You might remember Casey Abrams as the acoustic bass-toting, jazz-crooning finalist on Season 10 of American Idol, on which he surged to a remarkable sixth-place finish on the strength of songs by Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Art Blakey. There’s no denying that Abrams was hugely responsible for bringing jazz to the masses, so it’s no surprise that after showcasing his vocal talent — and considerable bass chops — on live TV, he would go on to a fulfilling career as a singer-songwriter in the jazz-pop vein, releasing his self-titled debut on Concord Records in 2012.
The album, which was co-produced by Ameican Idol‘s Randy Jackson, featured Jamie Cullum on piano and fellow Idol contestant Hailey Reinhart on vocals. A follow-up, I Put a Spell On You, was released on the audiophile label Chesky Records in 2018 and found the California-based vocalist treading back into jazz territory. Now Abrams is back with Jazz, a just-released record from Chesky that marks the vocalist’s full-fledged return to the Great American Songbook. It’s an assured outing from a musician who absolutely emanates confidence, yet its color palette is full of depth and nuance, with songs that range from heartbroken whispers to gritty, passionate wails.
Sonically, it’s a treat. Abrams’ voice emits warmth and amiability, but another star of the recording is the acoustics. That’s largely due to Chesky Records’ overarching philosophy when it comes to production: to create the illusion of live musicians in a real three-dimensional space. They achieve that goal through innovative microphone practices and meticulous attention to sonic detail. Abrams’ album was recorded in a decommissioned church in Brooklyn, which lends profoundly spiritual air to the proceedings.
JAZZIZ recently spoke to Abrams via email about the making of the new album and what it was like to perform jazz on the world’s biggest stage. Below is an excerpted version of the conversation that has been edited for length and clarity. If you’d like to har Abrams in action, those in the New York area are in luck. He’ll be appearing at Birdland tonight and tomorrow (June 18-19) to celebrate the album’s release.
Your previous albums featured music in the pop/soul vein and focused more on original tunes. Jazz is a return to your jazz roots. Why the decision to turn back to straight-ahead jazz and the Great American Songbook?
Ever since I was on American Idol, I’ve been putting out Pop/Rock music into the world. But back in 2011, whenever possible while I was on Idol, I would choose to perform jazz standards such as “Nature Boy” and “Georgia on My Mind” and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” to sing playing my upright bass on the show. And even today, every time before a pop gig, I do a sound check with jazz standards.
Now I know, of course, the reason I chose to do those songs on the air back then was because that was who I was. Ten years after graduating from jazz studies at Idyllwild Arts Academy, I know that learning to interpret jazz standards — that songbook — is the way I learned everything about music, how music works, theoretically, mechanically, rhythmically, soulfully.
Jazz is now a complete part of me, actually how I view and live my life. For better or worse, in everything I do, I improvise, make intuitive choices, collaborate and share with others. It’s how I feel and react to the world around me.
So, it was finally time to go back to my authentic roots — show the world my organic colors and the base of my musical knowledge, singing and playing the bass. Bass-ically.
I understand you recorded this album in a church in Brooklyn. What was so appealing about this location? How would you describe the acoustics?
The acoustics in this place are magic. The decommissioned church itself gives the recording an ethereal vibe, with its beautiful stain glass stark surroundings. The sound was rich and reverb-y, and we had very gorgeous surroundings to look at and sink into while we played. It affected the way we play and the peacefulness and happiness that has been laid down with the music on the album.
What is it like to record with Chesky Records? How do they work with you to most accurately capture the sonic qualities you had in mind?
They had a certain vibe that they were going for. I knew I wanted to play my jazz standards, but the Chesky brothers, Norman and David, set up the view that this was the music for people sitting down after a hard day, relaxing with their loved one, maybe drinking a nice bottle of wine. Working with the Cheskys is a very family feeling. And the reason we even did this album was because Norm Chesky wanted to capture more of my authentic jazz vibe background on record. The passion and energy in these guys and the enormous care they put into the quality of the sound make me care more about what I can record on my own.
The album features a stellar ensemble, with Jimmy Greene (Sax), Mark Whitfield (Guitar), Anne Drummond (Flute) and Giveton Gelin (Trumpet). How did you get this group together? Had you been working this material out with them for a while?
Very surprisingly, I met the ensemble the day of. I chose my own favorite tune to record and the instrumentation that I felt would fit each song the way I could see me doing it. In the true spirit of improvisational jazz, we worked all the songs out that day and most of the songs we jammed on that are on the record were first takes. The Cheskys introduced me to these guys and put us all together, so it was a beautiful, fresh collaborative meeting of musical minds, which added to the purity of the sound.
Who are some of your favorite jazz instrumentalists who were also vocalists?
I love Louis Armstrong and Esperanza Spaulding. Nat King Cole who was such a great pianist as well (and there was Chet Baker and Jack Teagarden).
You were a major force in bringing jazz to a popular audience in 2011 when you appeared on Season 10 of American Idol. Were you surprised at how receptive modern audiences were to jazz?
No, I was happy that people responded. But that’s what people, maybe especially those who weren’t familiar with how jazz works, learned what I love about the genre. It’s super spontaneous, and not even the person playing the music knows what’s about to happen or be played. So that’s what keeps each performance new and fresh. When Haley Reinhart and I did Moanin’ on the show, we knew that we were going to take scat solos, but we didn’t know what notes we were going to hit. That surprise conversation we had, that fun radiating through our bodies, I think grooved into the audiences’ bodies in the audience and maybe through the TV. Somehow we knew we’d hit the ball together and got a new bigger audience because of our play.
What’s on the horizon for you? Will you be touring behind Jazz? Anything in the works for a new album?
I think I will keep on listening and using my jazz roots. I’d also like to release some jazz-based original music, some fun, some soulful. Maybe I’ll do a duets record and have some of my Idol buddies on the recording with me. I will also be doing a lot of tour dates and a surprise gig this summer with Post Modern Jukebox, Scott Bradlee’s collective, which I’m proud to say I’ve been a part of — because PMJ has introduced the jazz eras and jazz genre to millions of new fans who hear their favorite current hits arranged in a whole new light. But of course I’d love to tour more with this album when my PMJ tour is over mid-fall. We’re excited to play the New York album release show in NYC at Birdland, June 18th and 19th. I’m honored to have the original great musicians direct from the album on the stage, conversing with me through the music.