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At the time, the impromptu song session Valerie Troutt had with pianist Robert Glasper, a fellow jazz-besotted New School classmate, seemed like just another casual musical hookup. Looking back on that practice room encounter some two decades later though, Troutt can see that the brief collaboration planted seeds that have finally blossomed with her new album, “The Oakland Girl.”
Slated for release Oct. 2 on the San Francisco artist-run label Slow & Steady, the project is a revelatory collage of coming-of-age stories by a vocalist, songwriter, and cultural activist devoted to carving out liberatory creative spaces for people often denied visibility.
“‘The Oakland Girl’ is really the project that I first initiated myself,” said Troutt, 43. “It’s the first real group of songs I trusted with other human beings. It’s my big reveal.”
Back in 1999, the Oakland-raised Troutt was trying to find her way in New York City, studying jazz at the New School and working out a new song in a practice room. Glasper was already a standout talent, but years away from collecting three Grammy Awards for his R&B-infused “Black Radio” albums.
Wandering through the New School hallways, he dropped in on Troutt, looked over her “Oakland Girl” notes “and just starts playing the song fluidly,” Troutt recalled. “I start singing freely over what he’s playing and he creates an interlude section that comes right before we go into the 6/8 groove. He gave the song wings.”
Over the years, she and Glasper talked about doing something together with the song, but Troutt eventually decided to make it the title track of the new album, which is her second. She released the album’s first single, “Mr. Black,” on Friday, along with a video that’s premiering exclusively on The Oaklandside, featuring choreography and dance by AfroHouseHop pioneer Soul Nubian (aka Rashad Pridgen).
“The video is allowing myself to be visual, to be seen,” Troutt said. “That’s a side of me that I have not tapped into before. The world has not been kind to fat people, so this feels very raw and exciting. It’s been amazing working through that imagery and movement and reclaiming my whole self with Soul Nubian.”
Despite not being widely known, Troutt has been an essential force on the Bay Area arts scene for years, collaborating with some of the region’s most important figures. When trombonist Wayne Wallace composed a suite of music with performance poet Aya de Leon celebrating Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center, “Ayer, Hoy y Pa’Lante,” it was Troutt who spent two years performing the piece as a lead vocalist.
She’s performed widely with Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir, and is the leader and creative engine behind the soul-steeped vocal ensemble MoonCandy, which released the 2016 four-song EP, “The Struggle Is Real: Walk Together Children.” MoonCandy often accompanies choreographer Nicole Klaymoon’s acclaimed dance theater company, Embodiment Project.
Last year, a grant from the city of Oakland enabled Troutt to expand MoonCandy from its usual 10 to 12-member cast into a community choir, while retaining its core mission of promoting “freedom and the right to live and choose and love,” she said. “The dance floor is our universal synagogue, and we welcome everyone to come and lay their burden down.”
If Troutt is dedicated to building community through the arts, it’s because she knows all about the transformative power of finding one’s voice. Attending Berkeley High in the mid-90s, she was locked out of the jazz band, which didn’t feature vocalists at the time. Instead, she plunged into jazz singing in the Berkeley High choir led by Wendell Brooks, “and then I found the Oakland Youth Chorus and that changed my life,” Troutt said.
She’d been writing songs since elementary school, working out chords and melodies on a Casio keyboard. “The first song I wrote that was published, ‘Radiance,’ was for the Oakland Youth Chorus, and then two of my songs appeared on a Melanie DeMore album,” she said, referring to the OYC instructor and founding member of Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir. “Melanie really encouraged me, said I’ve got a good ear.”
In many ways, Troutt has been carrying the stories behind the songs on “The Oakland Girl” since she went off to college at 18, drawn to Howard University by the school’s dazzling constellation of musical alumni. After one year she realized that Howard wasn’t what she was looking for and moved back to Oakland, where she started working full time and studying jazz at Laney College with pianist Ed Kelly. “Oakland Girl” drew inspiration from the young women Troutt grew up with in West Oakland whose lives took divergent paths.
“I’d see these young women in my peer group and I just started piecing together this almost storybook of different women I had met in Oakland who had a similar hunger to get out,” Troutt said. “Young women who’d lost something of themselves and their family, or were trying to discover something in themselves. Some have passed on, and some are here and thriving with families. I still go back to it with refreshed eyes every time, knowing I have flown away, come back, and flown away again.”
She’s honed her own sound with a full-spectrum palette of African American idioms, encompassing spirituals and gospel, jazz, soul, and R&B. Part of what makes “The Oakland Girl” so musically cohesive is that she’s accompanied by a crew of longtime friends and collaborators, including keyboardist Emanuel Ruffler, pianist Maya Kronfeld, bassist John Ormond, drummer Darian Gray,and background vocalists Solas B. Lalgee and Paulynn Brown (largely the same cast of players featured on Troutt’s 2013 debut album “The Sound of Peace”).
The German-born, New York City-based Ruffler, who also produced the album, has been working closely with Troutt since they met as students at the New School. A composer and arranger who won the 1998 Thelonious Monk Composers Competition, he played a crucial role in honing Troutt’s songs, a collaboration he describes as “a unique opportunity because her approach and the reach of her music is always so wide, she’s really reaching for the sky with every note.
“In the early stages, when we just got into college, she already had that energy,” he said. “A whole group of people were gravitating to Valerie as a singer you could work with, who’d contribute to the music, harmonically, spiritually. And she had her own sound as a composer. We worked on so many different projects together, wedding gigs, a drum ‘n’ bass track, various songs. We’re always able to connect, even after all these years.”
A virtuoso of connection and song, Troutt is just getting started. After revealing her coming-of-age stories with “The Oakland Girl,” she’s ready to start revealing the next chapters in a story written right in the East Bay.