Jazz vocalist Emy Tseng is in the middle of a major life change. She just finished physically moving from her home in D.C. to Boston. Along the way, she squeezed in a New York City gig before starting her new fellowship at Boston’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. “It’s been a bit crazy,” Tseng explained on September 5, “the movers came Wednesday to pick up my stuff from D.C., I’m singing in New York [at Caffe Vivaldi] tonight, and driving to Boston on Sunday, and the fellowship starts Monday.” Oh, and she’s returning to New York City’s cool jazz club The Metropolitan Room September 25, 7 p.m.-8:15 p.m., to broaden her musical repertoire, with major New York guys, guitarist Q Morrow, bassist Leonardo Cioglia (Hendrik Meurkens, Duduka da Fonseca, Toninho Horta, Donny McCaslin), and Brazilian drummer Alex Kautz (Claudio Roditi, John Patitucci).
The last time Tseng appeared in the Metropolitan Room — May 3 — was her first time. She brought some of the D.C. musicians on her February 5, 2013 debut album, Sonho, to play with her and the New York musicians she normally gigs with. Those in the audience enjoyed her warm, steady delivery of some difficult Brazilian songs, and one outstanding, impossibly reimagined 1965 Mamas & Papas hit, “California Dreamin’.” Not bad for someone who still sees herself as a student, just starting to branch out.
Tseng arrived late to the game, from a strong classical background. On a direct course to MIT, she kept playing with music. By the time she moved to New York in 2001, she became enamored with the jazz and Brazilian jazz she heard at the Village Vanguard and assorted clubs along the way. When she felt ready, she went into the studio with a few of her favorite D.C. musicians to record Sonho on Mei Music. Music critics heard a different tune in many of the known and lesser-known covers through Tseng’s melodic, delicate vertical lines, breathed in rather than belted out.
Emy Tseng slipped in an interview with AXS two days ago about where she’s at and where she wants to be.
How have you been? Looks like you’re going through a major life change, moving from D.C. to Boston. If I may ask, what brought this on?
My other career is taking me to the Boston area. I’m a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard doing research on mobile and Internet usage in emerging economies. I’ve been working on promoting Internet access and digital inclusion in marginalized communities in the U.S., so I’m eager to look at approaches in other countries.
However, I still will be doing music. I look forward to checking out the jazz and Brazilian music scene — especially since Berklee and NEC are there. They have a number of public events, and of course, amazing musicians and teachers. And I still plan to go to New York to perform, study, and record. It’s sometimes hard to balance the two careers, but I really enjoy both, so it’s a good problem to have.
You’re also steadily gigging. Are you currently on tour for your February 5, 2013 release, Sonho? How many dates and places are in this tour? How has the reception been so far?
I’ve been happy with the reception to the album. I wouldn’t say that I’m on tour, but yes, I have been steadily gigging in both the D.C. area and New York ever since the album came out last year. Sonho got a bit of national critical attention and made the CMJ jazz charts. It’s opened opportunities to play at bigger venues, and work with some top Brazilian jazz musicians, particularly in New York.
In Kelly Koenig's Examiner review of your May 3rd, Metropolitan Room debut concert, you seemed at ease with the audience and open about learning to master syncopation while studying under Marcos Silva. For someone so young and so talented, that’s remarkable. Do you get nervous before a performance? How do you calm down and focus? What goes through your mind and how do you prepare?
I’m actually not that young, thank you, I’m flattered. Sometimes I get nervous, especially for a bigger “show,” but once I focus on the music itself, I’m usually fine. If I can, I like to fit in a quick nap before a performance, or at least close my eyes and breathe for a few minutes.
You also interact well with the audience. How much of their energy fuels your performance?
Thank you, I enjoy the communication and interaction with the audience, especially in an intimate space like the Metropolitan Room, because you feel the audience’s individual presence. It’s like hosting a party, and I’m having a conversation with the guests.
You are just starting out. Is it an advantage, or a drawback, at times?
Actually, while I’m just starting my music career, I’ve been working in the technology and policy fields for a long time. So it gives me a different perspective. On the one hand, I’m just happily surprised by the attention my music has received and the level of musicians who are willing to play with me. Playing with these musicians is really a dream come true.
On the other hand, I feel I have so much to catch up on in terms of my musicianship. I want to work more on my rhythm skills, learn jazz theory, and piano. During high school, I decided not to pursue music more seriously after I did an exchange program in classical piano at Interlochen Arts Academy. I just didn’t want to practice that much. And now many years later, I still have to force myself to practice. But it’s been worth it.
On your album Sonho, you sing in both English and Portuguese for the jazz and Brazilian numbers. Tell me what you like about singing American songs like “California Dreamin’,” a most original cover, as opposed to “Deixa.”
Well, it’s easier to convey the meaning of a song when the audience understands the language. However, whether I sing in English or Portuguese, ultimately the music needs to connect emotionally with people. I hope my music resonates with people — even if they don’t understand Portuguese, that they can get the gist of the song’s story and feelings being expressed.
What are your favorite songs to perform live, and why?
It’s hard to choose, but the songs “Deixa” and “Na Beira do Rio” seem to especially get good response from the audience. And of course, “California Dreamin’” seems to resonate especially when I explain how the first winter after I moved from San Francisco to D.C., D.C. had so much snow, they called it “Snowmageddon.” And I was homesick for friends and family back West. So I reinterpreted the song to fit my state of mind.
You performed live at New York City’s Metropolitan Room on May 3 for the first time. Tell me what that was like.
I really enjoy performing at the Metropolitan Room. It’s a beautiful space — intimate, nice sound, a great listening room. I felt a lot of communication with the audience. Also, this was the first time I brought up some of the D.C. musicians who played on my album, to play with New York musicians I usually work with. It was fun to mix my D.C. and New York music worlds, and to highlight the album.
What is it like to gig in New York City, where a lot of great jazz happens?
New York is amazing. I’m lucky enough to study with some top Brazilian musicians, including the bassist Nilson Matta from Trio da Paz and drummer Vanderlei Pereira. There’s so much great music going on, I go out to shows as much as possible when I’m there. I’ve seen legendary musicians touring from Brazil like Marcos Valle, Joyce and Dori Caymmi. It’s so inspiring! Plus I take samba dance and Brazilian percussion classes. So many ways to learn there.
You return to the Metropolitan Room on September 25. How will this show be different from your May 3rd debut?
The May 3rd show was the first time I played with musicians who were on the album, so I mainly featured songs off the album. While I’ll do some of those songs, I’ll also play my other Brazilian and jazz repertoire.
What are you most looking forward to?
I look forward to engaging with the audience again — the space really supports that.
Is there another album in the works?
I eventually plan to do another Brazilian album, but I’m currently working on arrangements of 80s and 90s pop songs with Matvei Sigalov, a great guitarist and violinist based in D.C. He arranged a number of songs on my first album, including “Calfornia Dreamin’.” Before I got into Brazilian music, I listened to a lot of folk-pop, like Suzanne Vega and Everything But the Girl (their acoustic material). And I spent a lot of my youth watching MTV, when the channel still played music videos. We hope to record later this fall with some top New York jazz musicians. However, given my current schedule, it’s hard for me to say when we plan to release the recording.