Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Skonberg’s ‘vocal and horn chops intertwine seamlessly’ in New Orleans-inspired hot jazz

By John Mark Rafacz

A New York Times critic describes Bria Skonberg as “the shining hope of hot jazz, on the strength of a clarion trumpet style indebted to Louis Armstrong, a smooth purr of a singing voice inspired by Anita O’Day, and the wholesome glow of youth.”

Skonberg’s album Bria, her major-label debut released in September, includes fourteen songs. Most are standards such as “From This Moment On,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” and “Midnight Sun.” But five songs were written or co-written by Skonberg, who in addition to being a gifted trumpeter and engaging vocalist is an emerging composer.

“She exhibits stylistic shades of Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, and Diana Krall,” writes an All About Jazz critic. “She has a beautiful voice—both soul sultry and innocent sweet—and an instrumentalist’s feel for melodic line and rhythm. Her vocal and horn chops intertwine seamlessly.”

Skonberg makes her Penn State debut leading her quintet November 30 at Schwab Auditorium.

It’s been a swift ride to stardom for Skonberg, who didn’t exactly come of age in a hotbed of jazz. Growing up in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Skonberg says, she was more interested in playing sports than becoming a musician. But her public school had an excellent music program, she recalls, and by high school she was not only playing trumpet but also fronting a local big band.

At 18, she made a beeline for Vancouver, where she earned a degree in jazz trumpet performance while taking gigs at the city’s music venues. It didn’t take long, though, for the singer-trumpeter to outgrow Vancouver’s limited jazz scene.

“I wanted to move to L.A. I always had California dreams growing up. But by the time it was time to actually make the jump across the border, I just had so many more contacts in New York … ,” she says. “I had been bumping my head on the ceiling in Vancouver for a little while. I wanted to be immersed in a scene that would really, really challenge me, and New York just seemed like the top of that heap.”

Relocating to New York City in 2010 got Skonberg the notice she was missing north of the border. 

“It allowed me to focus in a way, and I started studying … with a trumpet guy named Warren Vaché,” she says.

“I try to absorb wherever I am. I think I’m a bit of a mutt, at this point, for what I sound or talk like. I mean, that’s what we do,” she says. “We try to evolve as people and reflect the surroundings of the things we’ve absorbed and taken in.”

Being surrounded by great musicians and New York City’s patchwork of cultures from around the world helped her grow as an artist.

“It’s got the most authentic whatever style of music, whatever food you want to eat. You can get an extremely authentic version of it, or you can get an incredible, innovative version of it, too,” she says. “It’s just been fun to take it all in and then see how it influences my own music.”

Known for her understanding of classic jazz and her curious nature, Skonberg is fashioning an adventurous style rooted in New Orleans jazz and blues, world percussion, soul, and cabaret.

“I really like music that has a sense of allure to it—stuff that pulls you in but has a lot of dynamics, a lot of tension, that bluesy aspect to it. It’s very kind of like Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, New Orleans underground feel,” she says of the new album’s sound. “And yet somewhere where I think my trumpet and my voice meet are based around more Latin American styles, too, with percussion. It’s a fusion of all these elements that I think works.”

Skonberg admits to being lauded for her New Orleans sensibilities before she set foot in the Louisiana city.

“I was being credited as being kind of a knowledgeable or playing a lot in that style, and I knew that I hadn’t been to New Orleans yet,” she recalls. “I really just felt like, okay, I’ve been watching the movie, but I haven’t read the book. I need to go to the source. Not that the source was my first trip because my first trip was to check out Mardi Gras, which, it’s like the Times Square of New Orleans. It’s not the actual nitty gritty.”

But she has gradually come to know the city more intimately.

“Every time I go to New Orleans I have a different experience—just staying with different bands or, you know, last year we played the (jazz and heritage) festival, which is awesome. I haven’t lived there, I would say. I’ve been there, and I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ve gotten a perspective regarding the history.”

The music she likes to create is rooted in a New Orleans style for several reasons, she says.  

“Something I like about it is the conversational aspect—having two horns that focus on polyphony, which is kind of two melodies happening at the same time. I don’t overly orchestrate my charts. I like there to be a lot of freedom for the players to interpret and interact with each other,” she points out. “And at the same time, it comes down a lot to blues. There’s increasingly more blues in my music, blues meaning a connection to the human experience.”

With five original songs on her 2016 album, Skonberg is delving more deeply into songwriting.

“Going through music college, I have the tools needed to write songs. I feel like I can write songs fairly easily, but to write a good song takes time,” she says. “My favorite way to write, which doesn’t happen often enough, is … to clear a lot of mental and physical space and be able to sit at my piano, and be in the quiet, and let the inspiration either come or let the things that have been working their way in my brain come out slowly. I think I have some natural ideas. The problem is time management.”

Curiosity fuels her songwriting.

“I’d like to think that I’m always searching and growing. As I get to travel and grow older, I have more experiences,” she says. “The really gratifying thing about songwriting is the more I put myself into the music, the more that like-minded people are gravitating back. It’s satisfying on a lot of levels to relate to your audience, and get to know these stories, and just know that you’re creating stuff that people feel.”

Skonberg thrives when performing for an audience.

“I do really love it, because for me it’s about the people. It’s not just performing for people. I think of it as a conversation. The eternal icebreaker is making music and bringing people in to my musical head space. But also, I’ll feel out an audience, or try to interact a little bit, and try to get to know the culture of the place that I’m in.”

At Penn State, Skonberg will front her quintet of piano, bass, drums, and clarinet-saxophone.

She hasn’t reached a point in her career in which she tours with the same band, she says, but she knows a lot of talented players from which to choose for each outing.

“I’m using some incredible players these days. … I’ve built a network of incredible topnotch players and people that have played my book before,” she says.

“I need somebody that can understand really classic jazz, but can stretch into modern harmony, but also has a natural love for funky pop music. So also it’s maybe somebody who grew up in the ’90s or 2000s—the twenty-first century—to be able to embrace those sensibilities, too,” she says. “It’s interesting. I ask a lot.”

John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager of the Center for the Performing Arts.