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Listening to the music of Pamela York—from her CDs Blue York and The Way of Time, or in performance—is like having a conversation with her.
Canadian-born jazz pianist, composer, and vocalist, Pamela audaciously invites her audience to enter her life for a moment in time—for she is also a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend. To Pamela York, what matters most is connecting with people as she tells a story through her music.
It all began with her grandmother’s piano. The powerful sound of an aging British upright piano may have been neglected in the basement, but it changed the life of a wide-eyed 8-year-old—especially after her parents surprised her with a piano of her own at their home in Nanaimo, British Columbia.
Classical piano training commenced. Several years later, she began to learn to play by ear during the Saturday jam sessions of a friend’s parents: country rock musicians who lived in Pamela’s neighborhood. During high school, her ear became enthralled with the sounds of jazz, especially Bill Evans and her fellow Canadians Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall. Since then, she has only looked straight ahead.
By age 15, Pamela was playing local gigs, eventually earning an Associate Degree in Piano Performance from the prestigious Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. In 1990 she was awarded a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts which enabled her to study jazz at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The move from her Vancouver Island home to a bustling American city began to shape the music of the artist you now hear. “I think that where you study affects how you play,” says Pamela. “Moving to Boston was a big cultural change—taking my first ride on a subway and seeing crowds of people on the streets. I grew as a person and began to play differently. This confidence enabled me to take greater risks with my musical ideas and develop my own voice.” She earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Berklee in 1991.
In 1995 she completed her Master’s Degree in Jazz from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she held a full-tuition graduate teaching assistantship. During her stint in the Volunteer State, two men changed Pamela’s life: she studied with her “greatest mentor” Donald Brown, and she married her husband, Adam York.
Adam and Pamela moved to San Diego, California, in 1996, a move that led to even deeper growth in Pamela’s career. There she recorded her first CD, Blue York—titled after one of her appealing blues compositions. Not every emerging pianist is lucky enough to record her debut CD with two recognized jazz virtuosos, but a previous rehearsal with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra encouraged Pamela to ask bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton to record with her.
The trio successfully created an 11-track CD that sounds as if they are performing in the listener’s living room. Blue York includes six jazz standards, three original compositions, trumpeter Tom Harrell’s “Sail Away,” and a reharmonized folk hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This!” Highlights include Pamela’s Latin-infused take of Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” John Clayton’s magnificent solo on “Intimacy of the Blues,” and Jeff Hamilton’s sensitive brushwork on “Just One of Those Things.” Pamela’s three original tunes demonstrate the diversity of her range—the solo blues, “Back to the Border,” the lively swing, “Blue York,” and the tender ballad, “The Promise.”
These compositions reflect a hallmark of Pamela York’s style—her artistic voice strongly communicates a complete and balanced musical message while taking the listener somewhere unpredictable from song to song. Her 2006 CD, The Way of Time, contains a similar maturity, a mixture of blues, ballads, swing, and Latin grooves.
The changes of the last five years are reflected on her new CD, as Pamela and her husband left the West Coast for Houston, Texas, in 2001. Continuing her commitment to telling stories at the keyboard, Pamela offers six original tunes and six standards on The Way of Time with bassist Lynn Seaton, drummer Sebastian Whittaker, and guitarist Mike Wheeler. “Since we perform in and around Houston so often together, we were able to do eight of the 12 tracks in one take,” Pamela says. “But since each member is such a good listener, the instinctive spontaneity of the music is captured, too, especially in the solos.” The CD is perfectly titled, as its musical theme is the passing of time and the ways we change.
The most notable transformation in Pamela’s life in 2003 was the birth of her daughter, Anna Katherine, whose life is celebrated on The Way of Time. The blues shuffle, “Mama’s Midnight Hour,” reminisces on the rare nocturnal windows of privacy a mother can devote to her personal or professional goals once her child falls asleep. In the lyrical ballad, “All Too Soon (For Anna),” the conversation between the piano and bass evoke the relationship between parent and child, as time leads to growth that paradoxically brings both remorse and delight. Through the changed meter of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Pamela musically highlights the spiritual’s lyrics from deep despair to confident hope.
Pamela’s roots in classical music are nowhere more evident than on her solo piano tour de force, her riveting interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” The soulful guitar of Mike Wheeler serenades the listener on Pamela’s elegant Jobim-like bossa nova, “Counting the Stars,” and the brooding bass of Lynn Seaton makes “April in Paris” especially memorable. Pamela’s singing voice is heard on the two standards “East of the Sun” and “You’ve Changed.” These candid, unadorned interpretations leave the listener wishing for more than just two vocal tracks.
While other jazz artists may boast similar accomplishments—being a finalist in the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition in 2006 and 2007, or winning the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2007—few musicians can craft album statements as complete as Pamela York. She accurately describes her style as “one foot in the tradition and one in the future.”As a Jazzreview.com interview has recently said, “While playing tunes made famous by some of the legendary masters, Pamela York makes her own statement without being a pretender.” Both newcomers and jazz aficionados will discover an exceptional talent whose future is well worth watching. As Pamela tours throughout the United States and Canada, hoping to reach new audiences through her music, she looks forward to sharing her jazzful heart with you at a live performance.