Verena McBee, U-Phoria


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.

(Appeared in "All About Vocals", 12/7th 2018)

VERENA MCBEE - U-PHORIA by Scott Yanow.                                                                                                            03/03/2018                        
Singer Verena McBee made a strong impression a couple of years ago with her debut recording, Can’t Help It. It featured her coming up with fresh ideas on standards, and contributing all of the arrangements, two originals, and the lyrics to her husband Cecil McBee’s “Agua Dulce.” As worthy as her debut was, U-PHORIA is an important step forward.
Classically trained on piano and flute, and an in-demand actress in her native Germany, Verena met the legendary bassist Cecil McBee in 2004. Since moving to New York City in 2007, she has blossomed into a talented jazz singer, appearing in many of the major clubs.
Cecil McBee has been an innovative bassist since at least the 1960s, working with the who’s who of jazz including Charles Lloyd, Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean, Yusef Lateef and Freddie Hubbard among many others. Although he has been renowned for his bass playing during the past 50 years, his composing talents have often been overlooked. Verena McBee on U-PHORIA aims to change all of that.
Joined by her regular trio (pianist Billy Test, bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell LePere and drummer Jon DiFiore) plus violinist Gabriel Dowdy-Terracciano and Christian Contreras on soprano and tenor, Verena McBee performs her lyrics to nine of her husband’s originals. The pieces were not originally designed for a vocalist (as can be heard in some of the wide interval jumps) but Ms. McBee has the range, the feeling for the music, and the determination to make it sound effortless. Throughout the set, the singer constantly interacts with the other musicians, particularly violinist Dowdy and saxophonist Contreras. She is fearless in her improvising and holds her own with the fast company.
Her lyrics mostly deal with various aspects of love and relationships including the joyful “Sweet Things,” “Close To You Alone” (about being temporarily alone but happy due to the closeness with one’s partner), “Song Of Her,” and the saucy “Slippin’ & Slidin’.” Most unusual is “U-Phoria” which is about the joy one finds when they end a bad relationship.
The opener, “Sweet Thing,” may be a very difficult song to sing due to its complex melody but Ms. McBee makes it sound natural. To name a few other highlights, her vocalizing is strong and expressive on “Close To You Alone” which has a particularly memorable melody. “Lady Bugg” sounds like it could be have been written by Charles Mingus and it inspires passionate tenor, violin and vocal solos. “Song Of Her” is a brooding ballad that is slightly reminiscent of “Naima” while “All About You” is given a soulful rendition with prominent violin. On the relatively straight-ahead “U-Phoria,” the singer displays her strong scatting ability. And as for “Slippin’ & Slidin’,” suffice it to say that the sensuous interpretation is happily over-the-top.
The release of U-Phoria, which should result in Cecil McBee getting more recognition for his composing, is a superior showcase for Verena McBee’s musical talents. It is recommended to listeners who enjoy hearing adventurous jazz singers.
Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author of 11 books including The Jazz Singers, The Great Jazz Guitarists, Jazz On Film and Jazz On Record 1917-76
Verena McBee -"Can’t Help It" - Review by Scott Yanow                                                                                                                                            12/2013           
For her recording debut as a leader, Verena McBee is joined by pianist Billy Test, bassist Zwelakhe Duma-Bell LePere and drummer Brian Woodruff, mostly performing fresh and inventive versions of standards. She also introduces two of her originals (“Princess Lioness” and “Don’t Ask Me”), wrote the lyrics to her husband bassist Cecil McBee’s “Agua Dulce” and contributed all of the inventive arrangements.

Can’t Help It begins with her driving piece, “Princess Lioness,” that serves as a fine introduction to the singer. On “Taking A Chance On Love,” she takes the first chorus quite slow, putting plenty of feeling into the words before it becomes a medium-tempo swinger. “The Man I Love” is interpreted with a great deal of drama with its verse and chorus being taken out-of-tempo. This unusual version has the singer filling the words with longing and hopelessness. In contrast, “Love Me Or Leave Me,” which begins as a duet with drummer Woodruff, has some exciting scat-singing and concludes with Verena reinventing the melody. “Take The ‘A’ Train, which has a bit of solo space for each of her sidemen, also features some expressive scatting.
Verena McBee has always been inspired by Marlene Dietrich. Her rendition of Ms. Dietrich’s first hit, “Falling In Love Again,” is quite personal and finds her singing in both German and English. “Agua Dulce” is quite a tour-de-force with Verna showing off her very wide range and her background in classical music. Her wordless singing during the performance’s second half is quite memorable. She is also passionate on a medium-slow version of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” While the latter is a duet with pianist Test, she shares a happy “Ain’t Misbehavin’’ with bassist LePere. Concluding this memorable effort is a medley of the timeless “Nature Boy” with her topical and thoughtful “Don’t Ask Me (Immigration Song).”

Can’t Help It is quite a debut for Verena McBee, making one look forward to what is coming next.
 Scott Yanow, Jazz Journalist / Historian / Author
( The Jazz Singers, The Great Jazz Guitarists, Jazz On Film and Jazz On Record 1917-76 )




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