Bria Skonberg’s pandemic experience has been productive in the best possible sense.
Like many of her colleagues, the New York City trumpeter, vocalist and bandleader lost dozens of gigs, including a Cal Performances date scheduled for Zellerbach Playhouse. But she had a far more ambitious project gestating for much of the year, a work-in-progress that’s evident throughout the Cal Performances at Home broadcast that premieres 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7 (and runs through April 7).
Gathering with her band at the historic Louis Armstrong House in Queens in July for her first in-person gig in months, Skonberg played a wide-ranging, socially distanced set that also served as precious documentation. “It’s the only footage of me when I was visibly pregnant,” she said, sneaking in an interview between her two-month-old son Wiley’s naps.
“It was such a special moment in time. All the gigs had disappeared, and I’m very grateful to Cal Performances for honoring the date. We hadn’t played a gig since March and to see everybody was really emotional. From a group perspective, it felt like we hadn’t missed a day. I’ve been practicing more consistently than I ever had in my life. But it’s so different playing a performance.”
Cal Performances had every reason to expect Skonberg to rise to the occasion. Her last visit to Zellerbach was in April 2019 as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, an all-star ensemble brimming with talent, including vocalist extraordinaire Cécile McLorin Salvant, drummer/vocalist Jamison Ross, and saxophonist Melissa Aldana. At first glance, Skonberg seemed like an odd fit for the ad-hoc band, as she made her reputation in New York specializing in pre-World War II jazz idioms. But Skonberg embraced the challenge and found space amongst the Monterey Jazz Festival modernists for her ebullient personality as an instrumentalist and singer.
“It was such a beautiful experience to be playing alongside some of the greatest young artists today,” she said. “It was a stretch stylistically and it pushed me in a lot of different directions.”
For the Cal Performances at Home concert, Skonberg displays a good deal of her range. Focusing on material from her latest album, 2019’s Nothing Never Happens, she delivers jazz standards, vintage pop songs, finely wrought originals, and alchemical jazz renditions of songs by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Queen. With Doug Wamble on guitar and backup vocals, Patrick Bartley on reeds and backup vocals, pianist Mathis Picard, bassist Endea Owens and drummer Darrian Douglas, Skonberg’s quintet features some of the most exciting and accomplished young players on the New York scene.
While steeped in the jazz/blues continuum, Bartley has carved out an important role in J-pop (Japanese pop music). Owens is a Juilliard graduate best known as a member of pianist Jon Batiste’s Stay Human (aka the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).
Skonberg’s roots are in trad jazz, but she’s far too protean to be contained by any particular niche. Sheltering in place has actually encouraged her to stretch further, as she’s streamed a series of solo videos and collaborations that would have been unlikely in normal times. A few weeks ago, she posted a long-distance Christmas collaboration with the great Argentine-born vocalist Sofia Rei and powerhouse Cuban conguero Pedrito Martinez on “El Niño del Tambor.”
“The pandemic has been a great equalizer. I’ve missed very much playing with my band, but there have been so many opportunities to collaborate.”
“The pandemic has been a great equalizer,” she said. “I’ve missed very much playing with my band, but there have been so many opportunities to collaborate. I’ve done those a cappella videos. You can reach out to anybody. It doesn’t have to be so rigidly on brand. This video with Sofia and Pedrito was one of the easiest things ever, a really equal collaboration. that doesn’t show off one person specifically. I love them both, and trumpet, voice and percussion make me really happy.”
Though she was born and raised in British Columbia, Skonberg’s jazz journey owes a good deal to the Bay Area. In the early 1940s, when many of jazz’s foundational figures were still active but overshadowed by the rise of big band swing, San Francisco was a hotbed for the West Coast revival of traditional New Orleans jazz, which was often referred to as Dixieland.
Championing what they saw as a more authentic style of jazz in the face of relentless evolution, trumpeter Lu Watters and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band, trombonist Turk Murphy, and trumpeter Bob Scobey gained an impressive popular following around the Bay Area. As the influence of modern jazz spread after World War II, bebop became jazz’s dominant stylistic current, but it’s often forgotten that the New Orleans sound sold more records and had a much wider audience at the time.
The Dixieland revival reverberated far and wide, even reaching Chiliwack, a small city in British Columbia about 100 kilometers east of Vancouver. Coming of age in the first decade of the 21st century, Skonberg grew up playing “mostly classic jazz because of the 1940 ‘and 50s revival in San Francisco,” she said. “It spawned jazz festivals up and down the West Coast, even up to my home town, where we had a Dixieland festival. I really got my start learning about jazz and improvising at the beginning of the music’s story, with teachers who would make me play Louis Armstrong solos, solos I’m still trying to play.”
Skonberg moved to New York City in 2010 and quickly built up a network of admiring peers from scratch. “Unlike 95 percent of the people I know I didn’t go to school in New York or Boston,” she said. “I just kind of showed up. One of my first really big opportunities was with Nic Payton’s TSO big band, where I spent a week with players outside my own scene and made some lasting friends.”
With her command of pre-swing jazz idioms, Skonberg found regular work in various hot jazz ensembles, often getting gigs referred to her by trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, a fellow early jazz specialist. Playing in a big band led by trombone master Wycliffe Gordon gave her more “credibility,” she said. “That was a beautiful project. Wycliffe is a good friend and mentor.”
Skonberg continued to thrive in early jazz settings, playing with a Louis Armstrong tribute band at Birdland on Sundays when she wasn’t on the road. But before the pandemic, she was devoting more of her time to spreading her wings as a bandleader and composer.
“I studied all different styles of jazz and world music, and when I wanted to figure out my own voice I started writing songs,” she said. “The first songs I wrote were a disco-funk piece and a doo-wop song. But I realized that wouldn’t make for a consistent concert, and I didn’t want to alienate my classic jazz audience. I found a way to make the transitions more seamless. The more I’ve put myself into the music, the like-minded players I’ve connected with.”