Singer Arianna Neikerug finds liberation in Great American Songbook

Published on April 6th, 2021

By Jim Dail

Jazz is often thought of as a musical genre that allows a wide-range of direction when it comes to music.

For jazz singer Arianna Neikrug, she found jazz to be a pathway to musical expression.

“Initially, it was a family thing,” she said. “Mom sang it, and her parents were huge fans of the Great American Songbook.”

Neikrug was the winner of the 2015 Sarah Vaughan International vocal Competition.

“I went to a music high school where you have to pick a major or path and I thought I’d go toward musical theater and at that school the top ensemble was a jazz one,” she said. “I realized how much more creativity and power I had in that genre because you aren’t confined to what is on the page. It is intellectual and freeing, and there’s just something about that dichotomy.”

In talking to Neikrug, there is something almost spiritual about the music.

“I like to be challenged and sink my teeth into it,” she said. “I love being liberated by music and you can explore everything you want. Sometimes in other areas it’s not acceptable.”

And the traditional side of jazz was a major part of her style.

“I think the traditional intro to jazz was what I needed so I could create my own path,” she said. “Every performance we did we had to sing a Latin tune or a funk tune, and we had these quotas to fill. Our teacher wanted us to be well-rounded and we talked about traditional jazz phrasing and tone.”

She discovered the freedom.

“I realized you don’t have to follow all these rules,” she said. “You may have to do that in school. It’s just a background. Once you are post-college, the few years after it is important to refine. You have to consider what you can do to create a different and cohesive sound.”

The new record, “Changes,” is indicative of that freedom that still has a link to the past.

“I knew if I was going to come out as a new artist I couldn’t do the four bar intro and then solo because that has been done too many times,” she said. “The music has been around a long time and maybe you try to make it more contemporary. People born the last 20 years may not be aware of what jazz is. But you have to do it authentic and smartly. A lot of people are jazz cats – be-bop or whatever it may be. They have a hard time. They want it so badly they don’t care about recording and such if it means losing tradition. I had to walk a fine line. Working with Laurence [Hobgood] was the glue. He is a traditional guy that has an ear for pop and contemporary stuff and is open minded.”

Of course, the challenge was what songs to debut with on her first release.

“Figuring out what songs best represent me without compromising the cohesion was the trick,” she said. “On my first draft of this list of songs I had everything I wanted to do, and Chris Dunn at Concord started to explore. When I met up with Laurence, he had a revised list.”

And she gives him a lot of credit.

“I think his arrangements wound up being the cohesion element,” she said. “I love doing old songs, and I wrote songs that were going to determine the sound and image of the image – the new songs. The trick was how to put together songs from 1918 to 2018. Well, a lot of songs were collaborative, and some were trial and error. Eventually there were tunes that struck a chord with Laurence and me. Those that we were having trouble with didn’t make it on the record.”

Songs that did make it include “Spring Can Really Hang you up the Most,” which she was singing when she was 17, as well as the classic “Let’s Stay Together.”

“The repertoire was a challenge so I am glad I didn’t rush into it,” she said. “Looking back, it was like every single song represents a change for me. There were so many moments in my life where I experienced so much evolution. I am very into therapy to find internal awareness to see qualities in myself. Music is an exploration of yourself, and you need to have a uniqueness.”

But there’s even a problem there.

“I don’t sound like someone else, and it’s a blessing and a curse,” she said. “I have my own sound but at the same time who was going to listen. You are taking a chance and the album itself is the catalyst for me. It’s the golden ticket, the order of everything!”

However, she is pretty confident.

“I was going through a hard time when I graduated with a jazz degree wondering where I start my career,” she said. “The first gigs were unsettling but after the competition I felt it was kind of a divine performance. I could then let myself go on stage and all of a sudden I felt like a courageous, young woman. I have a record label now, a new record and I feel like I can enter another zone when I perform.”

And the stage is a wonderful place for her.

“I am really grateful being up on stage in front of an audience,” she said. “Talking to the audience is something I love. There is something about freeing yourself.”


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