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Camille Thurman: Before & After

Learning to listen differently with a multifaceted talent

Camille Thurman
Camille Thurman (photo: Daniel Green)

Camille Thurman blowing tenor with the Jazz at Lincoln Center big band behind her. Fronting the quartet co-led by drummer Darrell Green. Switching from saxophone to flute, then to singing a standard like “Nobody Knows,” revealing her various talents, often on the same melody. These snapshots from a career in its first flowering were common enough up to a year ago; now they’ve been replaced by a few home activities that Thurman considers the hidden benefits of a year in lockdown.

“I find myself listening to music now differently from before,” she says. “In the beginning I was trying to learn the key solos and repertoire. But now I find myself taking the time to process and hear other things I missed in my youth: how musicians taper the notes, their phrasing, the nuances of harmony, the arrangement, the sound, the colors, the musicians’ interactions.”

There’s more: As a recently hired educator working with the jazz studies department at the University of Northern Colorado, Thurman’s finding more time to interact with her students. “It’s been a joy actually because the majority of the time, I’m a clinician. I’d go in and work with the students—like an intensive boot camp for one day or a week—and then wish them the best: ‘Okay, good luck going into the new world, reach out to me if you need any help!’ But now I have the opportunity to work with some students for a consistent period of time, which has been a blessing to watch their growth.”

Thurman’s own growth can be measured across four well-received albums in the past seven years, with plans for two more, including “a tribute project to the late great Horace Silver that I’ve been working on along with Darrell Green, and it features Wallace Roney and Regina Carter. We pulled some pieces from Horace’s albums That Healin’ Feelin’ [1970], Total Response [1971], and All [1972]—those records that we don’t really hear too often. But it’s music that’s so needed now and is perfect for today’s time. We’re hoping to get the music out to you soon.”

To call Thurman a triple (or quadruple, or quintuple) threat is to miss the fact that from her perspective, her music is less about the tool and more about developing a strong and consistent voice that flows through all her instruments, voice included. This idea guided the choice of tracks for her first Before & After with JazzTimes, which took place via Zoom on April 8, 2021.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Jimmy Heath
“Left Alone” (Love Letter, Verve). Heath, tenor saxophone; Russell Malone, electric guitar; Monte Croft, vibraphone; David Wong, bass; Lewis Nash, drums; Cécile McLorin Salvant, vocal. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: That’s Cécile and Jimmy. It’s funny because while I was listening, it had this vibe like it was from a ’60s Abbey Lincoln recording, an eerie kind of feel but very focused and beautiful. Then I realized the compression on the sound and I was thinking, “Oh, this is new and modern.” I started to hear Cécile’s spin and tone, and she was doing some similar things to what Sarah [Vaughan] would do with her phrasing, and I heard a few Blossom Dearie-isms in there too with the tapering of her notes. And Jimmy, I mean his sound? I knew right away that’s Jimmy. 

I’ve heard some of the tracks from this album. It’s gorgeous. But it’s hard to listen to because I remember when Jimmy passed. I was playing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Jack Rudin [Jazz Championship] competition [in January 2020]. We literally were about to go on stage to play and got the news. I remember everybody was in shock … our hearts sank because we had just seen him the winter before, during the big-band holiday tour in Georgia. He came backstage and was hanging out with us. I got to talk with him about my hometown, because he had lived in Queens and was sharing all this information about its wonderful jazz history. Then this album came after he passed and it felt like, “Man, this is the last piece of Jimmy that we have.” It still hasn’t registered that he’s not with us anymore.

2. Nubya Garcia
“Before Us: In Demerara & Caura” (Source, Concord Jazz). Garcia, tenor saxophone; Sheila Maurice-Grey, flugelhorn; Joe Armon-Jones, keyboards; Daniel Casimir, bass; Sam Jones, drums. Recorded in 2020.

BEFORE: [Listens to entire track] I was deep in thought. I have a couple of guesses, but I didn’t recognize that tenor sax sound. Beautiful composition. I love the song and the arrangement, and I love how they voice the trumpet and tenor. It’s definitely much more recent. I love the energy. The drummer is pretty killin’. I kinda have a thing for drummers, I guess. [Laughs] But the tenor sound? I was thinking possibly Nubya because I’ve heard snippets of her before and I was listening really intensely to the timbre.

AFTER: Ah, yes! I knew it was her because I saw a couple of videos before and [I was] listening to how she was approaching the language. We’ve never met but one day, hopefully after this pandemic is over, we’ll get to meet each other. I’ve definitely seen her music online and I’m happy to see her. I haven’t checked this album out yet and I’m going to have to.

3. Shirley Horn
“Get Out of Town” (Close Enough for Love, Verve). Horn, piano, vocal; Charles Ables, bass; Steve Williams, drums. Recorded in 1988.

