A FEW MINUTES WITH… Camille Thurman

Interview by J Hunter

One of the coolest things about going to jazz festivals is discovering an artist you weren’t familiar with before. Sometimes those artists are the ones listed on the official bill, but more often than not, the discovery is found somewhere within the bands that back up those listed artists. I’ve had a couple of those discovery moments at the annual Jazz at the Lake festival in Lake George’s Shepard Park. In 2006, flame-throwing tenorman Jacques Schwartz Bart accompanied Brazilian vocalist Adela Dalto; in 2012, scintillating singer / songwriter / guitarist Camila Meza backed up fellow vocalist Sachal Vasandani; and in 2016, everyone at Lake George discovered Camille Thurman.

The Queens native first caught our ears playing tenor sax on Charenee Wade’s rock-solid homage to jazz’s star-crossed poet Gil Scott-Heron. I can count the number of women tenor players I know on the fingers of one hand, so Thurman’s weapon of choice was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser; also, altoist Lakecia Benjamin had backed Wade the two times I’d seen her previously, so subbing a tenor added a new texture to the proceedings. Regardless, Thurman helped flip that script with deep, wide, muscular solo lines that added even more soul to the already-savory stew Wade served up to an audience that wanted more and more of a taste.

That one performance would have left Thurman’s name on our lips for the rest of the day. The thing is, Thurman wasn’t done yet: She was also part of DIVA, the 15-piece all-female big band run by drummer Sherri Maricle – an alumnus of the University of Binghamton, where Thurman studied Earth Science. When DIVA plays, big band ain’t even sick, let alone dead. But while the group itself completely monstered the evening set at Shepard Park, the crowd became totally unglued when Thurman stepped to the front of the stage and belted out a championship-quality version of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”

We may have been flabbergasted, but if we’d thought to check the magic Google, we would have found out that Thurman was a runner-up in the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition. That’s huge, considering how big an influence Vaughan has been on Thurman’s vocal style. Ella Fitzgerald looms large in Thurman’s creative toolbox, too – so much so that she joined a coterie of celebrated singers to perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s gala concert “Ella At 100: Forever the First Lady of Song.” As far as tenor sax goes, Thurman’s rocked it with some very heavy people, including Dr. Lonnie Smith, Terri Lyne Carrington, Russell Malone, Nicholas Payton and Jacky Terrasson.

One way or another, instrumentally or vocally (or both), Camille Thurman will get your attention and hold it in the most delightful musical way when she kicks off Jazz at the Lake’s Sunday line-up at 1pm. Thurman was good enough to take a few minutes out of preparations for her return to Lake George to talk to me about this and that:

Q: Which came first, the singing or the saxophone?

A: Singing was first for me. My mother was a singer and would direct the children’s choir at our church. I would always sing around the house, sometimes jumping on the bed trying to “whistle tone” like Mariah Carey or belt like Whitney Houston. They were really big when I was a child. I didn’t start playing until I was 12 years old, and I started on the flute. Once my band teacher Peter Archer showed me how the fingerings were very similar for all of the woodwinds, I began experimenting with the saxophone. I fell in love with Dexter Gordon, but was also checking out vocalists Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jarreau as well as the R&B artists (Anita Baker, Oleta Adams, Chaka Khan) my parents played for me as a child.

Q: What jazz musician made you say, “THAT’S what I want to do”?

A: Dexter was the man that made me realize I wanted to play the saxophone. I was 14 years old playing a tenor saxophone. There weren’t too many females in the band, let alone playing tenor sax. At the time, I didn’t know or see any female saxophonists in person; it wasn’t until I went to the library and found Virginia Mayhew’s album, learning that she played the tenor sax also. I wasn’t feeling too confident about playing the tenor because I was a girl, and I felt really awkward – the horn was big; it was low; it “wasn’t a girl’s instrument.” I didn’t see anyone that looked like me playing the horn, and I was very shy. If anything, I was constantly reminded from the outside world that I was a girl playing an instrument that was not “socially normal.” We had an assignment to transcribe Dexter Gordon’s “Second Balcony Jump,” and it was the first time I ever heard of Dexter. My teacher at the time played his record, and it literally took whatever negative thoughts I had about the assignment – and myself – out the window! I heard a man who played with confidence, wit and humor but also had a sound that was incredible. Dexter had a huge sound that was larger than life. I didn’t know that he was 6’4” in person (and I was 4’9”), but I knew I wanted to sound as big as him, as confident, and have as much fun as he was having on the recording. That was when I had my “I wanna do this!” moment.

Q: Your singing style has been compared very favorably to Ella Fitzgerald. How big an influence has she been on you, and what was it like being part of the concert tribute to Fitzgerald?

A: Ella and Sarah were the biggest influences in my life! When I was studying the saxophone, I was listening to lots of records – saxophonists, pianists, trumpeters and vocalists. I fell in love with Ella and Sarah because when I heard them, they had the same freedom as Dexter but through the voice. They both did the same thing as many of the great instrumentalists but with a voice, and it was limitless. I didn’t know I was transcribing them. I just sang along with them and tried to match every inflection and phrase like them. It’s like a baby learning to talk: They imitate everything they hear. For me, listening to Sarah and Ella, I wanted to channel in to what they were doing, and was imitating them. I didn’t know what it was, but the sound drew me in and made me want to figure it out.

