Kristen Lee Sergeant is a jazz vocalist and composer of effervescent energy, musical intensity and dramatic flair. DownBeat Magazine has given both her albums the distinction of being an Editor’s Pick, citing how she “crafts moments of engaging drama, whether she’s seductively sliding into a note with a near-whisper, delivering a breathy revelation or belting out a lyric with full-throated muscularity.” She commits to telling a story in her music and performance style, while sparking spontaneous sonic conversation with her fellow musicians. Such commitment, and its results, captivate her audiences, whether in live performance or listening to her recordings.
Kristen’s current release, Smolder, is a story of fire — love ignited, ablaze and extinguished. DownBeat critic Bobby Reed writes “This elegant album illustrates what can happen when admirable ambition is paired with vocal vibrancy.” Alongside her inventive arrangements of jazz standards and pop hits, she also makes her debut as a songwriter of originality and craft. “Balm/Burn”, one of the originals, also provides the music for her first music video that has been lauded by pop and jazz critics alike. NeuFutur commented that with this video Kirsten “is able to refresh a storied jazz vocal tradition that traces its way back about 100 years.”
What brought her here is a journey of searching and curiosity that imbues her work with many influences. Growing up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, she devoted herself to theater, and worked professionally through school, graduating from Brandeis University with a degree in music. “I left my high school graduation early, with a costume underneath my robe, for an evening show. Same in college: couldn’t celebrate since there was a matinee that day!” Kristen recalls. She left Brandeis having received the Ira Gershwin Prize in Music.
Although classical vocal training interested her in pursuing opera as well as musical theater, jazz is what won her heart when she moved to New York City. “The intimacy of performance in smaller venues, and the nature of improvised music opened up entirely new possibilities for me as a musician and performer. It wasn’t really a choice; I was captured by the music.” Kristen recollects, citing Marilyn Maye and Carmen McRae as inspirations, then and today.
She began singing with a big band, worked with small combos in cigar bars, hookah lounges, nursing homes, “wherever I could”, she adds. Coupled with intensive study with singer/composer Tom Lellis, she evolved her vocal style and musicianship in a totally new direction, taking the best of what stage training offered and crafting her approach to jazz with intensive work. She won the Jazz Forum Arts vocal competition in 2014, and in addition to enthusiastic acclaim for her first album, Kristen also performed at Birdland, Iridium, Zinc Bar, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Joe’s Pub and more.
A singer with a side hustle is no anomaly, but a singer who is also a certified sommelier, serving on the floor of NYC’s top restaurants, while forging her career onstage, is quite unique. While debuting her first record at Birdland, she was a sommelier at Gotham Bar & Grill; while finishing her second record, Smolder, she brought her wine expertise to The Grill (the New York Times’ restaurant of the year in 2017).
“I’m lucky to have had work in wine that allowed me to develop individuality in my musical approach”, Kristen explains. “There is something of a connection between them in that both music and wine can be intoxicating, and in their highest expression, bring us into a transcendent state.”
Not surprisingly, her creativity found its way into her work with wine. Two Notes, a wine Kristen created with Grammy winner Ted Nash, is a Bordeaux blend from California soon to be in its second vintage. “There comes a time to contribute to the the narrative of the things you love, not just be a consumer or a critic. Two Notes is our contribution to the wine world.”
Her passion for wine and song is leading to exciting places, as her international career begins, and Smolder’s spark begins to blaze. Certainly, there will be much to toast to as time goes on.