From Russia (and Israel) with love

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Click photo to download. Caption: Sophie Milman. Credit: Courtesy Sophie Milman.

Listening to jazz vocalist Sophie Milman makes one feel warm and romantic, but one detects a somber aspect to her enchanting delivery, a voice shaped by her traumatic experiences in Israel and Russia.

Touring behind the music from her newly released CD, “In The Moonlight,” Milman’s voice reflects good times and the worst of times. Her immigrant experience shaped her personality and her approach to music. Milman’s unique personal history includes memories of being 7 years old and having to move with her parents to Israel from her hometown of Ufa in Russia’s Ural Mountains. Her parents had to work several jobs to make ends meet, and Milman grew up fast, sometimes only seeing them on Shabbat.

Among the few possessions Milman’s family managed to hold onto when escaping the strictures and uncertainties of communist Russia was a cherished collection of vinyl jazz bootlegs. Those recordings, which Milman’s father spent a decade collecting, became her foundation for a lifelong love of jazz. 

“My parents were music refuseniks, and [my father] put together this remarkable collection that became the soundtrack to our lives,” Milman told JointMedia News Service.

The charismatic Russian-born (1983), Israeli-raised, and currently Toronto-based jazz vocalist has been a household name in Canada since her debut album in 2004. Since then, she has continued to take the jazz world by storm, topping the Billboard jazz and iTunes charts in Canada, the U.S., France and Japan, and winning a Juno Award (given annually to top Canadian artists).

According to Eric Alper, director of media relations and label acquisitions at eOne Music Canada, Milman is well on her way to becoming an international sensation.  

“The intimacy and immediacy of Sophie’s singing reflects the dramatic experiences that shaped her early life,” Alper told JointMedia News Service.

Milman said her parents “felt that as a Jewish person in Russia, you are the other.”

“It was sort of systemic,” she said. “That in some ways you were worse and in some ways better, but it never worked in anyone’s favor. When glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) hit they decided to get out.”

One of her favorite songs from the collection her father smuggled out of Russia, “Till There Was You,” appears on her new CD. “That was off a Beatles record my dad introduced me to and he had a Platters record, ‘Mean to Me,’ that I sang all the time and an Oscar Peterson/Count Basie record and a lot of Ray Charles records,” Milman said. “They also had a beautiful record by Mahalia Jackson that we blasted in Israel. Her music was incredible. It’s gospel but you can replace Jesus with Moses and have the same spiritual power. I adored it. She was my gateway to jazz.”  

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of Sophie Milman's "In the Moonlight." Credit: Courtesy Sophie Milman.

Alper said “In the Moonlight,” Milman’s fourth album, finds the artist creating her most sophisticated and accomplished work to date, drawing upon her sublime interpretive skills and unique personal history to deliver a deeply compelling set of jazz and pop standards that showcases the subtle emotional shadings of her singing.

“Throughout ‘In the Moonlight,’ Milman’s performances elevate a musically and lyrically diverse array of material,” Alper said.

This critically acclaimed jazz chanteuse encompasses the playful romanticism of the George Gershwin/Buddy DeSylva chestnut “Do It Again,” the poignant melancholy of the Kurt Weill classic “Speak Low,” the barbed bittersweetness of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Ces Petits Riens,” the effortless uplift of the Antonio Carlos Jobim/Jon Hendricks bossa nova favorite “No More Blues,” and the understated elegance of the beloved Duke Ellington classics “Prelude to A Kiss” and “Day Dream.”

The album’s supporting cast includes Randy Brecker (flugelhorn), Gerald Clayton (piano) and Grammy-nominated producer Matt Pierson. 

“Sophie has everything one would look for in a young jazz vocalist: a keen sense of the jazz tradition, an already distinctive and instantly recognizable vocal style; an affinity for contemporary composers as well as the standard repertoire; and an evolving musical intelligence,” Chuck Mitchell, vice-president at Entertainment One Music, told JointMedia News Service. “She’s wise beyond her years, and has a cosmopolitan, multi-lingual sensibility. I think the potential exists for her to be a major jazz artist, worldwide for years to come. Even after four excellent albums, I still think she has her best work ahead of her.” 

Milman and her parents moved to Israel in 1989. There were still uncertainties, but with time they made lives for themselves. “When we left for Toronto in 1999 it was again a difficult thing,” she recalled. 

Now 28, Milman sounds as if she’s been singing for a lot longer. “A lot of kids who grow up too fast stay kids a little bit, so in some ways I’m extremely mature, but in other ways I really need my mommy,” Milman said. “The two immigrations have been the most pivotal moments of my life. They weren’t really moments but long drawn out processes.”

Those processes included leaving family and friends behind, always to start from scratch making new friends, dealing with feelings of nostalgia, and constantly having to build a life on a new continent with a different language and social structure. 

This did not stop Millman. Touring to critical acclaim, she opened for Chick Corea, collaborated with Randy Bachman and Aaron Neville, and earned a college degree in commerce.   

“My life’s been full of detours, but they’ve led me to a good place,” she said. 

Milman’s future includes more touring behind the new album and a trip to Russia, including a return to Ufa for her first public performance since her family left the Ural Mountains. Looking back, she understands how her heritage helped her overcome tough times.

“Perhaps that resiliency I have comes from being Jewish,” Milman said.

Posted on February 27, 2012 and filed under Arts, Features, World.