Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012...1:46 pm

An international jazz star returns

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Acclaimed Toronto-based singer Sophie Milman will take the Dakota Jazz Club stage on June 3

By MORDECAI SPECKTOR

When she was a young child in Israel, Sophie Milman would entertain her parents with a rendition of “Till There Was You,” the Meredith Wilson song from The Music Man.

Her father especially enjoyed his seven-year-old daughter’s version of the tune, which she had learned from The Beatles’ first album. (It was the only Broadway tune ever recorded by the Fab Four.)

“I didn’t actually know when I was a kid that there were any other versions of it,” she recalls, and adds, “I love it… It’s a song that really takes me back to my childhood years, the beginning of our lives in Israel, and the way music saved my family, on a certain level.”

After a week of arduous work, the Milmans — who emigrated from Russia to Israel — would gather for Shabbat and listen to the song.

The tune still “brings tears to my father’s eyes,” Milman allows. “I love performing it. I love telling that story.”

One of the most gifted jazz vocalists on the scene, Milman returns June 3 to the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis.

Sophie Milman: It’s so incredibly personal, what we do. It’s so exposed. (Photo: Courtesy of eOne)Sophie Milman: It’s so incredibly personal, what we do. It’s so exposed. (Photo: Courtesy of eOne)

She recently spoke with the Jewish World from her home in Toronto, discussing her odyssey in the music business; her most recent album, In the Moonlight (eOne), which includes “Till There Was You”; and being embraced by the Canadian Jewish community.

At the beginning of our chat, Milman mentions that she was a guest the previous night at a Canadian state dinner in Ottawa for Shimon Peres, the Israeli president. She lived in Israel from 1990 to 1999, and admits to being a “big fan” of Peres.

The Milman clan moved from Israel to Canada, where their talented daughter launched her musical career. She was discovered by Bill King, a piano player in Toronto, who “really liked working with young singers and he gave me my first professional solo gig,” Milman explains.

Although she sounds completely poised and fluent on her recordings, Milman admits to a struggle with nerves.

“I went through the excruciating, excruciating steps of getting over the extreme stage fright that I had,” she says. “There wasn’t one show where I wouldn’t get sick before the show or come down with laryngitis.”

As a newcomer to jazz performing, Milman set some unreasonable expectations for herself.

“I thought there was only one way of singing ‘The Man I Love,’ there was only one way of singing ‘Caravan’ — it’s the way Ella [Fitzgerald] sang it, or the way Sarah [Vaughan] sang it.”

Still on the sunny side of 30, Milman has emerged as a global star, entrancing audiences from New York City to Tokyo. Her first self-titled album came out in 2004. I started listening to, and was carried away by, her 2007 record, Make Someone Happy (Linus), which includes “Eli, Eli (A Walk to Caesarea),” by Hannah Senesh.

Regarding her latest album, In the Moonlight, a lush musical tapestry of romantic tunes, features the vocalist among a stellar group of jazz players: Randy Brecker on flügelhorn, drummer Lewis Nash (who backed clarinetist Anat Cohen on one of her recent dates at the Dakota), tenor sax wizard Chris Potter, guitar wunderkind Julian Lage, pianists Gerald Clayton and Kevin Hays, bassist Larry Grenadier, et al.

Milman credits veteran producer Matt Pierson for pulling together the “amazing cast of musicians” for the recording sessions. Also contributing their talents were top-flight arrangers Alan Broadbent, Gil Goldstein and Rob Mounsey.

Again, Milman allows that she flew down to New York with considerable nervousness about playing with “these big mean guys, who are so much older and so much better. And I came in and they were just the most amazingly down to earth, friendly, sweet guys, and, of course, absolutely brilliant… They settled into the music and really gave it their all.”

And Milman was surprised to find that Randy Brecker — a legendary Jewish jazz star known for his fusion innovations with his late brother, Michael, a tenor sax player — was nervous when she dropped by the adjacent studio where he was laying down a solo.

“It’s so incredibly personal, what we do,” she comments. “It’s so exposed. It was really sweet to see that Randy Brecker still gets antsy.”

When Milman plays the Dakota, the lineup will include her longtime pianist, arranger and bandleader, Paul Shrofel; Perry Smith, a young New York guitarist; drummer Jim Doxas; and bassist Morgan Moore, who are both from Montreal.

I noticed that Milman’s touring schedule includes her performing this week at a fundraiser for Winnipeg Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS). So, it seems that the singer has close ties with the Canadian Jewish community, that the Jews across the border are proud of her accomplishments.

“They sure are,” Milman replies. “I’ve had a wonderful relationship with the Canadian Jewish community. My husband is from Winnipeg, so we’re particularly connected with the Winnipeg Jewish community as well.”

And Milman mentions that she also is performing at a “big fundraiser” for the Jewish Council for Youth Services (JCYS) at the Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel, on June 2, the night before her Minneapolis gig.

“Obviously, I’m proud of being Jewish… not necessarily religiously, but culturally, and socially and historically, in terms of my identity,” she adds. “Jewish issues are quite important to me.”

Milman — who has toured in Japan and Europe, and, for the first time, in Russia this past April, and Israel last year — is steadily attracting a wider fan base in the United States. In the Moonlight, an exceptionally beautiful album of vocal jazz tunes, will burnish her reputation.

She remembers the Dakota as an “amazing, warm, fantastic club,” and is looking forward to her upcoming shows here, which promise to be among the highlights of our local year in music.

***

Sophie Milman performs shows at 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday, June 3 at the Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Ave., downtown Minneapolis. For tickets, go to: dakotacooks.com or call the box office at 612-332-1010.

(American Jewish World, 5.25.12)

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