Jazz vocalist Nancy Harms has seen the northern lights in Norway, canals in Copenhagen, the Pantheon in Rome and Cinque Terra on the Italian Riviera. She’s been sketched by artists in Montmartre and watched the sunrise spill down a Parisian street. She has sung in Paris and Rome, at London’s Royal Albert Hall, at festivals in Canada and Scandinavia, and in big-name New York jazz clubs like Dizzy’s and Birdland.
She has released three well-received, critically acclaimed albums under her name. When she’s not touring — she spent much of 2016 on the road or in the air — she lives in Brooklyn, where she doesn’t have a day job.
A little over 10 years ago, Harms was teaching music at an elementary school in Milaca, Minn. She had a teaching degree from Concordia College and a lot of friends. It was what she thought she wanted while growing up in tiny Clara City, Minn., pop. 1,333. But something wasn’t right. “I was feeling really tumultuous,” she said by phone from her apartment last week, thinking back. “I felt like I was not in my life.”
Harms had discovered jazz in college and seen Harry Connick Jr. on TV. That wasn’t much to go on, but it was enough. In 2006, she left her job, her friends and security and moved to Minneapolis. She formed a trio and joined the Minnesota chapter of the Jazz Vocal Coalition, now defunct.
In early 2007, its members held a showcase at a Burnsville steakhouse. Twin Cities jazz singer and radio host Arne Fogel was there and heard Harms sing.
“I remember being quite intrigued by her,” Fogel said. “I found her singing to be very different, very interesting, and then I listened very closely to see if she had the two tools: Does she have a sense of rhythm, and is she in tune? Everything else you can learn. I discerned from the first day that she did. She also had an uncanny sense of phrasing, almost off the bat.”
Award-winning pianist and composer Jeremy Siskind, who would meet Nancy years later, put it this way: “Other people are trying to be jazz vocalists. Nancy just is a jazz vocalist. She has amazing pitch and really good time, and she never has problems with form, which for a vocalist is crazy.”
By mid-2010, Harms had performed all over the Twin Cities and released a debut CD, “In the Indigo,” a collection of standards and originals. She spent the month of June in New York, sitting in at jam sessions, singing at the jazz hot spot Bar Next Door, doing open mic shows and making connections. After she came back to Minneapolis, she turned right around and moved to New York.
“It wasn’t the easiest thing,” she said. “In some ways, living here [New York] has been a traumatic experience. But I knew I had to do it, and I knew it would get better. And I knew I wanted to tour. This is a major launching pad, a window to the world.”
Original songs on her second album, “Dreams in Apartments,” give clues into how tough New York was on her. From a song called “Weight of the World”: “This city’s working out the best of me, can’t have what’s left of me. … Shake it off and start all over again.”
Harms co-writes songs with Fogel, who became her friend and mentor soon after they met. He produces her albums and acts as her personal manager. The two have partnered with L.A.-based music executive Peter S. Burke on a record label, Gazelle, and a music publishing company. Six years after leaving for New York, Harms remains fiercely loyal to Fogel. “These things don’t often work out that way,” Fogel said. “I’m always amazed at what an honest heart she is. She’s just a genuine person.”
Siskind met Harms soon after she moved to New York, when he played on one of her early dates. “She didn’t make a wildly strong impression on me that night, but she gave me her CD. I listened to it, and it stayed in my car for weeks. I could hear all the subtlety and care she gives to interpreting a song, and it struck me how special she is. I thought — I really want to work with this person.”
Harms has sung on two of Siskind’s albums, “Finger-Songwriter” and “Housewarming.” Siskind is a nationally recognized advocate for house concerts, where musicians perform in people’s homes to small, invited audiences. Over the past few years, Harms, Siskind and reeds player Lucas Pino have performed more than 100 of these house concerts.
Siskind served as music arranger for Harms’ third album, “Ellington at Night,” her biggest yet. She sold out two CD release shows at the Manhattan club Dizzy’s in April. And the line for her September show at the Sunset Sunside Jazz Club in Paris reached all the way out the door. She recently signed with a French distributor and a French booking agent, which should lead to dates in France, Monaco, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and the U.K.
Today Harms is fully in her life. She’s singing, recording, writing, touring and looking ahead to more of everything. When she travels, she makes time to see and experience the places she visits, and form friendships. Being frugal lets her do that. “I can live on a certain budget,” she said. “I want to keep growing, but I want to leave time for the things that bring me joy, so there’s joy in my music.” One of her great gifts, in addition to pitch, rhythm, timing and a plush, supple voice, is the ability to communicate emotion.
“She lives her life in a beautiful way,” Siskind said. “She’s made so many beautiful leaps of faith in herself and her career. It’s rewarding, as somebody who has watched her become more and more herself, to see how much everyone relates to her as a singer and a human being. That was sappy, but I meant it.”
Pamela Espeland is the Artscape columnist at MinnPost and an occasional contributor to NPR.