Multi-instrumentalist Camille Thurman kept her singing under wraps all throughout her time at the famed LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in New York City. And in college at SUNY-Binghamton, she wasn’t even a music major—she earned a bachelor’s degree in geological science. But in less than a decade as a professional singer and woodwinds player, she’s made her mark as one of the most promising—and intriguing—young musicians around.
Thurman hails from the St. Albans section of Queens, New York, known for the many jazz greats who’d lived there during the swing era—Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Milt Hinton. Growing up, Thurman took inspiration from their musical accomplishments; she listened to these jazz masters, taught herself to plunk out tunes on the piano, and started playing flute in middle school (the tenor sax, her bailiwick today, came later). Several educators along the way encouraged her playing, mitigating any doubts about her gender and diminutive size, and eventually the final piece of her musicianship—artful scats and rich vocals—fell into place in college. “It took a while to find out what I was comfortable with as my identity,” Thurman remarks. “I play and I sing. Sometimes society—especially for women—might pressure you to do one thing because it might be aesthetically easier to accept.”
Arguably, as a musician Thurman has taken the less-worn path, and so female role models were harder to find. She credits sax player Tia Fuller and bassist/singer Mimi Jones with helping her to land on her feet in New York City after graduation. Their advice? If you’re going to sing and play, be great at both or don’t bother. Thurman took this advice to heart, and within the space of a few years had placed as a finalist in the uber-competitive Sarah Vaughan vocal contest (her friend Jazzmeia Horn took top honors that year), played prestigious venues like Jazz At Lincoln Center and The Kennedy Center, toured internationally, and performed alongside the some of the biggest names in the jazz and R&B worlds.
Her charting debut album, Origins, and her second, Spirit Child, both released in 2014 on Jones’ label, Hot Tone Music, no doubt fueled Thurman’s rapid ascendancy as a jazz artist. She followed these successes with Inside The Moment: Live At Rockwood Music Hall last year—her first album as a leader and a Chesky artist, and her first time using the binaural recording technique. This technique, which features one mic designed to capture sound as naturally as possible, doesn’t allow for punches, so on her Chesky albums Thurman relies heavily on her expert ear and indefatigable skills as an improviser.
Thurman’s second binaural album for Chesky, Waiting For The Sunrise, dropped in August of this year. She sings more and plays less on this album than on her others, deferring the playing more often to her band, an ensemble of instrumentalists who worked with the singers who so captivated her young ears back in St. Albans: Steve Williams, Shirley Horn’s drummer; Cecil McBee, Dinah Washington’s bassist; Jack Wilkins, Sarah Vaughan’s guitarist; and Jeremy Pelt, Cassandra Wilson’s trumpeter.
“She made it happen. She did a professional, artistic job with [the album],” says Williams, remarking on the challenges that a young player like Thurman faces when recording with such iconic musicians. “She’s a bright light in the future of this music.”
Indeed, Thurman’s future looks bright—and busy. This fall she’ll be launching her album in Russia, headlining with the Darrell Green Trio at the Caramoor Festival, finishing up a Horace Silver tribute album, and touring as a guest musician with the JALC Orchestra. “I made my [JALC] debut three years ago in the Generations in Jazz concert,” Thurman recalls. “This year we’re kicking it off.”
Photo: Jack Vartoogian
(Reprinted from the October 2018 issue of Downbeat)