After winning the 2015 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition then performing at the Montreal International Jazz Festival the following year, 25-year-old singer and songwriter Arianna Neikrug makes her grander introduction to the music world with the August 24, 2018 release of “Changes,” on Concord Jazz.
Neikrug says the first release off Changes, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,“ “is one of my favorite arrangements on this album particularly because the (new) harmonic nature is so encapsulating and reflects the lyric so accurately and so deeply, thus making the track that much more powerful, intriguing, and emotionally striking.”
Produced by the Grammy-winning pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood, Changes displays Neikrug’s gift for interpreting tunes from the Great American Songbook and more recent pop and R&B classics from the ’70s. The disc also contains two originals that reveal some of Neikrug’s journey from her hometown of Los Angeles to New York City, where she argues she truly belongs.
Hobgood, who recruited his regular trio mates – drummer Jared Schonig and bassist Matt Clohesy – for Changes, describes Neikrug as “an intellectual and complex person.” “I can honestly say that she’s the most theoretically informed singer that I’ve ever worked with – in terms of just knowing music,” Hobgood says. “She understands the basic structures of music and how to talk about it. She has a healthy combination of being strong-willed with being totally open-minded to suggestions. Those are attributes of a singer with a long career.”
Changes begins with a hypnotic reading of “No Moon at All” on which Neikrug initiates by pairing her comely soprano with Hobgood’s economical piano accompaniment. Soon after the rhythm section enters the fray and buoys her along as she demonstrates her assured sense of swing, bluesy phrasing and remarkable scatting acumen.
Neikrug’s graceful rendition of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is the second of the Great American Songbook compositions to appear on Changes. Neikrug says that she started singing the Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf tune when she was only 17, but with little understanding of its emotional subtext. “How could I? First of all, living in Los Angeles, I only had summer my whole life. So, what is spring?” Neikrug laughs. “After I first moved to New York, I finally understood what spring was all about. I found out why so many songs are written about the weather and the seasons, because they make a huge difference in your mental and emotional state.”
The disc shift gears with Neikrug’s divine makeover of Al Green’s R&B staple, “Let’s Stay Together” on which she sings the pleading lyrics and succinct melody atop Hobgood’s beguiling arrangement. Hobgood suggested the song to Neikrug during one of their first think-tank sessions while they were scanning Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Best Songs.”
Neikrug’s burgeoning songwriting talent gets the spotlight with “Changes,” the disc’s title track. Spurred by a lithe samba rhythm, the song touches on the difficult period between graduating from Frost School of Music at the University of Miami with a bachelor of music degree in studio music and jazz vocal performance and applying for the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition. “I was going through my first major depressive episode,” she recalls. “I was experiencing a rough time because I didn’t have any structure or job yet. It was weird for me to be out in the real world and think, ‘Okay? What do I do? How do I make a schedule? Where do I go?’”
Now in hindsight, Neikrug sees that struggling, transitional period as a blessing because it afforded her some of life’s big lows and highs, which enabled her to write more convincing life-based songs and interpret emotionally gripping standards. “Having to build yourself up when you’re down is not an easy thing to do” she says. “But how else are you going to write music from the heart and emote these big experiences that you can put into your art? In the worst way, it’s kind of cool.”
Changes continues with the first of two intriguing mash-ups, “Never Let Me Go/I’ll Be There.” Neikrug and Hobgood delve into Ray Evans and Jay Livingston’s 1956 standard as a sparkling duet before the rhythm section slides in for a sumptuous rendition of the Jackson Five’s Motown gem. “I’ve been pitching ‘I’ll Be There’ as just a lush jazz ballad to a number of singers for about 15 years. Nobody has bit until now,” Hobgood says.
Neikrug returns to jazz standards with a blistering version of “The Song Is You,” on which she flaunts her rhythmic and tonal agility before delivering her second original “New York Song,” articulating her long desire to move to the Big Apple then returning to standard repertoire again by digging deep into the jazz canon for her bewitching, R&B-laden refurbishing of “After You’ve Gone,” a Henry Creamer and Turner Layton classic that’s 100-years-old. At the Sarah Vaughan International Competition, she’d performed a vastly different, more up-tempo treatment of “After You’ve Gone” during the final round.
Neikrug then performs what she argues is the song that sealed her win at that aforementioned competition – Bob Dorough and Terrell Kirk’s “Devil May Care.” Again, she explains that Hobgood’s mesmeric arrangement differs from the one she performed at the competition, which she described as “sassier and more down-home blues.
Changes concludes with its second mash-up – two Joni Mitchell songs “Help Me/Be Cool.” After college graduation, Neikrug went on a Joni Mitchell binge, beginning with the 1971 landmark LP, Blue. “[‘Help Me’] sounds almost as if it were written for my voice,” Neikrug says. “The key is perfect; the melody is perfect. The song is challenging enough that I had a desire to learn it. But it was also about storytelling and being young and full of angst.”
After agreeing on “Help Me,” Hobgood suggested intertwining it with “Be Cool.” Neikrug had her reservations though. “To be honest, the first time I heard it, I said, ‘OK, could you give me something a little bit harder to sing?’” Neikrug laughs. “But Laurence wanted to do a mash-up. It almost resembles how I wish pop music sounded. It still sounds really hip but it’s challenging, eye-opening and re-imaginative.”
Blending the right amount of reverence for the jazz tradition with a knowing glance to modern pop and R&B classics, sprinkled with two inviting originals, Changes will delight both jazz purists and novices without making any unwise artistic compromises as she superbly negotiates the glories of jazz’s past with a wide-eyed optimism that betrays her tender age. “When you’re recording your debut album, fresh out of college, you’re not exactly sure how you want to present yourself,” Neikrug explains. “It was easier figuring that out by discovering who I didn’t want to be. I’m just trying to take the jazz tradition and move it in my direction.”
1. No Moon At All (4:48)
(Redd Evans-Dave Mann)
2. Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most (6:09)
(Fran Landesman-Tommy Wolf)
3. Let’s Stay Together (5:15)
(Al Green-Al Jackson Jr.-Willie Mitchell)
4. Changes (4:35)
(Arianna Neikrug-Laurence Hobgood)
5. Medley: Never Let Me Go / I’ll Be There (5:59)
“Never Let Me Go” (Ray Evans-Jay Livingston)/“I’ll Be There” (Bob West-Hal Davis-Berry Gordy Jr.-Willie Hutch)
6. The Song Is You (2:00)
(Oscar Hammerstein II-Jerome Kern)
7. New York Song (4:14)
8. After You’ve Gone (4:29)
(Henry Creamer-Turner Layton)
9. Devil May Care (4:48)
(Bob Dorough-Terrell Kirk)
10. Medley: Help Me / Be Cool (5:55)
Arianna Neikrug on the web: