Sandy Brown Jazz

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TEA BREAK

The Tea Break is a series of short, fun items in What's New Magazine
that gives jazz musicians and others an opportunity to update us with what they are doing.

 

Ami Oprenova (January 2022)

 

Ami Oprenova

 

Born in Bristol, in the west of England, Ami Oprenova lived the first years of her life in London. Her parents, both Bulgarian born, decided to move back to Sofia, Bulgaria when Ami was four. Her parents are not musicians, although her father plays some guitar, but they recognised Ami’s interest in music and encouraged her to learn the violin. By the age of six, Ami was already a soloist for the National Chamber Orchestra and was given a place at the National Music School of Sofia, and by the time she was a teenager, she had toured with the National Youth Orchestra and won numerous violin, theory and harmony competitions.

Ami says:“Looking back ... I’d often visit my grandpa who was obsessed with Bulgarian and Macedonian folk music. The drums and accordion would come out and we would play, dance and sing all afternoon. The week would finish with the most brilliant gospel music at our regular Sunday church services. I loved all these styles of music and enjoyed every part of it, but the turning point of realising what I really connected to was a visit to my uncle’s house when I was 14.” That was the day when Ami was first introduced to the albums of Norah Jones, Ella and Louis, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and others.

After graduating from school Ami returned to the UK to study violin at the Birmingham Conservatoire. Soon after the first year, some had noticed her interest and Ami was invited to record with jazz musicians, perform with a local Big Band and even join an Andrews Sisters Tribute Band, which then used part of her name as ‘The Nova Sisters’. By the second year Ami had been awarded the official Prize for Orchestral Composition  for the The Thracian Horseman and had passed an audition to sing with the Christmas Pops Orchestra. She had written so much material by this time that her composition tutor, Martin Riley, encouraged her to do a concert of her pieces. The success of the event resulted in an offer for Ami to switch department. She was accepted to carry on her education as a composer and violinist.

She was also invited by the head of the Jazz department to participate in a summer’s jazz course in Fife. The peak was singing at the Fairport Convention Festival to an audience of 20,000. That same summer she was accepted at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama to pursue a Master’s degree in Jazz Vocals.

When arriving in London, Ami found the Dixieland and the Manouche music scene. She says: “I decided to do something fun and started a Gypsy Swing Quartet for my final project. I was also introduced as a guest vocalist to the Swing It Dixieland Band founded in Norway. At the time I thought it was all a bit of fun really…” . She passed her finals and found that a combination of scat singing and French jazz was a popular feature, and within only two days after her exam she had already been offered a gig. “We didn’t know what was happening, but we thought we might need a name, and that’s when Coco ‘n’ The Fellas was born.” she says. The band took on a journey of performing, touring, recording and writing music throughout the next three years.

 

Here's a video of Coco 'n' The Fellas with You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To.

 

 

 

 

Precious Days album

 

In 2019 Ami married Greek Cypriot Christopher Stavrou, and a year after became a mum to their son Theodore. With her last project,Ami had started writing her own material for an all-originals album.

The album, Precious Days is her first solo album and was released in September 2021. She says: “After the pandemic stress and pressure we’ve all experienced, I can feel the importance in appreciating that every day we are given even more.”

My review copy of the album arrived unusually nicely presented in a net gift bag with cards and publicity material.

I really enjoy this album. I find the songs varied and completely engaging; the bass well placed in the mix, particularly in tracks such as Moving On where we just have voice and bass; there is some really enjoyable guitar work from Daniele Ciuffreda; Ami scats effectively for a good bit of the album, and I find the arrangements and the use of Hammond organ work very well. I like the Bulgarian influence that leads into Ruchentsa Style, the use of two vocals on Something To Be Happy About, and how the album opens with a swinging version of Precious Days, the title number. I imagine the band and album would be uplifting to hear live - look out for them during 2022. It is a shame that the lyrics are not included in the liner notes, but that doesn't stop me enjoying the recording.

 

 

Listen to the title track Precious Days:

 

 

 

 

 

Ami dropped by for a Tea Break:

 

Hi Ami. Nice to see you. Come on in. I was just listening to your album again. It looks a bit chilly out there – can I get you a tea or coffee?

Hi ya, oh how cosy! Thank you for inviting me over! A cup of tea would be brill! Just milk, no sugar please.

 

On its way. I have to say, I was really impressed with the way you sent out your review copies of the album – you took a lot of trouble, putting the CD in a draw-string bag and with all the information you enclosed. Was that your idea?

Haha! I’m glad you enjoyed unwrapping the CD! I wanted it to feel like a gift, hence the personal touch, as the time you or anyone else takes to listen to my music is a gift to me! 

 

Well, it certainly captured my attention! The album title captured my attention too – Precious Days – you say how with the Covid pandemic you have come to appreciate every day more. How was the lock down period for you?

Difficult…as it has been for everyone. Just at the start of pandemic I had my son, who was born two months early, so that was a challenge. I then moved country and contracted Covid. So it’s been a roller coaster! But having the chance to finally release the music really lifted me up and helped me concentrate on the positivities in such difficult times.

 

People can read all about your journey on your website, and it is quite awe-inspiring, particularly the range of music you are involved in. Although you were born in the UK, your parents are from Bulgaria. I like the track Ruchentsa Style on the album, the way it starts out with the Bulgarian influence and then broadens out:

 

Listen to Ruchentsa Style:

 

 

 

 

Yes, I always keep saying that I can’t decide if I am more British or more Bulgarian, but I love the Balkan folk music and yes, the 3rd track on the album is fully inspired by music from Bulgaria. It is named after a Bulgarian dance in 7/8, the Ruchenitsa. I have learnt so much from musicians such as Neli Andreeva and the Philip Koutev Choir. As well as musicians like Nikolina Chakurdukova and Theodosii Spassov.

