Minnesota-bred jazz singer Nancy Harms is flourishing after a move to New York.
She didn’t really know anybody in New York City when she packed up and moved there. The small-town Minnesota woman had some names to call — friends of a friend — and her own way of networking.
Now, three years later, jazz singer Nancy Harms is returning to Minneapolis to celebrate her critically acclaimed, made-in-New York album “Dreams in Apartments.” Not bad for a late bloomer.
Since relocating, she has performed in Italy, France and Norway and at New York’s prestigious Birdland club, where she will have a CD-release party in November.
Harms, who sang in her church choir in the west-central Minnesota town of Clara City, didn’t discover jazz until she attended Concordia College in Moorhead. In her mid-20s, she decided to try her luck as a jazz singer, moving to Minneapolis in 2006 after teaching music in a Milaca, Minn., school.
Harms returns Wednesday to her old haunt the Dakota Jazz Club to showcase the self-released album, her second. It features her distinctively slow, velvety readings of such standards as “Mood Indigo” and “It Could Happen to You,” and four remarkable originals, co-written with Minneapolis jazzman-about-town Arne Fogel.
She chatted by phone last week from her Manhattan apartment.
Q: What was your “I’m not in Clara City anymore” moment in New York?
A: I was taking a shower. I tilted my head back so I wouldn’t get water in my eyes and then I looked straight ahead and there was a giant cockroach coming down the other side of the shower. [Screams.] I jumped out. Eventually, I got the giant cockroach spray. I could not squish them or kill them. I can’t do that. So I had to spray them [dead], and I know that’s horrible. The uncleanliness [of New York City] is the hardest — the smell on the streets, and the subways aren’t fresh and clean.
Q: Since you don’t have an agent or manager, how did you work your way into the jazz scene in New York?
A: When I moved to Minneapolis, too, I didn’t really know anybody there. I just started going out to gigs and jam sessions, sitting in. A lot of going out and introducing yourself to people. That’s what I did here.
The second month I was here, Wycliffe Gordon [a trombonist and longtime Wynton Marsalis associate] heard my jam session, and I was on his next CD and did some touring with him. The first time I sat in at Birdland, the owner walked by my table and said, “Wow! You’re a great singer.” So I just kept going back. I met someone there at open mic who helped me get to Italy three times.
Q: What’s your day job?
A: I teach piano classes for beginning students at a school called Piano School of NYC. I have 40 students, but it’s more in a classroom setting than individual.
Q: You’re a latecomer to jazz. How do you interpret standards in such an original way?
A: Someone gave me some great advice once — to sit with a lyric and see what kind of picture it creates in your head and then how would you put that sort of vibe into music. Lyrics are super-important to me, so if I can say them in the most honest way for me, that’s what I’m aiming for.
Q: How do you go about writing songs with your mentor Arne Fogel?
A: It’s pretty fantastic to work with him. He lets me say what I want to say. Like come up with the concept. He works as a great editor-slash-composer. He has a great idea of the full context of songs.
Q: The album is mostly ballads but on the opening track, your own “Weight of the World,” it almost sounds like you’re singing with a hip-hop cadence. How did that come about?
A: That was very much stream of consciousness. It’s kind of wild. I was surprised by that. I can’t really explain it except that I grew up listening to lots of popular music. I was surrounded by soul music.
Q: How do you feel about returning to the Dakota?
A: I loved living in Minneapolis, and I would have never thought to leave except that jazz is such a small field and I just wanted to try to tour more. I love coming back home, and everybody has been so nice about the album. I’m super-excited to see the familiar faces and the new people that are just hearing the album because of all the things that have been written. I love Minneapolis — and St. Paul.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719