Camille Thurman: Double Threat

Is Camille Thurman a singing saxophonist or a sax-playing singer?

Photo of Camille Thurman

The singer-slash-horn player is a rare phenomenon in jazz, mostly because singing and horn playing are mutually exclusive. There are, of course, standouts, including the two Louises, Armstrong and Jordan. Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody sang, too, and memorably, but never all that seriously. There’s Valaida Snow, who sang and played trumpet, along with the little-known bebop-and-blues saxophonist Vi Redd.

The list thins out as you make your way to the present. There’s the trumpeter and vocalist Bria Skonberg, and the young alto saxophonist Grace Kelly occasionally sings, but she’s better known for the precocious virtuosity she brings to her instrument.

Enter Camille Thurman, the 30-year-old jazz vocalist and tenor saxophonist who is equally at home channeling John Coltrane and paying homage to the jazz-vocal tradition extending from Bessie Smith. Since 2014, Thurman has quietly released three albums—Origins, Spirit Child and the latest, Inside the Moment—all of which make the serious case that a singing saxophonist, though not so easily marketable, is no novelty in modern jazz.

Thurman, a runner-up in the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, has a nasal, sonorous voice. Her horn tone is rich and full-bodied, and her phrasing is pleasingly slurred, never hurried. She’s a dexterous improviser, both as a scatter and a saxophonist. “It seems to me that Camille is actually as gifted a singer as she is a player,” said Billy Drummond, who plays drums on Inside the Moment, recorded live at Rockwood Music Hall in New York. The album features an array of covers that attest to Thurman’s stylistic range: Sarah Vaughan’s “Sassy’s Blues,” Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti,” Wes Montgomery’s “Road Song” and the standard “Detour Ahead,” among others.

There was a time, though, when Thurman kept her singing secret. Raised in St. Albans, Queens, once home to Fats Waller, Basie, Ella, Coltrane and others, Thurman picked up her first saxophone at 14. Though she intended to join a pit orchestra on Broadway, which seemed like a safe career choice, early on she heard Dexter Gordon’s solo on “Second Balcony Jump,” from his 1962 album Go, and decided to devote herself to jazz. “That just made me lose my mind,” Thurman recalled in a recent interview at the midtown Manhattan offices of Chesky Records, which released Inside the Moment. “All I heard out of that record player was a man that sounded like he was 10 feet tall.”

Thurman’s time playing in the jazz band at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art, however, wasn’t quite as empowering. As one of only a couple of female musicians in a group full of highly competitive teenage boys, Thurman felt that she was overlooked and that not much was expected of her. “I was fighting just to be able to take a solo,” Thurman remembered.

Though she often found herself scatting absentmindedly in the shower, Thurman said, “I kept [my] singing under wraps because I wanted to prove to myself that I’m a saxophonist.”

She persisted, but decided to enroll in the geology program at Binghamton University to keep her options open, playing jazz on the side. It wasn’t until a music lecturer named Michael Carbone encouraged her to sing that Thurman decided she didn’t have to pick one path. She could devote herself to her voice without diminishing her credibility as a saxophonist or putting herself in a box.

Thurman also realized, she said, that many of her favorite performers, including Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Carmen McRae, all sang and played an instrument. Though that instrument happened to be piano, Thurman was undeterred.

In 2009 Thurman moved back to New York and began working on the local jazz scene, gigging in Charlie Persip’s big band and other small groups. Through a mentor, the saxophonist Antoine Roney, she connected with legendary tenorman George Coleman who, presiding over a Fender Rhodes in his home, recounted to her a number of stories that deepened her emotional understanding of jazz and its history.

Stories are particularly important to Thurman, who feels that her experience as a singer, as an interpreter of lyrics, has enriched her playing on the saxophone, imbuing her solos with a grander sense of narrative. “You can’t play nothing if you don’t understand a story,” Thurman said.

Thurman has been busy since she returned to New York about eight years ago. Her next Chesky recording, featuring guitarist Jack Wilkins, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Steve Williams, is an all-vocal album, though Thurman still plays saxophone throughout. (All of her previous records have had instrumental tracks.) Thurman is also at work on a vocal tribute to the pianist Horace Silver, a great she believes has not gotten his due from her generation.

Although Thurman still sometimes feels that, as a woman, she is expected to put down her saxophone and pursue singing fulltime, she has no plans to do so. She held out on committing herself to singing for perhaps longer than she should have, but never felt as though singing and playing were at odds. “When you’re learning the music,” Thurman said, “you’re singing it.”

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Inside the Moment by Camille Thurman on iTunes.