It is not immediately apparent that Katy Pfaffl is from the Midwest. As I stand in line at Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street, waiting for my yin and yang-style snack of espresso and marshmallow square, Pfaffl and the ensemble of the evening are just getting started. A part of me was expecting to hear yet another rendition of "Blowin’ in the Wind," some Indigo Girl covers, and a lot of political soapboxing. Boy, was I wrong. The lovely songstress and her colorful compatriots were urbane, passionate, and (dare I say it?) funky.
Through the hubbub of the growing crowd, Pfaffl and band members Sean Dixon, Sebastian Guerrero, and Scott Chasolen served up an eclectic sound of rock with undertones of jazz and Afro-Latin rhythms that earned enthusiasm from the audience. She returns for another show at Small World on Saturday, November 19.
Of course, the natural energy that entertained the post-dinner crowd of students in various states of boho-chic makes sense when one traces Pfaffl’s musical training as far back as her early childhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a six-year-old, she began studying violin in the Suzuki tradition, a method of learning music in the way one acquires language. No doubt, there was music playing at all times in the Pfaffl household, and a young Katy learned very early on how to learn music quickly by ear.
By the age of 12, she had moved to classical piano and began competing the very next year. Pfaffl held on to her music through the years, attending the High School of the Arts, then becoming interested in instrumental and voice composition. By the time she entered the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, she had already gained recognition for her jazz vocal work, earning a Down Beat Award, a prestigious honor given by Down Beat Magazine.
Frustrated by the restrictive, competitive nature of conservatory life, Pfaffl finally broke free after two years to move to New York City to join long-time friend and fellow musician Sean Dixon, who was studying jazz at the New School. They had known each other since junior high, attended the High School of the Arts together, and had both earned Down Beat Awards before moving out of Wisconsin. An expert player of keyboards, bass, and all kinds of percussion, Dixon has found time to co-found the group the Chesterfields and join the permanent lineup of the Katy Pfaffl Band.
Dixon is in attendance at the Small World performance, as is Sebastien Guerrero, fellow HSA alum who originally hails from Peru. "Sebbie G," as Pfaffl refers to him, is certainly the group’s main percussionist. A private school teacher by day, Guerrero is, according to Pfaffl, the "embodiment of the spirit of the drums."
Rounding out the ensemble is Scott Chasolen, a youthful, sprightly fellow who Pfaffl describes as her "favorite hairy spiritual wacko genius." If a double espresso doesn’t perk you right up, Chasolen’s energetic keyboard playing will. Keeping in line with the somewhat ADD-spirit of the Pfaffl-Chasolen relationship, Chasolen, a native of Wayne, New Jersey, joined the group after meeting Pfaffl in Amsterdam. He too was studying at the New School for Jazz, and he fit right in with the band’s world-rock groove. Chasolen also plays with ULU, a band that Pfaffl describes simply as "kickass."
Other members of the permanent lineup, though not playing on this particular evening, are Justin Wallace, Scott Sharrard, and Tiffany May. Wallace, a resident of Long Island, is actually a transplanted Londoner who, in addition to playing with Pfaffl, tours with the oddly named Coolie Hot Box. Sharrard is yet another HSA grad and cofounder of the Chesterfields, adding his versatile guitar stylings to that ensemble and to the Pfaffl mix. Finally, Tiffany May, former classmate of Pfaffl from the University of Cincinnati’s musical theater program, who went on to study at Circle in the Square theater school, adds backup vocals. A professional actress, May adds expressive vocals to the Katy Pfaffl Band stage show.
On this night, however, Pfaffl is the sole female singer, leading the group with confidence and power balanced with a sweet soprano that carries over the bustle of the coffee house. Her sound is at once gritty and velvety, light without being cloying. Think Nina Gordon, but spicier and with a great range. Think Tori Amos, but less creepy. Her records are just as interesting. At times pattering like Paul Simon on tracks like "As She Stands," while at others floating above an ebullient acoustic guitar as on "My Favorite Place" – my new favorite song – Pfaffl has control over her voice without being stilted, remaining expressive while maintaining a healthy technique.
This balance is important to her, and is one that she strives to encourage in her private studio in midtown Manhattan, where she teaches over 40 voice students. A self-described "unconventional" teacher, Pfaffl has been teaching private voice for four years. In her studio, she says seeks to "develop the confidence and trust [within her students] to set that voice free." Ever the self-starter, Pfaffl has also developed a CD of vocal exercises and warm-ups.
This organic approach to music certainly comes across in live performance, flowing naturally without being granola. Well-reviewed by publications like Maximum Ink Magazine and Guitar Noise Magazine, Pfaffl has made a name for herself in the Northeast and is beginning to branch out to the rest of the country. She spent January in Los Angeles, enjoying successful performances there and sowing the seeds for a full-out tour. Soon, Pfaffl and the band will return to the studio, where they will record their third album.
Pfaffl’s unique voice and eclectic sound have mass appeal without becoming homogenized with the many Brittany Whosits and Christina Whatsernames who the record companies love so well.
Pfaffl is ambitious, optimistic, and has the musical integrity to back these up. As the silvery notes of the as-of-yet unreleased "Someday" impinge upon the ears, we know her words to be true: "I’ll see you when I pass the Milky Way/’Cause I’ll reach the moon someday."
Katy Pfaffl, Saturday, November 19, 8:30 p.m., Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street. 609-924-4377,www.KatyPfaffl.com.