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Camille Thurman: Before & After

Learning to listen differently with a multifaceted talent

Camille Thurman at the 2019 Gotham Jazz Festival
Camille Thurman at the 2019 Gotham Jazz Festival (photo: Alan Nahigian)

6. Jazzmeia Horn
“Legs and Arms” (Love and Liberation, Concord Jazz). Horn, vocals; Stacy Dillard, tenor saxophone; Victor Gould, piano; Ben Williams, bass; Jamison Ross, drums, vocals. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: Ahhhh. Jazzmeia … uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh … yeah. We’re good friends. I know her voice very well. All those little nuances that she does with her phrases. Beautiful tune—all her compositions and arrangements are. I’m so happy and proud of her for taking that leap and letting the world hear her music. I haven’t had time to check out everything [on her latest album]. I know her first one.

I was able to hear and recognize instantly, from the first time I heard her, she was seriously doing her homework and was about the music 100 percent. I remember we were backstage at the Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition years ago and we were so giddy. We hugged each other and we were so happy to see each other both experiencing that special moment, encouraging one another. That’s the thing about the jazz scene: You’ll meet people in passing many times over, but actually having a situation to sit and talk, those are few and far between. But when you do come together you get right to the point and you’re able to exchange a lot of things without having to say a lot of words.

She’s not afraid of taking chances. The singers that we love, that’s what they did. Sarah, Ella [Fitzgerald]. Betty [Carter], of course—the queen of taking chances. Every aspect of the voice was obtainable, whether it was the range, the phrasing, the timing, the rhythm, the timbre, the coloring, the play on the words and delivery. All of those things were used and every aspect of the human experience was channeled and expressed. It was more than just a nice voice singing the melody. It was art putting all those things together. I love my sister for doing that because that’s what this music is all about, artistry and life.

7. George Coleman Quintet
“I Got Rhythm” (In Baltimore, Reel to Real). Coleman, tenor saxophone; Danny Moore, trumpet; Albert Dailey, piano; Larry Ridley, bass; Harold White, drums. Recorded in 1971.

BEFORE: Wooooo! Yeah. [Listens intently] I want to say it’s George. He was doing some harmonic things that I recognized, and how he’s playing rhythm changes at that tempo. That’s what I love about his spirit. It’s like he set out the gate—gone. I could hear the rhythm section working, and I love that about George. He’s so strong with his time, even at fast tempos he’s just like a laser –straight shooter. It doesn’t matter if the music starts to feel like, “Oh shoot, we’re about to fall.” He’s just there, it’s a direct forward motion. Nothing moves him. It wouldn’t matter if the sky was falling.

Of course, I love the music he did with Miles but what he did on his own is amazing too. I think of him both as a sideman and a leader. I feel like he should be celebrated a lot more, because when it comes to modern playing on the saxophone harmonically, he was an innovator. A lot of what we hear today in modern jazz saxophone, he opened up that world for us. He’s one of my favorites and my hero.

AFTER: I knew it was rhythm changes but there you go, “I Got Rhythm.” I remember it was Antoine [Roney] who connected me with him and got me to fall in love with him. I was working on this transcription of George’s music. And he said, “Why don’t you meet him?” That was like saying, “You want to go meet Oprah? You want to go talk to God?” [Laughs] Antoine called him right then. “Hey George, I have a young lady here, she’s a great player, I’d love for you to meet her.”

I ended up going to Smoke to see George because I had a residency there for about two years on Wednesday nights with my band and he was playing one weekend. I saw his son George Jr. outside and he was like, “You’re Camille, right?” “Yeah, I’m Camille, you’re George Jr., but how do you know me?” He said he knew about me because I was a saxophone player and a scientist. I said, “I don’t practice science, but I do have a degree in geological and environmental science.” He said, “I was a chemistry major and I play drums.” We’re both science nerds and musicians, and we started talking. “I want to introduce you to my dad, I think he really needs to meet you.” So between George Jr. and Antoine, I got hooked up with George.

George ended up having me come over and he gave me this amazing lesson. He sat down at the piano and explained how he was thinking, which is like every musician’s dream. I could ask him, “How did you come up with that, or think about it that way?” I’m sitting with him and I remember feeling like I was about to float and go to heaven. It was just so surreal.

Another thing I love about George is his harmonic freedom, that anything and everything is up for grabs. Harmony is all about how you hear it and how you make it work. It’s not about playing what’s written, it’s about playing what can be and what could be there. That’s the biggest lesson I got from him. He just opened my mind and my ears to exploring everything and anything in the chord, outside the chord, revisualizing the progressions, figuring out how to get there, realizing there are rules but it’s really about how you make the rules work for you. 

8. Samara Joy
“Sophisticated Lady” (Live from Emmets Place – Vol. 46, YouTube video). Joy, vocal; Emmet Cohen, piano; Russell Hall, bass; Kyle Poole, drums. Recorded in 2021.

BEFORE: [Turns head away from screen, then immediately turns back after first line of lyric] I know that voice. First off, Samara’s voice is unique. It’s round and full with a very rich tone, similar to Lizz Wright but different because of how she shapes her phrases. I remember she was doing a lot of studying with Barry Harris, and when I saw that I was like, “Yes! You’re in the right place, mama, learning from Barry!” You can hear that she put her time in. 

Tone, control, understanding of the lyrics, and being able to sing the story. She has such a unique gift at such a very young age and I’m so happy that she’s doing what she’s doing. I remember when I first met her in high school and we talked for a little bit, and the next thing I knew she sent me an email saying, “Hey Camille, I got into Purchase College and I’m going to pursue singing as a major.” I was like, “YES! You should! You need to be there. People need to hear you.” Now to see this a couple of years later just makes my heart smile.

