Music News & Reviews

MUSIC: Always seeking that next level of excellence

The Los Angeles Times has said, ‘The sky’s the limit ...’ for Sophie Milman, adding that her voice is a combination of ‘whiskey and honey.’
The Los Angeles Times has said, ‘The sky’s the limit ...’ for Sophie Milman, adding that her voice is a combination of ‘whiskey and honey.’ COURTESY PHOTO BY ALEX COLLADOS-NUNEZ

J azz chanteuse Sophie Milman’s fiercest critic is undoubtedly herself.

“I can be putting on a great show and the audience can be going nuts, but if I’m not enjoying it, I’m not happy,” the Russianborn singer said. “I am my own harshest reviewer.”

Milman, 26, has little cause for concern.

Since the release of her debut album in 2004, the petite blond with the soulful, sultry voice has won a Juno Award, dominated North American Billboard charts and garnered glowing reviews everywhere. As The Los Angeles Times noted, praising Milman’s “whisky and honey” vocals, “The sky’s the limit for this exceptional young talent.”

Yet Milman, like most artists, is always looking to improve.

“None of us are really that happy with our own art,” explained the singer, who performs Friday in Arroyo Grande. “It’s something that fuels up a little bit. It pushes us to get better and it pushes us not to stay stagnant.”

Born in the Siberian city of Ufa, Milman and her family fled Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. She spent most of her childhood in Haifa, Israel, and moved to Toronto at age 16.

Milman credits her music- loving parents for introducing her to jazz, starting with a Duke Ellington record at age six. She later turned to her local library, checking out 10 to 15 CDs at a time and listening to them non-stop.

Milman’s professional music career began almost by accident, when Linus Entertainment CEO Geoff Kulawick heard her singing at a Toronto nightspot.

“I (didn’t have) the traditional experience of playing in clubs and then singing a great deal. That’s where you really cut your teeth,” said Milman, who released her self-titled debut in 2004. “I had to learn how to sing while making my first album that was about to be released internationally.”

Before entering the studio, in fact, the young singer had never before heard her voice on tape.

“I heard it back in my headphones and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to get out of this record deal. What am I doing?’ ” Milman recalled. “I had to literally be talked down from a tree because I was so frustrated and upset.”

The singer shouldn’t

have worried.

Over the past few years, Milman has become one of the jazz world’s hottest acts — performing at the Hollywood Bowl and the Kennedy Center, and sharing the stage with the likes of Chick Corea, Chris Botti and The Manhattan Transfer.

“No matter what genre you’re in, to experience that recognition from fans and critics is incredible,” Milman said.

Her sophomore album, 2007’s “Make Somebody Happy,” topped the iTunes jazz chart and earned “Vocal Jazz Album of the Year” at the Juno Awards — Canada’s answer to the Grammys. Milman’s latest album, “Take Love Easy,” is already garnering critical acclaim.

“I wanted to make an interesting, textured album that really challenged me and really exposed a different part of me to an audience,” Milman said of “Take Love Easy,” released in May.

She also wanted to tap into “my experiences over the last several years,” including some soul-searching and her relationship with now-husband Casey Chisick.

In fact, the album’s title is an inside joke for those who know Milman well.

“My experiences shaped me to be a pretty serious, very melancholy and passionate person,” Milman explained. “My husband used to joke, ‘If you could blame the weather on yourself, you would.’ ”

“Take Love Easy” is a reminder to do just that, she added.

In addition to the title track by Duke Ellington, the album features such delights as Joni Mitchell’s “Be Cool” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Triste.”

Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ gets an Afro-Cuban cover, and Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” receives a slower, more feminine treatment.

“I can’t think of an artist who’s as masculine as Bruce Springsteen,” Milman said with a laugh. “His songs are really muscular.”

Perhaps the most evocative track, however, is “Where Do You Start?” by Johnny Mandel. The song has deep meaning for Milman.

“I have experienced a lot of significant loss in my life — grandparents I never saw again, loss of language, tradition, place,” she said. “When I sing that one, I really think about people that I lost and my life in Russia. …I’m very often close to tears when I finish.”

Even at tender moments like that, Milman said, she’s conscious of “the immensity of what came before me.”

“Once you get to the point where you think you’re the end all and be all of jazz, what’s the point?” she asked. “No matter how good you may be, there is a ton to learn.”