The photograph that adorns the cover of Canadian jazz singer Sophie Milman’s debut album is classic cabaret-glamour fare. In it, the very young, very blonde Milman poses in jazz uniform: the obligatory black dress and copious long-stranded pearls, a sultry lock of hair draped over one eye, her Slavic-model looks tastefully deployed to help album sales along. But open the jacket and there’s a surprise: a very different photo of Milman, seated, wearing a turquoise camisole, her hair pinned up. Reading.
Not charts, not sheet music: instead, Toronto’s youngest vocal jazz sensation is curled up with a good, text-heavy, hardcover book. It’s an accurate depiction of 22-year-old Milman, who for the last two-and-a-half years has been studying commerce full time at the University of Toronto while nicely making way, in her spare time, in the uncertain waters of the jazz world. Her album hit the Canadian Top Ten early this year; she’s booked at jazz festivals throughout Canada this summer, and she is one of the nominees for the first annual Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards, to be presented April 10, competing against the likes of jazz star Diana Krall in the category of Best Female Vocalist.
For Milman, an émigré from Russia and Israel who has no formal musical training, success as a performer has been a huge surprise. “Music was a release,” she said, “food for the soul. I never, ever thought that I’d be able to do it professionally.” Born in Ufa, an oil-refining and industrial city in Russia’s Ural Mountains, Milman has memories of what she called “a happy-go-lucky kind of childhood.” But religious persecution drove the family to immigrate to Israel when Milman was seven years old; in Russia, Milman recalls, they were alienated from observance, though their ethnic and cultural sense of themselves as Jews was always strong. “When we moved to Israel,” she said, “it really all made sense — what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be Israeli and what it means to be of this culture in the world today.” Yet over time, especially following the birth of Milman’s younger brother, new concerns arose over terrorism and security in Israel. In 1999, when Milman was 16, the family moved to Canada.
Having started singing in the car with her mother on long road trips in Russia (“I was the stereo,” she recalled) and having grown up on her father’s collection of American recordings, Milman fell in love early on not only with jazz, but also with a broad range of African-American music, from gospel to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan to Stevie Wonder. She was accepted into a touring stage production in Israel, called “Festigal,” at age 9. After that, though, it would be seven years, and one new continent, before she performed onstage again, in an assembly at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, her new high school in Toronto. Her rendition of a gospel song that day got what she called “a great response.” “It was very surprising to me,” she said, referring to her voice, “because I really didn’t think there was anything special there.”
But by 2002, Milman had begun to think of singing as a “serious hobby” — serious enough that she sat in at a vocalists’ session at a Toronto restaurant and wowed the audience. Only three gigs later, beginner’s luck found her again, when the self-professed “timid Russian girl” landed a record deal with the Toronto-based Linus Entertainment label.
In conversation, Milman is both humble and self-assured, presenting equal parts sharp-edged Israeli warmth and the understated, worldly-wise quality that jazz prizes as cool. Her peregrinations have given her maturity beyond her years, fluency in four languages, an undercurrent of old-world Yiddishe charm and a groundedness that kept university — and the study of business — at the top of her priority list even when her musical career began to flower. “A university education never hurt anyone,” she said. “Especially in a discipline as useful as business.”
Yet Milman says that she gets criticism from other musicians for not having had any formal training and for performing at clubs only rarely, while most of her colleagues studied music and now gig relentlessly. “I guess it appears to them that I’m less dedicated than they are,” she mused. “I really want to make it in music. I just think that studying commerce and other things that interest me — I was a human being before I was a singer — it’s always good to be challenged in other aspects.”
Given her appearance, it’s possible to wonder about the nature of Milman’s success. Is it all about those Slavic good looks? But her album proves otherwise; the raw talent is clearly there. By far, the most powerful tracks are in languages other than English: the album opens with a sure-handed rendition of the Brazilian jazz classic “Agua de Beber” (“Water To Drink”) (amazingly, but not uncharacteristically, the recording was Milman’s first attempt at singing Brazilian music). She has given the traditional Russian folksong “Ochi Chernye” (“Dark Eyes”) a commanding cabaret makeover. Milman also offers such standards as “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “The Man I Love” and a delightfully droll “I Feel Pretty,” as well as vocal homages to soft rock, James Bond movies and Edith Piaf. Delicious Russian overtones bubble unexpectedly to the surface at least once on every track.
In terms of where Milman’s work goes next, however, her colleagues may be on to something. In both voice and technique, more training could make a big difference for Milman, who, despite the beauty of her tone, is missing, in places, a certain level of schooled vocal gravitas. Knowledge is audible in a singer, and though Milman’s focused listening over the years has taught her much, it is very possible that additional technique will help take her voice to another level. Experience, too, certainly will add to what she already has going for her: a lovely tone, a native musicality, joy and excitement about her work, and an unusually clear head. As radio broadcaster John Beaudin, an avid Milman fan who is co-creator and co-chair of the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards, said: “Distinctive voices can either make you or break you…. In her case, it really works. She’s comfortable in her skin.”