The ‘Confessions’ of Veronica Swift

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Veronica Swift doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t listening to jazz: “Before I was even born, in utero, Mom was doing concerts.”

(Photo: Giancarlo Belfiore/UmbriaJazz)

She first met pianist Cohen, 29, when she attended a concert he played at the Frost School (the pianist is also an alumnus). When she got to New York, it was Cohen who took her under his wing and introduced her to the jazz scene, including players like bassist Russell Hall, drummers Kyle Poole, Evan Sherman and Bryan Carter, and singer-trumpeter Benny Benack III, who gigged regularly at Smalls, Dizzy’s and Smoke. He also introduced her to several living jazz masters with whom he’d played, including Jimmy and Tootie Heath, Jimmy Cobb, Houston Person and Ron Carter.

Cohen, winner of the American Pianists Association’s 2019 Cole Porter Fellowship award, said, “We had instant chemistry. She hadn’t felt that from a peer up until that point, and neither had I from any singer I’ve known. She can access the emotion of a song more directly than any other singer I’ve ever worked with, feeling the sadness of a lyric and relating it to her life. I’ve seen tears well up in her eyes when she sings.”

Swift and Cohen’s compatibility is based, in part, on a shared interest in vintage songs, he said. “Whether it’s the repertoire of Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller or Thelonious Monk, I like putting a modern twist on them, and so does she.” One example from the new album cited by Cohen: a minor but clever update to Frishberg’s immortal lyric to “I’m Hip,” revising “I’m gettin’ my kicks/ Watchin’ arty French flicks with my shades on” to “I’m gettin’ my kicks/ Yes, I’m watching Netflix with my shades on.”

Confessions, as the title implies, has an aura of autobiography to it, even if the lyrics might not directly correspond to events in Swift’s own life. “My parents taught me never to sing about something I hadn’t experienced,” she said.

“She simply won’t sing a song that doesn’t have meaning for her,” Nakasian said. “It’s very personal with her. What you see on stage is who she is. I learn from her, seeing her go for the jugular all the time. I like who she is. She’s loving. She could she get a tougher skin, but she’ll get that as she goes on.”

Although her mother never gave her formal voice lessons, both parents gave her hard-won wisdom about programming and managing a music career. Swift said this included “being grateful for what you have, and—maybe the most important thing—how to manage my time. My mom and I both tend to say yes to too many things. You have to make priorities constantly.”

The way she brings drama to her songs is something she shares with another leading jazz vocalist, Cécile McLorin Salvant. “The drama part is important to her,” Nakasian said. “Jon Hendricks said to me, ‘In real art, there is no competition.’ She and Cécile are both theatrical, although very different. There used to be a distinct line between cabaret and jazz. It’s more blurry now. Now, it’s not unhip to be theatrical.”

Having learned so many songs from her parents gives Swift yet another advantage. A good example is her choice of “A Little Taste,” the second cut on Confessions. The song is a classic instrumental by Johnny Hodges to which Frishberg wrote a wry, witty lyric about indulging in adult beverages. It’s rarely been covered.

“That song was her choice,” said Green, whose trio accompanied her on the tune. “She comes up with this really hip repertoire, obscure songs with a brilliant lyric or an intriguing melody. She owns that now, doesn’t she?”

Swift had the opportunity to perform the song for Frishberg, now 86, at Portland’s PDX Jazz Festival, along with “I’m Hip” (written with the late Dorough). “He said he was touched,” Swift said. The memory overwhelms Swift with emotion.

Losing her father at a young age has clearly had an impact on Swift. Hod O’Brien, a bebop pianist who played with Chet Baker, Donald Byrd and Art Farmer, died of cancer on Nov. 20, 2016, at the age of 80, when Swift was 22. “I was born when he was 58. I always had the oldest father of any of my friends. So, I was aware of his mortality,” she reflected.

“He wasn’t much of a talker. But I learned from him when to talk and when not to talk. And when he did talk, everyone listened. He had a spiritual presence.” She takes some comfort knowing that, before his passing, “he saw me arrive,” she said. “I feel lucky that we had a complete relationship. That’s all we can hope for. There’s no perfect ending or closure. That’s a fallacy. But a complete relationship—that’s a beautiful thing.”

In the past few years, Green, 56, has become a special kind of a mentor to her. “Playing with him is like playing with a long-lost older brother,” she said.

“All the older cats love her,” Green said. “It’s important for Veronica to feel that connection with older musicians. For me, working with her has been an inspiration. I’m very particular. I mostly work as a leader these days. So, for me to work with someone younger, and for them to lead my trio, is a bit of a stretch. Ultimately, it’s not about how old the person is or how well known they are. It’s about, ‘Are we on the same page musically?’ It’s really a gas to play with someone who’s so right-now and old-school at the same time.”

Or, as Cohen put it, “She’s the total package. Once I asked [drummer] Tootie Heath if he missed the New York jazz scene. He said, ‘Nah—I am jazz.’ When I meet someone like Veronica, that’s what I feel—she is jazz.” DB

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July 2022
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