Performing at the “Ella at 100: The First Lady of Song” was an incredible experience. I would have never dreamed of singing at Ella’s centennial, paying homage to her, as a headliner with Kenny Washington, Diana Krall, Audra MacDonald, Renee Fleming, Harry Connick, Jr., and the many other outstanding artists on the line up. Having Wynton Marsalis and the JALC Orchestra performing the music with me was a thrill because the energy from the big band propelled the music, making it so exciting and very fun to scat and play. That was one of the most memorable performance experiences I’ll forever cherish.

Q: Lake George’s first sight of you was playing saxophone on Charenee Wade’s amazing homage to Gil Scott-Heron. How did you like playing with Charenee, and did Gil Scott-Heron have a part in your musical upbringing?

A: I love Charenee Wade! She’s an incredible vocalist and arranger. Working with her is always a treat! I loved Charenee’s Gil Scott-Heron project, and was very happy she did an album in tribute to Gil and Brian Jackson. The music is timeless and the messages are so pertinent to today. I was introduced to Gil later on in my musical upbringing and was attracted to the music, but also the poetry of the lyrics. What Gil and Brian did together was a masterpiece, and I’m very happy that Charenee was able to take their music and re-introduced them to a younger generation of music lovers.

Q: DIVA completely blew the doors off Jazz at the Lake last year. How did you hook up with that outfit, and what’s the best part about playing (and singing) in an all-female big band?

A: I met Sherrie Maricle while I was attending Binghamton University. She came to my school as a guest artist one semester, and I was fortunate to play with her. Sherrie was an alumna of Binghamton University. I kept in touch with her, and once I graduated she invited me to rehearse with the band in New York City. A few years later I received the call to work with her for a project with the legendary Maurice Hines show, “Tapping Through Life.” From that point, we began working together more and she would have me perform with DIVA. One year, she was putting together a Ella Fitzgerald Swingin’ Christmas Show and asked if I would mind singing and scatting with the big band as well as play, and, of course, I jumped on the opportunity. It’s not often that you get asked to sing songs Ella Fitzgerald covered, particularly her Christmas arrangements, and get to have a big band backing you. It was a fun project, and I love Sherrie and the DIVAs dearly.

Q: This year you’re playing with Darrell Green’s trio. I saw him play with Theo Hill some weeks back, and Darrell is truly a badass. How long have you two been working together?

A: Darrell Green and I have been collaborating together for the last four years. He’s an outstanding drummer, who I think is one of the baddest young drummers on the jazz scene today. We began working together because I loved the sound of his trio. Each of the musicians in the band are incredible artists who have impeccable mastery on their instruments but also have worked with the best artists in the field: Darrell (drums) has worked with Pharaoh Sanders and Cassandra Wilson; David Bryant (piano) worked with Louis Hayes and Henry Threadgill; and Rahsaan Carter (bass) has worked with Marc Cary and Cindy Blackman. There’s a relationship and history amongst the band that goes beyond words, and that is something that is very special, particularly when we play. The support they give musically as well as their relationship off the bandstand is something that is truly beautiful. We just recorded a Horace Silver vocal tribute project featuring some incredible guest artists, and I look forward to us releasing it hopefully soon.

Q: You released your third recording as a leader, “Inside the Moment,” this past May. Please talk a little about that date and about playing with killers like Mark Whitfield, Ben Allison and Billy Drummond.

A: It was a live recording at Rockwood Music Hall using binaural microphone technology, and the quality of the record is outstanding! When listening to it, it’s as if the listener is in the same room with the band. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Mark, Ben and Billy. Their musicianship was impeccable and we instantly linked together, which made playing the music lots of fun. I felt as if I was on the edge of my seat for the whole recording because musically speaking, you didn’t know what was coming next and everything they played was awesome. It was like a great musical conversation but we had lots of fun making music!

Q: If you had to choose between the singing and the saxophone, which would you pick – or is that choice even possible?

A: I like to think of being able to sing and play as one complete instrument. There were so many incredible instrumentalists that were outstanding vocalists: Nat King Cole, Carmen McRae, Ray Charles, George Benson, Nina Simone, Betty Carter, Vi Redd, Vladia Snow, Donnie Hathaway – I can go on for days listing everyone. These artists were my inspiration. They showed me that it is possible to be great on not just one, but two instruments. I’m grateful they didn’t “choose one” instrument, because the legacy they have left behind is huge because of them not making a choice over their gifts. They have set the bar very high, even still to this day inspiring younger generations like myself to try achieving those accomplishments. I don’t think I would ever chose one for the other. If anything, I believe it’s my duty to continue what they started and add to the legacy by being the best I can be at both gifts.

Camille Thurman teams up with the Darrell Green Trio to open the Sunday schedule of Jazz at the Lake at 1pm. Admission to the festival is FREE. GO HERE for more info and the complete schedule for the free, two-day festival…

Comments are closed.