What about the way many musicians have been keeping in touch, performing online or producing series like Emmets Place?

It’s been uplifting because it shows the spirit of the jazz community. The community is very resilient—the musicians and the listeners. Jazz has been through many adversities throughout its history in this country, and the beautiful thing about this music is that in each era, it’s created its own soundtrack for the time. Right now we’re actively doing that using Zoom and other forms of technology despite us not physically being together. I mean, it’s never going to replace being in the same room and experiencing the sound surround you; to hear the sound hit the air and feel the hairs on the back of your neck go up from how a person phrases that melody or sings that note. For now, it’s a tool we can use to get the music to a wider audience.

I’m working on a virtual mentorship project that got started because of the pandemic. It’s called The Haven Hang and it’s a musician question-and-answer opportunity for young/early-career women musicians, giving them opportunities to hear from established artists sharing their insight on how they developed as artists and women. We’ve had Dianne Reeves, which was a dynamic session, sharing so many stories about Carmen McRae and Betty Carter. We’ve had Dee Dee Bridgewater, Terri Lyne Carrington, Bertha Hope, and many others. It’s been such a fun project to work on. Episodes are available to view on my YouTube channel.

9. Dayna Stephens
“Loosy Goosy” (Liberty, Contagious). Stephens, tenor saxophone; Ben Street, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: Mmmmm! [Listens more] Mmmmm. Woooo! I love trio stuff, especially with tenor. It’s so exciting. I love the rhythmic play the tenor has with the drummer and the bassist, and how they’re able to use a combination of everything—rhythm, color, dynamics, time, but then also the “snakes.” It’s like an endless cat-and-mouse game. Or better yet, “boxing à la music,” I like to call it. The bass and the drums are just so interactive and imaginative. I love that about it.

As far as who the tenor player is, it sounds familiar but I can’t put my finger on who it is. Definitely recent. I would guess they spent some time checking out George and some Sonny. The tone is beautiful, and the control and the range too. I like this person! 

AFTER: Oh! I was thinking Dayna for a second but I heard Dayna on other stuff, and I was like, “No, it’s not him because it’s a little different from other things I’ve checked out.” “Loosy Goosy”—it’s a great title. I love Dayna. I’ve heard him through records and I haven’t seen him live lately, just stuff that I would hear and see online. He’s so creative and he’s so free, and you could hear that on this track. I love his playing! I’ve heard him on EWI too and, you know, I tried it at his house and I was like, “That’s okay—I’m good.” [Laughs]

Do you like stretching out with a small group or trio?

Aside from the big band, I actually work a lot with my own band, which is a quartet, and every now and then [drummer] Darrell [Green] will do trio too and it’s so much fun. Working in the big-band context is great, it’s a whole ’nother thing. You got a lot of moving parts and it’s all about how we’re moving together but then also being conscious of the ebb and flow of where you fit harmonically and rhythmically in time as it’s constantly moving and changing. But in a smaller group you have a little more freedom because you’re not one of five people representing one position. There’s a lot more flexibility with the role you can play in a small-group setting. Drums and bass is my thing.

10. Sarah Vaughan
“Nice Work If You Can Get It” (Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi, Columbia). Vaughan, vocals; Tony Scott, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Miles Davis, trumpet; Bennie Green, trombone; Mundell Lowe, electric guitar; Jimmy Jones, piano; Billy Taylor, Jr., bass; J.C. Heard, drums. Recorded in 1949.

BEFORE: Oh my lady!!! I love her. Yeah. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Hmmm. Uh-huh. There’s so much lyricism here, and what I love about Sarah is her take on melody. She leaves you on the edge of your seat because you don’t know how she’s going to sing it each time. Also her interaction with the band. That band was swinging, and you could hear from her phrasing she’s right on top of that beat and it leads to her being able to take creative chances rhythmically with how she sings the melody. And if she was feeling bubbly, you could hear it through how she sang. That’s what’s so beautiful about her, she’s not afraid to be herself through the music. And that trumpet solo, I want to say that’s Clifford [Brown], right? Is it Kenny [Dorham]? No, no, not Kenny. I’m stumped.

AFTER: Miles. Wow. I’m going to have to go back and listen to that and study that—shame on me. It’s pretty. Just so lyrical and the tone—the tone. I was thinking Clifford for a second because both him and Miles, their tone was just so beautiful and round and anything that they play, the lines would just float.

It’s amazing how well they complement each other on this track. When you’re doing both on the same song—singing and playing—how do you balance the two?

I remember the first time somebody asked me to do that, and I just did it. I was like, “Wow, that took so much focus because you’re working on your timing and you got execution going back and forth from the horn to the voice.” I was trading with myself, which was a whole other thing. Most of the time you’re singing a melody and then you play, or you just play the melody and then you sing. But I was actually going back and forth every four measures, which was really making me think. I guess it’s the discipline and how you practice executing the instrument and feeling time. Now I feel and see it all as one entity. It’s definitely a blessing because you really have to know the music and it forces you to learn the lyrics, to understand the harmony and also to listen to the band, not be afraid of being proactive, reactive, interactive, and at times the instigator. So even if I’m switching back and forth, I always am able to—bam!—be right there, come in and play as one person seamlessly switching from one instrument or role to the next.

So Camille on sax doesn’t get angry at Camille the singer for hogging the song.

[Laughs] No, not at all. 

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.