Jolie Rocke Brown, a gifted, versatile vocalist from Wethersfield who's as much at home soaring on opera arias and celestial hymns as she is getting down with funky blues and earthy jazz, just might, at long last, have the whole world in her hands thanks to her new soulful album, "Rock of Ages: Hymns for the Soul."
Unless you're a connoisseur of classically trained lyrical coloratura sopranos like Brown who can interpret everything from Mozart to Motown, you might not even have yet heard of this phenomenal singer, who is also a breast cancer survivor. Now totally cancer-free, she finds time in her busy career for her personal mission to support and encourage women going through the same ordeal that she experienced on what she calls her "transformative" journey.
As a musical dynamo, Brown has sung gospel music, spirituals and hymns in venerable churches and performed with top opera companies all over Connecticut. She's sung with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, played in famous venues like Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall and will perform July 18 at New York's renowned Riverside Church, toured with the New York Harlem Theatre, Houston Ebony Opera and Italy's Studio Lirico, and performed throughout Europe from France to Denmark.
Recently, the modest, down-to-earth diva dazzled audiences in appearances ranging geographically from Far North Queensland Australia to her show-stopping performance at a benefit concert celebrating the sacred music of Duke Ellington, presented under the aegis of her church, the historic, openly jazz friendly Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford. A few years back, Brown made her recording debut, "Jolie Rocke Brown in Concert," with a performance at Asylum Hill.
Although her full name, Jolie Rocke Brown, has a strong marquee ring to it, Brown, according to her loyal local fan base, hasn't reaped anything like the rewards her ample talents so richly deserve.
"Rock of Ages" just might elevate her to a status more worthy of her abundant gifts.
Done with amazing grace, her CD features fresh, inventive interpretations of traditional hymns in an ideal showcase for her classical training and her equally eloquent way with gospel, blues, jazz and other soulful styles.
With a regal range of nearly five octaves, with no tatters from top to bottom, and a kaleidoscopic array of tonal colors, Brown can make her queen-size instrument of a voice fit cozily and expressively in an array of soulful sounds, ranging alphabetically over American roots music styles from blues to zydeco. With accompaniment by pianist/organist Joel Martin, pianist Dan Campolieta, bassist Lou Bocciarelli and drummer Charlie Dye, "Rock of Ages" is a marvelous marriage of the secular and the sacred, the holy and the hip. It's an ecumenical union that seems to have been consecrated in some kind of music heaven.
The album was inspired by Brown's life-threatening battle with breast cancer during which she turned daily to spiritual music for aid and comfort, taking solace and inspiration from hymns and spirituals she's loved since first joining a church choir at age 10 in her hometown of Queens, NY. Diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in March, 2010, Brown had a double mastectomy in May, finished chemo in October, followed by complications with reconstruction and surgeries through 2012.
"When I was diagnosed in 2010 with breast cancer, I started singing hymns right away, posting a different hymn each day on my Facebook page, and did so for weeks as I was dealing with my diagnosis and all of the testing," Brown says of her profound bond with the spiritual material on her CD, including such classics as "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and "I'll Fly Away."
"The hymns really spoke to me because they're tried and true testimonies of how God brings people through tribulations. Their stories are so relevant today, even the oldest hymn on the CD, 'What Wondrous Love,' that dates back to 1597. A majority of the hymns are from the 1800s, but they're timeless. It's marvelous how meaningful they are now. When you listen to the words, it's poetry."
Recently, Brown sat down and talked about her reflections and her belief that singing is not just a career choice or a dream job, but a spiritual calling to share her God-given gift as a soprano with soul.
Q: You say that your experience with cancer also changed the way you see things now in that light. What would be an example?
A: After going through all that, any fear I might have had about performing is gone. I'm much more aggressive and more willing to push the envelope and not accept 'no' for an answer. And I chart my own path as opposed to auditioning for this opera company or that opera company. I just said to myself, 'You know what? It's time for me just to be Jolie Rocke Brown and perform.' I'm going to have my own band do Jolie Rocke Brown on tour.
Q: It sounds like that ordeal, what you call your journey, has crystallized your thinking about things in many ways?
A: I've seen my greater purpose in life. I'm not supposed to be defeated by cancer. Somebody needs to hear me sing. Someone needs to hear the message that I bring. Someone needs to be soothed. I want to help other people with things they're going through in life. You know, we are all connected. You can't get around that. You can't do anything without someone else. We're all interconnected. And I see where I'm connected in the world now. And because I see my purpose, I'm so much happier.
Q: How important for you is music at this stage in life?
A: It's more than something that I love. I strongly feel that God has called me to be a musician. When I'm on the stage and performing and sharing music with other people, I'm not the same person. There's something missing when I'm not doing that. Music is so integrally a part of life, I have to do it and I can't stop.
Q: How did you get so hooked on music…all kinds from classical to groove-oriented?
A: My mother, who was a divorced single parent mom, used to sing to me all the time when I was a child. I used to love nursery rhymes and children's songs, and knew all of the outdoor jump rope songs. I was always singing in the games that we would play.