To pinpoint exactly what genre Veronica Nunn is connected with might be difficult these days.
In part this is due to the general eclecticism of her discography
— her first two CDs are as varied as her latest release, a tribute album to the legendary singer/songwriter Michael Franks. Yet, as early as 7 years old, Veronica’s repertoire of songs has been eclectic, ranging from gospel, soul, show tunes, and rock & roll to folk, country and even classical.
By today’s definition she would be considered a Neo Jazz artist, placing her alongside the likes of Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Wayne Shorter, George Benson, Patti Austin and Michael Franks, all artists with an individual approach, stamped with their personal experience and uniquely colored by the language of jazz.
With The Art of Michael Franks, Veronica Nunn’s third release for Dead Horse Records, the dominant theme of her recording Standard Delivery – a jazz vocalist’s relationship with time-honored standards – is revisited. But this time instead of pulling from the Great American Songbook she explores the musical creations of world-renowned contemporary jazz singer/songwriter Michael Franks. Embarking on a new musical collaboration with Michael Franks (in the form of a duet on “Leading Me Back to You”) as well as building on old ones, Veronica and friends develop arrangements that reintroduce listeners to some familiar songs of Mr. Franks as well as shine a light on some of his more obscure compositions – all the while reshaping those songs in accordance with Veronica’s unique approach and interpretation.
“When you looked at an album cover in the old days,” Nunn explains, “it told a story. The album cover and the title kind of prepped you for what you were about to experience, and I always felt that a jazz album isn’t just the music that is played—it’s the whole package. When you pull out that CD, it should be like a storybook. The cover and the album title kind of whet your appetite, and when you hear the songs, it takes you through an experience. It should all be an experience.”
Veronica Nunn’s longtime association with Michael began when she was invited to join his band in 1993. Touring the world with the Michael Franks band, Veronica began to develop a stronger respect for and fascination with his music. In 2000 she recorded Michael’s “Don’t Be Blue” on her debut CD American Lullaby. This ignited the spark that prompted Veronica to delve further into his library of songs to extract the selection of tunes that is The Art of Michael Franks.
“I wanted to do a tribute to Michael as I believe he is one of the greatest living songwriters today. His songs are as classic as any one of the jazz standards made famous by legendary jazz performers’, states Veronica. “His songs are so well-written structurally that you can arrange them to fit easily into any music genre. His melodies and lyrics, some of which were written over three decades ago, are still accessible to the listener today. When songs stand the test of time, then I call that art.”
Although Nunn is closely identified with New York City, she is not a native New Yorker. Nunn was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she grew up listening to a variety of jazz, soul, funk, rock, blues and gospel. Nunn moved to the Big Apple in 1978, and it didn’t take her very long to immerse herself in the New York City jazz scene.
“I moved up here not knowing anyone, and I got a job and an apartment the second day I was in town,” Nunn recalls. “I worked for Gimbels Department Store on 86th Street and Lexington Avenue. I had such a desire and an energy to be in New York, and we tend to create opportunities for ourselves when we’re very focused and have a wishful belief system. I had been in New York about a year and five months when I met Big Nick.”
The Big Nick that Nunn speaks of is the late bandleader/tenor saxophonist/singer George Walker, a.k.a. Big Nick Nicholas, who was famous for being a teacher of the seminal John Coltrane (when Trane wrote and recorded “Big Nick” in 1962, he did so in honor of Nicholas). After meeting Nunn at Sweet Basil (a well known, long-running jazz club in Manhattan’s West Village) in late 1979, Nicholas quickly took her under his wing and introduced her to a lot of jazz heavyweights (including trombonist/guitarist Eddie Durham, vibist Red Norvo and pianist Roger “Ram” Ramirez, who is best known for writing the standard “Lover Man”). Nunn soon found herself performing one gig after another and getting some valuable on-the-job experience performing with seasoned veterans like trumpeter Doc Cheatham and tenor saxophonist Eddie Chamblee. Along the way, Nunn was offered full scholarships to Boston’s Berklee College of Music and New York’s equally prestigious Juilliard School of Music, but she turned down both offers and attended Lehman College in the Bronx to pursue a degree in theology.
Studying theology, however, did not decrease Nunn’s interest in jazz—and the list of accomplished musicians she has performed with over the years is a long one. It is a list that includes Eddie Harris, Eddie Durham, Doc Cheatum, Eddie Chamblee, Pheeroan akLaff, Don Byron, Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin (the G in GRP Records), John Pizzarelli, Jay Anderson, Jaz Sawyer, Jennifer Vincent, Sean Conly, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, James Hurt, Mark Egan, Jay Azzolina, Neil Caine, Roy Hargrove, Astrud & João Gilberto, Michael Bowie, James Carter, Oscar Neves, Rodney Kendricks, Café, Spanky Davis, Manolo Badrena, Ron McClure, Buddy Williams, Bob Cunningham, Bross Townsend, and Xavier Davis and others. Nunn attributes her ability to perform with artists of that caliber to the fact that Big Nick and others were willing to offer her guidance and constructive criticism when she was starting out.
“Big Nick helped me understand how to use music, jazz in particular, to work through things in your life and how to use your instrument to really communicate with people,” Nunn remembers. “He told me, ‘If you don’t know what you’re trying to say, how can you expect anybody else to?’
Big Nick recognized the musicianship in singers, and one of the great lessons I got from Big Nick as well as from Eddie Chamblee was the importance of developing my own style.
Nunn also learned that the most meaningful jazz isn’t just about chops, technique or complex chord changes—it is about expression, emotion and feeling. Those are the things that, for Nunn, make a jazz performance compelling regardless of whether the performer is a singer or an instrumentalist. Nunn is quick to point out that her major influences are not only jazz vocalists, but jazz instrumentalists as well—that even though she is a strong admirer of Carmen McRae, Abbey Lincoln, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, instrumentalists were also quite crucial to Nunn’s musical development.
“I was always greatly influenced by instrumentalists,” Nunn stresses. “I remember reading that Ella Fitzgerald wanted to sound like a horn, and when I read that, I said, ‘I guess I’m on the right track.’ John Coltrane was a big influence for me, and Hank Mobley, Gene Ammons, Ben Webster and Lester Young were also important influences. I was greatly influenced by the horn players who had really warm tones as well as by McCoy Tyner, who is one of my favorite pianists. I’ve always admired McCoy’s integrity.”
Although Veronica has strong jazz ties they are not exclusive. In between her education by legendary jazz performers, she began seriously composing songs that she felt representative of her life experiences. She also performed with pop and R&B musicians and used her 3 year residency in Europe to explore how jazz relates to other genres of music, noting not only differences but discovering many surprising universal threads and similarities. Into this exploration she injected her original songs, blending them with jazz, soul and R&B to create her own distinct brand of Neo Jazz.
Whatever material she is recording—whether she is interpreting songs by Clifford Brown, Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Gaye or Ivan Lins—Nunn wants to make certain that her individuality continues to make its presence felt.
“One of the things I love about Mark Murphy is the way he has done so many different tunes from so many different genres and has done them his own way,” Nunn asserts. “Jazz has to do with the way you interpret a song and how you use the music to do that. It’s not the type of songs you are using—it is what you do with them. All music is emotion-based, and whatever songs I record, I will always use jazz to express my emotions and make my own personal statements.”