Singin’ the Blues from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan is the title of the program vocalist and trumpet star Bria Skonberg will present when she returns to the Lower Mainland this weekend, an undeniably surprising focus for a pair of concerts that also include the lush horns and strings of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Even more surprising is that this is not a “pops” concept generated south of the border, where the Chilliwack-born Skonberg now lives, but right here at home.
“Working with a symphony is something that I’ve dreamed about for a long time, but it was really the VSO that approached me about it,” the hot-jazz revivalist and emerging songwriter explains, on the line from her home in New York City. “They said ‘We’d like to work with you on a couple of dates,’ so it was just a matter of putting them on the calendar.”
“This is a new experience,” Skonberg stresses. “I’ve worked with a few orchestras before but this is special. It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to basically create the whole show. It’s been a very interesting process, and the VSO has been wonderful about it.”
Less than a week away from opening night, Skonberg admits that she’s poised somewhere between anticipation and apprehension. “This is the debut,” she says. “And for that reason there will be a lot of excitement, and there will be a lot of, you know, terrible music, and there will be some charm to it. It will be very transparent that this is the first time that I’m doing this, and I’m very grateful that it’s for my home crowd.”
She laughs. Terrible music, of course, isn’t actually in the cards, not with another internationally acclaimed local, Nanaimo-raised saxophonist and educator Christine Jensen, flying in from Montreal to conduct. And Skonberg herself seems to have hit on a winning concept, one that has potential to become a perennial on the pops circuit thanks to its invocation of two very different legends of American music.
“They’re both artists that kind of wore their hearts on their sleeves,” Skonberg explains. “Billie is iconic; you can hear her soul when she sings. And then with Bob Dylan, I was part of a show last year that got into his music, and so I was reading his lyrics. And, wow, he had so much to say, even from a young age. For me, he made music that comes straight from the heart and straight from the gut—and that’s something I think both artists have in common. They tell the truth.”
That’s also the ethos Skonberg plans to bring to her Singin’ the Blues shows, which will also feature material by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Leonard Cohen, and the singer herself. As incongruous as putting the blues in a fur coat might seem, truth is still the truth, no matter where it’s told.
“I sat on a panel this spring in between Taj Mahal and Booker T, talking abut the blues,” Skonberg recalls, “and I was, obviously, like ‘What do I know? What do I possibly have to say about any of this?’ But your emotions aren’t wrong. If you can put what you feel into your art, I think it transcends whatever the venue is, whether you’re in a dingy bar or at the Orpheum. So even though it’ll be a beautiful, classy situation, I’m not afraid to play from the gut and tell my story as I’ve experienced it.”
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presents Singin’ the Blues from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan at the Orpheum on Friday and Saturday (January 17 and 18).