With James Morrison, Jim Kelly, Craig Burnett & Emma Pask – in rehearsal, Easterfest.
“To say Sharny Russell is both enormously versatile and gifted, is perhaps an understatement . . .
As a pianist, vocalist, composer, educator and producer, she is known and respected throughout the Australian music industry, moving between genres with ease.
It was Judith Durham of the Seekers that spotted Sharny and made the insistent comment, “The world must hear you!” And Sharny has obliged!
How many people could claim such contrasting credits as having songs published in The Australian Hymn Book, the Australian Jazz Real Book, as well as a stint as musical director on the iconic Australian children’s television program “ Here’s Humphrey!” But this is just the tip of the musical iceberg for Sharny. With 160 songs, four completed musicals, degrees in classical piano and jazz music studies, and being known in the industry as a leading exponent of scat singing, Sharny’s versatility would appear to be her greatest asset – and one she has been happy to share with her students, who have included X-Factor winner Dami Im, Aria winning indie-pop artist Megan Washington, and Montreux Jazz Award winner Kristin Berardi. Sharny’s musicals have been performed by members of the Ten Tenors when they were boys, and a Sydney Eisteddfod senior adjudicator has urged her to publish her children’s songs “as there is not much music of this quality left, once we have used all of Miriam Hyde’s (Australia’s “queen” of children’s music).”
As a woman of substance, she is known for miraculously surviving a horrific car accident early in her career. When her family and friends were struggling in disbelief at her plight, Sharny was inspiring them with her courageous resilience, cheerfulness and miraculous healing. It comes as no surprise that what may have been adversity to some, became an even greater reason to rise up and shine in her inimitable way. Whether it be leading worship services, raising her four children as compassionate loving people in challenging circumstances, or learning to live with an auto immune disorder for the past 18 years, Sharny is powered by her faith, and refuses to let anything take her down!
Sharing the stage with James Morrison, George Golla, Emma Pask, The Idea of North, Darren Percival or Grace Knight is all in a days work for Sharny. In her capacity as Artistic Director for the Byron Bay Carols, good friends – Australian Idol winner Stan Walker and Andre Rieu’s leading lady Mirusia – were only too happy to appear on stage in Sharny’s production. Esteemed company indeed!
With an APRA award, Australian Songwriting Competition Award and numerous recordings to her name including one on the ABC Jazz label, this gal from Toowoomba, now residing in the Byron Shire, has come a long way!
Sharny Russell has touched many lives, be it through her music, her faith, her mentoring or her friendship. It’s hardly a surprise that several of the who’s who in the international jazz community have told Sharny she would “kill it in New York”.
Judging by her career so far, it’s only a matter of time.” Elizabeth Lord
EXTRA FROM THE ADELAIDE ADVERTISER – FEATURE STORY, 9th Sept 2017.
Here’s a complete copy and paste of the Advertiser’s story, for those who are interested to read it all:
Prof. David David and Sharny Russell
Anna Vlach, SA Weekend
August 31, 2017 11:54am
IN the early hours of September 8, 1977, jazz artist Sharny Russell was a passenger in the back seat of a car travelling through country New South Wales.
Known as Sharon Schlencker back then, the 22-year-old was making a name for herself as a music teacher and singer in Adelaide. She and her then husband, composer-arranger Craig Schlencker, 25, were sharing the driving with another young couple.
It had been a great trip checking out Sydney’s live music scene to book acts to play the Creole Room they had recently opened on O’Connell St, North Adelaide.
Sharny, who started going by her childhood nickname and maiden name in the early eighties, and Craig had also caught up with family in Brisbane and Toowoomba, where she was born, before beginning the long road trip back to Adelaide.
It was in the days before compulsory seatbelts and as she drifted to sleep, Sharny had a disturbing vision.
“It was a picture of a little car coming along a winding road and there were all these demonic creatures,” she recalls.
“I thought ‘Wow, that could be us and we could be in danger’ and I prayed … ‘God, please keep us safe’ and that was my last thought before I fell asleep … my next waking moment I was lying on the ground looking at the tops of trees.
“I was trying to make a sound … I was in and out of consciousness.”
Sharny later found out the driver had “got a back wheel into some soft edges” and the vehicle had rolled up to 11 times before coming to rest on its roof out of view from passing motorists.
