The multi-faceted Audrey Welber-Lafferty sure has a lot of energy and seems to do it all, including her current position as coordinator of underclass instruction and research for the Princeton University Library.
In addition, from time to time, she teaches within the Princeton Writing Program (she is taking a break this semester).
Then there’s her music, which plays an especially large role in her life.
The Monmouth Junction resident, who will perform in several upcoming Jazz Vespers at the Princeton University Chapel, has studied woodwind instruments since childhood and plays flute, clarinet, and soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone.
Skilled in nearly every genre of music — from big band to straight-ahead jazz to urban gospel to classical — she is a first-call horn player in several bands between the Philadelphia and New York music scenes and has her own quartet, too.
She performs frequently in and around Princeton as a member of the Klez Dispensers, a whimsical but accomplished octet that offers up swinging, state-of-the-art, American-style klezmer. (Imagine joyous, old-fashioned Jewish-style wedding and party music, heavy on the wailing clarinet).
She is also part of many other groups, including New York City-based swing-jazz-blues band Swingadelic, and the Jazz Lobsters Big Band, led by Welber-Lafferty’s husband, James Lafferty.
Her fiery sound and precision technique on the alto saxophone has been described by reviewers as “inspired,” “muscular,” and “gloriously pure-toned.” Will Friedwald of the Wall Street Journal cited Welber’s “especially fluid clarinet solo” in his review of Swingadelic’s 2013 album “Toussaintville.”
Welber-Lafferty was also showcased on BET’s (Black Entertainment Television’s) long-running Bobby Jones Gospel show.
“I’ve played in lots of (African American) churches, and got my start in gospel with a genius musician named George Sykes from Newark,” she says. “He has a group called S3 and Truth; we appeared on BET’s Bobby Jones Gospel a few years ago, and he featured me.”
Now, add the title of “mom” to her life’s busy resume, as Welber-Lafferty and her husband recently adopted 3-year-old Delquan.
“We got licensed through the New Jersey foster system, and he was our very first placement on April 13, 2017,” Welber-Lafferty says. “It was supposed to be a temporary ‘respite’ placement for previous foster parents, but his biological mother ended up surrendering him to us in July, and we adopted him on November 17.”
“With a 3-year-old, my head is spinning — but it’s all good,” she adds. “Having him in our lives is the best thing ever.”
Those who are interested in the more reflective side of Welber-Lafferty’s musical talents should come to Princeton University Chapel’s Jazz Vespers when she performs with the Chapel Choir and pianist Logan Roth on Wednesday, February 7, at 8 p.m., and again on Wednesdays, March 7 and April 18.
Held in the intimate Marquand Transept, Jazz Vespers a mix of poetry, music and meditation.
“Jazz Vespers is a uniquely graceful and spiritual offering,” says Reverend Alison Boden, dean of religious life and the chapel at Princeton University. “Whether the music is meditative or ecstatic, it speaks to something very deep in each of us who attend. The instruments, the voices, the readings, the soaring arches of the chapel — all of it works together to create moments of transcendence and profound beauty. Audrey is such a treasure and one of the unsung, amazingly talented people around campus and town.”
“The Jazz Vespers series started around 2005 under Dr. Anthony Branker’s leadership, and I’ve been very blessed to be a part of it since then,” Welber-Lafferty says. “Now after Dr. Branker’s departure from Princeton, Penna Rose coordinates the service and leads the Chapel Choir and allows me to oversee the instrumental portion of the service. This February 25 I’ll be joined by the legendary (keyboard artist) Carlton Pope from Newark, New Jersey.” Throughout the year Jazz Vespers welcomes special musical guests.
Welber-Lafferty was raised in Fairlawn, Englishtown, and Princeton, where her mom was a homemaker and her father worked for Johnson & Johnson in various directorial capacities. After J&J, he started his own executive recruiting firm.
She says that, in addition to being a world-class triathlete, her father played (and still plays) saxophone, clarinet, and flute. She first got into music because it seemed natural to emulate him.
It was Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” that especially piqued her interest in learning an instrument, and Welber-Lafferty has an unusual story about choosing the clarinet.
“From as far back as I can remember, I was obsessed with cats — I read about cats, drew them, and wanted to spend all my time with them,” she says. “When my father played a recording of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ for me (in which the cat character is represented by the clarinet), my 8-year-old mind concluded that if I played the clarinet I could certainly become a cat. I started on the clarinet and only moved to the saxophone when I was around 16.”
Throughout her time at Princeton High School, and for a brief time after, Welber-Lafferty took private clarinet lessons with the esteemed clarinetist and Douglass College instructor George Jones.
Before jazz became part of her musical language she was involved in various school and community orchestras and wind ensembles, including the Mercer County Youth Orchestra. Then, as Welber-Lafferty sharpened her skills on the clarinet, she got involved with more intimate and technically demanding chamber ensembles.
Even with this level of playing, though, she says it was a challenge to step into jazz improvisation.
