Sophie Milman, the Toronto-based jazz singer whose unique style has captivated audiences worldwide, makes a significant leap on her third album, taking familiar songs into new territories and branching out by bringing pop songs into the jazz repertoire.
"If I am self analyzing," Sophie says, "the first two albums were about where I came from, issues of the past. This is more about the future. It's even more jazz than the others, more textured and a lot more mature. The title is so different from me - I never take anything easy in my life. Every day I question myself about everything. But I really want to take life easy."
One thing Sophie need not question are the monumental steps she took in 2008. The Canadian singer performed around the globe, hitting landmark venues like the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center and New York's Blue Note club, sharing stages with the likes of Chick Corea, Chris Botti and the Manhattan Transfer. Her second album, "Make Someone Happy," won the Juno Award for Jazz Vocal Album of the Year after it topped the iTunes jazz chart in the U.S. and Canada for months and cracked the top 5 on Billboard's jazz chart.
Better yet, the accolades have followed. JazzTimes referred to her as Canada's hottest young jazz singer. NPR's Weekend Edition praised her "classic jazz voice that evokes smoky lounges, softly clinking glasses and the cool of the night." DownBeat simply said "she captivates." The Los Angeles Times raved, "the sky's the limit for this exceptional young talent."
"Take Love Easy" finds songs by Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell on a program with tunes penned by Cole Porter, Johnny Mandel, Duke Ellington and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
"Almost all the songs deal with the ambiguity of love and life," Sophie says. "Some are more hopeful, some are more melancholy and others deal with the gray areas - indecision, unrequited yearning, self-preservation and the aftermath of a break-up. Love is analogous to life. To me, beyond the romantic connotations, the songs reflect my understanding of the world and my relationship with myself."
Her goal was to remain song driven while taking listeners on an emotional ride with varying styles and tempos. "And I wanted to continue my experimentation with songs that are not usually part of the jazz tradition. The key was to arrange them in an organic way, peel back the layers to discover the essence of each song and then build on the jazz elements."
"Whether it's a jazz standard or what I call a ‘new standard,' we approach it the same way: respect the intent of the songwriter but depart as much as possible from the original."
Two songs required significant re-thinking from the originals, Simon's "50 Ways to Leave You Lover" and Springsteen's "I'm On Fire."
"'50 Ways' is very interesting. It's morally ambiguous - a very dark and sad fact of life. We decided to give it an ironic touch, an Afro-Cuban rhythm that was full of life.
"'I'm on Fire' is a stalking song when Bruce sings it - everything he does is so unbelieveably masculine. The original is stunning. And you have to be careful with Springsteen songs there are not too many people like him. It had to be re-imagined for a woman. We slowed it down and emphasized the melody. "
"Take Love Easy" was produced by Juno Award-winning producer Steve MacKinnon, (Marc Jordan, Natalie Cole), and features members of Sophie's working band: her pianist and, since November 2008, her musical director, Paul Shrofel, guitarist Rob Piltch, bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Mark McLean. Among the guest soloists are alto saxophonist Wessell "Warmdaddy" Anderson (Wynton Marsalis, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra), legendary Canadian trumpeter Guido Basso and emerging piano superstar Robi Botos.
"When a person matures, there's a style and confidence that emerges. I would not have been brave enough to do these songs when I was younger. I am able to do them now because I have surrounded myself with fantastic musicians. The band deserves a lot of credit for our sound. "
Milman, a native of Russia who is fluent in Russian, Hebrew, French and English, was born in the Siberian town of Ufa and moved to the Israeli port city of Haifa when she was seven. At 16, her family moved to Canada and as a teenager she absorbed pop, jazz and gospel, her favorites being Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Nat "King" Cole and, at the top of the list, Stevie Wonder. Her self-titled debut was released in 2004 and followed in 2007 by "Make Someone Happy" (Linus/Koch).
In June, she is scheduled to make her performance debut in Russia. A fall tour of the U.S. is in the works. All of the recording and touring has meant that finishing her college studies in commerce have taken a back seat. "Still," she notes, "I'm trying to not let my intellectual side freeze up."
