Even in Pittsburgh's rich jazz scene, Velvet Heat is a bit of anomaly. As twentysomething women, vocalist Jessica Zamiska and guitarist Arianna Powell represent a demographic you don't always find in the older, male-dominated world of jazz clubs. As Powell puts it, "We're bringing a very feminine element to the music scene."
Powell, who studied at Duquesne University under jazz guitarists like Joe Negri and Ken Karsh, became friends with Zamiska, a former musical-theater student, when the two were members of the Spin Bartini house band. Along with saxophonist Abby Gross, they began to play around town as a trio, making their debut at James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy. Gross eventually left to pursue other projects, and while Velvet Heat's live shows feature a range of local musicians — often highlighting other female jazz musicians, including keyboardist Reni Monteverde, bassist Ava Lintz and drummer Janelle Burdell — it remains a duo, first and foremost. Musically, Powell says, "Jess and I are always on the same page. It's nice to not worry about several other creative minds."
Over the last year, Velvet Heat has widened its audience, crossing over from small clubs to larger venues like the Rex Theater. "As the vocalist, [the difference] was immediately noticeable, because I was used to interacting with older people," Zamiska says. "When we're at a jazz club, we get a lot of requests for jazz standards that people aren't used to hearing a young person sing. It makes them really happy." On the other hand, Powell points out, the band's cover of "All About That Bass" is a crowd-pleaser no matter who the audience is.
On Tuesday, they'll release their first EP, Circles, which was produced by renowned drummer James Johnson III. When he offered his help, Zamiska recalls, "We thought it was a joke. Like, ‘Really?' Then he brought it up again and we realized he was serious." With Circles, Velvet Heat aims to showcase its traditional jazz-club roots (all the instruments were recorded live), while nodding to more accessible, Top 40 influences. "I feel like we tried to stay true to ourselves," Zamiska says. "We're influenced by pop and R&B. We wanted it to sound like us, but also be something our peers would enjoy."