BEFORE: [Immediately] YES! Oh man. Shirley Horn. All day, every day. I’m a Shirley Horn fanatic. When I first got on the scene I kept my singing a secret for a long time because I thought, “Okay, I’m a lady and they’re going to assume that I only can sing, people are going to look at me with my horn and they’re going to question if I can play or not.” I thought to myself, “Just play, just play.” But Antoine Roney got me to take the bold step and do both. I didn’t see anybody singing and playing a horn. He told me you got to listen to Shirley—check out her arrangements, how she picks her songs, that balance of how she’s able to sing and play but tailor something that highlights her gift in its best light.

Then he introduced me to Steve Williams, who ended up recording on my fourth album [2018’s Waiting for the Sunrise], and that was like a perfect marriage because I got to see Shirley from the mindset of the drummer who worked with her. We didn’t have a conversation directly about Shirley, but the spirit and the feeling was there. We picked a song from her book—“If You Love Me [(Really Love Me)]”—and I remember after the session Steve just nodded. I was like, “Yes!” That was a moment for me: I got the nod of approval from Shirley’s drummer, I’m doing something right! He was so loving and supportive too. 

What’s the advantage of being a singer who also plays an instrument?

That’s an excellent question. You get the inside ticket to everything as far as understanding what’s happening harmonically, rhythmically, and being able to communicate with the band, which is so important because that’s one less wall that you have to deal with. Being able to play an instrument helps you to tap into those things, so that you’re able to creatively go deeper into the music and present it exactly like you’re hearing it. When you check out Shirley, or Carmen McRae, or any of those great singers that were also instrumentalists—Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin—they had something special that made them unique. We love them so much because they have this magical thing that allows them to really get inside of the music and make it work for who they are while connecting with everyone.

4. Lionel Hampton / Dexter Gordon
“Seven Come Eleven” (Lionel Hampton with Dexter Gordon, Who’s Who in Jazz). Gordon, soprano saxophone; Hampton, vibraphone; Bucky Pizzarelli, electric guitar; Hank Jones, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums; Cándido Camero, congas. Recorded in 1977.

BEFORE: [Halfway into saxophone solo] Uh-huh. Yeah. [A few bars later] Woooo! … uh-huh … uh-huh … uh-huh. Yeah! It’s not often you get to hear Dexter on soprano like that, and with Lionel Hampton. On congas, Cándido.

Cándido was way down in the mix!

I was trying to do the math. I’m not familiar with this recording and I didn’t recognize the tune. I was just processing—I know that’s Dexter, I know that’s Lionel, and then thinking period-wise. That’s Cándido. And the guitar—that sound is recognizable.

First off, I could hear Dexter because of his tone, even though he’s on soprano. I could hear him playing the same thing on tenor—and then his phrasing and his ideas. He has those classic things that he plays, those slick melodies that he’ll quote—that’s Dexter. Another thing I love about him, he has such wit. The first record I got turned on to for Dexter was Go and I had to transcribe “Second Balcony Jump.” I didn’t yet know the language of jazz at 14. I knew he was a genius because he was taking all of these different melodies out of left field and finding simple ways of incorporating them into his solos, and then the band would, bam!, respond right back to him without missing a beat.

AFTER: I could tell that was Bucky. That is so awesome and hip. And Dexter is Dexter. It doesn’t get any better than that. The soprano is a special instrument—you gotta give it some TLC and it will start loving you. I’ve been getting into the curved soprano, because I always thought it sounds sweeter. I mean, the straight sounds beautiful too, but there’s something about the curved soprano. And I love that it’s small, so you could throw it in your suitcase and take it out in your hotel room and start blowing and nobody knows it.

5. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra
“Movement 4” and “Movement 5” (Promises, Luaka Bop). Sanders, tenor saxophone, voice; Sam Shepherd, keyboards, programming. Recorded in 2020.

BEFORE: Hmmm. Yeah. Pharoah. Yeah. There’s just something about his sound, it cuts to the soul. It’s so real and raw but it’s so beautiful too. You could hear the link between him and Trane–the purity of the sound. But it’s not Trane, it’s Pharoah. I love when I hear him because it’s like I can visualize the air going into the horn and how the sound comes out, the harmonics and all. Was that him singing?

AFTER: I never heard Pharoah vocalize. Wow. I’m going to have to dig into that album some more. It’s beautiful—it reminds me of the earlier albums he did in the ’70s. There’s a track I remember him playing soprano on, on Thembi [1971], and this reminded me of that same vibe—the meditative quality and openness. It’s like he uses the music as a blank slate for the horn to sing and float on with all these textures and colors in the mix going in and out. It creates this beautiful sound around the focal point of his horn’s sound playing through everything.

Would you consider working with electronics or programming, more of a produced project?

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been going back and forth thinking about this because I’ve been wanting to do something where I get to use woodwinds. I love playing flute, alto flute, bass flute and piccolo, also combining bass clarinet, and maybe even tenor and voice. If I can get some time I’d like to learn how to use the equipment and mess around with it to see what I can come up with.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.