She didn’t talk much. To the best of my recollection, she & I did not speak to each other at all that day, but I took note of her, and her name, “Nancy Harms,” because “Harms” is the name of one of American music’s oldest and most venerated New York publishing firms. I remember wondering if she was perhaps related to that family, and wondering what she sang like.
It was late 2006.
Of course, there’s no way I could have known that nearly four years later I would be facing the difficult task of saying goodbye to this same young woman (no relation to the publishing family, as it turns out), now one of my dearest friends and closest associates, as she embarks upon what will prove to be the greatest adventure of her professional and personal life: Goodbye Twin Cities, hello New York….
Cut to June 21st, 2010, at the lovely and intimate Bar Next Door on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, NYC. I’m watching and listening as Nancy serenades the sell-out room, with classy accompaniment by former Minnesotan Michael O’Brien on bass, along with NY guitar legend Paul Bollenback.
I joyfully take note of the audience’s warm response to this trio, and once again study the Harms modus operandi, with which I’ve become so familiar: First of all, it’s a highly original physical presence; a kinetic consisting of bends, kicks, and the unorthodox movement of hands and arms, all of which are in service of the music and telling the story. The beautiful face is animated, but not overly so. There is mystery there, with abundant smiles and good humor, but the occasional flash of something untold; a sudden downward tightening of the mouth and far-away focus of the eyes…. She seems to draw upon a passing sense-memory to more effectively convey the feeling of the lyric. Often, it’s a sense of hurt, or the pain of long ago; artfully intermingling with the good humor and inviting warmth of Nancy’s overall persona.
And the kid has a way with a song! -- a few pop flourishes here & there (she did grow up in the 80s and 90s, after all), but somehow, she discovered jazz in college, or rather, jazz discovered her, and now she lives it: One doesn’t just suddenly “do” jazz just because it’s the cool thing to do. You are born with the ability to sing, to hear pitch, and to effect the microtonal slurs and blue nuances needed to inform the idiom in whichever form of the jazz vocal art you choose to follow. And--importantly--you either breathe swing or you don’t. Once again, one has to be born with this ability. You can’t effectively teach it to someone who doesn’t have it in the bones.
When I first heard Nancy sing, a month or so after that first encounter at the Times, I was most pleased to hear that she had arrived with the tools: She was pretty green, but she was distinctly in tune, and she had the beat. She swung. Also, I noticed that she seemed to have a natural affinity for the inner drama of what she was purporting to sing about. Virtually everything else can be taught, and I was reminded of the fact last month, watching her in that NYC club, that she has revealed the most skyrocketing learning curve of any musician I’ve ever known in my life.
I predict that Nancy will do extremely well in New York, or wherever she chooses to ply her trade in the future. She is one of those rare individuals who possesses a totally distinctive quality, and without any fuss or bother on her part, she simply stands out just as much amongst the NYC populace as she does here at home.
This was made apparent to me during my conversations with people in New York, as well as during my own observations of Nancy and the way she handled herself during the days I spent with her there, leading up to and including that NY performance. She graces the scene like a veteran. She sees and conquers, with a smile (and that outrageous laugh of hers!) that belies her intensity of focus and her levelheaded self-confidence.
It’s important to note that Harms is not relocating exclusively for the advancement of her career: She fell in love with the pace of the city, the endless variety of the scene, and the highly-attuned sense of artistic camaraderie that, thus far, she has found in abundance in the jazz connections she’s made there.
In short: She loves the place. To the best of my powers of observation, there are already a number of NYC folks for whom the feeling is mutual, and I predict that this number will continue to grow during whatever period of time Nancy chooses to stay there. Many folks here will miss her, but all will wish her well. It’s a wise individual who recognizes and seizes the moment. Nancy is one of the wisest people I know. This is her moment.
Photo of Nancy Harms by Lisa Venticinque. Photo of Arne Fogel by Travis Anderson.