By Devin Orr
A performance influenced by great musicians such as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington with an additional French flair reminiscent of singers like Edith Piaf, Neha Jiwrajka’s soulful renditions of traditional and contemporary jazz graced the Trustman Art Gallery for their second concert of this academic year.
As an economics major from Northwestern University, Neha worked in San Francisco for Google, Inc. before leaving to pursue her Master’s degree in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Since then, she has been actively engaged in the performing scenes in Boston and New York City, performing in highly regarded venues such as the Scullers Jazz Club, the Rockwood Music Hall, and appearing in the critically acclaimed off-Broadway show “Sleep No More.” Neha currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and teaches at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and the Jalopy Theater and Music School.
The concert at the Trustman was divided roughly into thirds, with the first consisting of more traditional jazz melodies, the second featuring famous songs in French, and the final showcasing Neha’s own compositions.
Neha began on an upbeat note with the catchy 1928 song “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, carrying the audience away with her powerful voice and skill on the piano. This was immediately contrasted with “Solitude” by Duke Ellington, the second song she chose to perform, where the slow and mellow melody demonstrated Neha’s ability to skillfully adapt to different styles of music.
“Strange Fruit” is widely regarded as Billie Holiday’s most controversial and politically-motivated work, sent shivers across the audience as it was performed. Neha’s decision to take her own artistic approach with phrasing the melody made the song seem like new to those in the audience who have heard this jazz standard performed before, and her dazzling vocal range gave more power to the already emotionally-charged song.
The French bit of the performance featured two songs, the sentimental “La Vie en Rose” by Edith Piaf and “Tout Doucement,” a more contemporary melody by Emile Jean Mercadier and Rene Albert Clausier.
“La Vie en Rose,” known in English as “Life in Rose-Tinted Glasses,” is a romantic song written in 1945 that tells a story of finding true love. This, along with “Tout Doucement” shows Neha’s embracement of French jazz both old and new, with both songs being beautifully executed by the singer.
Having recently released a new album “The Dreamer,” Neha performed songs that are featured in the collection along with some of her older ones. “The Dreamer” is a song inspired by her life working in a tech company in San Francisco, where she often dreamed of pursuing her passion for music and creativity and felt constrained in her line of work.
Snapping her hands while playing the piano and singing showed different dimensions of her talent, and the catchy melody had the audience absorbed. “The French Man” is a song about a romantic tale in Paris, where the singer meets a wonderful man in the Champs-Élysées. The nostalgic mood of the song captured the attendees, and her integration of French and English flowed beautifully in the music.
Lastly, “Sandalwood” is about a sandalwood necklace that her Indian mother gave to her, and her anguish at it accidentally breaking. Her emotional connection with the song was reflected in her performance, giving a bittersweet taste to the concert.
An amazingly talented singer and songwriter, Neha performing in the Trustman Art Gallery proved to be a wonderful experience.