Jana Nyberg Group treats listeners to a warm ‘Winter Song’

Winter Song art

Anyone who knows singer Jana Nyberg won’t have to guess which season suits her best. An avid skater, skier and long-distance runner, she loves the winter.

So when Nyberg and her husband, trumpeter Adam Meckler, considered possible approaches for a third recording, they naturally thought of a winter album, one that would allow the band to explore classic tunes about the cold and snow, holiday songs and their own winter-themed creations.

The result was “Winter Song,” recorded last January with guitarist Evan Montgomery, bassists Brian Courage and Matt Peterson, drummers Greg Schutte and Zach Schmidt and other accomplished musicians. Also playing on the recording is Nyberg’s brother, Jake Nyberg, on cajon.

The band debuts the recording Saturday at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. This week, I interviewed Meckler about the recording, which I will review this afternoon during All Things Considered.

Here’s our conversation.

How did you come up with the winter concept for the CD? Is it in a sense also a Christmas/holiday album?

Well, this is something our fans have been asking us to do for a while, and since Jana has always loved winter, we thought this was the right time. We had also been working on a bunch of new original music, and some of them were written in the winter time, hence the themed material. In the end, we really hoped this would just be a winter-themed album that has music you can play year-round on it, but it definitely has some of those stereotypical Christmas tunes on the record.

When did you record it?

We did the album in January of 2013, so we’re releasing the album just under a year after it was recorded. We really wanted to record the album in the winter time because we still wanted to be in the mood to play this kind of music in the studio. I always think it’s weird when bands record winter music in the summer.

How did you pick the winter and standard tunes by other composers?

Most of the songs by other composers are tunes that Jana grew up listening to and enjoying. “Lo, How a Rose” is one of Jana’s favorite hymns and she has this really lush version with full orchestra she loves. I had the idea to arrange the piece for string quartet from that and knew that if I didn’t write super lush stuff, Jana wouldn’t like it. It was a fun challenge as a composer!

Is “Winter Song” more of a traditional jazz album than your last one, “Fever,” in that it has fewer pop elements?

Well, we really feel like the album is very similar to “Fever” and actually has more original music on it than “Fever” did. We do swing a little more on this record, I think, but we really love to blur the lines a little bit and play a wide range of styles. The exciting thing for us is that the original music is really starting to find its own voice the more Jana and I write tunes together. We’ve both agreed is that the next step is an album of all original music.

Tell me something about “California Christmas,” “Minnesota Dream” and “Just Tonight.” How did they occur to you?

“California Christmas” started as a bass line that I was playing on the guitar. Jana went to the piano and picked out a few counter lines, and the tune was born. Jana came up with that super soulful chorus thingy too. When we wrote this one, Jana was about a year removed from going to Hollywood for American Idol, and she remembers seeing lights on palm trees and feeling like she was missing out on the snow. Jana was a Nordic ski coach, so she’s really quite in to the whole snow thing.

“Minnesota Dream” is another tune that I wrote on guitar. I picked out the whole chord progression first and then Jana went through it bit by bit and wrote words and melody. Jana and I usually always work on the words together, actually. This one just tells the story of living in our apartment in the winter time. Jana always says the snow feels like cookie dough when you drive around on it. I love cookie dough, so I was down with that. The song talks about making puzzles, making pizza (gluten free for us!), snuggling on the couch and all the other wonderful things about a cozy winter storm in Minnesota.

“Just Tonight” was a tune I started writing on piano. It just started with the verse chords and evolved from there. Jana tells the fictional story of a girl at a New Years Eve party, looking for someone to kiss at midnight. She wrote the melody and story on this one. We keep saying Just Tonight is our “hit”. We’ll see…All of these tunes always end up being dramatically different/better than we first imagine them because of the musicians in the band. These guys are so great at taking something we’ve written and adding to it, embellishing it, and ultimately making great music with it.

Did you strive for a fairly equal distribution of instrumentation and voice, or did it just turn out that way?

We’ve always prided ourselves on being a band that allows the individual musical personalities of its members to shine. This band has always been very heavily in to improvisation, and now that Jana is playing more flute as well, it’s making for some pretty cool opportunities. You can hear some of that on “Nearness of You,” another different arrangement of the same tune we recorded for the Fever album.

This version was arranged by Jana and Brian Courage, and couldn’t be any more different than the other. It’s pretty fun to play a tune multiple ways.

All that being said, we scale back the improvisations on the more pop-leaning tunes because that’s more appropriate in that style. We’re trying to be true to the art of each thing while continuing to develop our own unique sound.