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Brianna Thomas nods at current events on her new jazz album with a Nina Simone classic and an original about forgiveness

Brianna Thomas

New York City Jazz vocalist and singer-songwriter Brianna Thomas nods at current events on her most recent album “Everybody Knows.”

In this lightly edited interview, the Peoria native spoke with WGLT's Jon Norton ahead of her appearance at Jazz UpFront in Bloomington on Saturday night.

WGLT: Where does the album title “Everybody Knows” come from?

It comes from the Nina Simone song I covered. In that song ("Mississippi Goddamn") Nina has a refrain that says, “Everybody Knows." In our arrangement of the song, we say that a few times because when I was doing the arrangement, I wanted to make sure that however we treated the song that the treatment would give itself towards everyone hearing the lyrics. Unfortunately, those are many of the things that we were dealing with in the middle of the pandemic. There were the riots, there was the slayings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and many others. There were all of these things happening on our TVs while we were bound up in our houses. The election happened. Although we recorded this before those moments, when it came time to pick what to put on the album, this was one of the songs that spoke to what I feel like we are as a country.

“How much Forgiveness” is another song that jumps out to me on this album.

“How Much Forgiveness” is a song that I composed that begs the question: Can you run out of forgiveness? It's easy to get very annoyed … mad. There are so many things assaulting our spirits and persons these days, that it is very easy to have a short fuse. I was just simply writing in my journal, and I asked my own self one day how much forgiveness can belong to you. And that's the first line of that song and well … everybody knows their level of forgiveness and what they need to reach for … work on … or ask for, or what they need.

So, you’ve addressed the Nina Simone song and your original song “How Much Forgiveness” and you even reference Nina’s song while you're talking about your original. Because you covered that Nina Simone song, has your expectation of how much forgiveness you should extend or should be extended ... has that changed at all in the last few years?

Well, I would say that more than ever these days. Forgiveness is needed on my own path to finding forgiveness, wholeness, happiness, joy, healing, all of those things that we all definitely need. Just like we need the water and the air we breathe these days, with all of the things that are happening with the shooting in Texas with the children, the babies, just the other day, right before July 4th in Chicago, there was another shooting with a five-month-old that passed away from a drive-by … there's a lot of anger. We just all went through a trauma with this pandemic that we're still actually in, it's not gone yet. The election was a trauma too because many families decided they were going to disown one another because of their political beliefs. There has been so much turmoil going on. I think that a little more forgiveness for ourselves, and one another is definitely something that’s not easy. But it's definitely something that if we if we could all be more mindful of it, you know, starting with ourselves because more people walk around needing that for themselves than they will ever say.

You’re Peoria born and bred. And you've also traveled the world. And you've talked particularly about good experiences in Cambodia, and Amsterdam, among many other places that you have played. As someone who has been to many other places, what do you take away from those people in those places that are maybe similar or a difference … or a little bit of both … from where you grew up and the people you grew up with … and maybe still connect with in Peoria?

Oh, man, I'm very fortunate to still have connections with my best friends from high school and their families and my family who still lives in Peoria and my mother is still in Peoria. I'm very fortunate to have continued those connections. And when you travel, especially in the arts which I can vouch for at least … people become family. There is a woman that sings in Cambodia, we sang together, and I cannot remember her name, but my heart will always remember her spirit. She and I call each other sisters and if we saw each other today, we would give each other a hug.

What I've gotten from going to other places is that one thing that we all have in common is the love we share. I remember going into Korea. It was one of the first trips I took right out of college. And the taxi driver … it was very hot out … he offered me some of his 7-UP. It was an open bottle that he had drank out of, and I kindly declined, but his energy and his willingness to give was something that I didn't forget. And one of my dearest friends from college was from Korea.

I've been to Cambodia. And in the same we’ve been all over Southeast Asia, England … every place has their own energy. But one thing that every place has in common is that it's easy to understand the love people give. And it's easy to speak to each other in that way. You see families. Families are families, sisters are sisters and brothers are brothers everywhere.

Brianna Thomas plays with her quartet Saturday night at Jazz UpFront in downtown Bloomington.

Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.