Bria Skonberg: Giving Trad-Jazz a Modern Edge

The new old school

Bria Skonberg

“I’m a trumpalist! I play vocalet!” says Bria Skonberg with glee, munching on a Greek salad. “I’m a hybrid; I’m a swamp monster. An X-man!”

What she playfully means, of course, is that she is both a trumpeter and a vocalist, and assigns equal focus to both instruments. And that focus is beginning to pay off. When we speak in early June, the bubbly 29-year-old is about to headline Bethesda Blues & Jazz near the outskirts of Washington, D.C. But Skonberg doesn’t do bebop or its descendants, at least not in her own projects. Hers is a hot jazz-the sounds of New Orleans tradition and the swing era, as expressed through her own songwriting and lyrics. (Into Your Own, Skonberg’s new, third album on the Random Act label, is her most lyric-based recording yet.) But she also infuses it with other music that she loves, including soul and classic rock.

“Trad fusion, that’s what it is,” she stresses in the same husky tones in which she sings. “I’ve got a wah-wah setup with a little bit of distortion on it. I’ve got a pretty good Slash impression, I’ve got a pretty good Jimi Hendrix impression so far. It’s just finding ways to do it tastefully and just kind of sneak it in there with the traditional-jazz audience.”

Skonberg does so cleverly. Into Your Own includes a mash-up of the prewar standard “Three Little Words” and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” On the album’s closer, “Go Tell It,” she borrows lyrics from two old gospel tunes, sets them to a Bo Diddley beat, and plays the riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” on wah-wah trumpet.

Skonberg grew up a long way from New Orleans, in the small city of Chilliwack, British Columbia, where she was born in 1984. It’s an unlikely jazz hub, but Chilliwack had its own trad-jazz festival, spurred by the popularity of West Coast revivalists like trombonist Turk Murphy. “So [in seventh grade,] when I was learning how to play the trumpet, improvising, I was watching live bands play traditional jazz,” she recalls. “And my teacher was giving me stuff like Louis Armstrong to listen to, getting me some transcriptions to learn.” In high school she formed the Big Bang Jazz Band, an eight-piece trad unit.

Skonberg gained a wider scope of jazz history and technique at Vancouver’s Capilano University, where she got her degree in jazz instrumental performance. However, she also kept Big Bang together and hustled to get them booked at national and international jazz festivals. After graduating, she formed an all-female band, the Mighty Aphrodite, in Vancouver, and began touring with Dal Richards, an icon of the Canadian swing era. “Twenty-five festivals I think I checked in one year,” she says. She also recorded her first album, 2009’s Fresh.

Even in the smaller world of trad, though, Skonberg was quickly outgrowing Vancouver. After the city concluded the 2010 Winter Olympics, Skonberg headed across the border and to the east. “New York was the hardest thing I could do and I think that’s why I did it. I’m one of those people!” she says with a chuckle. Her specialized repertoire, combined with the connections she’d made on the festival circuit, meant that Skonberg quickly found plenty of work. Among other things, she joined David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, with which she still plays weekly at Birdland.

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It was in writing her own music that Skonberg began working in rock and other styles. “A lot of that different stuff just kind of came bubbling out, and I said, ‘Oh! I really like this.’ It interested me in a way that I could really relate to firsthand. So that’s how that started going into the mix.” It wasn’t always popular among the trad audience-“once I started hearing people say that they didn’t like this or that, then I realized that I was doing something different,” she says-but it did begin attracting a more mainstream crowd as well as the attention of Random Act.

Using pop staples isn’t only an artistic choice, however; it’s a populist touch, an attempt to relate to a contemporary audience. “I have certainly not lost any respect for the trad stuff,” she says. “I don’t go to play a swing dance and pull out the 5/4 time signatures and stuff. I tailor the concerts depending on who the audience is, what the gig is. I’m there for them, too! I’m not just there for myself!”

Indeed, asked in advance about her (ultimately delightful) set at Bethesda Blues & Jazz, Skonberg isn’t yet sure. “I’ve never played here before,” she says. “Probably stuff from the album, but I’ll have to read the audience a little bit and see what seems appropriate at the time. It’s an old-school way of thinking: ‘What do these people want, and how can I connect with them?'”