Listening to the music of Pamela York 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, either through one of her three CDs—Blue York (2000), The Way of Time (2006), or Lay Down This World: Hymns and Spirituals (2012)—or in a live performance.
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.
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 that 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.
Since then, she has only looked straight ahead. In 2000, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton joined Pamela on her debut album, Blue York, an rare opportunity for an emerging jazz pianist. The trio successfully created an 11-track CD with such intimacy that it seems the trio is 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, embraces a similar maturity through its mixture of blues, ballads, swing, and Latin grooves. With six original tunes and six standards, The Way of Time features Pamela’s piano and vocal talents alongsidebassist Lynn Seaton, drummer Sebastian Whittaker, and guitarist Mike Wheeler. The CD is perfectly titled, as its musical theme comprises the ways we change through the passing of time. The tunes on The Way of Time were inspired not only by Pamela’s move from the West Coast to Houston, Texas in 2001, but also by the birth of her children, Anna and Jonathan.
Three tunes on The Way of Time are worth highlighting for their distinctive reflections upon motherhood. Pamela’s original 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 her innovative 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.
In 2012, Pamela released her third CD, Lay Down This World: Hymns and Spirituals, a beautiful collection of sacred music that precedes the 20th century. Pamela reharmonized each melody into a contemporary sound. Whether playing the ancient Celtic melody of “Be Thou My Vision,” Martin Luther’s famous Reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” or the moving spiritual, “Deep River,” Pamela creates an atmosphere that is by turns reflective or rousing—and always breathtaking. Using her tradition as a jazz pianist, she reveals her imaginative conviction that proves her skill as a leader and arranger who paints new colors on timeless, beloved songs.
While other jazz artists may boast similar accomplishments—a degree from the prestigious Berklee College of Music, becoming 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 describes her style as “one foot in the tradition and one in the future.” As a Jazzreview.com interview declared, “While playing tunes made famous by some of the legendary masters, Pamela York makes her own statement without being a pretender.”
In Pamela, both newcomers and jazz aficionados will discover an exceptional talent on a journey of ascent. As she tours throughout the United States and Canada, reaching new audiences through her music, Pamela York looks forward to sharing her jazzful heart with you at a live performance and through her latest offering, Lay Down This World: Hymns and Spirituals.
By Erika Koss