Brianna Thomas Band
Maybe it’s a fitting coincidence that rising jazz vocalist Brianna Thomas is releasing her second album, Everybody Knows, on the same day that Ella Fitzgerald’s Lost Berlin Concert is out. All female jazz vocalists point to Ella as a major influence but not many are in the same conversation as Thomas already is in some quarters. You might say that Thomas has become Wynton Marsalis’ go-to vocalist as she has appeared often with The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra. Brianna recorded a song for the film Bolden, with music scored by Wynton Marsalis. She was also featured in Marsalis’ Ever Funky Lowdown, which debuted in 2018 and in Black Brown and Beige presented by Wynton in 2018, both of which were released digitally this year on the JLCO Blue Engine label. Thomas also delivered riveting performances on last year’s Eyal Vilner’s Big Band’s Swing Out! She’s also a favorite of rock star Steve Miller as you’ll learn below.
So, without a doubt this comes highly anticipated as we’ve heard Thomas in these various settings but have to reach back to 2014 for her solo debut You Must Believe in Love. Produced by Grammy© Award Winner Brian Bacchus, on Everybody Knows Thomas presents a book of songs that encapsulates common human experiences and honors the universal truths that “everybody knows.” The Brianna Thomas Band is made up of pianist Conun Pappas, guitarist Marvin Sewell, bassist Ryan Berg, percussionist Fernando Saci and drummer Kyle Poole. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steve Miller, who wrote the liner notes for this album, considers himself Brianna’s mentor. The soulful expression and masterful instrumentation exemplified by Brianna’s ensemble here, resembles that of her father’s band, with whom the vocalist first exhibited her blossoming talents at the tender age of six. She was inducted into the Peoria Music Hall of Fame in Her native Illinois at the age of thirteen. Currently, as you likely guessed, she works out of NYC.
Brianna’s points to her forbears in formulating her style. Sarah Vaughan’s influence contributes to Brianna’s artistic savvy, while her stylistic breadth and vocal grandeur is evocative of Dianne Reeves. Her performance carries a coyness reminiscent of Nancy Wilson alongside an Ella-esque skill and enthusiasm for scatting. Perhaps Brianna’s greatest asset is the soulfulness of her sound. Yet, her vocal range is stunning too as heard to full effect on “My Foolish Heart” and a vigorous reimagining of the Gerry and the Pacemakers hit “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” Like Wilson, she’s just as comfortable singing blues as you hear gloriously here on “Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues” and a funkified Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” both reflecting her own signature phrasing. “I Belong to You” is another great example, punctuated by Sewell’s guitar, of her melding of blues and jazz.
Thomas’ hauntingly sentimental, yet when called for, powerful performance illustrates and elevates this sentiment of singing about subjects we can all relate to. Everybody knows “It’s a Sin to Tell A Lie”; Everybody understands the need to forgive (“How Much Forgiveness”); Many are familiar with both the pain (“Since I Fell For You” – another radically reimagined interpretation) and joys (“The More I See You”) of love. The vocalist penned two originals: “How Much Forgiveness” and “I Belong to You” Posing the question, “how much forgiveness can belong to you?,” Thomas reflects upon the practice of understanding, speaking in her own way to these troubled times.
Concerning that reference to her father’s band, Brianna’s first music teacher and biggest influence was her father CJ Thomas, a vocalist, drummer and creative powerhouse, and it was with his band, “Dave & The Dynamics” that Brianna took her first stage. Dave & The Dynamics played a gamut of music so wide that it gave freedom of thought and expression and surpassed the boundaries of separatism and judgment. This group played virtually anything soulful that moved them: from James Brown, The Temptations, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder to Louis Armstrong, and John Coltrane to Bonnie Raitt, Prince and Earth, Wind & Fire. Brianna recalls, “my father always told me “it doesn’t matter what you sing, but whatever you sing, sing it with conviction!”
Brianna certainly embraces that wide degree of diversity and took her father’s words to heart. It’s refreshing to hear her fronting a smaller combo with Sewell in the guitar chair. He has been a regular sideman for vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Lizz Wright, besides playing with many top-flight jazz artists. That alone is an indication that Brianna Thomas will be a jazz vocalist of much acclaim for years to come. Be prepared to be floored. It won’t be too long before ‘everyone knows” about Brianna Thomas.
- Jim Hynes