Mondays with Morgan: Nicole Zuraitis and Christian McBride (Zuraitis’ ‘How Love Begins’ out now)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with singer/songwriter and pianist Nicole Zuraitis and eight-time GRAMMY-winning bassist and producer Christian McBride. Zuraitis released her latest album, How Love Begins, on 7 July; McBride co-produced and played bass on it.

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Nicole Zuraitis standing at the end of a piano dressed in black
Nicole Zuraitis. Photo credit Matt Baker

Did Nicole Zuraitis come up with the underlying concept of How Love Begins, or did Christian McBride? It might be a chicken-and-egg situation.

“She had the concept figured out already,” McBride tells LondonJazz, with Zuraitis in earshot. “I really didn’t need to do anything besides sit there and sort of direct traffic.”

The singer/songwriter isn’t so sure. “The concept only existed because of the songs that you chose,” she tells LondonJazz. “I really thought you were going to choose completely different tunes from the demo I gave you.”

Over Zoom, McBride flashes a blazing grin; he’s raring to sing Zuraitis’ praises. For her part, she’s red as a beet about his effusiveness.

McBride entered the production world through something of a side door; he calls this component of his career “completely accidental.” Zuraitis met McBride by coincidence, when she was attempting to cut through the din at a clamorous restaurant – and he was dining there.

Aside from co-producer McBride on bass, How Love Begins features guitarist Gilad Hekselman; organist, Wurlitzer and Rhodes player Maya Kronfeld; and drummer Dan Pugach. Special guests include pianist David Cook, drummer Billy Kilson, and the vocal trio Sonica – which comprises Thana Alexa, Julia Adamy and Zuraitis herself.

The friendly and collegial love between Zuraitis and McBride is obvious; he even devised a nickname for her, “Naz,” spelled after her initials. “I have a soft spot for people who have a lot of gravity in their voice,” he says. “I don’t hear any weaknesses in Nicole’s musicality.”

Read on for the interview with the singer/songwriter and bassist/producer, as they discuss How Love Begins – and McBride expresses his stalwart conviction that “Naz” is headed straight to the top.

Christian McBride black and white image, wearing suit and glasses looking upwards
Christian McBride. Photo credit Ebru Yildiz

LondonJazz News: What do you recall as to how you connected?

Christian McBride: In November 2015, I was a judge at the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition. Nicole was one of the finalists, and she killed it. I mean, she was really, really amazing.

A couple of years later, I went into this restaurant where Nicole was playing, and I was staring at her, going I know her, and she’s killin’. Why do I know her?

Then, we started talking and she reminded me of the competition. I went “Ahhh! Of course! That’s why I know you!” And we’ve been in touch ever since.

LJN: What are your criteria as a judge of singers?

CM: I don’t actually remember what Nicole did at the competition, but I just remembered that I was impressed by her piano playing, I was impressed by her singing, and I was mostly impressed with her writing. 

Because I’ve got a thing about songwriters – mostly, because I wish I could do it.

LJN: What do you remember from this time, Nicole?

Nicole Zuraitis: I’m definitely a late bloomer to jazz, and for many years, I didn’t put myself out there when I was getting into it, because I was really trying to hone in on the craft. I was almost 30 years old when I applied to the Sarah Vaughan – on a whim.

I was like, Well, former opera singer – here goes nothing. When I placed, I was thrilled, but I didn’t actually get to talk to Christian. Because it’s not like “American Idol” where you get to meet with the judges [laughs] and they give you your feedback. It was just over.

The way that I learned to play the piano was by teaching myself. I was literally workshopping on every gig. So, that fateful day, when I was playing at the Red Eye Grill, it was packed – nobody was listening. It was so loud that I could barely hear myself sing. I was like, This is probably a good time to workshop “A Night in Tunisia,” because I never get that bridge right.

And then I look up, and who’s standing there? Christian McBride. I nearly had a heart attack.

LJN: From there, take our readers to the point where you decided to work together.

NZ: We would hang out… biannually?

CM: Right.

NZ: What I loved about our friendship is that we just loved joking. We barely talked about music; we just had a great time. 

I always told myself: Don’t ever ask anything from Christian, because he always says Let’s make music together. And I know he’s the busiest man in this entire industry. Because it’s his idea, it’ll come naturally.

Then, the pandemic happened, and everybody was sitting at home. I actually broke my own rule [laughs] when I saw him for the first time in two years and was like, “Didn’t you always say we should make music together? I think now, we really should.” And he said, “Let’s do it.”

