“I was smitten,” recalls Anya Malkiel of her first jazz encounter, “but I was also challenged.”
The Bay Area-based vocalist grew up in a musical environment in the former Soviet Union, where jazz was taboo but would nevertheless become a vital part of her life. Listening to classical records was her family pastime and the love she developed for music manifested in formative lessons in violin and piano. Yet it was always the human voice that drove her musical aspirations. When she first got her hands on Jesus Christ Superstar, she learned it by heart before she even knew what the words meant.
When Anya was introduced to jazz at St. Petersburg’s only jazz club, she learned that there was more to be discovered. The club was a luxury and provided an opportunity to hear this music in raw, live form. Anya’s classical training had sharpened her to the point where she could play a pop tune and figure out the changes by ear in no time. With jazz she couldn’t always tap along so easily. Following her life-changing initiation, Anya immediately got her hands on a bootlegged Ella Fitzgerald album and listened to it until she had internalized every nuance. This set her off on an artistic journey that included significant layovers with Billie Holiday, Louie Armstrong, Carmen McRae, and others.
Vocalists were always central in Anya’s early explorations, though over time she would find inspiration in key instrumentalists of the 1960s. In this regard, immigrating to the United States dropped her into a veritable ocean of musical possibilities. In 1990 and 1991, she shared a stage with Natural Gas Jazz Band and Chicago 6 on the West Coast festival circuit. This experience opened a world of choices, but with motherhood now taking priority she put her dreams on hold until the calling was just too strong to ignore: “I was just suffocating without music. Back home, even if I didn’t sing professionally, I always had a group of friends with whom I’d sing. That was a great outlet for me, and suddenly I didn’t have that outlet.” It was then she learned of the prestigious Stanford Jazz Workshop and there worked with the legendary Madeline Eastman to hone her craft. Surrounded by music night and day, and among such fine instructors, Anya felt at home. At Eastman’s encouragement she began to work privately with Roger Letson. Since then, one of her greatest influences remains Miles Davis. “When I sing,” Anya confesses, “I often have Miles’s expressions in mind.” Naturally, she fell under the spell of Thelonious Monk, Fred Hirsch, Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, and Dave Brubeck, the latter of whom had been in her life since before coming stateside.
Anya has always gravitated toward sad and tragic songs, influenced perhaps by her ongoing love for Russian romances. For her, jazz ultimately lends itself to the intimate delivery in such songs, and this she brings with genuine heart to every note she sings.
For her debut album, From the Heart, Anya Malkiel has taken a snapshot of her artistry at a point in time. As much driven by her love for its ten tunes as for the variety they display, she brings to them all a desire to tell a story sincerely. For Malkiel, the project was a long time in coming. “I wanted to have an album, to have and share that experience,” she notes. “I treated it as recorded concert of a diverse collection of songs I love.” To be sure, when her voice communicates, it’s as if you were in the front row. When the album was still in its conceptual stages, it only made sense to turn to renowned educator Roger Letson, with whom she had worked extensively at De Anza College and beyond. After some months of discussion and a gathering of the troops, as it were, it all fell naturally into place. Joined by pianist Randy Porter, bassist John Wiitala, drummer Jason Lewis, and Jim Schneider on sax and flute, she lends her whisky tone to a fine cross-section of the American songbook. She makes the songs more modern, more her own, and brings that feeling to the listener.
In the classic Billie Holiday tune “Fine and Mellow” that opens the album, we can see just how well life imitates art. A song of contrasts, the contradictions that both frustrate and enchant us in the puzzle we call love, it mirrors Malkiel’s own formative encounters with jazz. From this to the solemn spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” she brings freshness every time. The inclusion of “Pannonica” comes out Malkiel’s love for Thelonious Monk, its poetry perfectly suited to her lilting style. Like the butterfly wings of its lyric, her attention to detail takes on distinct venation. We can read further into this song, also taking cue from her life experiences, which find her taking hiatus before emerging from her own cocoon into the light of her musical becoming. Between its smooth arrangement and Schneider’s snaking flute, it is a standout. “Lullaby of the Leaves,” made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, situates Malkiel’s voice amid autumnal rustlings. The band finds its swing here, as it does also in “There’ll Never Be Another You,” and her non-hackneyed scatting shows poise and confidence. “You Must Believe in Spring” proves that ballads truly are her forte. One of the darkest songs musically yet perhaps the most positive lyrically, it is the album’s only duet (with Porter at the keys) and shows her craft at its most essential. “I Thought About You,” normally a somber ballad, is remodeled into a joyful groove, while Malkiel takes on a Judy Garland edge in “Under Paris Skies.” Also notable are the contributions of the multi-talented Christian Tamburr, who lends his arranging skills to “Invitation” (for which he joins the cast on vibes) and “Beautiful Love.” With Tamburr on board the album’s last pieces fell into place, lending cinematic tension, monochromatic and mysterious.
Overall, the band brings a delicacy to the playing that stays true to the value of these tunes and foils the freedom of Malkiel’s voice in steady conversation. And in the end, the desire to communicate remain paramount. As Malkiel herself wisely reminds us, “Voicing our feelings, with or without words, is fundamental to who we are. If only we weren’t so self-conscious, all of us would be singing.”