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When stand-up meets jazz

YOU hear her voice before you even enter the bar, its smoky, sultry sound making you feel as if you're stepping into a 1920s-style Chicago speakeasy. Then she drops a line in Mandarin, and as you settle into your seat, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower comes in to view. You're in Shanghai, and the woman on the microphone is Danielle Eva.

Eva performs nightly at Jade on 36 in the Shangri-La Hotel, accompanied by her pianist, Sean Higgins, and sings original compositions as well as songs from what she calls "the Great American Popular Songbook," which begins with the early blues, Tin Pan Alley, and then extends all the way to funk, R&B and hip-hop. She also sings a number of songs in Chinese, including the crowd-pleasing favorite, "The Moon Represents My Heart."

However, she delivers each song, no matter the genre, in her distinctive American jazz style. It is not so much that she covers songs; she interprets them, adapts them, and makes them her own. As she says, "no matter what song I sing, I lend my jazz sensibility. That is the dialect that I speak."

She hasn't always been a jazz woman. Eva, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was, in fact, first a classically trained opera singer. However, at some point during college she caught the jazz bug, and after she graduated, made a bee line for New York City, where she soon broke out as a successful jazz vocalist.

After a number of years in New York, during which she developed her unique vocal style and stage presence, she began to feel the itch to go abroad. She had heard about American musicians getting gigs in Asia, and maneuvered to get one herself.

She ended up landing a gig in Hong Kong, and has since been living overseas for the past four years, also performing in Beijing, Istanbul, and now, Shanghai.

It was at a jam session at the JZ Club in Shanghai that she met her pianist, Higgins, whom she says, "has restored my faith in the younger generation of jazz pianists who can really do it all."

Higgins, a native of Andover, Massachusetts, has been playing professional jazz piano in Shanghai for the last three and half years, and is known for keeping American style jazz alive and well here. He also lived in New York for several years, however, never crossed paths with Eva until they met in Shanghai.

Eva says of Higgins, "There is a certain sound that I appreciate, as a vocalist, to be accompanied by. It's a certain understanding, a certain aesthetic, and it is somebody like Sean, who's been in New York, and has that kind of experience, with whom I can speak the same language."

Incredibly, the two have actually never rehearsed any of their songs. Their show is 100 percent improvisation. Higgins will lay down a graceful, playful piano line, and then Eva will sing along, taking whatever song that comes into her head and fitting it to the music. It's a constant game of back and forth; Eva might follow something that Higgins is doing, then she might start going off on her own groove, and then Higgins will play something in reaction to her. Yet it all sounds so smooth, so effortless, that one would never know that the two are just playing around without a script.

As Higgins says, "If you've done enough preparation, then you have enough substance to go with the moment. It's a combination of studying the tradition, and being willing to go with things as they come. That's where the magic happens."

Eva explains that her goal is to make her music accessible to the audience, while still honoring the tradition of the music. And the audience itself often becomes an integral part of the music. As she says, "We like the challenge of making something happen in reaction to the room, and the people."

She often cracks jokes, or makes up riffs in her songs that address people in the audience. One time someone asked her to sing something that referenced the news of the day. On the spot Eva came up with "The Steve Jobs Blues."

When she sings a Chinese tune, and the Chinese audience begins to get into it, she will often encourage them to sing along with her, crying, "Iqi chang (Sing together)! Iqi chang!" until the whole room fills with song.

Many of her biggest fans are Chinese, who often tell her that "they can feel the heart in my voice." Eva feels proud to bring the American jazz style to the Chinese audience and claims that, "China's ears are young, but they're hungry."

Eva's experience of living and singing in China has also had a strong influence on her music. She is drawn to older, traditional Chinese music, which she says has opened her mind to new musical voicings and possibilities. She is now working on a new recording project based on the music that has influenced her since she left America, integrating Chinese, Turkish and Indonesian Balinese styles along with her signature cocky, jazzy vocal presence.

Higgins and Eva have plans to take their act on the road at some point in the near future. But for the time being, they are enjoying their time at Jade, as it provides for them a musical laboratory of sorts, where they are free to experiment.

Eva describes her performance, "It's like stand-up meets jazz, meets master improviser, meets lyric riffing, meets making that guy from Germany crack up laughing. When people come to see us live, they feel the energy."

(Alexander Gladstone is a Shanghai-based freelancer and can be reached at

Danielle Eva

Nationality: American
Profession: Singer


I got two suitcases and a microphone. Where it's at!

Favorite place:
Early evening cocktails at Constellation 2.

Strangest sight:
A cyclist selling panting hamsters in the summer heat.

Motto for life: Begin again.

Worst experience:
Getting trampled by a pack of booty-wearing poodles.

How to improve Shanghai:
More mechanical-bull riding!

Advice to newcomers:
Take small bites and savor the strange.


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