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 )

The album also contains one shocker that will give almost any listener pause: Swift’s guitar-and-vocal duo reading of The Crystals’ 1962 single “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).” Penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King—and interpreted over the decades by rock bands such as The Motels, Hole and Grizzly Bear—this deeply problematic tune about domestic violence, rendered as gentle as a lullaby in Swift’s voice, is all the more horrifying for its sonic sweetness.

With apologies to Goffin and King, who thought that writing such a tune was a good idea? Swift never asks this question in so many words, but her intent hangs in the air. Likewise, the album’s other 12 tracks ring with similarly unspoken questions; in this indirect manner, the protean singer makes clear her views on the harsh societal ills that these tunes address: racism, school shootings, fake news and women’s struggles in the workplace.

“It’s crazy to me that the concept of this album is even timelier now than it was when I came up with the idea five years ago,” Swift said. “The album is a commentary on the way things are. It’s really hard to do this in a topical way that isn’t offensive. But the album isn’t preachy. [The commentary] comes through its cynicism and humor.”

In these last statements, Swift alludes to the pressured public landscape that many young singers face today. Like all performers, they are now subject to an unprecedented level of scrutiny in their work. They feel a responsibility for the psychological impact that the words they sing might have on an audience. And they recognize that the musical world they inhabit is radically different from the one that birthed the careers of earlier jazz singers, like Nakasian.

“It’s never easy [to be a singer], but there’s a lot more freedom now than there was before,” Swift said. “It used to be that if you were a white woman you catered to one kind of audience, and if you were a Black woman to another kind of audience. That’s really not how it works today, which is beautiful. It means that someone can come up on mere artistry.”

Swift identifies with other young vocalists who are forging new pathways in jazz “on mere artistry”—singers like Cécile McLorin Salvant, Cyrille Aimée and Jazzmeia Horn—and she acknowledges both their grounding in the jazz tradition and their collective need to depart from it.

“These women share a passion and respect for the traditional styles,” she said. “But when we [sing], it doesn’t sound derivative because we are very much from this era. We put our own influences in it.”

Swift understands that the very thing that makes jazz what it is—the amalgamation of different cultural expressions—can render stylistic definitions meaningless after a time. And the more personally syncretic a young singer’s artistic expression becomes, the harder it becomes to pigeonhole the work. This difficulty, challenging as it is, presents its own opportunities.

“I don’t know what vocal jazz is anymore,” Swift said. “The more I progress and follow the path of what I do, the more I lose sight of specific niche groups. I just see one community of people who appreciate art. Maybe that’s because I’m touring so much; I don’t have the chance to stay in any one scene for a while. I could try to speak to a specific group—I just wouldn’t know how.”

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