Foodie Tuesday: An impromptu jaunt to Italy…er, Eataly

Last Friday was one of those picture-perfect September days in the city.  The skies were clear, the air was crisp, and the foot traffic on 5th Avenue was a beautiful parade of the “glittering crowds…in canyons of steel” that Vernon Duke surely had in mind when he wrote “Autumn in New York.”

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Hallelujah! An unabashed celebration of carbohydrates.

As I left my late-morning voice lesson, I realized that nothing on my to-do list was terribly pressing, and so I could take my time getting back to Brooklyn.  I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to duck into Eataly for a quick lunch and look-around, and was reminded of something that Italians seem to know instinctively: stealing an hour for a delicious meal and a bit of unapologetic leisure is deeply restorative and good for the soul.

Mario Batali’s sprawling, airy monument to all of Italy’s culinary delights can be a little overwhelming, it’s true.  Eataly houses walls of cookbooks and sleek, Italian-designed cookware, bottles of extra virgin olive oil in every imaginable shade of green-gold, a butcher, a fishmonger, a cheese shop, no fewer than seven restaurants plus a Nutella bar (!) and a room dedicated solely to gelato and espresso, so it can be hard to know where to start.

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The essence of Italian cooking: high-quality ingredients, prepared simply so that the flavors sing of themselves.

I strolled slowly, smiling at the innumerable shapes and sizes of pasta that lined Eataly’s shelves.  I marveled, too, at the vast array of honeys from all over Italy (chestnut, acacia, linden, wildflower) and pondered having a lunch of gelato (pistacchio, nocciola, and cioccolato, to be exact) before taking a seat at the bar in Le Verdure, Eataly’s vegetarian restaurant.  I ordered the bruschetta del giorno: toasted country bread topped with goat cheese, fresh figs, and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. Wanting something sophisticated but non-alcoholic to drink, I also ordered a blood orange San Pellegrino soda.

I ate slowly, reading a book and people-watching.  At the end of my lunch, I felt that a metaphorical as well as literal hunger had been satisfied.  It’s easy, in our always-frenetic American lives, to pooh-pooh our need (yes, need) for la dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).  But the truth is, an hour spent savoring a well-prepared meal and enjoying a favorite corner of the city can reinvigorate one’s spirit and even boost productivity.  I left Eataly with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, newly resolved to find more moments of indulgence and relaxation amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

I miss Italy terribly, and can’t wait to go back for an in situ dose of la dolce vita, but in the meantime, it does my heart good to know that Italy-via-Eataly is just a subway ride away.

 

 

Spotlight On…Kat Gang

I knew of Kat Gang long before I ever knew her personally.  I’d dug her work as a thoughtful lyricist and high-flying improviser on The Wishbone Project, and I knew she had wowed throngs of listeners at Birdland as a frequent host of the club’s Sunday night jazz party.  Kat even called me to fill in for her at one of her steady gigs in town when she was (I kid you not) climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

It wasn’t until fairly recently, though, that Kat and I actually met face-to-face.  Our paths finally crossed when we teamed up to sing a duet of “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week” at a Sinatra-themed concert that Will Friedwald curated earlier this year.  We not only had a great time singing together, we became good friends, too.  Kat is vivacious and approachable, witty and warm, and she brings all the sparkle of her personality to every song she sings.

Newly returned from a globe-trotting summer—she’s just returned from a jaunt to Iceland, in fact—Kat took some time to answer a few questions about her life as a musical storyteller. Thank you, Kat!

Kat SingingWho or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I have always been a performer.  Ever since I was young, I would put on plays with my sister, turn tables into stages, and sing at the top of my lungs.  I was lucky to be raised in a household with lots of music; my father used to play piano, and I would watch his feet on the pedals.  I could recognize melodies from a very early age.  I had fabulous teachers who supported me and urged me to follow my passion.  One in particular was Louis Curtis, our church choir director—she let me join the choir a year early because I was so eager.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you?  What has been the most challenging?
I have a really good ear.  Therefore, I found that I could get away with less theory work through my innate understanding of harmony.  The technical stuff was always difficult for me; reading music was a painstaking process.  I have always been impatient with the stuff that does not come naturally.  Sometimes your gifts can be a blessing and also a curse!

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I think about this question a lot. There is something important about singing that I can reduce, in essence, to communicating: telling someone a story, [telling someone] your story.  I think I would like to be a translator, someone who is always telling and re-telling stories, and communicating between languages.  How and why people communicate is a fascinating study. Maybe I could learn Italian and live in Tuscany and drink wine and eat pasta and re-tell people’s stories.  That would be awesome.

