The daughter and now aunt of an Oakland-based family of artists, activists, teachers and spiritualists, both by blood and by community, the melding of Troutt’s creative and spiritual life emerged early, at the age of seven with her first church solo. Children’s choirs, holiday solos, and developing skills in piano and guitar as well as voice followed at the famed Walter Hawkin’s Love Center. By adolescence, at Berkeley High, Troutt’s world was being cracked open to the world of jazz at the same high school that produced jazz darlings Joshua Redman and Benny Green. Jazz camps, a Carmen McRae Scholarship, Stanford Jazz, Howard University Jazz program and ultimately the New School Jazz Performance program with contemporaries like Bilal Oliver and Tiombe Lockhart—always surrounded by teachers and learners, both vertically and horizontally, in her musical blossoming. After the requisite hand-to-mouth NYC grinds, lesson-rich production deals with labels like Oblique Sound (e.g., Gretchen Parlato), and a brief experience abroad as an ambassador for the International Association of Jazz Educators, Troutt ended up back in the Bay teaching music at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and performing for two years with the Grammy-nominated Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, most recently as a featured soloist on Still We Rise, Still We Sing.
While New York offered dream actualizing experiences like performing at SOBs and The Knitting Factory, sharing stages with major recording artists like Les Nubians, and honoring legends such as Bobby McFerrin at tributes, it was in California that Troutt found herself most in-demand and coming into her own. Innumerable venues and festivals presented the unique Valerie Troutt experience including: Yoshi’s Jazz Club, Laurel Street Fair, The Mint L.A., CODA Jazz Supper Club, and the Art ‘n’ Soul Festival, among others. Troutt further found herself collaborating with singer-songwriters like Jennifer Johns, Maria Muldaur, Kimiko Joy, and Sister Monica Parker, and recording with modern composers like Gregory Del Piero, Emanuel Ruffler, Howard Wiley and Jaz Sawyer. For nearly two years, she also served as a principle singer in La Pena – Ayer, Hoy y Pa’Lante, an original suite of music by three-time Grammy nominee, Wayne Wallace with libretto by Aya de Leon.
In the East Bay, Troutt established herself as more than an artist, but as a leader in the area’s famed creative community. Partnering on Bay area projects with Oakland Public Conservatory, the Museum of African Diaspora, Higher Ground Neighborhood Corp. and the Embodiment Project (where Troutt is Music Director). The latter project served as the genesis for MoonCandy, a band Valerie Troutt composes for while still gigging with another band, trumpeter Marcus Poland’s fronted group, The Congress. Collectively, these varied and disparate influences informs her recordings as much as Bjork, Dianne Reeves, Carmen McRae, Joni Mitchell, Walter Hawkins and Cassandra Wilson.
The keeper and expander of a rich cultural legacy in music and consciousness-raising, Troutt’s latest project, The Sound of Peace, borrows from the past and gives to the future. Half jazz standards innovatively reimagined for contemporary audiences and half truth-telling originals penned by the lady herself, the Troutt produced project is an overture to her fans for not only social change, but also their own self-acceptance. Recorded at Project West and engineered by Dion Decibal, the project was recorded with trios and quintets of musicians, including Garian Gray and Jazz Sawyer on drums, Raoul Paralez on electric bass, and David Yule on upright bass. Accordingly, this project has a live music feel absent Troutt’s more electronic 2008 debut EP, Prepare for a Future. With live studio recording also comes more of the unexpected and unplanned dynamic moments that hallmark Troutt’s signature sound. Whether Troutt is tackling an innovative arrangement of the classic “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” or sharing her own hybrid blend with “Rise,” what is consistent is a jazz vocalist’s skill with a soul stirrer’s heart, making the genre-labeling of Troutt’s music unnecessary and impossible. Like that of her equally liberated contemporaries, Lizz Wright and Gregory Porter, this is just honest music.
Thematically, Troutt’s two projects differ too, illustrating where she is now as a woman and artist in her musings and priorities. At the eve of Obama’s election, Prepare for a Future spoke of intergenerational relationships, forgiveness, shifting in and out of the illusion and reality of love, vulnerability and emergency preparedness as a way of securing one’s future. The Sound of Peace is about stepping out of cycles that fail to serve personal evolution and liberation, to embrace the self, and rise above self-pity and self-cruelty—the rich themes of a philosophically reflective artist. The common thread weaving these two sides of Troutt is an understanding of music as survival, as a spiritual and wellness tool for growth, both personal and communal. It is after all, what time and again saved her own life and gave her the faith and strength to believe in herself and persevere in an industry disdainful of difference, and everything about Valerie Troutt is wholly, unapologetically, and powerfully different. With The Sound of Peace, Valerie Troutt hopes listeners welcome their own difference, freeing it into the world as a light all their own.
By L. Michael Gipson