There are several women musicians in jazz nowadays, even in traditional jazz where they feared to tread only a generation ago. Among them are saxist Grace Kelly; Marla Dixon, trumpeter and leader of the rough-and-tumble Shotgun Jazz Band; guitarist-singer Becky Kilgore; bassist Katie Cavera; and of course the mighty mite of jazz, pianist Stephanie Trick, who has since moved from the trad scene to somewhat more modern, Erroll Garner-type playing. Yet none of them, as much as I love their playing, has so captured the attention and—more importantly—the affection and love of her audience as much as Chloe Feoranzo.
If you’ve never heard of Chloe, don’t feel too bad. Although she has appeared on both The Late Show with David Letterman and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, she has done so as a member of trad or retro bands like that of Pokey LaFarge. She plays both clarinet and tenor saxophone, which she studied with the famed Charles McPherson; she has jammed with jazz legend Wayne Shorter (there’s a video on YouTube); and she has sat in with more trad bands than you can shake a stick at. Born in 1992, she attended middle school at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, where she was the youngest student whisked into the high school’s Wind Ensemble and Chamber Orchestra. She began playing the tenor sax around age 10 in the Pacific Beach Elementary Band before becoming one of the busiest saxists in the San Diego area. In addition to her studies with McPherson, Feoranzo also studied with local jazzman Keith Jacobson and traveled to San Antonio, Texas a few times each year to hone her skills with Ron Hockett of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band.
Feoranzo also became an accomplished clarinetist and, by 2008, was assistant principal clarinet in the San Diego Youth Symphony and Philharmonia. Her start in jazz was in the swing and early bop classics—you can hear her 2008 tenor sax recording of Lester Leaps In on YouTube—but after sitting in with Dick Williams and his JazzSea Jammers at the 2005 Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival in San Diego, she fell in love with trad jazz and has never looked back. In addition to all the above skills, she also sings in a light, swinging style reminiscent of such big-band warblers as Carlotta Dale or Helen Ward. She has also somewhat branded her concert appearance by nearly always performing with a flower in her hair.
Now, all of this is mere description and not evaluation. As an improviser, Feoranzo is about on par with tenor saxist Scott Hamilton, a big star in the 1980s, or clarinetist Buster Bailey, a virtuoso musician who worked with the John Kirby Sextet, but in her case, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not so much the quality of any specific solo she plays as it is about Chloe Feoranzo. How can I explain this? It’s not just that, especially when she was still a teenager, it was astounding to see and hear her on stage swinging with seasoned male veterans. But if anything, Marla Dixon swings even harder than Feoranzo, and let’s not forget the outstanding Dutch saxist and harmonica player Hermine Deurloo, a star with the late Willem Breuker’s Kollektief. So how to analyze and dissect Feoranzo’s appeal and excellence? After months of watching and hearing her on YouTube, I’d say that she absolutely exudes charm. Not necessarily sex appeal, though she is pleasing to see. But there’s something indefinably mesmerizing about her when she’s onstage, and it’s not as if she tries to get that attention. If anything, Chloe comes across as “one of the guys,” a genuine Jazz Chick, which is not necessarily “sexy” in the conventional sense (Anita O’Day was a lot like Feoranzo, pleasant to look at but not a sex symbol). She laughs and jokes with the male musicians, is completely comfortable with them, and when it’s her turn to do so she counts off tempos with a snap of her fingers as if she’s been leading the band all her life. And yet, even on those rare instances when she plays with other female musicians (there’s one clip in which she performs with both Trick and Cavera), it’s Feoranzo who draws one’s attention and keeps it—and that’s not easy to do without actually trying to do so.
Yet for me, what sets Feoranzo apart from a lot of trad-jazz musicians, even other outstanding clarinetists, is that she listens hard to what the others around her are playing and, when it’s her turn, manages to find phrases that they didn’t play. In short, she “completes” the performances she participates in by “composing” choruses that bridge the gap from player A to player B or C. She also has a very unusual sense of rhythm. Listening carefully to not only Feoranzo but also her peers in other trad bands, she doesn’t really swing as hard as they do (in this respect she’s a little like Artie Shaw) but she has her own unique way of displacing the beats within a phrase or even a bar. Feoranzo’s clarinet solos have both great structure and unusual rhythmic displacements. Sometimes she’ll break the phrase in the middle of a note (speaking rhythmically) and add that fraction of a beat to a note that comes later, and not always the succeeding one. I’m not even sure that she is conscious of this ability, but I’ve listened to dozens of her solos and I hear it in every one of them.
On tenor sax, oddly enough, she is a different animal. Despite having recorded a cover of Lester Leaps In, she is much closer to such tenor players as Chu Berry or Bud Freeman in the way she digs into notes, occasionally growling on the instrument. I believe that, as much as she likes the clarinet, she really loves the tenor sax, and it shows. Her utter abandon on the instrument is unlike any other female jazz musician I’ve ever heard, even different from the legendary Vi Burnside of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
Interestingly, as good as her performances with jazz bands are, her playing and singing with individual musicians is even better. You can hear online a performance she gives with St. Louis guitarist Paul Davis of Carlos Gardel’s tango Adios Muchachos, under the title I Get Ideas. Just watch the way Chloe casually holds her clarinet up over her right shoulder at an insouciant angle, swaying slightly as she sings the clever, somewhat seductive lyrics. There, in a nutshell, is why so many people love Feoranzo. Another example is her vocal duet (with both clarinet and ukulele) with guitarist-vocalist Conrad Cayman of Jelly Roll Morton’s 1938 song, Why. As I say, she’s not classically beautiful, she isn’t come-hither sexy, but she’s irresistibly alluring.
She is Chloe Feoranzo. And I adore her.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley