© 2024 WBGO
Discover Jazz...Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kersten Stevens: The violin queen rises up with a new album produced by Christian McBride

Kersten Stevens
c/o the artist
Kersten Stevens

It was great to catch up with the violinist Kersten Stevens who joined me at the WBGO Studios to talk about her new and highly anticipated fifth recording, Queen Rising, that is co-produced with Christian McBride, who will be her special guest at City Winery-The Loft on November 27 to celebrate its release.  She hails from Teaneck, NJ and is appropriately dubbed, “Queen of the Violin.” Not only is Kersten among the most exciting and unique emerging artists in jazz, but she is also a six-time winner of the historic Amateur Night and Showtime at The Apollo.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Sheila Anderson: You are just on fire. I am so excited for you and happy for you and this new CD that is co-produced by our very own host of Jazz Night in America and eight-time Grammy winner, the incredible Christian McBride. Talk about how this came together.

Kersten Stevens: Queen Rising is a project that I think out of all the projects I've worked on this one, being the first that's fully jazz, is one that I am the most excited about. I was introduced to Christian several years ago backstage at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I went to one of his performances, met him there as a violinist. He’s a real cool cat. And he was like, “Okay, cool. That's what you do.” And then we got reintroduced through my work in digital strategy. I was working with the TD James Moody Jazz Festival at NJPAC and we were working together on some of those promotions and got to know each other.

At one point he looked at me and said, “I really want to hear that record of yours.” Through that connection, we ended up just having this really fantastic friendship. And in January of 2019, we were out at breakfast and I said, “You know what, Christian, how would you feel about producing my next album?” And he was humbled. Meanwhile, I'm humbled by the opportunity to just say what I said, right? And ask him. And he was humbled that I would give him that responsibility. He saw it as a responsibility, taking my vision and helping me bring it into the earth to share with all of you.

So that's how Queen Rising got started. A friendship between a sage musician who could have just said, “Bye, girl,” and me just wanting to finally make a stamp in the jazz world, and bring a contribution that I've been waiting to make for a long, long time. The two of us got together and it was better than I had even imagined, if you will, in the sense that I was hoping he would just produce the album and then he performed on all eight tracks. We wrote four tracks together, so there's four original tunes on there. He's featured on three of those songs, his solos are on three songs, one of them being a duet between the two of us, which is really just lovely. That's the second top-listened-to song in my library on Spotify, that duet, which is, he says is his favorite. We did a cover of H.E.R.’s “Best Part.”

We were supposed to go into the studio in April 2020, and that got canceled and rescheduled to April 2021. And in that year, we wrote at least two or three more original songs. So the pandemic was a blessing. Then it took this much time to get it all together and wrapped up in a pretty bow for everyone to enjoy. It's been really amazing. I'm really thankful.

You also have some amazing musicians. Talk about the other musicians who are on this, because they're all award-winning.

On drums, we have Eric Harland, who everyone will know is a multi-Grammy nominated drummer who just laid everything down perfectly. Since I'm talking about drums, I'll move right over to percussion and mentioned Luisito Quintero, who is also an incredible percussionist and came in and just knew exactly what to do with the right time. There was an ease with which we recorded this album. It was beautiful.

Seth Johnson is on guitar. He flew in from California and he had just gotten over healing his left hand, actually. It had just healed from breaking his wrist. And I think half of those songs he easily played through pain, just wanting to be part of the mix in the fold. The work he did on it is just incredible because he was working with half of his instrument, if you will.

Last, but certainly not least, Miki Hayama is a pianist who's played with me for years. She's incredible. She inspires me every time she sits down on those keys. When we're performing live and for those who come to City Winery, The Loft on November 22nd, and Miki Hayama is playing on that night, you can will watch me watch her and learn. I learned every single time just standing next to her watching her just pull the cords apart and put them back together again. Then of course you've got Christian McBride on bass.

Todd Whitelock was the lead mixing engineer on the album and he alone has 10 Grammys for his work. So that was a blessing to be able to sit with him and watch him work with his team. It's been a journey, but it's been a whirlwind of learnings, but I've been really blessed to be surrounded by so many talented people who are just willing to give their talents to me.

That's a beautiful thing and well deserved. Other than Christian, who's going to be with you at City Winery on the 27th of November?

I mentioned Miki Hayama already. On guitar, we'll have David Rosenthal. So for those who are in this New York area, I hope you all know him. And if you don't, please come and discover all of the goodness that's there. We have two bassists that night to cover the songs, between what Christian will do with me and some other songs. So Parker McAllister will be playing a few songs on the set as well. He's one of my favorite bassists and he was actually the first bassist I performed Fantasy with back in 2018, I think. That will be a really fun reunion. And then Mr. Billy Kilson is on drums. We're really excited about that.

Kersten Stevens Feat Christian McBride - Release The Grace

Well, you have such high praise from others. I want to read a quote from the Black Gospel blog. It said, “Imagine if the spirit of a great gospel singer Marian Williams suddenly possessed jazz master Jean-Luc Ponty's violin, and you have some sense of what Kersten can do.” She is a gift to music. I just think that it's such a perfect quote. Let's go back to the beginning, as it were. You started playing at three. I think I read where a violin became a part of you, but you did play saxophone along the way.

Oh, you did your research. No one knows that about me. Yes, I used to play the saxophone.

How difficult was it switching from sax to violin? I'm just curious if you were in the band with saxophone and another band with violin?

I started when I was three with violin, but there was no string program in my elementary school and I wanted to be somewhat musical. I remember thinking about this distinctly and going to the meeting and all they had were woodwinds and brass instruments. I remember thinking, okay, well, if I can't do violin, my father used to play saxophone. We had an old saxophone in the attic. I got the saxophone down, got it cleaned up, got a fresh mouthpiece, all the reeds, everything. I started playing saxophone in fourth grade and managed to keep playing it. I played in the marching band in high school, like rolling the feet and the whole thing with the crazy hats and going to the competitions.

I started performing violin professionally somewhere in that freshman year period of time. By the time I was 16, that's when I was doing my first set of amateur night competitions. I'll never forget. I went to my senior graduation, I played in the orchestra for the marching down [the aisles] and all that. I put that instrument in the case and I was like, “I am never picking up this saxophone ever again.” And I never did! There's a really cool jazz band in Stratford, Connecticut. But at that point I was playing my violin in the jazz band. I wasn't even playing my saxophone outside of class. It was a good easy A. So that's the background. It was very easy to close that case and say, “You know what? Violin is my ministry.” I'd like to breathe while I play. And not force air through an instrument. It wasn't for me.

I love it. Well, it's funny. I don't know if you ever knew Frank Wess, God rest his soul, but he hated the clarinet. He even had a Christmas card once with candles made of clarinets on fire.  

I believe it. I never liked it. I actually also never liked the clarinet. Shout out to all the clarinet players who might be listening. My best friend in college, played the clarinet and she played in high school and thank God she did not play it in college because it would've been a problem. It would have been no fun.

So you're a Yalie. What was your major at Yale?

I was a double major in music and African American studies. When I came out of school, I was like, “What am I supposed to do with this? What exactly does it mean?” That's mainly because the undergrad music program at Yale is very classical. Composition, history, orchestration, arranging to some extent, but at the time…now it might have changed, right? We're talking about 2005, 2006…it didn't have enough for me. I went to this class called The Anatomy of Funk, on James Brown's music, and the whole semester, every week, all he did was break down James Brown's funk music. He does all of his music from the start of his career all the way through to the top. Which actually just saying that out loud is one of the things I think I share with Christian.

My freshman year changed the course of what I was doing. I finished the music major relatively quickly because when you come into Yale and you know what your major is, it's not really that many requirements if you're focused on it, so you can get it done in two years. So I accidentally did that because I thought that's what I wanted.

Meanwhile, I was taking all these other really cool classes about jazz and funk and the blues, and African American literature, all these things such that I had enough credits to put it together for a second major. It was cool. In the end, my thesis was about blues and hip hop, which is just a side affinity or love of mine, about how hip hop was the modern-day blues and compared Bessie Smith to Missy Elliot and did a whole thing that college students do. But it was a cool thesis in the end.

That's very cool. I feel the funk in your playing. I feel the soul. I feel gospel. The Latin. You have it all. You did an arrangement a while ago of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The reason why I mention it is because that's one hymn that whenever I hear it, it really does bring a tear to my eye. That and “Total Praise” are the two songs that I tear up about. Hearing your arrangement still brought a tear to my eye, even though it's more upbeat than what I'm used to. I was just so taken with your arrangement of that.

That arrangement of “Holy, Holy, Holy” is on my 2013 album called Inspire Me, but that song was like the foundation of that whole album. We called it sexy gospel, just to joke around. How do we take R&B, but still honor the essence of the music and make it a groove with an honor? There's that moment in the middle of the song where it just drops right down to organ and violin. That was intentional. Like we know the original classic version of this song, but we can still honor it and still make it lift people in this new age version? It means a lot that you love it, because that's my favorite song on that album. I still perform that song. I performed it two weeks ago at my church.

I'm glad to hear that. You've performed in front of Obama and so many incredible celebrities. What was that like for you to to be in their presence and performing for them? That sounds very intimidating, but exciting.

It was intimidating. For Barack Obama, the one thing that helped me that would not help me now is that he was still a young senator about to run for president. This was a fundraiser for his presidency at the Apollo Theater in 2007. I literally got called the day before. I got myself together, got down there. I don't even remember what I wore. I'm sure it wasn't as sparkly as what I would wear now. I knew after hearing him speak the magnitude of the performance I had just done, but it didn't occur to me, you know? Then I got to meet him backstage in the green room and I was like, “This man's going to be the President of the United States.”

And so the pressure was off, thank God. Now, the pressure was on for Ray Charles, I would say. Probably my first really big performance. There again, I didn't know a lot going into it., I mean, I knew to perform, right. But looking back, there's pictures of me backstage with him and my grandfather. If you remember the movie where he was feeling people's wrists to understand personality. I didn't know that when I was 18 doing the performance, but there's pictures of him feeling my wrists. I didn't appreciate that until after the movie came out. But I was really stressed about that one, because that was a really big deal.

He was in Stamford, Connecticut, and I remember that feeling. It was like, “Okay, this is the road you're on.” Yes, it was exciting. You learn a lot from them. It never goes away, but you learn to channel the nervousness in the right way. I hope I still do that on the 27th of November because I am a little nervous.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In 1995 Sheila E. Anderson joined the staff of WBGO in Newark, New Jersey where she hosts Weekend Jazz Overnight and Salon Sessions. She has authored four books: The Quotable Musician: From Bach to Tupac (2003), How to Grow as A Musician: What All Musicians Must Know to Succeed (2005) (both published by Allworth Press), The Little Red Book of Musicians Wisdom (Skyhorse Press, 2012) and the 2nd edition of How to Grow as A Musician was published in 2019,

In addition to curating jazz at the Newark Museum of Art, Ms. Anderson is a 2017 Columbia University Community Scholar, an inaugural Dan
Morgenstern Fellow by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark
(2020), is a graduate of Baruch College and resides in Harlem, NYC.