CM: I really don’t say that to people I don’t want to work with. If I’m ever that straight up and I’m like, “Hey, let’s work together,” I really, really mean it.

When I think of Nicole’s career, I like to think that: of two singer/songwriters that I know pretty well, she has a very similar career. And that’s Diana Krall and Norah Jones. I don’t see why Nicole wouldn’t follow that same trajectory. I mean, she’s certainly got all the skills and the talent. I love what she writes; I love what she plays. She’s incredible.

LJN: Beyond career stuff, what specific qualities of Nicole’s voice attract you, Christian?

CM: I’m known as a jazz guy, but my bone marrow, I like to say, is R&B and soul. That’s the common denominator in all the music that I’ve played.

So, I have a soft spot for people who have a lot of gravity in their voice, you know? A lot of jazz singers, there’s a lot of top end. There’s not a lot of middle and bottom. What I hear in Nicole is all three levels: top, middle and bottom.

I like the fact that she can sing something like “Mean to Me,” and then she can go sing something like “Natural Woman,” and kill ‘em both. I don’t hear any weaknesses in Nicole’s musicality.

LJN: Tell me about the songs and their relationships to each other.

NZ: I gave Christian 23 songs – mostly that I had written, and then a couple I had arranged. When he listened down to the demos and came back with his list of songs, I was so surprised at his choices. Literally shellshocked, because they were pure jazz singer/songwriter. Nothing about it was leaning cabaret. The [scare quotes] obvious choices for me.

Christian really believes in me as a songwriter, as opposed to the obvious. For someone who is unabashedly insecure, it was wild for him to be like, “You’re playing the piano. You’re doing all the songs that you wrote.”

LJN: Dig into How Love Begins’ recording process a little bit.

CM: The first thing is, you want your star to be comfortable. Knowing that this was the first time we would be working in the studio, I wanted to make sure she had the right group of musicians. 

The people that Nicole wanted to play with are top-level musicians, so it wasn’t like I had to steer her away from any of them – because they could all play. Had Nicole been an artist who hadn’t had a lot of experience and hadn’t really done this before, maybe I would have been a little bit stronger in making some suggestions. But she knows what she’s doing. If I made a choice that she didn’t feel comfortable with, I was like, “Alright, cool.”

NZ: It gave me a lot of confidence in the studio, because after day one, he was like, “Man, seeing you work in the studio is really awesome.”

CM: I was actually shocked. The one thing that did surprise me was that you were pleasantly fast in the studio. But so fast I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait. Are you sure you don’t want to do that again?” “No, no, no, let’s keep going.” “For real?

LJN: Do any MVP moments from the instrumentalists come to mind?

NZ: When I was listening back to the mixes – and they all had to be one take – [guitarist] Gilad [Hekselman] and Christian never missed a beat. They never missed. They were batting 100% every time.

It was incredible to see that as an artist, because I would hear myself rushing, or a little pitchy. They had really incredible focus, and their musicality was unmatched.

LJN: Nicole, I think a great place to end this would be for you to talk about navigating the jazz singer market. It seems to be a cutthroat space, where it can be difficult for talented people to keep their heads above water.

NZ: Maybe the industry itself is cutthroat, but every singer I encounter – generally – I consider an ally and a friend. 

Even though it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of opportunity or space for us sometimes – and certain people hold the entire spotlight – I do see a lot of hope and community among the jazz singer circuit. And I have really made a point to nurture that and make that part of my entire mission – to lift up other singers.

LJN: Christian, any thoughts?

CM: I think there are probably more singers vying for a shot at the big time than there are bass players, or piano players, or drummers, or saxophone players.

So, the reality is that Nicole, in her rise to the top, is going to get more nicks and cuts and bruises. But I don’t think anybody becomes a champion without nicks, cuts and bruises.

LJN: Anything either of you want to add before we get out of here?

NZ: I did specifically want this to fit within the jazz idiom, because I had sat on the fence for so long. With Christian and the upright bass and the whole live aspect of it, I really wanted for at least some of the songs to sit with “Cheek to Cheek,” you know? As opposed to being genreless, or whatever I was before. It was intentional this time.

CM: When people hear this recording, they ain’t going to care whether it’s jazz or singer/songwriter. They’re just going to be like, Damn, this sounds good!

LINK: How Love Begins purchase link

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