Keri Johnsrud: Breaking the Jazz Vocal Mold
by Thomas Gerbasi, The Examiner
Keri Johnsrud could have played it safe. With a singing career that has already achieved that rare mix of critical and popular acclaim, she could have done what most of her peers in the world of jazz vocals do: sing the standards and other composers’ material, make records, play shows and leave to a rousing round of applause every night.
Nothing wrong with that, but the Chicago vocalist wanted something a little different for her second album, 2015’s This Side of Morning. So along with pianist Kevin Bales, she took on songwriting duties. The result was a home run worthy of someone hailing from the Windy City that’s home to the Cubs and White Sox.
“It was very important to me, just on a personal level, as a challenge to myself to see if I could even do it,” Johnsrud said. “I hadn’t really even thought about writing my own material until about maybe five years ago. And it’s more or less a personal accomplishment for me, just to be like, hey, I was actually able to write and come up with some stuff that I didn’t hate, and be able to share it with people. I love the standards and the tradition of the genre, of course, but the cool thing when you start writing your own material is that it’s a lot easier to get what I want to say out there, as opposed to using other people’s words or other people’s music.”
And while she hit all the right notes (pardon the pun), she was taking a risk by writing her own material. Not because there would be questions about the quality of the tunes, but because in the jazz world, tradition is often valued more than innovation. To a lot of folks, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Johnsrud knew these risks going into the studio, but that didn’t deter her.
“I understand this better now that I have written, but anybody who decides to write their own stuff or put out their own original material, you’re in an incredibly vulnerable position because this is your stuff, this is coming from you, and if people don’t like it, you have to not take it personally,” she said. “Especially being a female vocalist, sometimes we get pigeon-holed into being a torch singer, so it was important to be able to separate myself and say ‘hey, I can sing those standards fine, but this is something that I’m separating myself from and doing on my own.’ And hopefully people will recognize it. How are people are going to embrace it? It’s all that vulnerability coming to the surface when doing something like this, whatever category you’re in. I love the traditional stuff, and I’m very aware that it’s an important part of jazz and I can listen to it all day, but it’s nice to do something from a different perspective and from my life.”
It’s nice getting recognized and appreciated for it too, so expect to see a nice crowd showing up for Johnsrud Friday night in NYC when she plays the Cornelia Street Café.
“It’s always something a little special to be able to play in that city,” she said of hitting the Big Apple. “Even though Chicago is great for its music scene, it’s always nice to get out and broaden your audience and be in a place with a different kind of energy. New York will always be a special place to me in general, but to perform especially.”
Considering the legendary jazz vocalists and musicians that passed through the city, it is almost holy ground musically, and for someone who has loved the genre for as long as she’s loved music, it’s a big deal to take the stage here.
“When I first started listening to music that I remember, this is what struck a chord with me,” she said. “I can’t really pinpoint it, but I think it was how the music was always presented, and if it was a vocalist, the emotion behind it and how they were singing it. You could just feel what they were singing. I just identified with that more than other types of music. When I set out to do a career with this, that felt like more of a natural step.”
Songwriting has turned into a natural step for Johnsrud as well. So I guess we can assume that she will have pen and paper at the ready for her next album as well?
“I kind of got the bug a little bit,” she laughs. “It’s always inspiring for me to hear other people’s original music and then take that and bring it back to what I’m doing. So it’s very exciting to me to be able to do something and create. I’ll always do the standards, but it’s really exciting to do your own stuff and create something new and hopefully other people will enjoy it for years to come.”