark, bassists John Shifflett and Dan Feiszli and drummer Jeff Marrs. Feiszli and Armstrong join Miller for a wonderfully swinging version of Charlie Chaplin’s timeless “Smile.” Usually done as a ballad, Miller, who likes to turn things around, takes it a brisk tempo, singing the melody with the nimble grace of a tap-dancer.
“To me the song says joy, happiness, let’s keep moving,” says Miller, who’s faced a lot hardship in her life but keeps her chin up. “My life hasn’t been all that peachy, but attitude always has.” She knows what she’s talking about when she sings “Cry Me A River” – “It’s the story of my life,” she says with a laugh – one of the highlights of “SpinVintage.” She sings it with a blast of soul in a bluesy, saloon- swing setting.
The final three tunes on the CD were recorded live at Yoshi’s in Oakland, one of the country’s premier jazz spots, where Miller sings to sold-out audiences. A spare, mysterious version of “My Funny Valentine” is followed by a dramatic performance of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” which begins with a feeling of tender fragility, builds to a rousing gospel-like climax then comes full circle. It features the splendid pianist Mike Greensill, best known as the accompanist to his wife, the celebrated singer Wesla Whitfield.
“Mike has a great feeling for singers. He anticipated what I was going to do next,” says Miller, whose sublime rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance” is a stripped-down duet with Greensill. As always, she sings without artifice.
“This is a really listenable record, even thought your brain needs to figure out what’s going on sometimes,” Miller says. “It makes you think. I think there’s enough variety in the repertoire and approach than anyone can enjoy it, from the people who love jazz to those who’ve never listened to these classic American songs before.”
Don't Move! Once again, spunky vocalist Natasha Miller teams up with 83-year-old songwriter Bobby Sharp (Unchain My Heart, Don't Set Me Free), and this time, she’s got an album of destined-to-be jazz standards that outdoes everything she's produced to date. The new CD—Don't Move—features 11 songs written by Sharp, most of which have never been recorded before. That makes this album something of an historic event in its own right. What makes it a musical event—of the first order—is Sharp’s songwriting, Natasha’s gift for flawless phrasing, and stunning arrangements penned by a group of musicians whose roots go deep and whose talents run to the top of their class—pianists Bill Bell (Duke Ellington, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson), Larry Dunlap (Cleo Lane, Mark Murphy), Ellen Hoffman (Oakland East Bay Symphony, Linda Ronstadt), and Josh Nelson (Peter Erskine, Ernie Watts).
Some of the arrangements call for a 3-piece horn section and a string ensemble to augment Natasha’s jazz trio. “It’s only a 9-piece band, Miller says, “but the arrangements are so full and the band so tight, I sometimes think I’ve got The Stan Kenton Orchestra or Nelson Riddle and his strings behind me.” Sharp’s songwriting, as always, demonstrates his impeccable talent. He possesses an uncanny ability to unify the elements of his songs so they tell moving stories with a profound simplicity—always with style and grace (and sometimes, with a good bit of humor). Those elements, along with the energy Natasha brings to each song, make music you just can’t get enough of. In fact, the title of the album—Don’t Move—is not just lifted from one of the tracks; you’ll find it personally compelling. When you listen to it, you simply won’t want to—move, that is. “Bobby’s a genius, a one-man Mercer-and-Arlen team,” Natasha says. “His work will go down in the songbook of great American classics.” As she has in all her previous work, both live and recorded, Miller again demonstrates she can sing anything put in front of her (possibly even the phone book). Her voice harbors a rich palette of colors, sometimes sassy and insistent (“Don’t Set Me Free,” “Don’t Move”), sometimes sultry and ironic (”At Midnight,” “You Don’t Have to Learn How to Sing the Blues”), and sometimes wistful and longing, as in the haunting “Snow Covers the Valley,” with its hint of the tragic realities found in old Irish ballads. But even when she’s “A Prisoner of the Blues,” there’s no crying in her beer here. These are songs for grown-ups rendered by a 34-year-old artist who knows that even though fate may often deprive us from what we want, we keep on going anyway. What Natasha does is to bring these qualities together with finesse and power, delivering each song to the listener’s doorstep, where they don’t beg for entry, they come as familiar guests. Put all this together—vocal color, a tone that runs from hushed to fills-up-your-heart, a touch of attitude, range and power—with Natasha’s natural gift for just the right lyrical timing and you wonder how these songs could be sung any other way.
