Spotlight On…Nicky Schrire


Photo: Jonx Pillemer

Singer-songwriter Nicky Schrire completed her Masters of Music at Manhattan School of Music, which is how she came to be in New York City, and how I came to meet her. I heard Nicky sing for the first time at one of Amy Cervini’s duet nights at the 55 bar, and was charmed by “Penguin Dance,” a song the two of them co-wrote.

Nicky released her debut recording, Freedom Flight, in 2012, establishing herself as a unique presence in the ever-shifting landscape of vocal jazz. She’s recorded Bob Dylan and Beatles covers, Great American Songbook standards, and a great deal of original music, which seamlessly fuses folk, pop, and jazz sensibilities to create a sound uniquely her own.

Nicky left the Big Apple and spent some time in London before returning to Capetown, South Africa, where she currently makes her home. She and I share a birthday (August 22, along with Dorothy Parker, in case you’re curious) and a deep and abiding love of ice cream, as evidenced by her gorgeous Instagram feed. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into your life in music, Nicky!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I’ve always just loved music. It sounds rather too simplified, but it’s been part of the fabric of my life since childhood. Music was played in the house, we watched musicals both live and on the television, we listened to music in the car going to and from school, we sang songs for fun. I never discussed with my parents whether or not I should study music post-high school. I’m lucky they were supportive and they felt it as natural a progression as I did.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
The decision to study music, both at the undergraduate and post graduate level, didn’t really require decision. So knowing the next course of action to develop as a musician has always come naturally to me. That streak of luck lasted up until I finished graduate school. Navigating the jazz industry after school and figuring out where I fit in has been very challenging.


Photo: Shervin Lainez

As far as musicianship goes, I’ve always had a fairly good ear and musicality so that has helped me out when learning new repertoire or absorbing new vocal techniques. It has been difficult to really figure out what I want to say, musically speaking, through songwriting, arranging, repertoire choice and stylistic choices. Jazz is a genre that is hybridising and changing as I type this. It should make it easier to feel one has carte blanche to create whatever version of “jazz” one desires, but in fact it makes it more challenging because the musicians and the audiences and the powers-that-be who curate performance opportunities aren’t all on the same page.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song? The lyrical component of a song is very important to me. If I can’t relate to the story being told, I won’t sing the song, in all likelihood. Even if I’m crazy about the melody or the harmonic content or the general atmosphere of a song, I know it will be challenging to delier the lyrics honestly so I’ll forego singing that song. I also tend to favour more obscure tunes over oft-sung songs.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I love food and small businesses that celebrate local suppliers and seasonal, local ingredients. So I’d try to be involved in a profession that aligned me with that industry. I love the sense of community in jazz and I sense that exists in the food community too, where business owners know one another and there’s a great pride in what they do.


Photo: Jonx Pillemer

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
The best piece of advice I’ve read came from Amy Poehler’s autobiography. She wrote, “Good for you. Not for me.” I love that. It helps us to acknowledge someone else’s path and then swiftly move on.

Chris Rosenberg spoke of life being a pie when I was at Manhattan School of Music. I always think of this analogy. It makes you realise that music or career are incredibly important, but they’re only one slice of the pie. Sometimes that will be the bigger slice, and at other times it’ll be smaller. This visual idea taught me to constantly question how satisfying and rich my entire “life pie” was. I found, very often, that the entire pie was career-focused and it wasn’t very satisfying because it came at the cost of family, friends, and really enjoying life.

Fun fact:
People are often surprised to learn that I was a saxophonist (tenor, soprano and baritone) for about eleven years. The saxophone introduced me to jazz and I played in big bands and did corporate gigs well into my undergraduate degree (I was as a saxophone major for the first year). I also played in the on-stage orchestra for a Cape Town production of Fosse, Kander and Ebb’s Chicago. I lied about being able to double on the bass clarinet and had to both find one to rent and learn how to play it in a week or so. I don’t recommend this modus operandi to anyone! I also learnt the harp for a year while at junior school.

September: Looking back, looking ahead


La Serenissima…

We have veered so sharply into misty, cool autumn over the past couple of days, it scarcely seems possible that, a scant two weeks ago, I was picking sun-warmed tomatoes from Domenico’s garden for an al fresco lunch in Italy. And yet…

Last month, my mother and I spent over two weeks traveling in Italy. We began with six days in Venice, then spent a week in Tuscany (Lucca, followed by Siena), before heading back up north to Merate, where I spent my foreign exchange, to visit my host families and friends.