Sophie shares her thoughts on the album's 15 songs.
"Beautiful Love" (Haven Gillespie, Victor Young, Wayne King and Van Alstyne). "A gorgeous song with a brooding character. It really captures the elusiveness of and yearning for love."
"Take Love Easy" (Duke Ellington). "Classic Duke - great feel and humor. I saw it performed live by Toronto's great Jackie Richardson and was hooked. I decided that this should be the title track because in essence, it is the link between all the material on the album it connects the most upbeat and most melancholy songs. P.J Perry's solo is the essence of swingin' cool. He makes everything look and sound so easy."
"I Concentrate On You" (Cole Porter). "My tribute to the special man in my life who helps me deal with so much. Who says that one cannot find a partner infinitely patient, supportive and loving? I have. The solo from the wonderful altoist, Wessell 'Warmdaddy' Anderson, makes my heart soar."
"Be Cool" (Joni Mitchell). "This was suggested by (Canadian jazz authority) Ross Porter and even though I had doubts about my ability to tackle a Joni tune, I was really excited and gave it a try. What emerged is one of my favorite tracks on the album. 'Be Cool' is all about a woman's attempt to keep a lid on her emotions, something I've always struggled with. Guido Basso plays a killer solo on the Harman-muted trumpet."
"I Can't Make You Love Me" (Mike Reid/Allen Shamblin). "One of the most beautiful and heartbreaking songs ever written, the lyrics just killed me -- the idea of such complete surrender, such resolve is heart breaking. I realized that the song has very strong pop sensibilities. But at the end of the day, it has a powerful melody and lush harmonies and I knew that it could be interpreted in a different genre."
"That is Love" (Paul Shrofel). "My pianist, Paul Shrofel, has been with me for over four years. And usually, when he pitches me a song, I listen. He and his partner Sharada Banman write especially great up-swing material. Paul really shines on this track, as does my amazing drummer, Mark McLean."
"Love For Sale" (Cole Porter). "I have loved this song since the first time I heard it at age 15. Carmen McRae's version is my favorite. I read Cole Porter's lyrics as dripping with irony and sarcasm, so we decided to play up that angle, make it a little funkier and edgier. I love singing about things that are reflective of my experiences, but it is helpful to be able to play a role on certain songs."
"I'm on Fire" (Bruce Springsteen). "Cameron Wallis wrote a haunting arrangement for me. He re-harmonized it, slowed it down and infused it with quiet intensity. It has been one of my favorite songs to perform over the last year and a half and I always get a kick out of surprising the audience with something so unexpected."
"Triste" (Antonio Carlos Jobim). "I'm a huge fan of the bossa nova and Jobim is one of my very favorite composers. His songs never feel forced - they sound as natural as breathing. Whenever I listen to his work, I find that the songs stay with me throughout the day. I recorded 'Agua De Beber' for my first album and in our live show we play 'Agua,' 'No More Blues' and 'Wave.' 'Triste,' however, was a real treat - so light and airy. Phil Dwyer wrote a gorgeous arrangement and the horn section really gives the song a wonderful lift."
"50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" (Paul Simon). "Steve MacKinnon had this idea, which I really liked, to leave the verses quiet and moody, but interpret the choruses in an Afro Cuban, montuno feel. Mark McLean wrote the chart and we hired Toronto's piano prodigy, Robi Botos, to play on the track. When we began recording, we still didn't know what the result would be. That's the beauty of jazz: some things are better rehearsed, and others come together spontaneously. As soon as we let Robi and (percussionist) Chendy Leon loose on the tune, magic began to happen."
"Where Do You Start" (Johnny Mandel and Marilyn & Alan Bergman). "There's nothing more tragic than having to disassemble, bit by bit, a long relationship, where the lines between the self and the other have become blurred after years together. The idea of something so constant suddenly ending is terrifying. While the beginning of the song speaks of an ending, the end hints at the continuation of love, of life. So it is really bittersweet in a way."