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime.  Who is in your “dream band?”
I love Chet Baker, his improvisational lines and sound.  I love Carmen McRae and her boldness and the way she takes her time.  I would love to trade fours with Ella, or try and hold my own with Keith Jarrett as we both make up a song on the spot.  Brad Mehldau’s trio is pretty tight—I can imagine singing with them and being in sonic heaven.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
One of my favorite quotes (I think it is by Woody Allen) is, “80% of life is showing up.”  This is especially true for our profession: the extent to which one must persevere—even on terrible gigs, even when no one is listening—is so extreme.  We do what we love and are therefore guided by some other power.  A club owner told me once, “You have to sing the songs that are connected to your heart.”  Be present, be authentic, that’s about it.  And Bobby McFerrin told me to just “keep singing.”  I’m gonna go with that!

arborscoverWhat are your current musical obsessions?  Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
There’s a singer who I cannot get enough of named Paula Morelenbaum, who evokes the smoothness and intricate harmonies of Brazil.  I also find, recently, that Bill Frisell’s “Ghost Town” can be an antidote to the harshness and chaos of living in New York City.

Fun Fact…
I live downtown and, whenever I head out on the 4/5 train, I buy a 25¢ Blow Pop from the subway candy stand.  It’s a little OCD and a little nod to my sugar addiction!

Kat’s recent album, Dream Your Troubles Away (Arbors Jazz), was released to glowing reviews; the Midwest Record called it “…a classic jazz thrush album from start to finish…what easy sophistication is all about. A stone cold winner.”  She’ll be celebrating the album’s release at Birdland on September 18 at 6:00 pm.  Don’t miss it!  You can also catch Kat every Wednesday night at the Plaza Hotel, singing and swinging in classic Old New York style.

August: Looking back, looking ahead (and a big announcement)

August is a bit of a bittersweet month.  As summer winds to a close, the farmers’ market tomatoes taste ever sweeter and the late afternoon sunlight is even more honeyed.  On a personal note, celebrating my August 22 birthday always reminds me that, in the words of the great Dorothy Parker (who was also born on August 22, incidentally): “Time doth flit; oh shit.”

In these last languid days of August, I’m indulging in some much-needed R&R: this weekend I’ll be practicing my new ukulele in the park (I know! Could there be a more hilariously Brooklyn-esque activity?) and heading to the beach for some sand and surf.

Before we all commence our Labor Day weekend merry-making, though, I want to share a very exciting and happy piece of news with you: The Great City, my debut solo album, is going to be officially released on Anzic Records on September 30!  What’s more, the album is available for preorder on iTunes now!

The Great City CoverAnzic is a fantastic label, based here in New York City, and is home to a slew of wonderful artists, including my DUCHESS cohorts, Amy Cervini and Melissa Stylianou.

Making The Great City was truly a labor of love.  My band brought so much heart and brilliance to the music, and many of you helped to fund the album’s creation during my KickStarter campaign, so this is really a shared celebration.  I’ll be doing a CD release event at Birdland on Sunday, October 5 at 6:00 pm.  I would love to see you there!

In August, I…
Blogged about: DUCHESS on the roadSinger-friend Mary Foster ConklinSaying goodbye to BernieSongs for Supper.

Watched: The final episodes of True Blood.  The finale was so-so (okay, I’m being generous), but I wanted to see how all those campy, supernatural story lines played out…oh, Eric Northman, I’ll miss you.

Read: A Change of Appetite, by Diana Henry.  Henry’s latest tome is dedicated to eating healthily without sacrificing flavor or creativity.  The book is organized by season and I’m particularly eager to delve into the autumn recipes (shawarma chicken with warm chickpea puree and sumac onions, anyone?).

Listened to: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s iconic duets.  Pure joy; simply some of the most beautiful music ever recorded.

Just for fun, here’s a bonus track from The Great City; it’s our cover of the theme song from HBO’s Brooklyn-centric detective series, Bored to Death.  Remember, you can pre-order the full album today, and I hope to see you at the CD release party on October 5!

Bored to Death – composed by Coconut Records/Jason Schwartzman
Hilary Gardner – vocals
Photography – Walter Briski, Jr.
Piano – Ehud Asherie
Guitar – Randy Napoleon
Bass – Elias Bailey
Drums – Jerome Jennings
Tenor Saxophone – Jason Marshall
Trumpet – Tatum Greenblatt
Hammond C3 Organ – Jon Cowherd

Foodie Tuesday: Songs for Supper

Jazz Musicians & Food

L to R: Duke Ellington, enjoying a sundae; Billie Holiday, cooking; Frank Sinatra, having coffee & a donut in his dressing room.

