Bria Skonberg Digs Into Tension With ‘Nothing Never Happens’

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Bria Skonberg adventures beyond her trad-jazz roots on Nothing Never Happens.

(Photo: Dario Acosta)

Skonberg’s social concerns drive other tunes on Nothing Never Happens, perhaps none more directly than “Villain Vanguard.”

“The album,” Skonberg said, “came out of the white noise about two years ago—information, all the stress of current social events, media, etcetera. I knew that I needed to create space to process these things. So, I created a lot of space in my schedule to process feelings. My writing process is to be in front of my keyboard and just be quiet and wait to see what comes out. And the first thing that came out was ‘Villain Vanguard.’”

The immediate impetus, she said, was the women’s march that took place the day after the 2017 presidential inauguration: “That definitely was what that song was about—re-enacting a march scene, a protest scene. And I urge my players to make it personal.”

Liberated from trad-jazz trappings, on this particular number the players unleash their collective id atop Douglas’ throbbing pulse, a ticking time bomb broken only by a free middle section straight out of the avant-garde playbook. Amid the cacophony, Skonberg’s horn leads the way.

Picard focused on the tune’s kinetic nature as it hurtles through the bridge and into the free section, which ultimately transitions back to the melody. “In that part, it was about moving together, moving forward into this other part of the song. It had to do with some of the feelings of #MeToo, and we were just channeling through her that feeling.”

While Skonberg had formed musical bonds with other female players—she led a classic-jazz band consisting of all women, Mighty Aphrodite, from 2005 through 2011—she hadn’t been moved to social action. But post-2016, she has joined saxophonist Roxy Coss’ Women In Jazz Organization, an advocacy group. And she makes a point of reaching out to young female jazz musicians, offering encouragement.

“Only in the last year or two, I feel like I’ve been proactive about it,” she said.

Skonberg’s activism extends to other issues, like gun violence. She has played the Instrument of Hope, a trumpet made of brass and bullet casings created by ShineMSD, a charity formed by students and parents from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the site of a 2018 massacre. The goal is to raise awareness and money for the organization.

“This gives me a chance to talk about it and play,” said Skonberg, a product of public schools who often speaks in them through programs like Jazz at Lincoln Center’s.

She played the trumpet as a member of the Monterey Jazz Festival touring band for a month of concentrated concerts last spring. Along with pianist Christian Sands, the music director, the tour included singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer/vocalist Jamison Ross.

The Instrument of Hope trumpet’s origin added a layer of meaning to the music, though Skonberg’s presence itself lent the tour a distinct historical dimension, Sands said. She introduced the language of traditional jazz to the proceedings—most pointedly, perhaps, in a tribute to pioneering female musician Valaida Snow (1904–’56), who sang and played multiple instruments, including trumpet.

Sands, who played classic jazz with Skonberg nearly a decade ago, said she brought a growing maturity to that language: “She has evolved from where she was, within the stylings, the trad-jazz style, and also creating her own.” Her arrangements, he added, were very complex. “As a pianist, you’re going through a lot of different motions. It was a welcome challenge.”

Skonberg said the experience of the tour has stayed with her: “Musically it evolved every night. It had a musical effect on me in that it gave me confidence to dig into tension a little bit more. I love how it enabled me to stretch.”

But Skonberg’s stretching has not always been welcomed. Along with the raves, a few reviewers have suggested that, as pop interpreter, social commentator and trumpet virtuoso, she wears too many hats. Some have said her work lacks stylistic cohesion.

Skonberg defended as genuine her “revisiting nostalgia in a way that appeals to a larger group of people outside of the jazz scene, and to me first,” and offering social commentary “to reflect what’s happening in the world, or at least your view of it, so that other people can have the same experiences.”

“I definitely stand by the things I’ve done,” she said. “I do think this is authentic.”

Looking forward, the trumpeter is preparing for a quartet appearance at Zankel Hall (within the Carnegie Hall complex) as part of the Joyce and George T. Wein Shape of Jazz series; her first full symphonic collaboration, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra; and an Aretha Franklin tribute with the American Pops Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, she was formulating educational programs for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens and the New York Hot Jazz Camp, which she co-founded and directs. All in all, it was a full plate that reflected a consistency of voice and a commitment to keep spreading her talents widely—and wisely.

“I like being put into a lot of different experiences,” she said. “I like being a wild card.” DB

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