INTERVIEW: Sasha Masakowski has been crafting her NOLA sound her entire life

Sasha Masakowski will bring her band, The Sidewalks Strutters, to Princeton, New Jersey, for a free concert. Photo courtesy of the artist.

New Orleans vibes will travel up to Northeast this weekend with the summer concert series in Princeton, New Jersey. Sasha Masakowski and The Sidewalk Strutters, hailing from the Crescent City, will play on a double bill with reggae artist Mystic Bowie.

The free concert, which begins Saturday, July 15 at 7 p.m., comes thanks to Blue Curtain and the Princeton Recreation Department. Audiences can take in the sounds at the Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater in Community Park North, Route 206 and Mountain Avenue.

Masakowski has had music in her life ever since she was young. She was born into a musical family and won the Best Emerging Artist prize from the Big Easy Association. That accolade was eight years ago, and since then, she has brought her singing to venues around the world. She doesn’t lead one band or even two. She fronts three bands that cut across multiple genres, including NOLA jazz, contemporary jazz and world music.

When she plays with The Sidewalk Strutters, which includes Gordon Webster on keyboard/piano,  Oran Etkin on clarinet, Dylan Hicks on drums and Elias Bailey on bass, audiences can expect to be transported to the jazz clubs of the French Quarter, perhaps even Frenchmen Street.

In addition to the Princeton gig, Masakowski will play in August at the San Jose Jazz Summerfest in San Jose, California. Other scheduled concerts this year will bring her to San Francisco, New York City and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Recently Hollywood Soapbox exchanged emails with Masakowski. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.

Growing up in New Orleans in a musical family, was music always in the cards? What are your earliest music memories?

Yes, music was always a part of my life growing up. I am so lucky to have been born into a family of musical masterminds. My father is a renowned jazz guitarist, and my mother is a concert pianist and visual artist. They raised my little brother and me on everything from Joe Zawinul to Dr. John to [Claude] Debussy. There was always music in the house, musicians coming over to practice or hang, rehearsals in the living room, the sound of my mother practicing [Johann Sebastian] Bach concertos as I fell asleep at night, etc.

My parents would always take my brother and I to hear music concerts. My earliest memories were at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, watching my dad perform with his progressive jazz/ fusion band, Astral Project; hanging around legendary musicians like Alan Toussaint, Will and Earl Turbington, Ernie K. Doe, etc.; and not having any idea ‘who’ they were but somehow instinctively knowing they were visionaries. The spirit of New Orleans is so mystical and vibrant, and that spirit is communicated through music and dance. So growing up in such close proximity to some of the greatest musicians and culture-bearers in the world was so informative and really helped shape me as an individual.

What can audiences expect when you come to New Jersey this week?

This weekend in New Jersey I am bringing a band of truly brilliant musicians who are not only musical masterminds but incredibly fun people. Audiences are going to hear these virtuosic guys playing New Orleans swing/jazz music with the warm, light-hearted, easy-going spirit of New Orleans. It will feel like a party!

Your singing and music defies easy categorization. You’ve done contemporary jazz, traditional jazz and world music. How would you define your sound?

Haha. I’ve always had a hard time conforming to one style or sound. I like to think of myself as an innovator or a trend setter. I’m a very curious person by nature, and I think that’s why I’m drawn to jazz music. I love the spontaneity and the freedom that jazz music allows. It’s a very personal art form, and I strive to put as much of myself / my personality as possible into my performances.

After a show I want the audiences to feel like they got to know me on a personal level, not like I played some role or character or my music was so complex that no one can connect to it (which, unfortunately, I believe happens too often in jazz music these days). I just want to make people feel good, and laugh and smile, really.

Are you working on a new album?

Yes! I’m thrilled about this new album. I’m currently in the final stages of mixing, and everything sounds incredible. It’s the perfect insight into my artistic brain right now. All the styles that influence me are there from traditional New Orleans jazz to bounce music to electronic art-rock. Sounds crazy but somehow it’s all woven together beautifully. I’m really proud of it. I decided to call it Art Market because all of the songs have their own personality, each its own tiny universe, just like booths at an art market.

What’s it like to play at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival? What’s going through your mind before a set?

Jazz Fest feels like home! It’s really fun. I’ve been attending the fest since I was in diapers, so to play a set at Jazz Fest feels so great, like Christmas dinner or something. Haha. It’s hard to explain. Everyone is so warm and welcoming. Audiences are enthusiastic and fun-loving. You see musicians, neighbors, old high school teachers, everyone walking around enjoying music and food, and you really feel like you are part of a beautiful community. New Orleans does that to you. It’s truly a magical place.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Sasha Masakowski and The Sidewalk Strutters will play a free outdoor concert Saturday, July 15 at 7 p.m. at the Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater in Community Park North, Route 206 and Mountain Avenue in Princeton, New Jersey. Mystic Bowie will also perform. Click here for more information on the concert. Click here for more information on Masakowski.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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