Musicians tend to be bons vivants, possessing refined palates honed from playing countless gigs at fancy-schmancy shindigs with top-shelf food and drinks.  Lots of musicians are great home cooks, too; maybe there’s a connection between improvising in a band and improvising in the kitchen?  Whatever the explanation may be, I think it’s safe to say that musicians, as a group, love food with a special fervor.  When musicians get together, it’s usually not long before the conversation turns to what we’re eating on the way to the gig, what we’ll be eating at the gig, and where we’ll go to eat after the gig.

Today’s Foodie Tuesday post raises a metaphorical glass to the love affair between musicians and food, although this smattering of food-themed songs doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how many great tunes have been written about eating and drinking.

Sweet Kentucky Ham, written by Dave Frishberg, performed by Rosemary Clooney
Man, did Rosemary Clooney have a way with a lyric or what?  Perhaps more than any other song I can think of, this tune encapsulates what it feels like to be in a lonely hotel, dreaming of the taste of home.  In his signature style, Frishberg has written a wry lyric that is both humorous and heartbreaking.

Eggs and Sausage, written and performed by Tom Waits
I first heard this tune on Waits’ live-in-the-studio recording, Nighthawks at the Diner, when I was about twelve years old.  This tune, in particular, evoked everything that I imagined adulthood held in store for me: late nights, breakfast-for-dinner, and city life.  As it turns out, the adult me does love all of those things.  I also love this clip of a very young Tom Waits on the Mike Douglas show, in which Douglas hilariously introduces Waits as “…a combination poet, jazz singer, and vagrant, with a surprising amount of personal charm.”  For his part, Tom Waits describes himself as “an unemployed service station attendant.”

Frim Fram Sauce, written by Redd Evans & Joe Ricardel, performed by the Nat “King” Cole Trio
I don’t know what “frim fram” sauce is (although autocorrect seems to think it’s “from farm,” so maybe there’s a connection?).  Nor have I ever eaten “ossenfay” or a side of “sha fa fa,” but this is the first song that came to mind when I decided to post about food and music.  Nat Cole was such an incredible musician; he made everything look so effortless, but he was playing a lot of piano and his singing was smooth as silk.   The double-takes between the “two Nats” in this clip are priceless.  For another take on the tune, check out Amy Cervini’s version.

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, written by Johnny Mercer & Hoagy Carmichael, performed by Frank Sinatra
This song won an Oscar in 1951; it’s a very silly lyric that is offset by a couple of rather unexpected harmonic shifts.  Only Frank Sinatra could sing about a “weenie bake, steak, and a layer cake” and make it sound swinging and cool.

Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood, Mama), written by Sidney Bechet & Leonard Ware, performed by Fats Waller
The Andrews Sisters had a massive hit with this song, but I’m including Fats Waller’s version here.  His hilarious and playful interpretation makes it clear that this song is, perhaps, not really about food at all.  You be the judge.

Bon appétit, happy listening, and please feel free to share some of your favorite food songs in the comments!

RIP: Bernie Strassberg

I received word today that Bernie Strassberg died earlier this week.  I’d heard that he was ill, and if my math is correct, he was about 86 years old, so his passing was not entirely unexpected.  Still, when someone looms as large in one’s life as Bernie did in mine, there’s something inherently a little shocking about death.  It’s hard to imagine New York City without him.

Bernie, in fine form, on the Upper West Side ca. 2003.

Bernie, in fine form, on the Upper West Side ca. 2003.

I met Bernie for the first time when I was still living in Seattle.  Bernie was visiting a friend in town, and the two of them came to my gig at Café Campagne.  During my set, I sang “Body and Soul” and “The More I See You” and sang the verse up front, a cappella.  Afterward, Bernie pulled me aside and rather sternly inquired as to whether I knew what year “Body and Soul” had been written.  As it happened, I did—1930, incidentally—which made Bernie happy.  He went on to ask me if I knew who Beverly Kenney was, saying that I had channeled her in the verse to “The More I See You.”  I had heard only one of her recordings, I admitted, a beatnik-y version (complete with bongoes) of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” on a Gershwin compilation album.  My answer seemed to satisfy Bernie, and after he returned to New York, he got in touch with me and told me to make a demo recording, for which he would foot the bill.