As if that’s not enough, there’s the remarkable “sound” of the recording itself, due in large measure to the fact the album was produced at Skywalker Studios (George Lucas) in Northern California and engineered by the highly-respected Leslie Ann Jones. When you get that much talent under one roof, both in front of the mikes and behind the board, wonderful things happen. The group recorded all 11 tracks in a day and a half. Most were “down” on the first take. Natasha produced this—her fourth album—and is funding it through her independent record label Poignant Records based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her previous release I Had a Feelin' (also a collection of Bobby Sharp tunes) was well received by jazz radio (charting in JazzWeek), and played by jazz programmers around the world. I Had a Feelin' has garnered local and national media attention and has sparked a movie production deal about Natasha and Mr. Sharp, as well.
And the band? It includes all the West-Coast musical heavies—Los-Angeles-based pianist Josh Nelson, and from the Bay Area, John Shifflet/upright bass, Tim Bulkley/drums, Rob Roth/saxophone, Jeff Lewis/trumpet and flugelhorn, Adam Theis/trombone, Liz Prior Runnicles/viola, Emil Miland/cello, and Natasha/violin. Don't Move is a CD with a rich array of color and emotion, bringing another segment of Bobby Sharp's songbook to life. There’s music here for everyone—a little bit of the blue and the noir and a whole lot of up-tempo, foot-stompin’ surprises. There’s also the touching duet, “As the Years Come and Go,” sung by Miller and Sharp, a love song written by Sharp in younger years, now a testament by these two friends to their remarkable personal and musical partnership.
Natasha is one of the Bay Area’s busiest performers and regularly sells out Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland. She made her Monterey Jazz Festival debut on Sept 18, 2005 with her 9-piece band to a standing-room- only audience who honored her with 2 standing ovations. About Natasha Natasha began her musical career as a classical violinist, serving as a concertmaster for a symphony in the Midwest and founding her own string ensemble, "The Sapphire String Quartet." She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1995 and began composing and performing songs, accompanying herself on the guitar and piano.
Charged with the passion for singing jazz standards with her pianist father, she began performing for private events, parties, and concerts and festivals, enlarging her band and mixing jazz tunes with her own pop/rock compositions. She spent her days working in the advertising industry and her evenings cultivating her performing career. In 2001, Natasha was a single mother working as a media buyer in an ad agency, making a yearly salary in the high fives when she decided she should quit her job to pursue her musical dream. She left her comfortable 3-bedroom home and moved with her 8-year-old daughter to a small one-bedroom apartment—just in case she didn't make enough money that first year.
Since then, she’s never looked back. In the beginning, she often performed up to 5 times a week in the evenings and on weekends. In 2002, Natasha produced her first album—a collection of her own work called Her Life, and later that year, her first jazz album, Talk to Me Nice. In Talk to Me Nice, she flirts with “Peel Me A Grape” and “Makin’ Whoopee,” swings through “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and creates an intimate yet ironic dialogue with personal tragedy in “Good Morning Heartache.” “Call these standards if you must,” a fan writes, “but there’s nothing standard about the way Miller brings these jazz treasures to life.” Then in 2003, Natasha discovered a gold mine. Actually, the gold mine discovered her.
Miller was giving an interview on KCSM Jazz 91 in the Bay Area, promoting one of her many concerts. Little did she know that listening that day was songwriter Bobby Sharp. Known for his hit song Unchain My Heart, made famous and a Top Ten Hit by Ray Charles in 1961 and performed more recently by Joe Cocker, Sharp was blown away by Natasha's voice. After hearing her on the radio, he figured Natasha would appreciate his songs, so he sent them to her. When she opened the package of his songs, including never-before-heard gems, she knew she had discovered a long-lost treasure of the most beautiful jazz ballads—lyrically masterful, melodically exquisite, and harmonically alluring. Five months later, she presented a concert in the great songwriter’s honor, bringing tears to his eyes and the sold-out crowd to their feet. Now, 2 years and 2 albums later, Sharp’s 35-year leave of absence from his songwriting career is over, his catalogue of songs is out of the piano bench, and there’s no sign this musical tandem is anything but just getting started. In addition to performing and managing her own career, Natasha owns her own production company, Entire Productions, and from a roster of over 400 top-call musicians of all instruments and genres, she books concerts and festivals in Bay Area venues and up and down the West Coast. She was recently named Woman of Achievement in the Arts and Entrepreneur of the Year by local business and professional associations.