Not Norah

St. Louis jazz singer Erin Bode is her own woman

Dec 8, 2004 at 4:00 am
The modern age of jazz vocalists can be measured by simply noting a B.N.-through-A.N. time span. For example: The rise of Harry Connick Jr. happened around 13 B.N., and we are currently living happily in the nascent year 2 A.N.

Calling Norah Jones the messiah of contemporary jazz is hardly blasphemous, given her Bible-length dossier of great works. Blue Note released her debut album, Come Away with Me, two and a half years ago, yet it was the No. 73 best-selling record in the nation last week and has been the No. 1 album on the contemporary jazz charts for a solid 140 weeks. That's as close as water-into-wine as most artists get -- and that's not even mentioning Jones' boatload of Grammys. Then there's the lasting miracle Ms. Jones inspired, the provocation of an overwhelming nationwide interest in the jazz-folk hybrid she crafted and perfected with her songwriting partner, Jesse Harris.

Enter the crop of young singers who perform standards, music that is usually shelved under "adult contemporary," far away from the rock and hip-hop aisles traditionally trod by the under-30 set. The years A.N., or After Norah, find many of these artists with hit albums and plenty of appearances on daytime-television talk shows. They have spring-lavender names like Peter Cincotti and Michael Buble. This is all in addition to the renaissance currently enjoyed by singers like Diana Krall, who were established in the niche of vocal-jazz culture back in 5 or 10 B.N.

So it would be impossible to profile Erin Bode without invoking the image of Norah. Bode is young, staggeringly beautiful and accomplishes the Jonesian feat of appealing to all listeners, from eighteen to eighty, with a voice that is at once all her own and a channel for the great singers of yore. She inspires an abnormal sense of nostalgia -- in what other setting would "yore" make it past the editors? -- and makes listeners long for the days when men wore fedoras. At the same time, Bode forces our eyes and ears forward into an era of contemporary jazz that blurs boundaries with its nouveau-riche delivery of a very old-money sound. To profile Erin Bode means not only to sketch a woman, but to place a sound in a specific time when the public has set out its welcome mat for the classics.

Erin Bode is the kind of woman who loved her former job of working at a funeral home because it gave her "a chance to be kind." She was born in Minnesota to an encouraging mother and a pastor father of German descent (pronounce Bode as Bo-dee), and she grew up singing standards and traditionals. The family moved to St. Louis when she was in her early teens, and because the question hangs on every native's lips, she went to Lutheran South and Eureka High School. She ended up at Webster University studying music and foreign language.

"I love the harmonies of traditional choral music," Bode says, "but you have to be physically the right type to sing specific kinds of music. I didn't live the structured life of an opera singer." So her vocal coach at Webster led her away from the more classical forms of vocal performance, and Bode concentrated more on developing her raw talent, unsure of where that talent would take her. Webster being the veritable artist colony that it is, it didn't take long for Bode to hook up with fellow students and other performers who gravitate toward the music scene there, particularly the jazz scene.

Gravitating toward Erin Bode is not exactly difficult. She exudes an ease that makes her approachable as both a person and a performer. While some singers create invisible boundaries between themselves and their audience, Bode instead approaches her audience as part of her craft. Watching her perform is an active experience that invites listeners into her world. Her voice can be as wide as outstretched arms and as firm as a handshake, and she exercises an effortlessly succinct control over her range and phrasing that belies its difficulty. And then there is the fact that she is stunning.

Jazz singers have never been the type to sell their looks in the way that pop singers tend to do, but it never hurts to have the face of a Norah or a Diana Krall or a Jane Monheit, and in this Erin exceeds her big-name counterparts. Even she blushes at the number of photos of her that appear in the liner notes of her MaxJazz release, Don't Take Your Time. But these black-and-whites, though lovely, can't do justice to the depth of her smile and the wideness of her eyes. "I'm not a diva," she says, and she proceeds to speak about the struggle of being an artist with as much vigor as she discusses its rewards. "I've tried to figure out if you're supposed to dream big or not get your hopes up. Either way, I don't need to be at the forefront all the time."

Her look embodies a kind of bohemian class. You won't see her slinking around baby grands, no matter how nice she might look in skin-tight red couture, because the reality of being an up-and-comer is as much lack of funds as it is abundance of hope. As for the forefront, she is content to share that with her band, most notably pianist Adam Maness, who is her Jesse Harris. "He comes with music or words, or sometimes I write the words," she says of their songwriting process. "I don't write about current events. I write about thoughts, feelings, things I wish I would have said."

Perhaps the greatest weakness of her debut album is its lack of original material. Though Bode brings her own style and unique interpretations to the works of Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder, among others, it is on the original title track "Don't Take Your Time" that Bode shines brightest. Her influences include Eva Cassidy, Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, clearly more pop-oriented than jazz, and this is plainly audible in her sound -- and indicative of the A.N. route that popular jazz vocalists are well-prepared to travel.

"I have high aspirations for the next album," says Bode. "I can't wait to put out something more personal, more original. We actually recorded the album at the same studio that Norah Jones used in New York, but we'll do the next one here in St. Louis. We're so much like a family here." As for comparisons to the messianic Jones, Bode admits the similarities and the annoyances that come with the shadow. "I've had club owners say, 'Well, doesn't she sound too much like Norah Jones?' and it does get a little frustrating." But the more you get to know Bode and her sound, the more it becomes clear that any similarities are surface-level and transient.

Getting to know Erin Bode has thus far not been a problem for St. Louis audiences, as she has played almost constantly around town since striking out with her band, from intimate cafés such as Brandt's and larger rooms at the Chase Park Plaza to one of St. Louis' most reputable concert series, Jazz at the Bistro. Bode shows no signs of lightening her load over the holiday season, though studio time for her sophomore album will have to wait until she returns from touring Italy early next year. Until then you can hear her online, on the radio and at an array of local clubs, where she readily proves that she's not our local Norah Jones -- she's our very own Erin Bode.