Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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YolanDa Brown
YolanDa Brown YolanDa Brown YolanDa Brown YolanDa Brown

Accessibly mixing classic jazz tones with a twist of R&B and funk, upcoming UK saxophonist YolanDa Brown this month celebrates the launch of her new, third EP ‘See You See Me’ at Soho’s legendary Ronnie Scott’s club

Indeed, born to Jamaican parents in Barking, East London in October 1982, award-winning YolanDa is currently in the unique position of combining studying for her PhD at The University Of Kent with recording her highly-anticipated debut album! Pencilled in for release in late 2009, said set promises to showcase her ongoing passion for blending traditional jazz with such contemporary urban genres as soul, R&B, gospel and reggae. All of which (as displayed on her two previously-released EPs - 2007’s ‘Finding My Voice’ and 2008’s ‘A Step Closer’) finds her equally at home re-interpreting a current chart-topper or reprising a jazz standard, as launching into an original self-penned composition.

“I feel what I’m bringing that’s different (as a jazz-rooted saxophonist) is that I play CONVERSATION music”, begins a bubbly, upbeat-sounding Ms. Brown: “You know, it’s not just music that you sit down and listen to. It’s something that you feel a PART of! I mean, during my improvisation I might come off the stage and just play directly to one person. So with all my concerts - even though we always have a basic set-list and everything’s constructed - you never really know how things are gonna transpire through the course of the evening! It’s very much music for the moment! I really feed off the audience, and you do get a nice interaction going on. So, whereas with a lot of traditional jazz you have to sit back and let it reach YOU, with me it’s always very much about drawing people IN and getting the audience involved. So that they leave thinking ‘Oh, I wanna hear MORE!’.”

Interestingly, YolanDa traces her love of music to her early days growing up in Essex: “Yeah, my dad played a whole RANGE of music on the hi-fi!”, she recalls with a smile: “He particularly loved his Cuban and Latin jazz. So for me those rhythms have always been there - along with reggae obviously, with both my parents having been born in Jamaica. So, even though nobody really played a musical INSTRUMENT in my family, for me it just felt natural to try and recreate what I was constantly hearing. So, around the age of six, I started having piano lessons and doing the normal classical exams. But then it got to the point, when I was around 11, where I started thinking ‘I love classical music. But I’d really love to express myself a bit more in the styles I’ve always heard - be it jazz, reggae, Latin’… So I started learning jazz piano. And, because I loved the whole thing about improvisation and being free to make your own music, from there I went on to play the drums, the violin… Then I got introduced to the saxophone - and the rest is history!”

With the then-teenage YolanDa also excelling academically at school in all subjects and later going on to university to study Management Science, her love for playing the saxophone nevertheless never dwindled - and has remained to this day an important accompaniment to her studies: “Yeah, when I left school and packed up my life - if you like - to go university, the saxophone came with me”, she relates: “You know, back then it was just there for therapeutic reasons really. I’d just go to my room and play when I felt like it. But then, in my third year of university, I actually went to study in Spain for a year. But, while I again took the saxophone with me, this time I actually built up the courage to go to a jam session in a Spanish jazz club and PLAY! Which in turn gave me a whole fresh enthusiasm for it.”

“So, after coming back to England and doing my final year, during the summer between graduating and going on to do my PhD I thought ‘Well, I don’t really want a summer job but I would like to find a way of pursing my interest in playing the saxophone’”, she continues: “Which is when I joined the management company I’m with now - Black Grape Productions. And, while I started off with them by joining a band, when that fell through they were like ‘How would you feel about us managing you as a solo artist?’… So, after some initial hesitation, I was like ‘OK, I’ll go for it!’… So during that summer I built up a repertoire - and since then the saxophone and my studies have really kind of worked side-by-side! And, if anything, I think the combination of the two things in my life has been what’s kept me sane! Because, while it’s quite intense doing your PhD, having the music as an outlet has been really great! You know, it’s been a really nice balance.”

With YolanDa (who’s also presented an arts show on TV) having played as far afield as jazz venues in Miami, The Rotterdam Carnival, Spain’s IslaVuelta’s Festival and The Ocho Rios Festival in Jamaica, she also prestigiously supported Hot Chocolate legend Errol Brown (“a lovely man”) on his recent UK Farewell Tour; while in addition working across genres with artists ranging from streetwise London rappers Sway and Bashy, to seasoned Brit-soul pioneers Omar and Mica Paris. Her own personal highlight, nevertheless, arguably happened in November 2008. When - while touring as support to Motown icons The Temptations - an unforgettable moment occurred when said fivesome (including original member Otis Williams) invited her back onstage to perform in their line-up as “the sixth Temp” for the encore number of their last show - AND share the final bow!

“Yes, it was WONDERFUL!”, enthuses a genuinely-humbled Ms. Brown: “I mean, generally you’d think that, for a Temptations UK tour, you’d probably have a singer - with maybe some Motown influences - to open for them. So to think that a saxophonist was chosen in the first place to come and support these legends onstage was for me in itself just amazing! And then they were so lovely backstage! They were always coming into the dressing-room and talking to me and my band, as well as constantly interacting with us in the mass-communal catering area. So, when the final night came and they were like ‘We’d love you to come up and play with us’, I was like ‘OH MY GOODNESS!’! Because I’d grown up listening to their music! And joining them onstage was just an unforgettable experience, because they just shared the stage so wonderfully! You know, there was no ‘Just come out and do your thing and then go’... So yeah, it was truly a pleasure and an honour to be onstage with them.”

YolanDa performs at Ronnie Scott’s in London on June 25; Thursday 2 July 7.30 as one of David Sanborn's special guests at the Barbican; at Marlborough Jazz Fest on July 10; and at London Africa Fest on September 21

The EP ‘See You See Me’ is released June 24 through Black Grape Productions

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