Since I was seventeen, my mother and I have lived thousands of miles apart, so we relished the chance to walk through Italian days together, enjoying unencumbered hours in the most beautiful of places. We ate gelato and pasta, laughed ourselves silly on multiple occasions, and were overwhelmed by the beauty of the piazze, churches, and people we encountered every day.

Italy is infinite and immediate. Sleek modernity exists casually, effortlessly, beside (and often, within) centuries-old art, architecture, and traditions. By the end of our stay, I was speaking and thinking and dreaming in Italian again. When it was time to bid Italy and my beloved host families farewell, I wept, as I always do.

One afternoon, in Venice’s sun-dappled Campo Santa Margherita, I sipped an Aperol spritz and wrote the following passage in my journal:

When one is partnered–and, perhaps, especially when one is happily so—traveling to a beloved, familiar (and yet mysterious) place is the closest we ever come to falling in love again. Heady infatuation, “getting-to-know-you” growing pains, the frustrations of familiarity and rediscovery of forgotten joys…travel is not only about one’s relationship to a place, it’s about one’s relationship to oneself.


Piazza del Campo under moody Siena skies.

Looking ahead, I’m excited about several new projects: the new Duchess CD is slated for an early 2017 release, and a recording I made with drummer Charles Ruggiero is entering post-production in the coming weeks. My dear friend and musical partner Ehud Asherie and I are also making plans to head into the studio later this fall.

And, in the meantime, autumn in New York is here! Autumnal cooking, the donning of thick sweaters, and crisp October air all make me very happy.

In September, I…
Blogged about: July & August. Loving NYC. How We Spent Our Summer Vacation (DUCHESS blog).

Read: Fodor’s travel guides, mostly. And a lot of maps. And my 21-year-old Italian/English dictionary.

Watched: The first presidential debate. Listen, I know that Hillary Clinton may not be everyone’s ideal candidate (although I am, and have long been, a Hillary supporter). But if you watched that debate and were anything less than horrified by Trump’s staggering lack of knowledge and preparation (to say nothing of his visible contempt for Hillary Clinton, moderator Lester Holt, and the American public), I can only say this to you: Donald Trump is a racist, misogynist, and narcissist. He is wildly unfit for the presidency, and his value system runs counter to every principle upon which the United States of America were founded. You can support Hillary Clinton’s campaign HERE.

Listened to: The musical lilts and cadences of the Italian language. Even in my sleep, words and phrases I thought I’d forgotten filled my dreams and found their way into my speech the next day.


Lucca’s medieval walls at sunset.


I still love New York

Sometimes it seems like New York City is on its way to becoming (or, depending on whom you ask, is already) a tiny island filled with nothing but banks and Duane Reade stores. A number of my friends have recently moved west, having decided that New York is “over,” and L.A. is now the place to be.

I get it. I know that living in New York City is not for everyone. But if a hipster is somebody who loves something before it’s cool enough to capture the fancy of the general public, I suppose I, then, am the opposite. I love New York City as much today as ever, even though lots of people seem to have decided it’s not cool anymore.

By the time this post is published, I’ll be in Tuscany, on a long-anticipated vacation with my mother. When it comes time to depart Italy, I know I’ll be terribly sad to leave la dolce vita, but there will be solace in knowing that autumn in New York awaits.

Brooklyn Bridge will be filled with tourists and locals, strolling in the still-warm September sun. The greatest musicians in the world will be performing at Mezzrow in Greenwich Village every night. The leaves will be starting to turn in Central Park. And, as I walk briskly through Manhattan’s “canyons of steel,” with every footfall, my heart will beat, “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home.” 

I love New York, today and every day.

July and August: Looking back, looking ahead

I can’t believe we’re on the cusp of Labor Day weekend. I know that, technically, fall doesn’t begin for a few more weeks, but there’s a perceptible shift that happens once August comes to a close, when the pace of life increases and boots and sweaters start appearing in shop windows. I’m always a little sad to see summer go, but am also amazed at how much fun got packed into July and August, from swinging gigs to weekend getaways.

