Listening to the Jeni Fleming Acoustic Trio, it’s impossible not to follow the powerful lead voice. Set against subtle jazz arrangements featuring an upright bass, a six-string guitar and some periodic light percussion or the hum of a saxophone, that soothing voice is the foundation of each and every tune. It’s like velvet: soft, textured, rich and deep. There are many elements to the Jeni Fleming Acoustic Trio, but they’re all tethered to the distinctive vocal chords of the woman at the front of the stage.
“I was never classically trained,” says Jeni of her singing, speaking from the home she shares in Bozeman with her guitarist, songwriter and husband, Jake Fleming. “I was actually trained on the piano and started playing when I was six. Classical piano—that was everything for years.”
But there’s no piano on stage when Jeni performs, just her and that incomparable voice. The fact that her vocal gift comes naturally, and in lieu of a lifetime’s practice, is just part of what makes the trio, rounded out by bassist Chad Langford, so engaging.
Despite talents that beg for larger prospects, all three remain apparently content in Bozeman. Even with beautifully packaged self-released CDs, they shy away from capitalizing on their professionalism by pursuing a prominent record deal. Despite consistently selling out venues across the state and in other parts of the West and Midwest, they still book concerts in churches to take part in fund-raisers and play for old friends. There are a lot of paradoxes within the trio, but to hear Jeni talk about them, it seems that there’s not much to fuss about. They’re happy, profiting as musicians, free to create the music they want, at their own pace and without outside pressures.
“A few years ago we sat down and set some goals,” she says. “The goals were more personal. We wanted to create a body of work. We’re trying to discover what it is the musical trio sounds like…[and] you really have to spend time with people to get there, and I think we’re close. Right now, we have the best of both worlds—a hometown that really supports us, and we spend a lot of time on the road working to get better.”
The closest the trio ever came to moving up to a larger arena was a conversation about maybe relocating to New York City. But Jeni says it was easy to stay put.
“Arriving isn’t our goal,” she says. “There are so many others trying to just make it, doing a lot of the same music we may be doing. Why get caught up in that? It takes so long to establish yourself and we’ve done that here.”
The same logic goes into their reluctance to pursue a record deal.
“We really enjoy the independent thing, especially when it comes to recording,” she says. “We do it all ourselves, rent a condo—this year at Big Sky again—and work 15-hour days if we want to. It’s some of the best times, just having the freedom to figure things out and experiment.”
And why no piano?
“Oh no, I would never, ever do that in public,” Jeni says, sounding horrified.
After graduating from Montana State University with a Bachelor of Music and an emphasis on classical piano, and after playing for 22 years, Jeni decided to abandon it as a performance instrument.
“By the time I graduated from college, I was practicing five hours a day and I was still mediocre,” she says. She only teaches now.
“I really came to a crossroads and I had to choose,” Jeni says. “I could either be a bad classical piano player or I could try to be a jazz singer. It wasn’t hard for me to make the decision.”
Last December, the trio released Once Around the Sun, its third album in three years (one of the trio’s goals is to release five albums in five years). The CD is split between fresh-sounding covers of classics like Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and The Beatles’ “In My Life,” and original ballads written and arranged by Jake Fleming.
Jake’s lyrical style is intentionally airy, allowing Jeni’s voice to fill the songs, as on the title track: “Once around the sun / I can hardly wait till morning / new day comes.” His compositions, which are tweaked by Jeni and Langford during recording, are conversely more complex, with alternating jazz rhythms that allow his saxophone or guitar and Langford’s bass to dart in and out of the pockets left by Jeni’s encompassing voice. Jake’s connection to Jeni, both musically and personally, allows the delicate mix to come together seamlessly.
“Jake brings us the skeletons of what he’s working on,” Jeni explains, “and then we all add our input, fill it out, try it on and see how it works. That’s about the extent of it…What we end up with is jazz-influenced, but that’s as far as I would go in calling us a jazz trio. There are no improvisations in our songs. Our focus is more on really serving each song.”
The two met on the campus of MSU when Jake was working as Minister of Music and Outreach at the Center for Campus Ministry, incorporating classical, jazz, rhythm and blues, country and folk styles into worship music. Jeni, whose father is a Lutheran Minister, was asked to do a song for one of the services and scheduled a rehearsal with Jake. It’s only fitting that the two met in a musical setting.
But despite their connectedness and history, Jeni and Jake do not collaborate throughout the creative process. Jake may offer up the occasional idea for feedback from his wife, but writing together is out of the question.
“I’m an interpreter more than a composer,” she says, adding as an aside that she’s responsible for suggesting all of the covers. “Jake wants me to write with him and we’ve tried it before, but it doesn’t work so well. It’s really difficult. It’s like teaching your wife to read.”
So, Jake continues composing and writing, and Langford is beginning to offer his own original tunes to the trio’s mix. And Jeni keeps her eye out for compelling songs to remake. Just as long as they don’t require a piano.
The Jeni Fleming Acoustic Trio plays the Crystal Theatre Friday, June 10, at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $15 and available at Rockin Rudy’s.