Fortunately, one of the couple’s travelling companions, who had been in the front seat, was able to get out of the car and walk to the road to find help for Sharny and Craig, who had also suffered a serious head injury.
“He saw me on the way – I’d been thrown – and my face had been completely flattened and smashed,” Sharny, who had broken every bone in her face, says.
He managed to flag down a passing truck, which had already come to the aid of a driver whose car had broken down and who, as luck would have it, was a doctor.
“The truck driver had a CB radio, which was a new thing in those days. We were an hour from Griffith and he was able to call an ambulance. The doctor came and sat with us for that hour … it was amazing,” Sharny says.
Flown from Griffith Base Hospital to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Sharny again found herself in the care of the right person — the young doctor who would become the internationally renowned Adelaide craniofacial surgeon Professor David David. The then Dr David had not long returned from France where he had studied the techniques of Dr Paul Tessier who, in the early 1970s, had performed revolutionary reconstructive surgery on the face and skull to correct congenital abnormalities.
“How lucky was I? Another surgeon’s name was written on my charts, but it had been crossed out and replaced with Dr David … the timing was incredible,” Sharny says.
“I just remember having such as sense of God being around me and that everything was going to be okay … Dr David used to walk into my room every day and say ‘Hello beautiful’ and I had this incredible injury.
“They had to do two very long operations by going in, cutting the skin underneath, inserting wires and pins into my lower and then upper, face.
“I didn’t break any skin I just smashed like a bag of potatoes … In the first (operation) they cut right over the top of my head and peeled everything down using these brand new techniques where you could shift the skull without damaging the brain or the eyes.”
Sharny had already lost the sight in her right eye when a bone broken in the accident severed the optic nerve. She discovered years later, when talking to a friend who knew details of her case, that was a blessing. “This particular bone should have pierced my brain and killed me, but it actually snapped and went sideways … so my blind eye really saved my life,” she says. “I healed a lot faster than they expected me to – they thought I would be in hospital three or four months, but I was out before one month was up because I just responded so well.
“People were very angry and said ‘This shouldn’t have happened to lovely people like you’ and I said ‘Yes, but we are alive … God was there and he looked after us’ and I had such a presence of God in my room in the hospital. It was so tangible for me that I expected people to see it and feel it when they came in.”
Told she was unlikely to ever sing professionally again, Sharny was adamant that wasn’t going to happen. While she had grown up in a musical household and had a degree in classical piano, Sharny had only started singing live after she joined a jazz trio which had a residency at Alpine Lodge in Adelaide’s south parklands.
“I was only playing piano and I kept singing along, and my drummer and bass player kept saying to me, ‘That sounds really good — you should get a microphone’ … so I finally bowed to the pressure and got a microphone,” Sharny says, adding once she became a jazz vocalist and pianist there was no turning back … even after the accident and surgery.
“The day the tracheotomy came out I had a little bit of a sing … it wasn’t that good, but sheer determination.”
In the months that followed, Sharny resumed her day job as the founding teacher of Adelaide’s Yamaha music schools at Glenelg and Prospect. She ran them for six years before she, Craig and their two young children moved to Sydney before settling back in Queensland.
During those six years she also achieved other firsts such as being the inaugural woman musical director of Channel 9 children’s show Here’s Humphrey. Sharny also introduced contemporary music services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Flinders St.
In the mid-nineties Sharny and Craig, who had four children, went their separate ways. In the decade that followed Sharny, who now lives in the Byron Bay region, taught at the Queensland Conservatorium where her students included some of this country’s top artists such as Kristin Berardi, Megan Washington and Dami Im – runner-up in the 2016 the Eurovision Song Contest.
“If anyone deserves that kind of fame, Dami certainly does because she’s an absolutely beautiful person on the inside,” Sharny says.
“She was one of my hardest working students … I worked with her on jazz phrasing and scatting and piano accompaniment.”
Scatting is Sharny’s forte, as noted by jazz critic Eric Myers – “she could be one of the world’s most important scat singers” – who has also called her “Australia’s Diana Krall”.
“Diana Krall doesn’t scat … maybe she just doesn’t want to because I can’t imagine that she can’t,” Sharny says. “It’s something you’ve got to want to do … it bubbles out of me and I can’t resist.
