Vicki Burns’ new release, Live at Anna’s Jazz Island, tells a lot about her both musically and personally.
Instead of the traditional hard CD format, it is primarily a digital release that serves multiple purposes. First, it gets Burns’ music, a rich blend of jazz genres, out into the world. The digital format, however, serves to cut down on the packaging costs, a critical consideration for most musicians. It is also an important "green" move for the environmentally conscious singer.
"I’m a strong environmentalist," says Burns, who has studied Tibetan Buddhism. "There’s a lot of plastic in the world. I wanted to cut down on that."
The recording was made over two nights, Feb. 2, 2007, and May 16, 2008, at the Berkeley, Calif., club, where Burns has regularly performed. She is backed by John Nichols on guitar, Sam Bevan on upright bass, and Smith Dobson V on drums.
"I really wanted to document what I have been doing for the last five or 10 years," Burns says.
The recording features bop, blues, and ballads. Much of the music on the recording was spontaneous, and there’s a story behind each one. For example, Burns, who teaches voice, had some of her students in the audience. She performed "Sweet Home Chicago" to show them how to take an old blues song and make it your own.
A music legend was also unexpectedly in attendance on the first night that Burns recorded. Anna’s Jazz Island is owned by Anna de Leon, a well-known figure in Berkeley. In addition to being a club owner, de Leon has been a lawyer and a singer. She also used to be married to Taj Mahal. Mahal had come by the club that afternoon, prompting an invitation from Burns to stay for the show. He politely declined, saying that he was leaving for a trip the next morning and had to get up early.
Mahal, however, came back for the second set, sitting down right in front of the stage while Burns was performing "You Don’t Know Me."
"We were having a good night anyway, but at that point everybody’s attention in the band shot up about a thousand notches," says Burns. "We really became ultra focused. It was really fun. He loved it and gave us a wonderful response afterwards and then stayed for the entire night."
At the end of the evening, a waitress had a message for Burns, who was starting to catch a cold. "She said, ‘Taj wants you to know that he didn’t just leave. He went to go get you something for your throat,’" recalls Burns. He brought back heavy-duty, natural cough drops for the singer.
De Leon as been one of Burns’ biggest supporters over the years. "If it hadn’t been for Anna, I might have just given up," she says, explaining that de Leon has consistently booked her to perform.
Other tunes on the recording include the bossa swing "All or Nothing at All," "Billie’s Blues," which captures a traditional blues feel, and "Darn that Dream," one of Burns’ favorite ballads.
With only two ballads on the new release, the singer says she put all her "ballad energy" into that song.
Burns sees a strong link between singing and acting. "It’s important for me as a singer to watch actors. In order to be a really great singer you have to be a good actress," she says, citing Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney among her influences.
After spending about 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area, Burns is about to make a big change. She plans to relocate to the East Coast, but before leaving she has several performances scheduled in the area in November and December. Burns also has a landmark date set, with her New York debut Feb. 8, 2009, at the Washington Square Hotel.
In another move, Burns is also recording a studio album with pianist and arranger Cesar Cancino.
Relocating to the East Coast will bring Burns closer to her family. Her parents live in Maine, where she grew up. The singer also admits that there just aren’t that many place to perform in the Bay Area. She estimates that four venues where she has performed over the years have closed in the last several months.
She is ready to move on and win over a new group of fans.