When Erika Gocka (photo below by De Capua's Photography) plays the main stage at the annual KCSM Jazz on the Hill festival this year, it will be a homecoming for the Reno, Nevada, based pianist and vocalist. She graduated with an associate of arts degree from the College of San Mateo, home of KCSM, some years back.
Erika worked around the San Francisco Bay Area for a while after graduating, then moved to Reno to buy a house and settle down. There she teaches piano and voice lessons to thirty-five students ranging in age from four to sixty-eight. She also performs with her trio in venues around Nevada and throughout California.
Besides Erika, the trio consists of bassist Paul Binnings and drummer Pete Spomer. Both are seasoned veterans with many famous names in their résumés but, says Erika, "they began a new life when they started working with me, and they've never gotten more work in their lives. And this is probably the first time they've ever had a set trio that stays together and has gotten along so well for five years."
Erika and her trio specialize in the songs of the swing era because, she says, "I think it's a better vehicle for showcasing what I do with the combination of piano and voice. When I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had not developed the confidence to do the singing. I did one or the other [i.e., played piano or sang] but not both combined. So that put me in a category where most of the Jazz I was playing was instrumental, bebop, avant-garde, modal. Then all of a sudden the voice came in, and it opened up this whole area of Jazz music I hadn't touched on yet, the music from the twenties through the fifties. So having that new opportunity, I found a lot of music that was written well, the lyrics had meaning, and it was just very fulfilling. And so we've stuck with it because we're trying to improvise and say something with our Jazz chops in that style of music. Which wasn't done back then. They didn't have extended solos in the twenties and the thirties. So we're sort of really messing with things."
Despite the messing, Erika doesn't like to see singers taking excessive liberties with the melody. "I really do respect singers that take you on a journey, but I respect composers more. If they wrote the song, they don't want you to get too far away from the melody or people will imitate it incorrectly. And that was one of the complaints that many of my vocal friends had about Billie Holiday. She really took her liberties to the point where she changed the melody. You didn't know what the original melody was."
Few Jazz musicians would criticize the great Billie Holiday, but Erika has the courage of her convictions. She believes in honesty, intellectual and otherwise. When I asked her if she had received training in the business side of music, she said, "Good business means to be honest and to be loyalGoing through the school of hard knocks in the business area, I have noticed more people that have fallen by the wayside because they didn't remember those two little golden rules, to be honest and to be loyal, and they got caught or people started to mistrust them, and you don't want that type of thing to happen."
Is she building a following there in Nevada? "I am amazed," she says. "The newspapers absolutely adore us. They publish our picture every chance they get. We are in five or six different newspapers consistently whenever we perform. And we have not played to an empty house for at least three years now. Of course when we first started, people didn't know what we did, and they didn't really like Jazz, but since we've been working so hard to keep it going, it's been really neat to go in and see that the whole place is full, everywhere we go. They know to expect something good from us, and we try not to let them down."
by Robert Tate
Erick's Jumpin' Jelly Beans and Wishing You a Swingin' Happy Holiday are available at JazzNowiDirect CD Store