MN jazz singer Jana Nyberg keeps standards sounding fresh

Jana Nyberg
Jana Nyberg and the Jana Nyberg Group will perform Wednesday at the St. Paul's Artists Quarter.
Photo courtesy Jana Nyberg

For anyone who thinks today's singers should focus only on the present without bothering to study the great songs of yesterday, Jana Nyberg has a simple response:

"You can't top a melody by Gershwin."

At 30, Nyberg enjoys exploring the twists and turns of modern life. But she draws inspiration from the Great American Songbook.

Nyberg honored that storied and folkloric tradition a few years ago in her debut recording, "Jana," an album of classics by Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Leonard Cohen and others that showed how she is rooted in jazz.

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In part the album was an ode to strong influences like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. Their styles, and that of Debbie Duncan, a masterful singer in the Twin Cities, have captivated Nyberg since she was a girl in Roseville.

"I think that these standards will always be around, no matter what anyone says," Nyberg said. "And I don't think that's a drag. I think that's a good thing because they're constantly changing."

So is Nyberg. Although she loves to give the standard jazz repertoire new life, she wants to balance those numbers with covers of modern pop songs — and her own compositions. The album of standards included "Smile," a tune that speaks to her inventiveness.

Nyberg, a product of Roseville Area High School's solid music program, plays piano and flute. She began singing jazz tunes in college, when she was asked to sing with the big band.

Although she took a brief detour a couple of years ago to try out for the American Idol television show at the urging of family and students, she stuck to great material, singing "Black Coffee" through early rounds.

"I love that song," Nyberg said. "It's got a hint of blues to it, even though it's not a straight-up blues. So we, I just kept singing that because I thought, 'well I need to do what's me. I can't pretend I'm somebody else.' So I just stayed true to the music the whole way through."

Great songs without reality TV drama likely didn't enhance her chances of making a pop music show, so Nyberg returned her attention to jazz and artful pop.

These days she's focused on writing original tunes for the Jana Nyberg Group, which features her husband Adam Meckler on trumpet. They'll perform Wednesday at St. Paul's Artists Quarter.

The small ensemble is a perfect vehicle for her varied delivery. She might follow a soothing rendition of an old ballad by belting out one of her own, such as "Baby Girl's Life," a spunky number based on a few chords featured on her 2011 release, "Fever." Half of the album's tunes are originals.


Nyberg also is intent on balancing performing with her teaching career at St. Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts.

"It's been asked of me 'which is my favorite," she said, "teaching or being a professional musician?' And I say, tie for first."

That doesn't make it easy. For a while, Nyberg was performing a difficult juggling act, teaching full time and going to gigs that didn't end until well after midnight. She now teaches part time.

For Nyberg, guiding students in part involves leading by example, showing them that performing is a collaborative art. She thinks of her band as an ensemble, not a group led by a singer. Many of the tunes feature dynamic solos from guitarist Evan Montgomery, who brings strong harmonics and rich storytelling skills to his work.

"Stereotypically, when there's a singer, the musicians go uh, it's a singer gig. And they know that they're just going to be accompanying in the background," she said. "But I don't want it to feel like that because I think it's a give and take with musicians and every moment is special and important and should be an interplay."

Much of that musical exchange features the group reworking jazz standards in innovative ways, still retaining enough of a tune's essence so listeners will recognize it. She wants to follow the example of modern jazz innovators like Kurt Elling.

"He'll write an entire intro you've never heard before, because that's his, and then it goes in beautifully to something that everyone recognizes," Nyberg said. "That's the direction we're headed. ... We have a lot of originals just kind of pouring out of us."