Oct 25, 2022 1:04 PM
Nicole Zuraitis is accustomed to playing some of the finest rooms in New York, including Birdland and the 55 Bar. Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the Grammy-nominated singer and pianist had planned to have an album-release show at the Blue Note to celebrate the launch of her fourth disc, All Wandering Hearts (Dot Time). But with concerts at Manhattan’s venerated clubs on hold, Zuraitis decided to sing at a less prestigious venue: her mom’s backyard in Connecticut.
During a July 30 videoconference interview from her vacation condo in West Haven, Connecticut, the Brooklyn-based Zuraitis chuckled as she explained her plans for three shows to celebrate the album’s release: There would be two official, livestreamed shows that would bookend the private, casual backyard bash, where only family members and a few close friends would be in attendance, all while following social-distancing guidelines.
For Zuraitis and her husband, drummer Dan Pugach, the drive to perform has not been dampened by the pandemic.
“The minute COVID struck, I thought, ‘I have to do something every week. Otherwise, I don’t know how I’m gonna make it through.’ [That’s] because performing is my life and Dan’s life,” Zuraitis said.
A veteran of rooms like the Redeye Grill, where audience members are encouraged to make requests, Zuraitis decided to present the concept online during the pandemic, delivering livestreamed performances in a weekly series she dubbed the Virtual Piano Lounge. Fans could submit their requests online and then see duo performances of the songs, with Pugach playing drums while Zuraitis played piano and sang.
The goal was not to highlight the seven sophisticated, finely crafted pop songs Zuraitis had composed for All Wandering Hearts, but rather to give the online audience whatever it asked for. Sometimes that meant singing jazz standards. Other times it meant crooning Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic,” or belting out the disco anthem “I Will Survive,” or even tackling Lizzo’s 2016 chart-topper “Good As Hell.” (The performances are now archived on YouTube.)
“The Virtual Piano Lounge has been amazing because it made me realize that music brings joy,” Zuraitis said. “I love to interact with people. I love to have an audience. But the reason I did a fully request-based show for 14 weeks is because I don’t want to burn out my audience doing my set [highlighting original material] every week. For the Virtual Piano Lounge, [fans] can ask me for Joni Mitchell. They can ask me for whatever they want. … Music is music, and I had to pivot and make it work. And it’s been fantastic.”
All Wandering Hearts opens with Zuraitis’ joyous composition “Make It Flood,” which marks a dramatic change in mood from some of the material on her 2017 disc, Hive Mind (Dot Time). Atop a catchy folk-pop melody, Zuraitis sings, “You comfort me through seasons/ You’re my person, you’re my muse/ And despite conflicting feelings/ There’s safety with you.”
“On my previous album, Hive Mind, the songs were dreary, dark and depressing,” she said. “It was all about mental health, and it was dedicated to my grandfather, who suffered his whole life with schizophrenia. It was just really dark. Right as that album came out, Dan and I got engaged, and I started writing happy, happy songs. And that was surprising to me. My life felt like it was finally taking a turn for the better: I had better shows, I had better tours and my love life was great—and I loved my dog. So, ‘Make It Flood’ legitimately was inspired by me being like, ‘OK, everything is normally terrible, but now things are looking up. So I’m going to let it flow to me.’”
Indeed, one of the career highlights that occurred during this phase was a Grammy nomination. Zuraitis and Pugach received the honor for their arrangement of the Dolly Parton classic “Jolene,” which they recorded on the Dan Pugach Nonet’s 2018 album, Plus One.
That album featured in-demand pianist Carmen Staaf, who plays Fender Rhodes and organ on All Wandering Hearts. Other guests on Zuraitis’ album include vocalists Thana Alexa and Elise Testone, who bolster the buoyant quality of “Make It Flood” and who help make the leader’s arrangement of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” a distinct, dazzling gem.
Even though the album doesn’t swing, fans of Zuraitis’ vocal work with the Birdland Big Band are likely to find the material compelling, thanks to the leader’s intelligent arrangements and beguiling melodies.
Pugach plays drums on most of the tracks, but Zuraitis chose very spare instrumentation for her arrangement of “What A Wonderful World,” which is anchored by her insistent yet poignant piano work. She miraculously manages to create a fresh version of a tired warhorse of a tune.
Midway through Zuraitis’ video chat with DownBeat, she was joined by Pugach, who took a break from editing a music video by his nonet.
The couple met in 2009 through friends who were connected to Berklee College of Music (where Pugach studied) and Litchfield Jazz Camp (where Zuraitis has a long history as both a student and a faculty member).
The two musicians quickly hit it off musically and began working together. Then they became bandmates, while keeping their relationship strictly professional. Pugach resisted the urge to get romantically involved with a bandmate. Zuraitis, however, had a different point of view.
“I hunted him,” Zuraitis recalled with a laugh. “He was like, ‘We can’t date because we have an excellent musical connection—and that is the most important thing right now.’ And I was like, ‘That’s adorable. You wanna go on a date?’ I hunted him so hard.”
So, the gifted singer-songwriter from Connecticut and the talented drummer from Israel eventually ended up becoming not only frequent musical collaborators but also a married couple.
“It’s really, really cool to work together,” Pugach said. “With time, it became easier and more of a necessity. So now, I can’t imagine working with anyone else.” DB
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