A few months ago, I was anticipating a fairly quiet summer, gig-wise, but the calendar filled up with some familiar and new collaborations, all of which were hugely rewarding. Duchess had one gig this summer, in which we performed three mini-sets at the Triad (we were shooting video, so we did a “girl group” tribute, a holiday show, and a salute to the Rat Pack) before bidding each other adieu for the summer. The wonderful drummer Jerome Jennings invited me to sing with his band at a swing dance in Brownsville, presented by the NYPD and Jazz at Lincoln Center in an effort to strengthen and improve relationships between the community and police force. It was a very special evening, and I felt honored to be a part of it.

I joined singer-songwriter Marcus Goldhaber for a few duets one evening at the Friars Club, and returned to my beloved Mezzrow with my equally dear Ehud Asherie, where we played some new tunes for a packed house. It’s always exciting to forge new musical friendships, and over the past couple of months, I’ve had the immense good fortune to do a number of gigs with guitarist Greg Ruggiero and pianist Michael Kanan.

Summer Gigs Collage

Summer gigs! Top photo (Mezzrow) by Jeff Evans, Duchess photo by Fran Kaufman.

Interspersed amidst all this music have been a few heavenly weekend getaways. Both the Fourth of July holiday and my birthday were spent lakeside in Connecticut, where fireworks and barbecues were enjoyed to the fullest. A quick but lovely jaunt to Philadelphia for my mother-in-law’s birthday made for an evening of delicious food and belly laughs. And my husband and I spent last weekend in Montauk, where we indulged daily in sunshine, beach time, and lobster dinners.

A few scenes from July 4th in Connecticut.

A few scenes from July 4th in Connecticut.

Montauk moments.

Montauk moments.

Yes, this summer has been a dream. And the fun isn’t over! As I type, my mother is sitting in my living room, and in just a few days, we’ll be winging our way to Italy for a couple of weeks. I’m feeling the crunch of deadlines and last-minute trip preparations now, but soon we’ll be strolling the narrow alleys of Venice and eating gelato in Lucca. I cannot wait. But first…tomorrow (yes, tomorrow) will find me in the recording studio, making a new CD in collaboration with drummer Charles Ruggiero, featuring pianist Jeremy Manasia and bassist Neal Miner. Stay tuned!

In July and August, I…
Blogged about: June. Singer-friend Vanessa Perea. Authenticity.

Read: Every Anxious Wave, by Mo Daviau. Time travel, musicians, and true love. A fun read. Delicious!, by Ruth Reichl. I love Reichl’s memoirs and food writing, so was excited to read this novel, which turned out to be a good beach read. The Hills of Tuscany: A New Life in an Old Land, by Ferenc Maté. Well-written, funny, and the perfect book to read, pre-Italian holiday.

Watched: The Night Of. A gripping and incredibly well-acted HBO mini-series. I am not alone in my frustration with a central female character’s arc, but this show had me on the edge of my seat. Café Society. You know I generally love Woody Allen movies, and I was delighted to see some NYC musician friends onscreen, but I found this film uninspired. Weiner. A fascinating and infuriating documentary. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Good heavens, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell! Summertime. Katherine Hepburn and romance in 1950s-era Venice! The Olympics! Mostly women’s gymnastics.

Listened to: Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi, Um Interpreta e Outro. Ehud hipped me to this beautiful, pre-bossa nova recording with a pair of Brazil’s most iconic composers. Ruben Blades and Willie Colon, Siembra. Blades is seriously one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard; I cannot get enough of this record. rené marie, The Sound of Red. rené is a generous, open-hearted artist, and it’s wonderful to see her star on the rise. Check out her NPR Tiny Desk concert!

Closer to Authentic

51TKgMSTFwLA few months ago, I read The Dirty Life, a memoir by Kristin Kimball. Kimball was a successful writer living in Manhattan when she met her now-husband, Mark, whom she describes as “a wingnut farmer.” They moved to upstate New York and founded Essex Farm.

At first glance, the premise of Kimball’s memoir sounds like the setup for a rom-com: city slicker falls for country bumpkin, they start a farm together, hijinks ensue (picture falling face-down in the mud and chasing runaway cows), and they live happily every after. The Dirty Life does reveal Kimball’s deep love for both her husband and life on the farm, but it also describes her painful acclimation to backbreaking farm work, begun each day before dawn, and the financial anxiety of knowing that an early winter could mean losing their farm and home.

