Brooklyn’s Nicole Zuraitis Brings Visceral Vocals, Her Powerhouse Presence and Winning Songwriting to Jazz Outing, Hive Mind (Dot Time Records).
“Nicole Z is an important new voice on the New York scene. Nicole’s songs bring excellence to her generation, and her unwavering spirit will inspire all people who hear her gorgeous music.” -Rachel Z
If recently you happened upon Greenwich Village’s 55 Bar and were enchanted by the seismic talent of inspired vocalist, keyboard player and songwriter Nicole Zuraitis, you’re officially part of the 32-year-old’s burgeoning fan club. Nicole Zuraitis blends bountiful songwriting skills, an effervescent presence and dazzling vocals in a consummate package that has thrilled audiences across Manhattan and across the world.
Nicole is the 2016 New York City Songwriting Competition Coffee Music Project Winner, 2015 second runner-up in the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and the 2014 Herb Albert ASCAP Young Composer Awards Winner. Nicole has headlined the Blue Note (NYC) and maintains residencies at the 55 Bar, Rockwood Music Hall (with the Dan Pugach Nonet), and Redeye Grill. Audiences love Nicole’s limitless enthusiasm, but that’s only part of her story; only part of her talent.
While pursuing a career that has spanned jazz, pop and classical, Nicole has collaborated with Cyrille Aimee, Thana Alexa, Dave Stryker, Livingston Taylor, Tom Chapin, Omar Hakim and Bernard Purdie. She’s performed at festivals nationwide, and has recorded two albums: 2013’s Pariah Anthem and 2009’s Spread The Word, both releases featuring the cream of New York’s jazz hierarchy.
Nicole’s new recording, Hive Mind (Dot Time Records), chronicles themes close to her heart, including an unflinching love of family and friends delivered with a sincere spirit that finds release in eight intimate original compositions (and two covers) which span genres. After hearing Hive Mind, you’d expect nothing less from this NYU trained classical vocalist and Connecticut born songwriter who swings hard as she brings listeners under her enveloping musical wings.
“Sometimes one can’t be sure which is more impressive, Nicole’s boundless and powerful voice, her composing and arranging or her piano playing. She puts her huge heart on display in every performance. Nicole has a deep understanding of the needs and desires of her audience and is a pro at inspiring and fulfilling her listeners. I know, because I happen to be one of them!” – Thana Alexa, Migration, Thana Alexa Group
One element of Nicole’s personal journey is as an advocate for the mentally health-challenged. To that end, Nicole lays bare her feelings and emotions throughout Hive Mind. The album questions the stigma surrounding mental health concerns as Nicole dedicates the music to a close relative who suffers from schizophrenia. Nicole’s songs sound undeniably joyous, performed in her kinetic style, but hold hidden truths.
“Having people in my family such as my grandfather who has suffered for 65 years with schizophrenia,” Nicole says, “and who is unable to get treatment because of our broken mental health system--opening the conversation and being a voice for that cause is something I can do.”
Hive Mind features Nicole on vocals, piano and of course, compositions; Nandini Srikar, Carnatic vocal on “Idle”; Dan Pugach, drums; Idan Morim, guitar; Alex Busby Smith, bass; Carmen Staaf, Wurlitzer, Rhodes; Rich Lamb, organ. The album was recorded at Big Orange Sheep in Brooklyn and was engineered/mixed by Rich Lamb.
“If I was to suffer from any affliction it would be the self-diagnosed ‘hive mind,’” Nicole laughs. “It’s like there are bees in my brain! I’m sometimes unable to relax because there is always so much to do. Such as waking in the middle of the night and thinking, ‘oh, that’s a good lyric!’”
Nicole’s songs draw on pop, jazz, Indian classical and R&B influences. As performed by her gifted jazz troupe, Hive Mind recalls a modern-day Court and Spark, the Joni Mitchell classic that bridged jazz and pop in the mid-1970s.
“Hive Mind is full of hooks, but not by design,” Nicole explains. “I’m a fan of Becca Stevens; she is really strong with melody, and her compositions are complicated and beautiful. I also like Hiatus Kaiyote, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Mercer and George Gershwin, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Elton John.”
“Move On” opens Hive Mind, an ethereal, flowing track that is as endearing as it is cryptic.
“I wanted a song with alternating meters,” Nicole says. “It begins in 7/4 then alternates with 4/4. The song is about moving on from relationships in New York. New York is a tough town!”
Hive Mind gains steam on “Out Of My Heart,” which combines heart-strings and computer language.
“That refers to the heart as a hard drive,” Nicole says. “Enough is enough of suffering with someone for so long. You want a restart. It’s a classic relationship song.”
“Inscription” is an ecstatic, kinetic, irresistible song about a manic depressive episode. Though its joyous Afro Cuban grove would never give that away!
“It’s about going buck wild! It’s also to prove I can write for the jazz audience. Another manic episode. ‘Come here right now, I’ll chase you like cheap beer does after tequila burns.’ It’s about making poor decisions like staying up all night. From when I was young, not now!”
“Idle” slows the album’s tempo to a humid pulse; Indian classical vocals, Indian instruments and a swirling atmosphere dizzying the senses.
“’Idle’ is based around the same concept as my ASCAP Award winning song, ‘To the Hive.’” Nicole says. “It’s about feeling a void, feeling zero emotion. A creepy vibe. Nandini sings the background melody. I love the blending of the cultures; Nandini is an incredible singer I met while I was teaching in India.”
Nicole changes gears on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Rather than repeat the original’s bronco-busting mood, Nicole turns the song into an impassioned plea, possibly a subliminal threat.
“Every time we play ‘Jolene’ I really care how the audience reacts,” Nicole explains. “We want to give the audience a cathartic experience. I really feel those words.”
“Sunny Side” brings the funk, simply, clearly and powerfully. “Failing” chronicles relationship woes; “Episodes”’ disembodied voices and spoken words characterize a mental breakdown before the song sails off into spirited improvisations.
“I wrote ‘Episodes’ thinking of my grandfather Louis who is a paranoid schizophrenic,” Nicole divulges. “He doesn’t take medications, and he’s totally blind because he wouldn’t take glaucoma medicine. Every day he lives in a hell of his own mind. I wish he didn’t suffer, as with so many people in America who get brushed under the rug.
“Pure Imagination” is me calling out to my grandfather, wishing he could hear its lyrics, ‘Come with me . . . If you want to view paradise /Simply look around and view it.’”
Hive Mind closes with the sweet and simple “Shirley’s Waltz.”
“My grandmother Shirley was a strong rock in the family and my best friend,” Nicole recalls. “She passed in April 2016 in the middle of recording this album. It was good to end the record on a positive lighter dedication that was both effective and cathartic for me.”
Where does Nicole gain her boldness?
“I used to be embarrassed being so honest,” she replies. “But now I feel like that’s the purpose. It’s the same reason you take a stand politically; the job of the artist is to be authentic and stand for something.
“I want the listener to be moved by the music and the musicianship,” Nicole adds. “This was a cathartic record to make. It was a release. The songs I’m writing for my next record are happy, silly and fun, about love and political songs. No, really!”
“Nicole is a very accomplished musician, plain and simple. Nicole’s singing is out of this world but so is her composing, arranging, band leading and piano playing. She has strong charisma as she simultaneously excites the audience and makes them feel comfortable. Great presence doesn't always go hand-in-hand with great musicianship, but that certainly is not the case with Nicole.” --Antonio Sanchez, Pat Metheny Group, Migration, Birdman
BIO BY KEN MICALLEF (DOWNBEAT/MODERN DRUMMER MAGAZINE)
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