Since its creation in 2018, the SC Jazz Masterworks Ensemble has aimed for the rafters in both the size and scope of its goals. Gathering 18 top-notch jazz musicians from across the Carolinas is no easy feat, but together they can present big band jazz music at the highest artistic level with the kind of ensemble it was meant to be performed in.
And the group, started by saxophonist Robert Gardiner and supported by the nonprofit SC Jazz Foundation, hasn’t been shy about bringing in dynamic guest artists that can make a dramatic impact on their performances. And this week’s featured performer, rising jazz star Veronica Swift, is no exception.
Swift, 27, comes from a family of musicians and began performing publicly at 9. She’s since starred alongside Chris Botti, Benny Green and Michael Feinstein and toured with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, while at the same time dedicating more and more time to her sparkling solo and small ensemble career. Her voice does not mimic so much as it easily breathes the influence of Anita O’Day and Ella Fitzgerald, but with a captivating, edgy theatricality all her own.
And despite the shadow of history that those giants of the past often cast, Swift says her approach to jazz standards just comes naturally.
“I grew up singing this music. It’s something very close to home,” she pointed out to Free Times. “And the thing I always liked about these jazz standards is that these songs are timeless and hold up, with few exceptions really.
“They don't belong to this bygone era. These are songs that can relate to people of all genders and races and age groups.”
She noted that she’s not alone in her contemporary pursuit of carving out new space in this lineage.
“I look at people like Cécile McLorin Salvant, who can literally cite influences that span hundreds of years of time. She loves songs from the 1600s and (Elizabethan) stuff,” she offered. “There’s different obsessions in different phases of our lives that influence us.”
For Swift, that means bringing goth and glam flourishes into the traditional jazz space. She name-checked the music of Marilyn Manson as a formative influence and cited Freddie Mercury as a big inspiration as well. She has often suggested she might do a Queen covers record in past interviews.
“I like to designate my influences for certain songs,” she explained. “If I'm going to do an Ella Fitzgerald thing, I'm going to scat, right? And if I'm going to do Anita O’Day, I want an upbeat song, really uptempo so that I can sing like her. I approach every song from a different inspiration, backgrounds. We just added some new music in our [small ensemble] set that is a little bit more Janis Joplin-influenced. It's all going to speak to someone.”
While Swift is more immersed in her solo touring these days, she’s looking forward to collaborating with the Masterworks Ensemble and getting back on stage.
“Everyone's experience in the pandemic has been different — some people have really taken to the live-streaming thing, but it’s not for me.” she said. “So much of performance is about the people for me. I don’t like singing from a house. I don't want people seeing my house. I want it to be an honest thing, and the stage is like the holy place, a sacred space for us and the audience.”
She and Gardiner got together and picked out the set from a long list of songs to give the evening a distinct theme.
“A lot of the songs are about coming back together with people,” she says. “Even if it's, you know, songbook stuff, with a romantic setting, it’s getting back together. I'm going to approach it as if we're getting back together on a global scale. We're going to focus on just rejoicing in the fact that we're together again.”
SC Jazz Masterworks Ensemble with Veronica Swift
June 12. 7:30 p.m. $50. Harbison Theatre. 7300 College St. harbisontheatre.org.