 

Here's a video of Neli Andreeva singing with Joss Stone on Joss's 2016 tour when she played Bulgaria.

 

 

 

 

 

I think it's interesting too that you set up that Gypsy Swing Quartet for your final college project and have now carried it on with the Coco ‘n’ The Fellas group. What drew you to that style of music?

To be honest…the fast guitar playing! I loved the punch it gave to the music and the European feel; I also loved being challenged by a Coco n The Fellasguitar player for an improvised trading solo. I didn’t know much about the Manouche style before, but this band really made me fall in love with Paris Jazz and fast scat lines.

 

Coco 'n' The Fellas

 

How's the group doing? I know the pandemic has caused many problems in arranging live gigs. Have you got any gigs lined up for 2022?

We actually all live in completely different countries now, spread around Europe. When I started recording the album originally with my Coco Band, we quickly realised that it was extremely far stylistically from what we were used to, so I made the decision to carry out the album under my name and concentrate on writing all original tracks. So the band was still performing for vintage, swing events but creatively we all felt we needed something new. Daniele Ciuffreda was the one who shaped the album with me and contributed with a few co-written tracks as well. We are all involved in other separate projects and still get to play together which is extremely fun, but you are right…when the pandemic hit, all our live events went hidden far away. At the time my primary attention was my new born son, but soon after I actually started running live streams and concerts online. It been difficult but the amount of artistic support I received was amazing.

 

 

Baklava

 

I’m forgetting my manners! Would you like something with your tea? I have some biscuits ... let me see, some Bourbons or some Hob Nobs .. or I have some left over Christmas mince pies ... What do they have with their tea and coffee in Bulgaria?

I’m actually more of a Custard Cream type of girl, but I wouldn’t say no to a mince pie…yum! Bulgarians actually don’t drink black tea much…usually just herbal tea ... and most people think it’s ridiculous to put milk in your tea ... haha! My grandma still can’t get her head around it. But a Baklava is always on the table when you have guests! I can give you the recipe if you like?

Yes please! That looks wicked! I did have a few Custard Creams, but I found they had gone stale, sorry! I'll do better next time. We really should finish these mince pies though before they go down the same route.

 

 

 

If you could invite a past musician to play a gig with Coco ‘n’ The Fellas, who would you invite?

Oh, I think I’ll have to say Django Reinhhhard if he was alive. He’s our legend!

 

What would you ask him in the tea break?

What were the '30s like? How did you write your tunes? Was your life difficult? Is it better now?

 

I'd love to know that too. Of course you play violin as well so a Django / Stephane number would have to be on the play list. There don't seem to be as many jazz violin players in the UK today as other instruments, although there are some great violin players - Benet Ami OprenovaMcLean and Omar Puente immediately come to my mind. Is there anyone you would suggest we listen to?

Violin was actually the first instrument I ever played and studied all the way through to my Masters with it, but for everyone’s surprise, I barely play jazz on the violin. I’d say my absolute favourite jazz violinists are Ben Holder from England and Seonaid Aitken from Scotland. Hands down, they are the most entertaining performers too!

Of course, Seonaid plays and sings on your new album too. We can watch a video of her band playing The Walk at the Aberdeen Jazz Festival last year - click here.

 

As well as gigs with The Fellas you now have the album Precious Days to promote. Have you had a good response? How did the tour go?

Yes, the response has been overwhelming. Not only from the listeners but also jazz reporters and Radio Stations. People seem to connect to the songs and enjoy the experience of listening to the album. I came back from my autumn Album Tour in the UK and I did a few online gigs during December.

 

Do you have a favourite track on the album and why would you choose that one?

I think my favourite track is the Bonus Track, Smiling Face. I have a lot of personal experiences that have happened around that song. It also represents my faith and the wonderful journey we’ve been on as a band with Coco ‘n’ The Fellas.

 

 

Here's Ami with Smiling Face.

 

 

 

 

2021 was a great year for you, and Christmas must have been enjoyable – your son Theo is probably just old enough to have found it exciting?

Yes, my wonderful husband and me went out and bought our first Christmas tree! I couldn't wait to see Theo enjoying the lights. He has just started walking too, so we had to keep him away from anything remotely fragile!

 

Way back you sang with the Christmas Pops Orchestra. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be anything by them on YouTube, so how about choosing something else, while I make another tea?

I did sing with the Christmas Pop Orchestra a long time ago at my university and that’s why you can only find the recording on Spotify! I think I have the perfect track for the Tea Break, It’s a song that my good friend Havard Tanner wrote for us and it’s called Not enough Coffee!:

 

 

 

 

What are your plans for your music in 2022, Ami?

I’m planning a few small tours for next year, and possibly starting a new collaborative project, but I cannot say much more about it just yet. You will have to wait until later in January for the Big Announcements!

 

O.K. but do let us know when 'the covers are off'! Thanks for dropping by, Ami. Lots of luck with the album and I’m really looking forward to hearing more of your music this year

Thank you so much! It’s been a blast! I look forward to our next meet up!

 

Ami's tribute to The Man Who Showed Me The Way To Jazz from the Precious Days album.

 

 

 

 

Click here for details and samples of the album. Click here for Ami's website.

 

Ami Oprenova

 

Utah Teapot

 

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