Overdue Ovation: Singer Fleurine, Monk Lyricist & International Star

The bubbly Dutch vocalist reflects on her fateful journey into the world of jazz

Fleurine (photo: Juliana Flaskamp)

“Hi! I’m Fleurine, and I’m from Holland, and I wrote lyrics to a Monk song.”

That’s how an upbeat Dutch conservatory student introduced herself to musical multi-hyphenate Don Sickler. Thelonious Monk had just been a topic of discussion on a publishing panel featuring Sickler—the scene was the 1994 JazzTimes Convention in New York—and this aspiring vocalist, just visiting the city for a few short weeks, was eager to learn more about the ins and outs of the business.

With that, Sickler gave her an education. “He said, ‘What! You can’t do that. Did you record it anywhere? We can sue you,’” Fleurine recalls with a laugh. For most, such an interaction, along with the quick dismissal that followed, would’ve ended the story. Fleurine, however, was undeterred. “I remembered that I had my little Walkman cassette recorder in my handbag, so I ran to the nearest ladies’ room, grabbed a cassette … and started singing my lyric to ‘Think of One.’” She then ran back to find Sickler, handed off the tape, wrote down a phone number where she could be reached, and went on her way.

That swift exchange, discouraging as it was, proved to be a pivotal moment for the young Fleurine Verloop. Not 24 hours later she received a call from an apologetic Sickler. Impressed with her work, he played it for drummer T.S. Monk, who helps oversee his legendary father’s estate. Both men wanted to meet her that day and, with that, she became the sixth authorized Thelonious Monk lyricist in the world. Showing further curiosity, since he was taken with some of the demo material on that same tape, Sickler inquired about Fleurine’s plans to record an album and expressed interest in producing it. “It was just an amazing start, coming to New York and having all of that happen so quickly,” Fleurine reminisces.

Her album—1995’s aptly titled Meant to Be!, with liner notes from the esteemed Jon Hendricks and A-list support from the likes of Renee Rosnes, Christian McBride, Billy Drummond, and Tom Harrell—found her penning lyrics to the work of artists such as Monk, Kenny Dorham, and Curtis Fuller, all of whom had made early impressions on Fleurine through her father’s record collection. It also catapulted the young vocalist onto the international festival circuit. At the 1996 North Sea Jazz Festival, she would meet a contemporary who would later alter her course significantly.

“When Don had initially asked who was on my wish list for the album, I mentioned Renee Rosnes and also a young pianist named Brad Mehldau,” Fleurine says. The singer had heard this fellow up-and-comer at a showcase and was incredibly impressed. But since he lived in Los Angeles and had yet to stake his own claim with his lauded Warner Bros. debut—1995’s Introducing Brad Mehldau—he proved the poorer option on paper and was quickly crossed off the list.

Not long after their first encounter in the Netherlands, Fleurine and Mehldau became better acquainted. “I came to the States with my European band to play Birdland for the first time and I was curious about how I was listed in the Village Voice,” she explains. Checking the listing and noticing that her name had no clarifying information attached, she quickly sprang into promotional action by printing flyers and hatching an unorthodox distribution scheme. “I had no money—I was a jazz musician in my 20s—and I had to get them around town, so I had this ludicrous idea to rent a pair of Rollerblades to get me to all of the clubs.”

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Dangerous as it was, the plan worked. At the end of the night, with flyers in their proper places and an invitation from McBride to come hear him play, Fleurine went to visit the Village Vanguard for the first time. “That’s when something really embarrassing happened,” she confesses. “I had no idea it was in a basement, so after I opened the door and swung inside, with the Rollerblades still on, I fell down the stairs, the flyers flew everywhere, and I knocked down a poor gentleman who was on his way up.” That gentleman turned out to be Mehldau.

After literally sweeping the pianist off his feet, Fleurine struck up a quick friendship with Mehldau that only deepened as the two crossed paths through some unexpected tour overlaps. Those meetings eventually led to starry alignment in both professional and personal realms; after touring as a duo and diving into domesticity together, they recorded Close Enough for Love in 1999. Highlighting the pair’s chemistry, that album—Fleurine’s second for the EmArcy/Universal imprint—also painted a broader picture of her talents. Moving comfortably from Michel Legrand to Jimi Hendrix, penning lyrics to go with Pat Metheny’s “Better Days Ahead” and several Mehldau originals, and hinting at a love of Brazilian music that would eventually go full-bloom, she demonstrated a high degree of artistic fluidity with the pianist by her side. Close Enough for Love proved to be a success and, not long after it received its warm reception, Fleurine and Melhdau wed.

In the years separating the release of those first two albums, Fleurine stayed busy headlining clubs and festivals and working some high-profile side gigs—most notably a 1996 tour through Cuba with trumpeter Roy Hargrove and stints with T.S. Monk’s touring version of his Monk on Monk project.

And in the period following the release of Close Enough for Love, she artfully juggled music and motherhood. With children entering the picture, extensive touring receded but her work remained in the foreground. 2003’s Fire, with saxophonist Seamus Blake, accordionist Gil Goldstein, and drummer Jeff Ballard, found Fleurine delivering jazz treatments of rock and pop classics from artists like Peter Frampton, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Drake, and the Pretenders. The album played as a “radio soundtrack” from Fleurine’s childhood in the Netherlands, but as with the two albums before it, the U.S. missed out: Fleurine’s first three records, while earning her a sizable audience and posting strong sales in Europe, Asia, and South America, never received North American releases. It was a seriously limiting factor for an artist who was stateside for much of the time, but it was one that she eventually outgrew.

With her fourth album, Fleurine finally went global. San Francisco, released worldwide on Sunnyside Records, found her honoring a trio of remarkable songwriters sharing a homeland and forename—Francisco “Chico” Buarque de Hollanda, one of Brazil’s most respected artists; Francis Hime, one of his skilled partners; and Francisco “Chico” Pinheiro, a young guitarist who played a central role on the album. Presenting music from all three, and receiving sanction to translate Buarque’s songs into English, Fleurine delivered a Brazilian-inflected jazz album that addressed her polyglot persona and love of language.

“I was raised bilingual—English-Dutch—but I also learned Portuguese early on,” she explains. “I was lucky enough that my grandparents lived in Portugal, so I was exposed to that language at a pretty early age.”

Dipping deeper into Brazilian waters after San Francisco, Fleurine began to explore the art of songwriting fully. With guitar in hand, and with opportunities to hone her craft in front of audiences at Manhattan’s Birdland, Smoke, and Mezzrow, she put together a batch of songs that would constitute the bulk of the material on her most recent release—2018’s Brazilian Dream.

A beautifully nuanced set that earned an Edison Award nomination, the album elevates Fleurine to her rightful place. With help from a band featuring rising-star Brazilians like pianist/accordionist Vitor Gonçalves and guitarist Ian Faquini, she paints personalized statements in authentic shades. And she used the opportunity to make dreams come true for others too, giving the majority of the album’s proceeds to Estrela da Favela, a school in Rio that helps serve and educate underprivileged children. “This music of Brazil has inspired me since before I could walk, so I wanted to be able to give something back,” she explains.

In addressing Brazilian Dream, and the totality of her output in general, it becomes increasingly clear that Fleurine always seeks new ways to approach the art of creation. “I have a strong artistic desire to stay off the beaten path, add something original to the world, and present a part of myself,” she says, “through the music.”