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Debut from Ester Wiesnerova

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    Posted: 10 May 2022 at 8:48pm

Eastern Europe is at the crossroads of ideas from around the world, but it is also a collection of geographically
separated communities that have developed their own culture and musical styles. Their rich and diverse musical traditions have been influenced by Turks, Slavs, Magyars, Romani, Jews, and, since the fall of communism, by rock and pop from the West. Although there are a handful of working jazz musicians in the region, jazz has not found
much of a foothold there. But now, a delightful new jazz voice has merged from Slovakia, a country steeped in classical music. Singer, songwriter, and arranger ESTER WIESNEROVÁ has recorded her debut jazz CD, BLUE

Backed by a band of international musicians from the East and the West, BLUE JOURNAL comprises 11 introspective tunes composed and sung by Wiesnerová.
Although Soviet communism cannot be credited with much besides causing misery for millions of people, it at least made Wiesnerová’s mother turn her gaze to the West for its cultural and political freedoms. Her mother is a
pianist, composer, teacher, and songwriter who wrote protest songs and produced a dozen albums that were slyly critical of the Soviet system that dominated Slovakia. She had a collection of jazz and gospel records and cassette tapes and dabbled in writing jazz tunes herself.

Wiesnerová’s mother began teaching her piano at the age of 6, and the two would play, sing, and write songs together. Her first bit of international fame came when she performed in “The Voice of Czechoslovakia,” a televised singing competition. She subsequently won the New Faces of Slovak Jazz competition.

Wiesnerová fell in love with the Western music her mother had collected, and she decided to learn jazz any way she could. Since there were no schools in Slovakia that taught jazz, she used Google to find books and videos that
would help her learn about the music. She noticed that many of the textbooks were from Berklee Press. She had not heard of the school before, but she found that it was one of the leading jazz schools in the world and that they
held auditions at several international locations. Although she thought it was a longshot, Wiesnerová convinced her mother to take her to an audition in Paris on her 18th birthday.

Much to her surprise, she was accepted to study in Boston. It was a dream come true, but her parents were not wealthy enough to pay for her overseas studies, so her next challenge was finding the funds. Through crowdfunding, she was able to raise enough money to attend for one year. She thought she would be returning home after the first year, but Berklee has a generous merit-based scholarship program which enabled Wiesnerová to complete her bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance. She continued her education at the New England Conservatory, where she earned a master’s degree in Jazz Composition

While in graduate school, she took a year off to do some travelling, performing, and teaching. She presented her work at festivals like the Panama Jazz Festival and the International Guatemala Jazz Festival, as well as in the
Wuhan Concert Hall in China and The Piano Man in New Delhi. She was living in New York and performing regularly at Cafe Vivaldi when Covid-19 shut down the city, so after several years away, Wiesnerová decided it was time to return home.

Slovakia was in total lockdown. People could not even travel between cities, so Wiesnerová had a lot of time on her hands to think about music and her experiences. Wiesnerová says, “From the age of 18, I was exposed to so
many cultures. I had left my home and immersed myself in American culture and the English language. I travelled around the world, and while in school, I interacted with so many people from so many different countries, that I began to question my identity. I started writing down my thoughts in a journal with a blue cover, and the concept for the album took shape.”

Wiesnerová wanted a band that would understand her concept and frame of mind, so she assembled an international group of musicians from some of the many friends she made while at Berklee. The band includes sax player SAM KNIGHT from Great Britain, harpist CHARLES OVERTON from the U.S., and percussionist KAN YANABE from Japan. Also in the band is Slovakian bassist MICHAL ŠELEP. Although there were severe travel restrictions, she got special permission to bring the band members to her hometown.

Her parents generously moved into Wiesnerová’s apartment for a week while she and the band stayed at their home to rehearse. They needed special permission again to travel to a recording studio in Austria.

Wiesnerová’s voice has an open and effortless quality yet shaded with nuance and depth. Her songs cover a range of topics, like “Sinking Deep,” the first song she wrote about her interior journey of self-discovery. Rather than giving the band a lead sheet for “Burrito,” Wiesnerová had the band improvise the music based on the lyrics.

Other songs, like “Thirsty,” deal with the shallowness of relationships in the age of social media. “Nightingales and Maple Trees” uses instruments like a wooden flute to paint a sonic picture of nature. She wrote “Who Are You
Now” about her nostalgia for U.S. after returning to Slovakia. “Sensitive” is based on a poem by Slovakian poet Miroslav Válek, and “Epilogue” is a wordless piece with multiple layers of lilting vocalizations.

Wiesnerová wanted BLUE JOURNAL to be an artistic statement both musically and visually. She worked with a photographer and designer to package the disc in a thick, felt covered blue book containing pictures, lyrics, and blank pages for the listener to perhaps write down their thoughts as she did in making this album. Although you can hear the influence that Maria Schneider, Joni Mitchell, and Luciana Souza have had on Wiesnerová’s composing and singing, she has her own unique style. It is exciting to see such a talented and sensitive new jazz voice coming from an unexpected region of the world.
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BLUE JOURNAL is set for release on May 20, 2022 and will be available everywhere.

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