What It Means
Release Date: July 26, 2024
Label: Cellar Music Group

What It Means, is a love letter to the music and tradition of New Orleans that first inspired her, releasing on July 26, 2024 via Cellar Music Group. The album's title holds layers of significance, both on an individual level and in recognizing jazz history — a truncated version of one of the most famous standards about the Crescent City: “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” By evoking this standard, Skonberg immediately aligns the album with the history and tradition of that great musical city. Moreover, by shortening the title to simply state What It Means, Skonberg turns it into a broader statement and call to her audience to recognize that which is important to each person. Skonberg herself addresses the topic from her perspective on the album. “I am affirming ‘what it means’ to me,” she says. “I care about family, I care about getting to make music that brings joy with other people, from a place that reveres its roots, and that looks forward to brighter days.”

Musically, What It Means is a powerhouse monument to Skonberg’s distinctive style as a writer and performer. Combining inventive arrangements of traditional jazz standards, witty amalgamations of crossover hits, and original compositions that sound like standards, Skonberg showcases her immersion in the lineage of jazz in such a way that is both historically informed and refreshing in a contemporary way. Moreover, her tasteful mastery of sonic palettes is aptly displayed throughout the album, such as the textural use of bass clarinet on her arrangement of “Petite Fleur”. An almost coy element of Skonberg’s sound that can be found in her writing on this album, particularly on “Petite Fleur”, is her use of musical ‘Easter Eggs’; that is, sly references to other elements of jazz tradition hidden within the arrangements that are to be found by the attentive listener. 

Notable on the album are Bria’s originals, which seem to masquerade as standards due to their tasteful stylistic writing. One such piece is “Elbow Bump”. Written in the first month of the pandemic when the usual hug or handshake became risky, and musicians were trying to figure out how to collaborate virtually, Skonberg found herself already craving the deeply interpersonal feel of the New Orleans 2nd line groove, and began writing this piece. The album’s other original is “In The House,” which was directly inspired by the sound and aesthetic of the great Sidney Bechet. Both of Skonberg’s featured originals are accessible to beginner and intermediate jazz players. In recent years, as she has become an active educator and clinician, she wanted to create pieces that stood as artistic statements, yet could still be shared with these educational communities. 

One of the pieces on this album not from within the oeuvre of jazz is John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”. The piece was one that had been familiar to Skonberg for years without much thought. Upon becoming a parent, however, Lennon’s song suddenly struck a new and resounding chord with her. “The simple nurturing of the lyrics and melody resonate deeply now, and often when I perform it I look out and see tears in the audience,” Skonberg says. “Parenting is so exasperating, humbling, beautiful, and complex. It’s so hard, and this song is a lullaby for parents.” The arrangement contains a tasteful nod to Neal Hefti’s “Lil’ Darlin” due to both the alternate title of the piece, and Lennon’s last line of lyrics in it.

In order to create such an authentically felt New Orleans album, Skonberg leaned deeply into the power of meaningful and humble collaboration. The album features a wide variety of musicians, including many of the current staples of the NOLA jazz scene.In particular, the album showcases the indispensable drummer/percussionist and New Orleans legend, Herlin Riley. Skonberg had never worked with the album’s bassist, Grayson Brockamp, prior to this album, but booked him per Riley’s recommendation and was immediately impressed by his ability and tasteful contributions to the layout and structure of each song. Pianist Chris Pattishall is one of Bria’s longest-standing collaborators, who uses his experience in the realm of film scoring in real-time to create luscious soundscapes at the piano, which are marvelously conducive for the rest of the band to improvise over and rely upon. Present on guitar and banjo, Don Vappie is a giant within New Orleans, known for his stalwart leadership of the King Oliver project and steeped within the legacy of the city’s music. Aurora Nealand, the soprano saxophonist heard on the opening track, is a former roommate of Skonberg from a Swing festival in Stockholm. “I was amazed how she could get so much sound out of her instruments and had mastered the music of Sidney Bechet,” Skonberg says. 

Rex Gregory is heard on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet on the album, and Skonberg notes admirably his ability to “bring the heat in his playing, be it fiery or a smolder, without an ounce of attitude.” Trombonist Ethan Santos, originally from California, has quickly become a mainstay in the New Orleans scene, and is a part of important contemporary groups within the city such as the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and Ashlin Parker’s Trumpet Mafia. “I immediately loved his tone,” Skonberg confesses. “His playing is lyrical, soulful, and reliable.” Ben Jaffe, featured here on Sousaphone, is a player of paramount importance within New Orleans today. The son of those who founded the Preservation Hall, Jaffe now leads the Hall’s band and keeps up the vibrant tradition in a powerful way. “I’ve seen the band many times, and have been lucky enough to sit in,” Skonberg says. “I couldn’t imagine this project without a piece of that history.” Lastly, Gabrielle Cavassa (a New Orleans-based vocalist most recently heard as a member of Joshua Redman’s group) shares a duet with Skonberg on Van Morisson’s “Days Like This,” per co-producer Matt Pierson’s suggestion.

What It Means is a landmark work of heart, head, and history. After walking out of the isolation that plagued society for three years, the hearty grooves and intrinsically relational nature of the music of New Orleans, accentuated all the more by Skonberg’s musical personality and arranging style, is the perfect way to flip the shadows of loneliness on their heads. What It Means is a celebration, an artwork, and the sign of a proverbial Spring coming once again for artists and audiences alike.

JEREMY SMITH
LAST ROW MUSIC
"What It Means is a celebration, an artwork, and the sign of a proverbial Spring coming once again for artists and audiences alike."Check out the full review here.

ROBERT ROWAT
CBC MUSIC
Check out this feature on the editor's Summer 2024 new albums guide here.