Brianna Thomas

New York, New York

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Growing up with a jazz musician father, Brianna Thomas was exposed to the recordings of Ella Fitzgerald singing the Great American Songbook at a young age. Besides hearing the jazz legend’s famous improvised scat singing, Thomas quickly fell in love with the way Fitzgerald’s songs told a story. “I’d write down all the lyrics over and over again—they were on these scraps of paper all over my room,” she remembers. That devotion to getting behind the meaning of lyrics has served Thomas well, making her the toast of today’s New York jazz scene.

Thomas’ father, Charlie, was a beloved drummer and singer in Peoria, Illinois. She’s also quick to cite the influence of her mother, a voracious music enthusiast. When a babysitter couldn’t be found, Charlie would take Brianna to his gigs, and by the age of six she had started joining him on stage. While her Walkman was at first loaded with Gloria Estefan tapes, discovering Diane Reeves, Sarah Vaughan, and Betty Carter changed Thomas’ musical direction forever.

Academic jazz education opportunities abound in the Midwest, and as a teenager, Thomas was both studying with her mentors and touring Europe with her peers. Moving to New York to attend the New School gave her access to the heart of the jazz world. Since her 2011 graduation she has come into her own both as a bandleader and a guest with outfits like the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra.

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Thomas’ appeal comes from her complete package of vocal techniques—what All About Jazz called her “emotional depth, to-die-for scat skills, incredible pitch control and shading, strong songwriting skills, intuitively elastic phrasing, soulful bearing, and great range.” “My teachers taught me how sound follows a feeling,” she says. “When you laugh, you have the feeling and then there’s the sound. I try to establish the feeling of the song first.”

Thomas’ band plays her originals as well as often surprising reworkings of jazz standards and the Great American Songbook. Its members represent what Thomas calls “the sound of the Mississippi River” thanks to New Orleans pianist Conun Pappas, blues-drenched Chicago guitarist Marvin Sewell, and Minnesota bassist Ryan Berg. Percussionist Fernando Saci adds the rhythms of funk, Afro-Latin and his native Brazil.

Besides her active performing schedule, Thomas is now herself the mentor to a new generation of jazz singers and musicians. She believes the best way to learn about jazz is to experience it firsthand. “It’s like describing a grape—you really have to taste it to know what it is like,” she says.