“I’m very attuned to every sound that’s coming out of my mouth – on one level I’ve got that perfectionist side – but there’s another part of me that’s just singing from my gut and trying to tell a story … my main aim when I am singing is to reach the ears and the hearts of people.
“I’m not a big belter … I’m a more intimate-style singer.”
Writing and recording – at the encouragement of Seekers singer Judith Durham – Sharny’s first original album A Good Thing on Hold was released through ABC Classics and won the 2004 APRA (Australian Performing Right Association) jazz award.
Her latest release, Comes A Time, was recorded at the studios belonging to Australian jazz great James Morrison, who was in Sharny’s band when she played The Basement in Sydney in the early eighties. Sharny says it is an “eclectic profile of all that I do musically – my writing, arranging, piano playing, singing, improvising, scatting and storytelling”, of which her most famous student is a fan.
“Dami sees me as a great inspiration … She said to me, ‘I listen to your album Comes A Time a lot – it keeps reminding me of what good songwriting is all about’,” Sharny says, adding she’s “thrilled and humbled” by the praise.
Meeting with Professor David for the first time in two decades this July while in Adelaide to perform at AJ’s Bar & Cafe and La Boheme, Sharny presented him with the CD. On the cover is a “lovely arty shot” of Sharny taken by her second husband Frank van Herp over the shoulder of a professional photographer.
“If I hadn’t had you I would have had scarring on my face,” Sharny tells Professor David, also reminding him that her chart stated she was the worst craniofacial injury survivor case on record in Australia at the time.
“It was the first step in making this business what it is today … fortunately we don’t see the pattern of fractures you had as often,” Professor David tells her, explaining better cars, compulsory seatbelts and airbags have made cases like hers far less common.
“Peeling the face down was a big deal back then, but we do it all the time today”.
Sharny’s third and final operation took place in 1978 after the birth of Alexandra, the first of her and Craig’s four children. It was a year after the accident.
“She was our ray of sunshine … life was very difficult, but this little girl was incredible,” Sharny says, adding the birth itself at Adelaide’s Queen Victoria Hospital was history-making, Sharny being the first woman to bring a sound system into the labour ward in the form of the huge speakers she used at gigs. As well as playing Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Don Burrows and guitarist George Golla, with whom she would later record two albums – Velvet Jazz and Velvet Live – Sharny sang to newborn Alexandra accompanying a recording of Blossom Dearie’s I’m Shadowing You. The musical welcome became a family tradition.
“After my children were born my husband was insisting that I sing to them, the idea being that they would transition from the womb into the world with sounds they were used to … because I was performing right up until when I had them and teaching music in the Yamaha schools they knew the sound of my voice,” Sharny says, adding of Alexandra’s arrival: “Next thing it was on the front page of The Advertiser and it ended up on the front page of every capital city in Australia … we didn’t have to put a birth notice in.”
In the operation that followed, Professor David put the finishing touches on Sharny’s new face.
“They took a rib and made pieces for my nose and cheeks because I was still very concave … he was just so caring and meticulous and tried to make me as beautiful as he could,” Sharny says, adding she was lucky enough to see Professor David again and give him some of her gospel and children’s music recordings while visiting Adelaide in the ’90s.
“People often say to me ‘Wow, you would never know you have even had that done’.”
As the discussion turns to how head trauma can heighten one’s existing personality, Frank says the accident definitely hasn’t been to his wife’s detriment.
“Sharny is a 150 per cent person in every avenue of life … she just gives and gives and gives, so that basic personality was enhanced,” he says, to which she replies “Oh sweetheart.”
Observing that patients with a positive attitude like Sharny’s are “a dream to treat”, Professor David has seen living proof of the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
“Certain adverse events, which you wouldn’t wish on anybody, make people very strong if they come through the other end,” he says, telling Sharny it takes “gravitas to be a star”. “It’s lovely to know that you are a success,” he says.
Looking forward to the future with plans to collaborate and record with other jazz artists, Sharny says she’s never felt better.
“My middle name is optimist,” she says. “After the accident I kept trying to smile … I’m a bit of a smiler, so my injuries weren’t going to stop me.” ●
Comes A Time is out now. sharnyrussell.com