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)
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 )
"Hudson-Catskill Newpapers" - On The Scene
Fri, Sept 30st - Thu, Oct 6th 2011