The difficulties and risks of farm life notwithstanding, Kimball and her husband persevered and do, indeed, appear to be living happily ever after. They have young children and Essex Farm is thriving as the world’s first full-diet CSA. Kristin Kimball is a thoughtful and vivid writer, and while her book reaffirmed that a life in the countryside is emphatically not for me, the following passage in The Dirty Life has continued to haunt me (emphasis mine):

The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it. I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to authentic.

In the passage above, Kimball is referring to the clarity she found while harnessing horses and carrying heavy loads as part of her day-to-day work on the farm, but her summation of what defines authenticity is elegant and universally applicable.  The narrower the gap between who we think we are and how we behave, the closer we get to authentic.

As an inveterate list-maker, I love the idea of putting two columns on a page: the first one being, “Who do you think you are?” and the second, “How do you behave?” The more overlap between the columns, the more authentic a life the list-maker can claim. Simple. But as I’ve mused here before, simple isn’t the same thing as easy. Sometimes, the distance between who I think I am (singer, writer, regular exerciser and healthy eater) and my daily routine (harried errand-runner, sporadic blogger, sunny day picnic enthusiast) feels much greater than I’d like.


Believe it or not, buying groceries paves the way for disciplined creativity. Caveat: I am never this pulled-together while running errands.

I’ll continue trying to narrow the gap between my self-perception and habits. Daily vocal exercises are one way of keeping my focus “on the ground,” as Kimball puts it. Even if those whoops, hollers, and scales feel effortless one day and arduous the next, they’re a powerful affirmation: I am a singer. 

But damn it, even the most tedious of errands must be run (oh, hi, DMV, what a pleasure to see you!), and even sporadic writing is still better than not writing at all. Buying groceries and straightening up the apartment are not necessarily identity-related tasks, but, like Kimball, when I’m doing them, I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’m not one of those romantic artist types who flourishes amidst chaos; my creativity thrives in the security of a stocked fridge and tidy practice space.

As for finding some lazy hours in these halcyon late-summer days for languid lunches in the park—including wine and cheese, obviously—well, that’s the urban equivalent of “making hay while the sun shines.” And that feels like time authentically well spent.


Spotlight On…Vanessa Perea

24421640993_25a85801d1_bI heard Vanessa Perea sing for the first time at North Square, where she was performing in an intimate setting, backed by guitar and bass. Her boyfriend, trombonist Robert Edwards, joined in for a few tunes, as well. I was struck by Vanessa’s excellent time and phrasing, as well as her warm, flexible timbre and spot-on intonation.

A lot has happened since I first met Vanessa. For one thing, her debut album, Soulful Days, was released on the Zoho label to critical acclaim: Jazz Times lauded her “remarkable air of maturity, recalling the interpretive fearlessness of Anita O’Day.” She can be heard regularly throughout the tri-state area in a variety of settings, from leading her own jazz quartet to fronting a funk band.

In other news, she and the aforementioned Robert Edwards are getting married this month! Congratulations, Vanessa, and thank you for answering some questions for my blog!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I was inspired by many different artists growing up. I used to listen to a lot of pop/R&B music and, of course, Spanish music because of my parents. I also studied with a classical voice teacher who taught me art songs and Broadway tunes.

I knew I wanted to perform, but I didn’t know that I could make an actual living in music, and I was falling in love with so many different styles of music. I decided to go to college for music; later on I transferred to the music education department. When I got there, I met some wonderful people who were real inspirations to me. The teachers and students were all working musicians [who were] still practicing and performing; some students and teachers were even on the same gigs together. That was so cool to me. I listened to jazz for the first time in college and decided to study it from then on.

13124763_804275414290_3594342722857042727_nIn the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? 
Rhythm and melody. I always find myself doing rhythmic things with my singing. It’s not something I plan out. It just happens. It’s like I’m trying to sync my singing with my dancing! And, melody. I was always a soprano in choir, so I naturally cling to melodies.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
It’s hard to say one thing. I listen to the lyrics, the melody, the harmony, various versions by other artists… but lately, I have been paying more attention to the lyrics.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I think I would like to be a nurse. I’d like to help people. I think I would be good at it. [Ed. note: I am struck by how many of the singers I’ve interviewed have chosen a healing, helping profession in response to this question. It suggests that what I have long suspected may be true: music is, itself, a healing vocation.]

