Mirror offers an impressive introduction to the capaciously gifted singer Katerina Brown. But her debut album isn’t so much a career statement as a progress report from an artist who is used to wrenching Russia, and fairly recently arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is still very much between worlds, and her music draws from her past while opening up new avenues for future exploration.
Brown’s roots frame the album, which opens and closes with beloved songs that are instantly recognizable to Russian audiences. “The Gate” is a sweepingly romantic piece from the end of the 19th century. The title track is of a more recent vintage by Yury Saulsky and Nikolai Denisov, sophisticated songwriters from the early 1970s. She closes with “It’s Snowing,” a very popular Russian song rendered with enough searing heat that the arrangement could change the weather forecast. Brown includes English language versions of the songs translated from the Russian as bonus tracks at the end.
In many ways the Russian repertoire is a key component of her transplanted identity. One of the album’s standout tracks is the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” a sparkling duet with Kenny Washington. She credits her husband, bassist Gary Brown, with bringing the Dori Caymmi and Alan and Marilyn Bergman standard “Like A Lover” into her repertoire.
The album also bridges Brown’s musical worlds when it comes to arrangements. Dina Sineglazova, a close friend and rising pianist in St. Petersburg, created the charts for the bulk of the album’s material. Adam Shulman, who’s become the pianist of choice for storied Bay Area song stylists such as Tiffany Austin, Paula West, and Ed Reed, contributed horn arrangements and accompanies Brown throughout the album.
Born in 1982 in a small town outside St. Petersburg, Katerina Brown was drawn to music as an infant. Jazz and American records were still hard to come by in the waning years of the Soviet Union, but she soaked up her father’s albums by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Studying classical music throughout her adolescence, she started performing in local clubs as a teenager, singing mostly blues and standards. Ambitious and eager to learn more, she moved to St. Petersburg at 19 and quickly fell in with a cadre of young musicians who loved and played jazz.
A savvy bandleader by 21, she started performing regularly at the Red Lion Blues Club, which was owned by an American, and spent the next five years working steadily around the city as a blues singer. Her next big break came when she joined one of the region’s top acts, touring and recording with the Old Fashioned Blues Band. She spent about six years with the group, performing in Moscow and Ukraine and all around Russia.
Brown wanted more musical challenges, richer harmonies, and more avenues for improvisation. By 2010 she had enrolled in the Saint-Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts, delving into harmony, theory, and romance. A saxophone player she started dating, Sergey Nagorniy, gave her dozens of albums to listen to, which inspired a deep dive into YouTube. With her background in blues, she was drawn first to Dinah Washington, but before long she was smitten with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan too.
The featured vocalist with a jazz orchestra that performed under the auspices of St. Petersburg’s Cultural Centre of General Directorate of Ministry of Internal Affairs, Brown became of the city’s most visible jazz artists. Famous Russian jazz critic Vladimir Feyrtag included her name in his popular jazz encyclopedia, Jazz in Saint-Petersburg: Who Is Who, in 2014.
Her life took another turn in 2013 when she met bassist and future husband Gary Brown, who was touring in Russia with renowned Latin jazz pianist Rebeca Mauleón. He stopped by a St. Petersburg jam session where she was performing and was very complimentary about her voice; the two stayed in touch.
Eager to study jazz directly from the source in the United States, she applied for a visa and took lessons with leading creative figures such as Berklee’s Gabriel Goodman, JD Walter, and Raz Kennedy. During a monthlong stay in New York City she made the rounds, hitting jam sessions and hanging at Small’s and Birdland into the wee hours.
Invited to San Francisco by Gary Brown, she ended up moving to the Bay Area in 2015. She’s quickly found a rich community, forging close ties to many of the region’s top players and performing at leading venues around the region such as Yoshi’s in Oakland, San Jose’s Café Stritch, Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory, and San Francisco’s Black Cat. As the featured vocalist in the SFJAZZ’s Monday Night Big Band, directed by the Jazz Mafia’s Adam Theis, she performs regularly at the SFJAZZ Center. Brown currently is studying at Denmark’s Complete Vocal Institute, the largest vocal institute in Europe. She also teaches the CVT vocal technique, which is based on the anatomy and physiology of the human body.
But like with Mirror, her manifold accomplishments are all prelude to the next chapter.