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Nicole Zuraitis Quartet with Sam Blakeslee at Natalie’s

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by Andrew Patton on May 1, 2018

New York City jazz vocalist, pianist and songwriter Nicole Zuraitis and her Quartet will make a stop on its Midwest tour at Natalie’s on Wednesday, May 9th at 9pm. Tickets and more info are available here. Zuraitis will be joined by a band featuring ample Ohio star power, with Columbus native Sam Blakeslee on trombone and Cincinnati’s Brandon Coleman on guitar, plus Dan Pugach on drums and Leo Sherman on bass. The band is on tour in support of HIVE MIND, Zuraitis’ 2017 release on Dot Time Records. She has won multiple honors for her songwriting, including reaching the finals of the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition. That prowess is on full display in the album’s eight original tunes dealing with a variety of personal topics, and the program is balanced by two well-chosen covers. Zuraitis was kind enough to answer my questions via email. Keep reading to learn more about the album, band, and much more along with video.

Congrats on the release of HIVE MIND! Did you have any particular goals in mind during the recording process?

Nicole Zuraitis (NZ): My last record Pariah Anthem was genre-less, and a documentary of my time spent in India teaching at a music school south of Chennai. It serves as a snapshot of my life at the time but felt a bit chaotic. For HIVE MIND I wanted to keep a steady flow and a clear message, with sonic unity and musical choices that made sense. I worked hard to make a record that was consistent and coherent start to finish.

Tell me about the band you’re touring with. What excites you about playing with these musicians?

NZ: They are all my dear friends, and I’m even married to one of them! Dan Pugach is an Israeli born drummer who leads the Dan Pugach Nonet, a 9 piece large ensemble that has charted #20 on US Jazz Radio! Dan and I have been playing together since 2009 and our musical journey extended into a beautiful marriage (we were married in October 2017). Sam Blakeslee and Dan are best friends who met at Betty Carter Institute in Washington DC in 2011. They have collaborated with every size ensemble from quintet to big band, and we even gave Sam my apartment in Queens when he moved from Cleveland to New York City in August 2017. Brandon Coleman is not only a genius musician but a completely hilarious mind who has shared many rooms and drinks with us over the years of knowing each other. Lastly Leo Sherman is the newest addition to the band and a multi faceted bass player who can transition smoothly from upright to electric and even Moog synth. All 4 of them are close to us as friends and when we make music together it feels like a family band!

Thank you for your effort in raising awareness for mental health issues. What do you think are good ways people can help in the fight against this stigma?

NZ: The first step is language. I learned that saying “My grandfather is a person living with paranoid schizophrenia for the last 60 years” is much better than saying “My grandfather is a paranoid schizophrenic.” Simple language can be humanizing or dehumanizing. It’s important to remember that people who suffer from mental health challenges did not choose to live with their disease and shouldn’t be punished or stigmatized for it either. When pop star Demi Lovato came out as being bipolar, she was loud and proud and unapologetic. I really respected her courage and realized that brushing an issue that so many people can relate to under the rug was not helping anyone. Many musicians and creative minds that I love and work with live with mental health challenges, and I wanted to to address them openly in HIVE MIND.

Do you have any plans for new projects after returning from tour?

NZ: Dan and I are collaborating on my next album of swing music with songs I wrote in the classic Great American Songbook style. My song “I like you a latte” will be one of those songs, as well as “Long Meadow Vine (the wine song).” I recently was hired as the vocalist for the Birdland Big Band at Birdland Jazz Club in New York City and it has re-inspired me to go back to my classic jazz roots.

Do you have any advice for students interested in getting into songwriting?

NZ: Finish a song even if you have doubts that it’s not the best work you’ve ever created. Finishing a song shows progress and gives a sense of accomplishment, which will inspire you to continue to write. If you don’t follow through start to finish, it’s much easier to get frustrated and quit. Also, I’ve had to release songs that I’ve written as throw away songs after performing them for audiences and getting lack luster responses. It’s OK to admit that the song served its purpose and now goes into the vault. Most importantly you have to keep creating.

Do you have anything else to add for Columbus jazz fans thinking about checking out your show?

NZ: This is my first time playing in Columbus! I am so excited to bring a Clintonville native Sam Blakeslee with me so he can have a mini reunion with some familiar faces and I can connect with new friends and fans. This band is based in New York City and we are going to bring the fire to the coal oven pizza, that’s for sure!

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