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
I guess it sounds cliché, but when I was fresh out of college, people used to tell me to “keep listening.” It’s true. There is always something new to hear and learn from.

Fun fact:
I have a thing for shoe repair shops. I love them! I love the feeling of bringing in my old pair of shoes that need a new heel and picking them up looking brand new. I love their history and charm. I actually go to the same shoe repair my dad used to go to when he moved to this country in the 80s. The guy still asks for my mom and dad every time I’m in there.

Vanessa will be singing throughout the summer in New York and New Jersey, from Manhattan’s Carnegie Club and Flatiron Room to Atlantic City and beyond. Check out the details on her calendar.

June: Looking back, looking ahead

I’m drafting this post from a lakeside idyll near a small town in Connecticut. I’ve spent the last few days sequestered from the city’s hustle and bustle, walking around the lake in the cool mornings and going to bed early, savoring the total darkness and silence that one only finds in the countryside. Our holiday weekend culminates in tomorrow’s barbecue, followed by 4th of July fireworks in the evening.

All this to say, summer is here and I am loving every moment.

Looking back, it seems as though most of my summer gigging took place in June. On June 10, I had the delight of performing at the Sheen Center in collaboration with my friend, Brazilian soprano Angelica de la Riva, as we celebrated the iconic collaboration between Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim. The house was packed, the band (comprising Brazilian and American musicians) was exquisite, and we met Elizabeth Jobim at the after-party! Yes, that’s right: Antonio Carlos Jobim’s daughter was in the house for our show. Meeting her was a thrill.

Scenes from the Sinatra/Jobim Sessions show. Top left: me with bassist Eduardo Belo. Top right: pianist Manuel Valera, saxophonist Joel Frahm and I after the show. Middle photos: Angelica and I onstage. Bottom left: Angelica and I with the full band, post-show. Bottom right: Angelica, Eduardo, and I with Elizabeth Jobim at the after-party.

Scenes from the Sinatra/Jobim Sessions show. Top left: me with bassist Eduardo Belo. Top right: pianist Manuel Valera, saxophonist Joel Frahm and I after the show. Middle photos: Angelica and I onstage. Bottom left: Angelica and I with the full band, post-show. Bottom right: Angelica, Eduardo, and I with Elizabeth Jobim at the after-party. (All photos except after-party shot by Angel Morales)

Duchess was busy in June, too. We did a big photo shoot for our newly-recorded second CD, Laughing at Life (more on that release schedule as details develop!). A few days later, we found ourselves back in the recording studio singing background vocals for the very sweet and talented Kat Edmonson’s upcoming new album. Her songs are well-crafted and charming, and we had a wonderful time singing with her.

The last week of the month took the Duchess gals out to Northern California for a fast-paced and very fun tour. We opened the Jazz on the Plazz festival in Los Gatos before heading to gigs in Santa Cruz, Sausalito, and Oakland. In typical Duchess fashion, we found some time to eat well and do a bit of sightseeing in between shows. You can read more about our adventures on the Duchess blog.

duchess Collage

Looking ahead…well, I’m not looking too terribly far ahead, to be honest with you. I’m just savoring the relaxed rhythms of summer. My fondest hope (and strongest resolution) is to fill the open spaces on my calendar in the coming months with a happy mix of music, writing, and leisure.

In June, I…
Blogged about: Swinging into summer (DUCHESS). Spring.

Read: Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, by Luke Barr. How I would have loved to have known M.F.K. Fisher! Using Fisher’s old journals and correspondence with Julia and Paul Child (among others) as research materials, Fisher’s great-nephew has written a vivid, insightful account of the year America’s most important culinary (forgive me) tastemakers gathered in Provence (chez Julia Child) to cook, eat, and contemplate food. Those shared meals and conversations in Provence shaped their—and our—collective, uniquely American understanding of what it means to cook and eat well.

Watched: Hadestown. The ancient myths celebrate, lament, and help us understand the frailties and failings of our humanity. This stunning, imaginative re-telling of Orpheus and Eurydice is swampy, foot-stomping, and soulful. Hadestown closes on July 31. Do whatever you must to get there and experience it.

Listened to: Rough mixes for the second Duchess CD, “Laughing at Life.” I’m very excited about this record, which features lots of very swinging new arrangements by Oded Lev-Ari, as well as guest appearances by Wycliffe Gordon and Anat Cohen.