At only 24 years old, vocalist Sasha Masakowski has already firmly established her musical career and distinct voice in the New Orleans music scene through several different bands and collaborative recordings and performances.
Born into a musical family, Sasha has embraced the unique set of influences from her youth and dedicated her life and studies—here at the University of New Orleans' esteemed music department and abroad at the Netherlands' prestigious Rotterdam Conservatory—to the exploration and even redefinition of the genres she and her voice are naturally attracted to. This exploration has reached a new level of maturity and professionalism with her latest EP, Wishes, recorded with her band Musical Playground.
"[The EP] is a little more focused with more of a distinct, particular sound and cohesive sense of rhythm and groove," she says. "Really, the essence of all music is rhythm, it makes people move and dance and feel sexy and good. I want people to be able to listen to the CD and blare it on their car radio, just kinda groove out. I'm really proud of it."
The album showcases one of the most impressive and distinguishable qualities of Sasha's singing voice: her indisputable knack for improvisation.
"It's a lot of listening. You sort of have to get outside yourself and just hear what the other musicians are doing," she says. "Sometimes it takes a second to feel that and really get into it. That's why most great soloists leave space and they listen."
Each member of her band is gifted at improvisation themselves, bringing the music they create together to a heightened level of creativity, spontaneity and emotional connectivity.
"Everything about the band, especially our band, is so much based on trust, we trust each other to listen and to create together," she says. "And so when we're improvising, I'm sort of the featured artist, the soloist at that point, but really it's such a collective thing, and the things that I sing are based on the energy of the band."
For even the best trained musician, improvisation can be a difficult concept to master, much less keep fresh and interesting. Sasha finds inspiration from the other voices around her, and teaches this method to the students in her vocal lessons.
"One of my practice exercises is to try to imitate other instruments, try to imitate horn players, trumpet players. It gets you outside your own head and opens you up to limitless possibilities, since you're not restrained to just, 'I'm a singer, I'm a voice, my typical vocal scat shooby dooby doo bop,'" she says. "So I'll channel different instrumentalists in fact, depending on the sound or the song that I'm doing."
Sasha's father, guitarist Steve Masakowski of Astral Project, also recognizes his daughter's refined talent, "I work with a lot of great vocalists, and she's one of the most talented improvisers," says Steve. "Matter of fact, before we even had [our Brazilian jazz group] Nova Nola, sometimes I would hire Sasha instead of a horn player, for instance, because I knew she could sing lines and take solos."
But Sasha's work with Musical Playground is only the beginning—she's had her hands and voice in numerous bands throughout her relatively brief career, and also currently performs with Nova Nola, a Brazilian jazz quintet with her father and brother; a contemporary jazz group, the Cliff Hines Quintet; and a traditional jazz band, the Sidewalk Strutters. She's been writing some original trad jazz music as of late and hopes to go into the studio with that group soon.
"Trad music travels a lot—people all around the world wanna hear that New Orleans traditional jazz," she says. "So it's a lot of fun to have something completely different and a totally separate style of music, but it's just as accessible to listeners and it's just as much fun to participate in."
When asked how and why she keeps up with so many different projects, she gave a very practical, yet artistic answer:
"It's different things that inspire me, and when it gets down to it, things that pay the bills," she says. "You have to be versatile and ready to take on whatever comes your way. I'm lucky enough that I'm at a point where I can be choosy about the projects that I get involved in, and it has to be something that keeps me inspired."
She continues, "I don't ever wanna get to the point where musically I feel like what I'm doing is a job, like I'm just going to work to pay the bills. I'm grateful every single day that this is what I am doing, so it's just stuff that keeps me inspired, you know, keeps me going."
One such inspiring experience happened earlier this year when the Cliff Hines Quintet teamed up with members of the Greenhouse Collective to shoot a performance art music video for their single "Pastels." In the video, the group wore all white except for different colored blindfolds. They performed the song at half-speed and blindfolded while a gaggle of children ran around them splattering paint all over their white garbs. They then sped the performance up to match the correct speed of the music, making the children's movements appear to be twice as fast. The end effect is very surreal and beautiful, what Sasha recalls as "one of the best performance experiences of my life."
"I actually was lip-synching, but still you're feeling the music and all of a sudden you feel a whoosh, paint splashing into your face," she says. "I can't tell you how many times I got paint in my mouth."
Finally, Nova Nola is a natural extension of the Brazilian influence that Sasha has absorbed since a young age, thanks to her virtuosic parents, father Steve and mother Ulrike, a gifted pianist.
"I have vivid memories of being a little girl, and my dream job was to be one of the backup singers from the Jobim albums, you know the Brasil '66 and stuff like that," she says.
Traces of that Brazilian influence can be found in many of her musical endeavors, but Nova Nola has allowed Sasha, backed by her father and younger brother Martin on bass, to channel some of her favorite Brazilian artists—Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Bosco, and Monica Salmaso, to name a few—and sing in Portuguese as if it were her native language.
Second languages—whether it be Spanish, Portuguese or music—are generally thought to be best learned at a young age for full immersion and well-developed mastery by young adulthood. Steve smiles proudly when asked about Sasha and Martin's early musical upbringing.
"I find that most of their development came just through osmosis. I didn't push either of them into music, it was something they decided they wanted to do. It's great," he says. "On one hand, they're very independently minded and very advanced for their age, obviously. But by the same token, I can see some of the influences from them being around the house. So in a way, [how they play] is sort of a biological extension of the way I think sometimes."
It seems that the Masakowskis are poised to become yet another family of prolific musicians who call New Orleans home, joining the ranks of the Neville, Marsalis, Battiste, French, Dede, and countless other musical dynasties of our city's rich past before them.
Sasha and the rest of the young, inspiring talent of her band Musical Playground will be performing on Thursday, May 6th in the Jazz Tent—her third performance at the annual festival.