Vanessa Perea might have been a late bloomer in settling into the world of jazz singing — she didn’t discover the joys and nuances of the music until her sophomore year in college. But she appears to have more than made up for lost time — as demonstrated by her monthly first-Wednesday sessions at Esquina Latina in New Brunswick — as part of the city’s ongoing jazz project.
Choosing to become a jazz singer is a difficult career choice, but already Perea is miles ahead of the pack of up-and-coming women jazz vocalists because she has already released an album — “Soulful Days,” released in 2014 on Zoho Music, a New York-based blues and jazz record label with international distribution and marketing muscle.
A collaborative effort with her fiance, trombonist Rob Edwards, the recording allows her to put her own spin on classic jazz fare like “Tenderly,” and “Too Marvelous for Words,” while offering up spirited takes on some Brazilian jazz tunes, including Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Triste,” and Caetano Veloso’s “Luz Do Sol.”
Another CD, the 2014 “Swinging the Holidays,” produced by Hammond B-3 organist Radam Schwartz and recorded at veteran violinist and fiddler Gary Oleyar’s studio in Cranford, has Perea doing a brilliant job with “My Favorite Things,” “Grown Up Christmas List,” a rendering of “Silent Night” in Spanish, and Schwartz’s original “I Didn’t Want to Be Alone on New Year’s Eve.”
“It’s great to have (CDs) out and have something in the public eye, but as we all know, in music, you’ve got to keep things moving,” says the classically trained Perea, who attended Colonia High School in Woodbridge and graduated from Jersey City State University in 2010.
The daughter of a Colombian truck driving father who works with her uncle in an Elizabeth trucking business and a Cuban home maker mother, Perea credits her parents for lending their support for her career and faithfully showing up at her New Brunswick Jazz Project shows at the Hyatt Regency Hotel and now Esquina Latina.
“My father has crazy hours at work, but he’s always liked to listen to a lot of music,” she says. “I always liked singing when I was little. My dad used to play a lot of records around the house, and that’s probably how it got into my mind. He would play Celia Cruz, big band stuff, Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias a lot, too. Then I got involved singing in church, and when I was 12, I started taking voice lessons. That’s when it all started forming.”
In high school she was involved in three different singing groups, a show choir that involved singing and dancing, a classical chorale, and a group that put on musicals in the spring. She learned how to sight read music and learned about different genres. At Jersey City State, studying jazz vocals with nationally known singer Roseanne Vitro, her mind got turned around. She spent her freshman year studying classical music.
“Once I started listening to jazz and singing jazz, I just loved it, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she says.
Vitro, an award-winning jazz and blues vocalist who has recorded at least a half-dozen critically praised albums for Telarc Jazz and other labels, remains an ongoing influence.
“From the moment I met her, she was very encouraging and a great teacher,” Perea says. “She knows so much about the business, and it was inspiring just to hear her sing during the lessons where she would often have a piano player with her. It was a great learning experience being with her, she was always full of energy and love and very personable. I think the best thing I took from studying with her was she would have us record at her husband’s studio, I think twice a year. It’s invaluable to know how to work in a studio and feel comfortable there.”
During her years at Jersey City State Perea and other students would also perform showcases at clubs with Vitro, including Trumpet’s Jazz Club in Montclair and Cleopatra’s Needle on Upper Broadway in Manhattan. Vitro would bring four or five students and have each get up and sing in front of whoever happened to be in the club that night.
“It was an open invitation to all of her students and sometimes not everyone could make it, but it was highly encouraged for all the students to go. It was essentially a real gig and she would guide us along during the process.”
So how does Perea survive in the world of jazz singing, where her cut after paying her band mates can be as little as $50 or $75 for an evening’s work?
“I teach a lot,” she says. Perea works with young singers all over Jersey City through a music school there. “It’s not easy, and I would like to make my living solely on performing, but right now, I need the extra money from the teaching jobs.”
She also sings a lot. Aside from her 2016 first Wednesday of the month residency at the Esquina Latina restaurant and lounge, Perea frequents the Grain in the Flatiron district at 19th Street and Broadway. She’s also been singing in an Off-Broadway production, “Sleep No More,” at the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea on West 26th Street between 10th and 11th avenues.
“The play takes place in a haunted hotel, and in the hotel they have a bar, and in the bar they have a jazz singer, and I am that singer,” she says. More on the play and the music therein is available online at www.sleepnomorenyc.com.
By the way, Perea still can be found singing at her church, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, where she was hired to sing at funerals, weddings, baptisms, and various other church functions. She also sings with the choir most Sundays at 10 a.m. and noon, preferring to skip the 8 a.m. service in the event of a late-night Saturday gig.
For her next project under her own name, Perea is planning to do it herself. “I can pick and choose what I want to do,” she says. “I can choose someone to promote it for the radio, hire my own PR person, and decide on my own rather than having to rely on the label for that.”
Almost six years out of college, Perea is reflecting on things to come. “Recently I’ve been thinking about how to become more successful, and I realized I don’t want to be doing $75 gigs all the time. I do it because I love to sing and love making music with other great musicians. That’s what keeps me going, my love for the music and other artists. I try to hang out as often as I can,” she says, noting the learning process continues through listening to other jazz — or as musician-composer David Amram calls it: “hang-out-ology.”
“You get a little push and are inspired and motivated by hearing other people, too. But my love for the music and my goals keep me going.”
Vanessa Perea Group, Esquina Latina, 25 Liberty Street, New Brunswick. Wednesday, March 2, and ongoing first Wednesdays, 8 p.m., presented by the New Brunswick Jazz Project. 732-543-1630 or www.nbjp.org.