New Disc from the Chicago-Based Duo Scheduled for March 30
Since settling in Chicago in 2004, vocalist Petra van Nuis and guitarist Andy Brown have established themselves as artists of note in a variety of musical settings. Petra has recorded two well-regarded albums of her own and gigs regularly with a trad jazz band, while Andy, a top-call sideman, has released an album documenting his artistry in both trio and solo contexts.
Van Nuis and Brown have also long worked as a duo, but only in the last four years has the couple been concentrating more on that intimate format. The new CD Far Away Places, which will be released March 30, is their first duo recording. It captures beautifully what CD annotator (and singer/pianist) Judy Roberts calls their “musical mind melding” and “the true essence of the deep connection that [Petra and Andy] share.”
“When Petra and I started playing together as a duo, it was a challenge but it felt natural,” says Brown. “The guitar is a little more spare than piano. With Petra’s tone and less-is-more style, it works really well. I always feel more exposed, but that’s part of what makes it work.”
“The guitar is a very soft, tender, and subtle instrument with a ringing quality,” adds van Nuis. “I feel best vocally and most in tune with Andy when I can ‘tune’ my voice to his guitar and create a blended sound. I almost try to have the same tone as the guitar.”
Unexpected choices in repertoire, like “Far Away Places” (a hit for Bing Crosby), “Destination Moon” (recorded by Beverly Kenney and Nat “King” Cole), and “A Cottage for Sale” (associated with Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme), appear alongside jazz standards “Invitation” and “Caravan,” American Songbook staples “With a Song in My Heart” and “How Little We Know,” and a captivating pair by Cole Porter (“From This Moment On,” “Let’s Do It”). Joao Gilberto’s bossa classic “Bim Bom” is a solo guitar feature for Andy.
“We don’t seem to need elaborate arrangements,” says Brown, “because we often anticipate the next move in the moment. We know each other so well musically and personally that a lot of times we’re thinking the same thing at the same time.”
High school sweethearts who met as 11th-graders at the Cincinnati School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Petra van Nuis (pronounced Paytra van Nouse) and Andy Brown, now 34, have grown up together as artists. For years, however, they followed separate creative paths. Petra trained in ballet in San Francisco and New York, graduating with a BFA in musical theater from Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. She worked as a dancer through college, including a stint with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
Andy, an aspiring blues guitarist, veered toward jazz under the influence of Cincinnati jazz guitar masters Cal Collins and Kenny Poole, who inspired him to explore the jazz guitar tradition as well as classic pop and jazz vocalists including Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, and Chris Connor. Petra found herself seduced by these recordings, and gave up her dancing ambitions to pursue jazz singing.
Though their musical paths have long been aligned, Petra and Andy don’t always work a deux. In Petra’s Recession Seven, she croons Chicago-style trad jazz with a horn-laden band. On her debut album A Sweet Refrain (2006), she’s backed by a swinging small group, and in Revenge of the Kissing Bug (2006), Petra teams up with pianist/vocalist Bradley Williams for a recording of vocal duets.
Brown appears on albums by saxophonist Andrew Lautenbach (Andy Brown and Andrew Lautenbach, 2006) and trombonist Russ Phillips (One Morning in May, 2008), and has played behind Harry Allen, Ken Peplowski, and Hod O’Brien (as well as Barbra Streisand, on Oprah). In Chicago, he plays in the bands of Don Stiernberg, Kim Cusack, and Chris Foreman, and as a leader can be heard on Trio and Solo (2007).
Petra and Andy showcase their duo performances every Wednesday evening at the Marion Street Grille in Oak Park, outside Chicago. They also play regularly in Chicago at Katerina’s, an eclectic club with its soul in the arts. On 4/28, they’ll appear at the elegant Chicago landmark Maxim’s to present a Concert of Moon Songs — one of which will be the new CD’s lead track, “Destination Moon.”
“Through different paths we both arrived at what we do very naturally. One thing led to another musically and we fell in love with this music,” says van Nuis.
“We are not trying to recreate anything — it is not a history project,” adds Andy. “We genuinely relate to the songs and style and we share a desire to play in the moment. When we realized we could do it together we thought — even better.”
Photography: Bogdan Nastase
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