Monday, March 15, 2010

Music feature: Jazz singer Milman favors craft over image

Jazz singer Sophie Milman.

By Bill Meredith

The recording industry has always been more image- than music-driven, a fact that's been made worse by TV since the 1950s and MTV since the 1980s.

The latest example is American Idol, on which youthful toothpaste models-turned-singers recruit text-messaged votes from teenaged fans to springboard toward celebrity. Vocalist Sophie Milman wants nothing to do with the it's-more-important-to-look-good-than-sound-good crowd, and she has the voice and intellect to prove it.

Milman also certainly has the look of an American Idol contestant, and started her recording career at the pop-approved age of 20. But the Russian-born Toronto resident sings jazz, and speaks Hebrew, Russian, English and French fluently. Newly married to entertainment attorney Casey Chisick, she's studying toward a commerce degree at the University of Toronto.

"I did an interview recently," Milman says, "and I was asked, 'How do you feel about being considered a sex symbol?' And my jaw dropped. What does that even mean? I try to be taken seriously as a singer and work hard on my craft, and I've found that when critics want to say something snide, they don't criticize the music, but they do mention the fact that I'm blonde. So it's complicated. It can help you, but you don't want it to become the focus. Plus I'm singing jazz, so there has to be something behind it."

Vocal and classical piano studies have helped to create musical sensibilities within Milman's husky alto voice, which will be on display at the Rinker Playhouse in West Palm Beach during her Kravis Center debut Wednesday. And the 27-year-old shows maturity by being happy to have a slow, upward arc to her three-CD recording career -- rather than the status of an instant idol.

"I've read where Norah Jones' second album sold 10 million copies, yet was looked at as a failure," she says. "That's tough, but Norah at least seems like she doesn't pay much attention to things like that in the press."

Milman was born in the Siberian town of Ufa, and moved with her family to the Israeli port city of Haifa at age 7 and to Canada at age 16. She eventually did break through with the aid of a show, but appropriately enough for the future road warrior, it was a concert performance.

Producer and keyboardist Bill King discovered her during "Real Divas" night, a Toronto jazz series, and was impressed enough to invite a representative from Toronto-based Linus Entertainment to hear her. The rising area star was signed to a three-CD contract.

"Bill was really instrumental in getting my career going," Milman says. "He did some playing for me, and produced more than half of the tracks on the first record."

That self-titled 2004 debut featured standards like George and Ira Gershwin's The Man I Love and Cole Porter's My Heart Belongs to Daddy, a trend toward interpretations that's continued since.

"I'm not sure if I'll start composing," Milman says, "because in jazz, there's a culture of interpreting that's quite strong. And I feel that if I'm not drawn to do it organically, then I don't really need to force myself in order to to prove something, or for mechanical royalties. I love standards. Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and the Gershwins are like Bach, Mozart or Shakespeare. They're classics."

Milman's 2007 sophomore effort Make Someone Happy contained the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics It Might As Well Be Spring and People Will Say We're in Love, but also Stevie Wonder's Rocket Love. It won a Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy, for Jazz Vocal Album of the Year.

Her latest, Take Love Easy, blends Porter's Love for Sale, Ellington's Take Love Easy and Antonio Carlos Jobim's Triste with Bruce Springsteen's I'm On Fire, Joni Mitchell's Be Cool and Paul Simon's 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.

"I love pop tunes, and cabaret," Milman says. "I've loved Liza Minnelli, and people like Joni, and Leonard Cohen, are the Porters and Gershwins of our generation."

With her CD contract with Linus Entertainment fulfilled, Milman may be recording on an American label next. But she's guarded about any specifics.

"I'm about to sign with a label out of the United States," she says, "but I will not say anything more. Until the ink is dry, I find it's best not to."

She does, however, have plenty to say about the musicians she records and tours with.

"I credit my band with my talent, actually," Milman says. "Sure, it's coming through my throat and emotional prism. But in terms of teaching me how to translate feelings into song, I couldn't have done it without people like my husband, my producer Steven MacKinnon, and Paul Shrofel, who's been my pianist and musical director for over five years. My drummer, Mark McLean, also did some arranging, as did the rest of the band [guitarist Rob Piltch and bassist Kieran Overs]. '50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,' for instance, was kind of a group arrangement that came together pretty spontaneously."

Shrofel contributed the disc's lone original, the exuberant swing number That Is Love. Milman also shows her range of influences -- from soul star Wonder and gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson to jazz icons Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson and Nat King Cole -- on classics performed by artists from Ellington (Beautiful Love) to Bonnie Raitt (I Can't Make You Love Me).

The Kravis Center stop is part of a Southern jaunt between Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. In April, Milman plays at multiple Blue Note locations in Japan, and she made her debut in Russia last year in an unorthodox setting.

"I tour a lot in the U.S.; more than in Canada or overseas," she says, "and I especially love to play in Boston and New York City. In Russia, there isn't much money anywhere other than Moscow. But there's a well-to-do gentleman there who flew myself, my full band, tour manager and husband over there for us to play a 20-minute birthday concert! We landed there a week early so I could connect with my grandparents, aunts and uncles and other family I hadn't seen in years."

Between her solid band, grounded nature and the business sense of her husband, Milman seems to have practically every base covered -- until she's reminded that she's playing at the Kravis Center on St. Patrick's Day.

"Uh-oh," she says with a laugh. "That's one style of music I haven't explored much yet! I've done American standards, Russian, Israeli and Brazilian music, but not Irish. But the band always plays an instrumental or two, and they're geniuses. We'll come up with something."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer based in South Florida who has written extensively about jazz and popular music.

Sophie Milman appears Wednesday at the Rinker Playhouse, Kravis Center, West Palm Beach. The concert begins at 7 p.m., and tickets are $38. Call 832-7469 or visit

1 comment:

Johnny Aruba said...

Great article, great artist!