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  • Jonathan Widran

SANDRA BOOKER, "Until We Meet Again"

There is something beautiful about artists whose insight into the human condition allows them to create works that meet our collective moment at a time we most need their inspiration. Marking a dynamic transition and stylistic expansion from her years mastering the Great American Songbook as a popular jazz singer in the 90s and 2000s, Sandra Booker is releasing her extraordinary new single “Until We Meet Again” into a very different world than she could have imagined when she wrote the song several years ago.

The heartfelt, deeply soulful track – which drops March 30th - reflects the New Orleans bred, Los Angeles and Paris based singer’s long-awaited return to her Southern R&B and gospel music roots. Produced by Sandra and featuring her co-producer and co-arranger, veteran L.A. based musician Robert Turner, on classic retro keyboards, including Fender Rhodes and organ, the track couples her graceful and intimate, emotionally impactful performance with a slow-simmering arrangement, artfully blending a sense of old school cool reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s jazzy funk, Curtis Mayfield’s dreamy soul and Donny Hathaway’s spirit-stirring storytelling. She avoids the pitfalls of vocal histrionics and over-embellishing, instead she lets the story speak for itself, which makes this performance compelling, poignant and personal.

Written upon the tragic sudden passing of her dear friend, rising jazz pianist Derrick Finch (who posthumously earned his PhD in Jazz Studies from USC), “Until We Meet Again” brilliantly captures the journey of grief – not just her own, but that of everyone who has experienced loss. The song taps powerfully and insightfully into the sense of disarray and sorrow and need for hope amidst trauma during this anxious age of COVID-19.

Sandra sings the words we have all longed to express to a loved one at one point or another: “Until we meet again/I’m gonna try not to cry for you/I’m gonna ask God to help me through/And help me accept his will. . .I’m gonna try to remember when/You were mine and I was your best friend/Through thick and thin/Genuine and true. . .So, until we meet again/I’m gonna smile when I think of you/I’m gonna laugh out loud and cry a little too/Because I loved you and always will…” The background vocals serve as a haunting goodbye wave: “I’m gonna miss you...” using a call and response technique.

At the time of his passing, Sandra and Derrick were working on a project to commemorate the legalization of interracial marriage. They also planned to celebrate their mutual birthdays in New Orleans, where they were scheduled to perform a live show for the Mardi Gras Indians that are part of her unique hometown heritage. When she heard the news, she returned to her hotel room. “The only thing I could do was write through a river of tears, and I wrote the song as a love letter in about 15 minutes” she says. “It’s taken me ten years to be able to sing it without sobbing, but I felt the time was right to record and share it with my friends and fans, and maybe the world.”

“Until We Meet Again” was executive produced by Sandra and Brian Kessler, with sound engineering done by Rick Williams at 24 Music Studio in North Hollywood and by Peter Vode at Private Island Audio in L.A. Vode is also the track’s mixing and mastering engineer and contributed additional background vocal arrangements.

Sandra started working with Turner, also a renowned producer, last year, but she says they had an instant creative chemistry. “I had gone to hear Robert at the Marriot and was just blown away,” she says, “but our schedules didn’t sync up. He reached out to me last year about doing a project together and I was instantly on board.” Knowing that she wanted to move into the funk, soul and gospel arena, he suggested they do a funky arrangement of “A Night in Tunisia,” a Dizzy Gillespie classic she had recorded on her debut jazz album Very Early. Not keen on that idea, instead she let him hear some other material she had, including “Until We Meet Again.”

“Having lost numerous loved ones to COVID, including Ellis Marsalis and Dr. Bert Braud, both of whom were my instructors years earlier at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), this song started to get under my skin and in my head,” says Sandra. “Add to that all the loss of high profile figures like Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman, Alex Trebek (Booker was once a Jeopardy! clue), John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the social upheaval this past year with the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain and George Floyd, and the grief their families had suffered, it felt like the song was no longer just mine and that it was time to share it with others. I believe the narrative of the song will speak to people and give them some sense of courage to keep going, and most of all, hope.”

Although the song has a nearly six minute run time (which could, of course, be edited down for radio airplay, if the opportunity should arise), she adds, “In black music, especially black church music, that’s actually just about right, maybe even a little short! But in all seriousness, I didn’t make this recording with airplay in mind. I was more concerned about telling an experience and the emotions it evokes. I was grateful for the input of friends and colleagues I sent the song to. I asked them, “How does it make you feel? And everyone responded overwhelmingly that it made them want to play it again because it was so relatable.”

“Until We Meet Again” is the first track released from Sandra’s upcoming album Songs from the 8th Ward, whose title is a reference to the section of New Orleans where she grew up and first discovered her passion for music. The collection will feature original songs she’s written reflecting the classic NOLA gumbo of gospel, R&B, funk and jazz in the tradition of The Neville Brothers, Mahalia Jackson, Irma Thomas and The Meters.

“Those sounds, feelings, colors and tones are indicative of the music of New Orleans,” she says. “I’m shifting away from jazz. I have nothing new to say singing the Great American Songbook repertoire, and there are other singers who love it so that scene isn’t going to miss me. On the other hand, I have many things I want to say as a writer and composer. I focused for so many years on that one style, I’m overdue to make my new music more eclectic, current and universal. This song speaks honestly about loss, death, love and the hope that all human beings have in those circumstances.”

Sandra will also include unique takes on a few Negro spirituals, which draw on her classical training. Inspired by her grandmother, who loved the opera, she would listen with her to the Boston Pops. Sandra started singing opera at age 10 and later studied it at NOCCA. Sandra likes to say that New Orleans is a city where it’s impossible to not know someone who is either a chef or in a band. Her own family reflects this tradition, as her father was a professional chef, her mother an ace home chef and her eldest brothers were musicians.

Jazz was Sandra’s first professional outlet, and in the 90s, she moved to Los Angeles, where she performed regularly with Billy Higgins, Black/Note, Lalo Schifrin, the late jazz pianist Frank Collett, who co-produced her debut album, and most recently, one of the featured vocalists for the Dennis Dreith Band. She credits the bandleader with influencing her to explore other musical interpretations, and Italian pianist Dado Maroni, who she’s planning to do some future concerts with.

After a year in NYC, she moved back to the West Coast to pursue a degree in Ethnomusicology at UCLA. Taking a hiatus from music for a few years, she wrote plays and as a journalist became the West Coast Bureau Chief for Brass Knuckles Progressive Radio. She later started her own podcast called American Vernacular, a public affairs program addressing the political, economic, social and cultural issues facing our nation from an urban and secular perspective. In 2010, she released her second album When Love Happens: The Loving Day Concert to commemorate and celebrate the legalization of interracial marriage.

“With both the single ‘Until We Meet Again’ and the upcoming album Songs from the 8th Ward, I’m thrilled to be both writing and singing my truth,” Sandra says. “Every song is raw and honest. I write a lot of poetry and prose and am taking my stories and bringing them to life with a unique array of instruments. I’ve used most of my down time during the pandemic to learn to play guitar and upright bass and reacquaint myself with the violin and flute. So the project will be full of great surprises, and 100 percent authentically me. ‘Until We Meet Again’ is ‘soul food music’ in every sense of the word. It takes you to the church for a spiritual healing and it does just that.”


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