Breathing new new life into hot jazz classics: Bria Skonberg at the JAS Cafe |

Breathing new new life into hot jazz classics: Bria Skonberg at the JAS Cafe

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times

If You Go …

What: Bria Skonberg

Where: JAS Café at the Little Nell

When: Friday, Jan. 16 & Saturday, Jan. 17, 7 & 9:30 p.m.

Tickets and more info:

Bria Skonberg takes classic songs and the hot jazz style of the 1910s, ’20s, ’30s and ’40s and yanks them into the 21st century.

The trumpet player and singer, who makes her local debut at the JAS Café this weekend, is an emerging young star of the jazz world. Recently honored by the Jazz Journalists’ Association as the Up and Coming Jazz Artist of the Year, among other accolades, Skonberg is coming to town with her “swing set” band — piano, bass, drums, clarinet and saxophone — with whom she’s been playing for two years.

She’s planning four sets blending her repertoire of classic jazz songs — those from Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Sidney Bechet — with original compositions. The old stuff is made new in Skonberg’s energetic interpretations, which mash them up with contemporary sounds.

“We take elements of the old jazz and infuse it with new ideas,” Bronberg said over the phone from New York.

A native of Chilliwack, British Columbia, Skonberg burst onto the scene when she moved to New York four years ago – quickly becoming a trad-jazz darling on the strength of her riveting stage presence, husky vocals, creative compositions and vibrant horn playing.

Jazz Aspen’s Jim Horowitz first saw Skonberg in action last year at the New York Hot Jazz Festival, an annual daylong concert in Greenwich Village which Skonberg co-produces. Calling her a “triple threat” as a band leader-trumpeter-singer, Horowitz said he was impressed by Skonberg’s ability to straddle the worlds of hot jazz and contemporary music.

“Entertaining, to me, means connecting,” Horowitz said, “taking that musical gift and really using it as a way to connect with people. Not everybody has that, but it’s something that I look for, especially for a small venue like the Café. She has that ability.”

Skonberg began playing trumpet at age 11. Her style, she said, was influenced by classic, New Orleans jazz, along with the jukebox hits her baby boomer parents listened to and pop music. You can hear all of those notes in her fiery interpretations of hot jazz songs.

“I find the music itself really approachable,” she said. “The melodies are lyric-based and they stick in your head. It may seem harmonically simple, but there’s a real art and challenge to making it sound real and authentic.”

Her mentors in New York include trombone player Wycliffe Gordon — who played the JAS Café last winter — and veteran trumpeter Warren Vache.

“The trumpet is a never-ending pursuit,” she said.

Skonberg’s most recent album is 2014’s “Into Your Own,” showcasing her skills as a songwriter, composer and band leader. Among its most striking songs is “Go Tell It,” a funky, upbeat original with callbacks to the spiritual song “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”

Skonberg said the idea for the song came as she was writing and looking back at old compositions for inspiration for the album. Last January, as the persecution of gays in Russia became a global issue around the Winter Olympics, she heard Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” a civil rights anthem of the 1960s. It inspired her to write about her generation’s fight for equality.

“That’s the civil rights fight of my generation,” she said. “So you can take a musical snapshot of what’s going on at that time.”

As she breaks out in the jazz world, most of Skonberg’s gigs on the road are one-offs. She said a two-night, four-show run at a venue like the JAS Café is her ideal setting these days, allowing her to settle in and get to know the local audience.

“The fact that I can come to a beautiful part of the world and have two nights playing the kind of music we want to play, with the guys I have hand-picked to play with, that’s the best thing I can think of,” she said. “It’s a good way to start the year.”