May 10, 2021. As is so often the case with musicians whose artistry is refined well beyond their years, vocalist and trombonist Hailey Brinnel, 25, is both the product of great educators (she’s an alumna of Temple University’s jazz studies program) and, now, an educator herself—a perfect rising star to spotlight on the heels of this year’s National Teacher Appreciation Week.
Brinnel, a 2021 finalist in the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, was born into full musical immersion. From the age of 12, she toured with her father, the pianist Dave Brinnel. But it was the generation that preceded her father’s that caused her to fall hopelessly in love with jazz. The Swing Era music cherished and played by her grandparents—a singer, a saxophonist, and a trombonist among them—has always been Brinnel’s spiritual home base. So, fluent as she is in the myriad languages of jazz’s idiomatic universe, there was only one reasonable way to introduce this dynamic talent to the world.
And so, yes, the music on I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, Brinnel’s recorded debut on fellow trombonist Nick Finzer’s Outside in Music label, does, indeed, swing joyfully, wistfully, and nostalgically—but, to Brinnel’s credit, never anachronistically.
In addition to singing and playing trombone, Brinnel has also arranged all eight tunes here—all old standards; some of which have remained popular, others which have been forgotten. A true student of this music’s history, Brinnel’s arrangements are faithful to the songwriters’ original intentions, but she also resuscitates a couple golden chestnuts by writing to the strengths and contemporary sensibilities of her talented musicians.
The most talented among them—which is to say a lot—might just be Brinnel herself. It’s evident from the opener, “Orange Colored Sky,” where you’re almost taken aback by a voice bitingly crisp and free of pretension that phrases so cleanly and is pin-pointedly in tune. What a revelation! Brinnel feels like a real find, like a walk into a supermarket’s frozen foods section during a sweltering, otherwise enervating summer day.
Brinnel articulates with exactitude, like an instrumentalist. And saxophonist Dick Oatts, one of Brinnel’s mentors at Temple, explains that her precision as a vocalist is attributable to her training on trombone. “Hailey has a wonderful voice with amazing control and grace,” Oatts explains, “but her singing really digs into the time like a trombone player—and that’s because she really is a great one.”
Oatts has got it right. Brinnel picks up her horn for the middle section of “Orange Colored” and leads her core quartet of Joe Plowman (bass), Dan Monaghan (drums), and Silas Irvine (piano) through rounds of solos and trading fours, before picking the mic back up and sounding like an updated version of Natalie Cole. This one shows you all you need to know—not just about Brinnel’s versatility but about her self-assuredness as a bandleader.
Still, there are seven more tunes here, and they go by with breezy efficiency. Major League Baseball ought to crib notes from this album’s pacing. It’ll keep you company on a 40-minute jog around town and when you return to your home, it won’t belabor the point or ask for more of your time. Substance and thoughtfulness with humility: what a concept!
While you’re on that plodding jog through the neighborhood, don’t miss memorable takes of “Give Me the Simple Life,” “Easy to Love,” and “You Go to My Head,” the latter of which is a pared down ballad for just Brinnel’s vocals and the intuitive and sensitive accompaniment provided by Dariel Peniazek and his electric guitar.
Framed masterfully by Peniazek, Brinnel’s intonation is perfect even as she takes some chances in the lower register. Her vocal maturity not only belies her age but presents with a throwback sensuality. It reveals how closely she’s studied jazz starlets of the bygone era she adores, and that aesthetic is executed here with striking verisimilitude.
If “You Go to My Head” is the album’s masterclass in feathery sensuality, Brinnel’s up-tempo arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” is a chill-inducing tutorial in cool athleticism. I say chill-inducing because there’s nothing quite like hearing a new, young artist for the first time and getting to that one track where you realize, “this person is going to be a star.”
I, along with so many others, felt the same way about Veronica Swift. I wouldn’t say Brinnel’s quite there yet. But she’s seemingly got all the tools Swift had, including well-developed vocalese technique, when she started tearing it up out of University of Miami’s jazz program.
So take note, and listen up; it’s so much more fun when you can pedantically tell friends you’ve been in on a great talent from the ground floor.
End with the title track; it’s the true heart of the album. A bit more of an obscure Swing Era tune, this one was her saxophonist grandfather’s favorite, and it’s played with great feeling in his honor, from the elegiac gravitas of Plowman’s bowed bass solo to the unbridled joy of a New Orleans-inspired midsection, punctuated by beautiful three-part harmonies from Sam Bishoff (clarinet), Andrew Carson (trumpet), and Brinnel (trombone).
Drawing on lessons from Oatts and experiences in Terell Stafford’s Temple University Jazz Band, Brinnel’s no longer just a student-turned-teacher with an impressive resumé of sidewoman credits; she’s a recording artist and one I’d bet we’re going to be hearing a lot more from.