“After I started dabbling with the saxophone and began to listen to jazz, I became quite frustrated at what seemed my total inability to improvise or hear harmonies,” Welber-Lafferty says. “Because of my background as a serious classical clarinetist I was always a great sight reader, but I was completely locked into written notes.”
“I was also something of a perfectionist and able to discern skilled from unskilled jazz improvisation,” she adds. “Since I couldn’t produce anything that sounded good to me, I was terrified to even try. Though I’m perfectly happy with the way things turned out, I regret not starting to improvise when I was younger because that would have helped me bypass the debilitating self-consciousness that slowed my progress.”
Welber-Lafferty planned to major in music and imagined that she could be a Broadway pit musician, but since she had an interest and aptitude for medicine her father felt she should pursue pre-med in college.
“As it turned out, though, I decided to major in English literature instead, simply because it came easily to me, and I was more interested in socializing than I was motivated to pursue a career in medicine,” she says.
She attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, then Rutgers, earning her BA in literature there. She was then offered a full scholarship to attend Rutgers School of Communication and Information Science, earning her master’s degree in library and information sciences.
As far as jazz is concerned, Welber-Lafferty says that her real education in the genre started when she began her career at Princeton University as a research librarian.
“I was fortunate to have met Dr. Branker, who allowed me to audition for the Princeton University Jazz Ensemble (PUJE) and other small groups,” she says. “He not only pulled me out of my shell and essentially forced me to take solos in public, but he also taught me the mechanics of harmony and how to apply the sounds I’d absorbed from recordings into my own jazz improvisation.”
“I had played in big band situations in high school and college but never took an improvised solo until Princeton’s jazz band,” she says. “I always say that PUJE was like an undergraduate music school for me, and the Jazz Lobsters were like grad school.”
She says her biggest jazz influences are Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, and Kenny Garrett, and adds that she has been influenced by the many musicians she’s collaborated with.
“I’m, of course, influenced by lots of musicians I’ve had the honor of meeting and playing with, such as Clifford Adams (the late Trenton trombonist with Jersey City-based Kool and the Gang) and Tommy Grice (Trenton music teacher and tenor player), to name a few,” Welber-Lafferty says. “In genres other than jazz a few gospel singers I love are Yolanda Adams, William McDowell, and saxophonist Kirk Whalum.”
Klezmer came to Welber-Lafferty’s life almost like the icing on a musical cake. Even though she has Jewish ancestry and heritage, Welber-Lafferty says she had never been exposed to this raucous, can’t-sit-down music.
“I discovered klezmer when a few members of the Princeton University Jazz Ensemble decided to form a klezmer band back in 1998,” she says. “I joined the band on alto and tenor saxophone and immediately fell in love with the buoyancy and soulfulness of klezmer. The band is still together. In fact, we recently played in Taplin Auditorium as part of the Arts Festival at Princeton.”
The Klez Dispensers have appeared also in such New York venues as the former CBGB — the famed East Village hangout that helped launch the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group, and many other punk and new wave bands. Other venues include Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, Montreal International Jazz Festival, and Cape May Music Festival.
Another fine ensemble Welber-Lafferty has played with is trumpeter Jon Ashcraft’s Midnight Sun Orchestra. This swinging jazz band really stands out in her musical history, because Welber-Lafferty met her future husband through the group.
“I met James, a pianist, when we were both subs in the Midnight Sun Orchestra around 2005, and then I began playing with his band, the Jazz Lobsters,” she says. “I credit him with my progress as a klezmer and jazz clarinetist because at that point I hadn’t played the clarinet in around 10 years, and he encouraged me to start playing Benny Goodman tunes with his band.”
“We got married in 2007, and I love that we can play music together,” she says.
Although times are changing, and the ladies are stepping forward in all musical genres as bandleaders, soloists, and sought-after session players, it seems like jazz is still pretty much male-dominated.
However, Welber-Lafferty reflects that she never felt discriminated against because of gender.
“In fact, it seems to me that being a female musician works in my favor,” she says. “I was raised not to feel as though I had any limitations. Maybe I’m naive, but generally, if I’m excluded from musical opportunities, I assume it’s because of limitations on my part and I just try to work on those.”
Regarding Jazz Vespers, Welber-Lafferty feels that, among all the hustle and excitement of her musical life, this particular aspect is exceptional.
“It’s a wonderful merging of my love for God and music,” Welber-Lafferty says. “Though every opportunity to perform combines these two elements, in a sense, there’s something extra special about playing for people who come for spiritual nourishment.”
Jazz Vespers, Princeton University Chapel. Saxophonist Audrey Welber-Lafferty, pianist Logan Roth, and members of the Chapel Choir. Wednesdays, February 7, March 7, and April 18, 8 p.m. Free.
Special Jazz Vespers. Welber-Lafferty and keyboard artist Carlton Pope. Sunday, February 25, 11 a.m. Free. religiouslife.princeton.edu/programs-events/interfaith/jazz-vespers