“In the Moonlight”
Sophie Milman is a charismatic young Russian-born, Israeli-raised, Toronto-based jazz vocalist who’s well on her way to becoming an international sensation. Still in her twenties, she’s been a household name in Canada since 2004, when her debut album established her as a major artist in her adopted home country. Since then, she’s continued to take the jazz world by storm, topping the Billboard jazz and iTunes charts Canada, the U.S., France and Japan, winning a Juno Award, and captivating audiences worldwide.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, encompassing 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.”
“I wanted to make a lush, warm, romantic record, the kind of record that takes people to an emotional place,” Milman asserts, adding, “I choose songs mostly based on the lyrics; they have to resonate with me emotionally or have something cheeky about them to get my attention. But I’m also drawn to melodies that have interesting twists and turns.”
In the Moonlight matches Milman with a stellar set of musicians whose talent and sensitivity complement her own, resulting in performances that consistently cut to the emotional truth of each song. Recording in New York for the first time and working with Grammy-nominated producer Matt Pierson, she’s accompanied by a prestigious musical cast that includes pianists Gerald Clayton and Kevin Hays, guitarists Julian Lage and Romero Lubambo, bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Lewis Nash, percussionist Bashiri Johnson and renowned soloists Randy Brecker (flugelhorn), Chris Potter (tenor saxophone) and Gregoire Maret (harmonica), with key contributions from noted arrangers Alan Broadbent, Gil Goldstein and Rob Mounsey.
“It was good to take myself out of my comfort zone and throw myself into the New York atmosphere, with musicians I had never worked with before,” Sophie recalls. “That really put me on edge, and I think it resulted in better music. I was nervous, but I was really proud of how I was able to hold my ground and do my thing. The whole experience turned out to be amazingly gratifying. It was fun and scary, which can be a good combination.”
Six of In the Moonlight‘s tracks feature vivid orchestral arrangements that accentuate the expressiveness of Milman’s vocals. “Recording with strings for the first time was a real trip,” she notes. “It was like putting on my headphones and being hugged by a big, warm blanket. Those were the most elaborate arrangements I’d ever performed, whereas the rest of the session was much more spontaneous and groovy. It’s a really interesting contrast.”
The intimacy and immediacy of Sophie Milman’s singing reflects the dramatic experiences that shaped her early life. Born in Russia’s Ural Mountains, she left for Israel with her parents in an effort to escape the strictures and uncertainties of life under communism. Among the few possessions that her family managed to hold onto was a cherished collection of vinyl jazz bootlegs. Those recordings would become the foundation for Sophie’s lifelong love of jazz.
“Russia was pretty closed, and there wasn’t a huge taste for jazz there—certainly not American jazz—during communism,” she explains. “But my dad accumulated a decent collection of records, which he picked up on the black market—that was his form of rebellion against the regime. That collection really shaped my early musical consciousness. I came to jazz from a completely different perspective. When I was growing up, the music in Russia was quite heavy; even kids’ songs there were tinged with sadness and marked by real life. So, when I first heard jazz, I was immediately drawn to it, even though I was a kid and it was supposedly grown-up music. Maybe I had a certain level of emotional maturity that helped me understand it. For whatever reason, it really spoke to me.”
Spending her formative years in Israel, Milman continued to gravitate towards jazz and other American music forms, developing a deep affinity for such seminal artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong. When she was 16, her family emigrated again, to Toronto, where she quickly became a part of that city’s rich, diverse music scene. She began her musical career almost by accident, after being asked to participate in a local jazz series. Her talents quickly won her local notoriety, and it wasn’t long before she had earned a record deal with Linus Entertainment, an independent Canadian label.
Although she was barely into her 20s when it was released, Sophie’s self-titled 2004 debut album became a major hit in Canada, establishing her as a rising star and an in-demand live act. Her 2007 sophomore album Make Someone Happy debuted at #1 on Billboard’ Canadian jazz chart and peaked at #3 on Billboard’s U.S. jazz chart, and won a Juno Award as Vocal Jazz Album of the Year. 2009’s Take Love Easy also debuted at #1 onBillboard’s Canadian jazz chart and reached #4 in the U.S. The live EP release Live at The Winter Garden Theatre and the 2008 DVD Live In Montreal further enhanced Milman’s international reputation.
Milman’s recording success led to performances at such prestigious venues as the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Toronto’s Massey Hall and the legendary Blue Note clubs in New York and Japan. She’s also shared stages and/or collaborated with a varied array of musicians from the jazz, pop and rock worlds, including Randy Bachman, Chris Botti, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, the Manhattan Transfer, Cesaria Evora, Jesse Cook and the Neville Brothers.
Many of the songs on In the Moonlight carry particular significance for Milman. “‘Till There Was You,’ to me, is the ultimate simple romance song,” she says, adding, “I grew up listening to the Beatles’ version of it, and I learned how to sing it when I was seven. It was one of my dad’s favorite songs. In Israel, we had a beat-up old car without a radio, so when we drove around the country, I was the entertainment. I would sit in the back seat and take requests, and ‘Till There Was You’ was on heavy rotation. My dad just loved it. Everybody was trying to talk me out of recording it; they thought it was corny. But I dug in my heels, because the song represents the deep connection between my dad and me. It reminds me of times when my family was poor, life was hard and music was the glue that kept us together. That’s when my musical identity was formed, so that song is really part of me.
“I wanted to make a romantic album, but I didn’t want to make a rosy, ‘everything’s always great’ kind of record,” she continues. “After ‘Till There Was You, ‘ the other side of the coin is ‘Ces Petits Riens,’ which is about loss that is so monumental that you try to belittle it in your mind because it’s so painful. I can relate that to the starts and stops that I’ve had in my life, and to the kind of nostalgia that I feel towards the people and things that I’ve had to leave behind.
“My life’s been full of detours, but they’ve led me to a good place,” concludes Milman, who recently revisited her old haunts in Russia and Israel, and recently earned gold medal in commerce from the University of Toronto. “As disjointed as my life feels sometimes, I think I’ve been able to take the best qualities of the three distinct, amazing countries where I’ve lived and integrate them into my personality.
“Moving around the world twice, starting from scratch each time and having to reinvent and reimagine myself in a completely new context and culture—that’s the defining feature of my life. It’s certainly shaped me as a person, and it continues to color my approach to music, informing the kind of songs that I choose to sing and the way I sing them.”