Veronica Swift’s Unconventional Turns

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Veronica Swift is among the 25 artists DownBeat thinks will help shape jazz in the decades to come.

(Photo: Bill Westmoreland )

But Swift disputes the notion that her career rise was precipitous. “I’ve been touring since I was 9 years old,” she said. “So, it’s not like this all happened overnight. People get that impression, but I’ve been putting in the hours, believe me.”

Her claim is hardly an exaggeration. The only child of Nakasian and pianist Hod O’Brien (1936–2016), Swift spent much of her childhood bundled up in the back of the car while her parents toured. (“That’s why I can sleep on planes so well,” she joked.) Before the age of 12 she had headlined at Jazz at Lincoln Center, learned to play the trumpet and released two albums introducing children to different forms of jazz, including bebop. Not your typical preteen activities.

In November 2004, the child prodigy recorded her debut, Veronica’s House Of Jazz (HodStef Music), fronting a band that included her father on piano and her mother on backing vocals. For that album, she assumed the professional moniker she still uses today. “My father was adopted, so even though O’Brien is my legal last name, his biological mother’s last name was Swift,” she explained. “Since I never knew his side of the family, [using that surname] was my way of honoring that heritage.”

The concept of honoring one’s heritage—musical and otherwise—cropped up periodically as Swift discussed her career, almost as a disclaimer for the unconventional turns that her art sometimes takes. In truth, it’s hard to miss the level of informed expertise that she brings to the least of her vocal lines, so firm is her grasp on a multiplicity of traditions. Whether she’s singing in a European song form, with its clarion tones and preferred technique, or an American roots-based form, with its diasporic grooves and improvisational phrasings, Swift manages to strike unerringly at the musical center of whatever task is at hand. It’s only after she has established her footing that she moves into uncharted territory.

“I like keeping the disciplines as their own thing,” Swift said. “If I do an opera concert, I’ll keep the music as it was originally intended. But then I would program around that song, with an aria, but in a jazz style. I want to understand the subtleties of a style, and I try to present it in the most authentic way I can—while remaining authentic to myself.”

Like many singers of her generation, Swift holds that authentic creative expression doesn’t necessarily fit squarely into any one category—the idea seems almost anathema to the creative impulse itself. “I can’t just do one thing,” she asserted. “I get branded as a ‘Songbook singer,’ when, in fact, only 25 percent of my repertoire is actually [from the Great American] Songbook.”

She points to the repertoire for This Bitter Earth by way of illustration. The album’s title track is a mournful, Max Richter-inspired version of a tune that Dinah Washington popularized in 1960. The program also includes a spate of musical theater classics in modern jazz settings—“How Lovely To Be A Woman” (from Bye Bye Birdie), “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” (from South Pacific) and “Getting To Know You”(from The King and I)—and a couple of satirical bebop novelties, Dave Frishberg’s “The Sports Page” and Bob Dorough’s “You’re The Dangerous Type.” By the closing track, a gripping, jazz-drenched version of The Dresden Dolls’ 2006 rock ballad “Sing,” any thoughts of Swift as a Songbook stylist have evaporated.

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