A question for former choir kids: Were you ever singled out for being “overactive” in class? It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, to hear that singer-songwriter, bandleader and composer Erica T. Bryan was known to dance throughout her own choir class in grade school. Yet instead of channeling her boundless creative energy into marching band or other creative pursuits at the time, she took it on as a lifelong passion. She promptly said goodbye to her choir days after being called out and took to studying jazz with educators such as Jeff Fuller in high school and Noah Baerman at Wesleyan’s Center for Creative Youth. She found her way into other genres that allowed her to groove while singing, which has become a signature part of her performance.
“Funk and jazz are different conversations in the same room.”
Bryan met bassist Tom Sullivan as they joined Hartford’s own West End Blend – back then, it was a roaming collective of 14 undergraduate musicians at The Hartt School of Music, with Bryan taking the lead vocalist/emcee role in emulation of her idol, Chaka Khan. As the band’s audiences and opportunities got bigger, the group slimmed down to a core of eight with a growing national repertoire of venues. It took a while for the idea of representing Hartford on a national scale to sink in. When conversing with audiences, they would get the reaction “Hartford? Really?” Yes, Hartford, really! The culture shock was mutual. It was on tour that Bryan learned the invaluable lesson of knowing your audience.
After a few years of gigging and touring, Bryan also knew what she’d want as a bandleader; she had been feeling the desire to branch out to create a sound and a vibe that was more her own. In 2018, she recruited hip-hop drummer Dwayne Keith, jazz keyboardist Michael Carabello, and Sullivan (by then a frequent collaborator and significant other) to create The New Mosaic – a culmination of different styles influenced by each other, but creating a bigger picture. As a frontwoman, Bryan had never wanted to be a stereotype – a singer who doesn’t contribute more than their primary talent. She has used her strong background in music theory to maintain equal footing with her bandmates in all of her projects. In this process, her band isn’t simply interpreting Bryan’s lyrics and melodies – it is a true collaboration through and through.
All of her artistic projects are taking things carefully, as her two larger groups continue to maintain and build their audiences virtually. Last year, West End Blend was signed to Colorado-based talent agency Madison House. The New Mosaic has been steadily building a local and regional fan-base with their smaller, yet just-as-full neo-soul sound. Right now though, the groups are trying to make the best of this “weirdly indefinite” time. Even though she’s disappointed about the lack of gigs, Bryan is grateful for the opportunity to breathe, and is focusing on creating and publishing art on her own time.
(photography: Denis Semenyaka)