Jeni Fleming has a soaring voice, one that is showcased as a vocalist with Pinky and the Floyd, a Montana-based Pink Floyd tribute band.
Fleming's pipes are so notable, the band added more female vocal parts to Pink Floyd’s iconic repertoire. It’s music that Fleming grew up with, yet still has an itch for more.
“You can’t sing backup forever and be satisfied,” Fleming said.
Fleming grew up in a family of classically trained musicians and started studying classical piano at age 5, yet her chops were informed more by popular music of the late 1980s and early '90s.
“I grew up listening to the radio. Michael Jackson taught me how to sing,” she said. Whitney Houston also stands out as an inspiring singer, a musical background Fleming describes as “a weird amalgamation.”
“That is what made me the kind of singer I am,” she continued. “I love pop music as much as I appreciated my classical training, as much as l love the straight ahead jazz stuff.”
Fleming has a degree in classical piano from Montana State University, and continues to reside in Bozeman where she teaches classical and beginning jazz piano, is a contemporary voice teacher and performs.
Her most recent collaboration is with Grammy- and Emmy-nominated Montana composer and pianist Phillip Aaberg, who lives in Helena. Aaberg grew up in Chester and left Montana to pursue rock music. He spent time playing keyboards for The Elvin Bishop Band, toured with Peter Gabriel, and recorded with the Doobie Brothers, Kenny Rogers and Vince Gill.
Like Fleming, Aaberg began playing classical piano as a youth, yet developed a distinct love for pop and rock music. For the collaboration with Fleming, he’s dragging up tunes that inspired him when he was in a rock band at age 14, such as “Waterloo Station” by the Kinks. “Ray Davies is one of my favorite songwriters of all time,” Aaberg said.
Their collaboration was the result of a “Hail-Mary” phone call after another collaboration fell through, Fleming said. Aaberg was game, especially because Fleming wasn’t interested in doing jazz standards.
“There’s a reason they’re standards,” Aaberg said. “They’ve stood the test of time, but for me it’s not my language.”
“It was like talking to a kindred spirit when it comes to pop music,” Fleming said.
Those similarities and influences are coming in handy. “There’s a shortcut to our conversation, how we talked about music and think about music,” said Fleming.
For their duet, Aaberg plays piano and Fleming sings. “The only thing we’re not doing is classical and jazz, the two studies that we both come from,” Fleming laughed.
The song-list spans more than an hour of tunes, including Alison Krauss, Brett Dennen, Gnarls Barkley, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, The Band and more.
“It’s all being filtered through us and the musical language we’ve acquired,” Fleming said. “Style, tempo, harmony and even melody are up for negotiation.”
Of singing Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Fleming feels it’s the perfect Valentine’s Day song. “Every time I hear that song, I get choked up, from the time I was a kid. Also, it shouldn’t be lost on people that we celebrate Valentine’s Day at the height of flu season.”
The duet’s slows down Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” transforming a dance anthem into a tragic ballad. “It’s done at a ridiculous slow tempo,” Fleming said. “That is kind of stuff that we are having fun playing around with. (Phil) is such a masterful pianist, it feels effortless putting these things together.”
“I love duets,” Aaberg said. “I love working with one other person, I love playing in bands, too, but there is an intimacy and a working out of different ideas that you can do more immediately than if you have been working in a band for 15 years.”
They’ve rehearsed a half dozen times over the span of a month, something Fleming said luckily they both enjoy.
“What the audience sees is not the part that I have fallen in love with,” Fleming said. “The fun part happens in my living room.”
Fleming is quick to say that she also loves to perform. “There’s some finality in getting to share these things on stage, a closure of the work you’ve been doing.”
They hit the road, performing two shows in Bozeman this week before Friday’s performance at the Pub Station.
“We’re having a lot of fun with it,” Aaberg said. “It’s a pretty good indicator of future plans.”