Verena McBee, U-Phoria – Review
by Robert S. Harmon
Born and raised in Northern Germany, Verena McBee embarked on the beginnings of her studies. At age seven she began piano lessons for ten years in her hometown at the Conservatory of Osnabrueck, later adding flute at the age of fourteen. She also explored theater starting at the age of fourteen, joining a local theater group.
In 1993 she studied classical music (piano and flute). She additionally studied the German language and literature at the University Osnabrueck, graduating in 1997. During her last year of studies, McBee auditioned for acting schools and was accepted in Hamburg at Schule fuer Schauspiel in 1997. From 2000-2006 Verena appeared as an actress and vocalist under her maiden name Verena Gemsa in Hamburg, Munich, Vienna, Cologne, Brussels, Prisdina and NYC.
In 2004, she met her now husband Cecil McBee and moved to NYC in 2007. Inspired by the music of Sarah Vaughan, Verena McBee started studying jazz vocals with several different instructors, among them Brianna Thomas and Roberta Gambarini.
In January of 2013, McBee produced her debut jazz album Can’t Help It! with her trio: Billy Test on piano, Zwelakhe Duma F. Bell du Pere on double bass and Brian Woodruff on drums. Now in 2018, her latest offering U-PHORIA, features all compositions by her husband jazz bassist Cecil McBee with Verena McBee’s original lyrics.
An explorative tune “Sweet Things,” is filled with tension notes and high-flying sweeps of the melody. Pianist Billy Test locks tightly with bassist Zwelakhe Duma Bell LePere, while drummer Jon DiFiore colorizes with multi-layers of textualization. An interesting production approach during the solo section is implemented by vocalist McBee. Her voice is panned right with a more ethereal colorization, while the pan left has a more avant vocalization approach. All the while soprano saxophonist Christian Contreras weaves an adventurous soloing approach around vocalist McBee’s improvisations.
“LadyBuGG,” is a seductively imbued tune that is embellished with violinist Gabriel Dowdy-Terracciano who doubles the melody on many occasions with vocalist McBee. The written counterpoint is especially challenging and vocalist McBee uses her voice in an upper register horn approach. Cecil McBee has long had a reputation of writing in a creatively complex manner. “LadyBuGG,” utilizes elongated lines, and vocalist McBee quenches emotion into each line. Of special note, Contreras’ solo – this time on tenor, it is filled with passion and fire.
U-Phoria is a melodically complex album, not for the casual listener. Verena McBee has taken to task writing lyrics to melodically complex melodies by husband Cecil. Her approach is adventurous and improvisational based. The sound is progressive and explorative and firmly in the avant or unorthodox realm, making for a wondrous listen. Each player equally contributes to the overall sound as a collaborative effort that rises to its potential. Firmly rooted in the creative improvisational dimension.