With Bernie’s help, I recorded a four-song demo with my Seattle band, and, also thanks to Bernie, the demo found its way to pianist/composer/Dizzy Gillespie alumnus Mike Longo, who became my mentor and teacher when I moved to New York City.  My first gigs in town were with Mike’s big band, and through those early gigs, I slowly began to find my footing in the music scene here.

I spent lots of time hanging out at Bernie’s apartment during my first couple of years in New York.  He had thousands of albums, and we’d drink wine and listen to June Christy.  I remember he always teared up during the ballads.  Sometimes Bernie’s cat, Lady (named for Billie Holiday, of course), would sit on my lap while the records played.  Once, I came over, crying; I was exhausted, broke, and feeling defeated.  Bernie would have none of it.  I can still hear his voice: “My money’s on you, kid.”

Bernie’s apartment had a little terrace that overlooked West 57th Street.  He had filled the terrace with so many plants that there was hardly room to sit, but sit we did, talking about music and city life on sweltering summer afternoons.  Truthfully, it was Bernie who did most of the talking, which was all right with me.  He had a lot of opinions and liked to teach me Yiddish and tell stories about his years in the army and concerts he’d seen.

Bernie

Always a twinkle in his eye.

Eventually, Bernie and I had a falling out; in his signature blunt fashion, he harshly criticized a recording project of mine and I was too angry and stubborn to let it go.  We didn’t speak for several years, until one night he surprised me by waiting outside the stage door at Come Fly Away.  I was singing with a big band in Twyla Tharp’s Broadway homage to Frank Sinatra, and Bernie was tickled pink.  “You did great, kid. I’m so proud of you.  Whatever went wrong between us in the past, forget it,” he said, dismissing any lingering resentments with a wave of his hand and a hug.  It was great to see him.

Bernie spent every Sunday afternoon at Café Loup, eating brunch and listening to live jazz.  He invited me several times to meet him there, and I never made it.  I sure wish I had.

Bernie Strassberg was a mensch, a real New Yorker and a true friend to jazz, and those are pretty goddamn fine things to be, if you ask me.  Rest peacefully, Bernie.  Thank you for everything.

Spotlight On…Mary Foster Conklin

I love singers who love repertoire, and who turn a song inside out, upside down, and sideways to plumb every last drop of meaning from the lyrics.  I also love smart, funny dames whose elegance and ruby-red lipstick belie the fact that they can curse like a sailor.  And I love real New Yorkers, who adore but never sentimentalize this dirty old town.  It’s no surprise, then, that Mary Foster Conklin is one of my favorite singers on the scene.

I first heard Mary at the Metropolitan Room, where she was holding the audience in thrall during her Fran Landesman tribute, “Life’s a Bitch.”  She artfully spun stories of Fran’s Greenwich Village and London heydays and performed swinging, fiercely intelligent interpretations of songs like “Small Day Tomorrow” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.”  I became an instant fan of Mary’s, whom the New York Times described as “a poetic rebel full of salt and vinegar.”  Mary is every bit as witty and warm in person as she is onstage, and I am very glad she took the time to answer a few questions for the “Spotlight On…” series.

Thank you, Mary!

MaryFosterConklinSinging

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
1. A great choirmaster in high school who had Big Ears and eclectic taste in music;
2. A pushy director who shamed me into putting together my first club act in my 20s; and
3. A 1984 sub gig with a punk band in the bombed out East Village after their lead singer (a friend who sadly suffered from schizophrenia) walked off an outdoor concert in New Haven and was MIA. That was my first NYC performance in a club.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you?  What has been the most challenging?
Words are easy, music is hard.  [Music] requires more attention and practice.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
Something on the business side of the arts—producing, fund raising or grantwriting, to create more work for artists.

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime.  Who is in your “dream band?”MaryStanding
Bill Evans or Count Basie on piano, John Kirby or Paul Chambers on bass, Art Blakey on drums, Ben Webster or Lester Young on sax.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Be ruthless about perfecting your musicianship and never reveal your budget when recording.

What are your current musical obsessions?  Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
Cecile McLorin Salvant, René Marie, Kurt Elling, and Snarky Puppy have been recent downloads.  I loved the show After Midnight and I think Taylor Mac is a genius.  His show about the 20s blew me away.

Fun Fact…
I once spent an evening playing bridge with Tennessee Williams.  He cheated.

Mary will be singing in “Renegade Cabaret in Exile Up a Tree,” a free show in the East Village’s El Jardin del Paraiso on Thursday, August 21 at 8:00 pm.  She’ll also pay tribute to composer Matt Dennis (she’ll be joined by Bob Dorough, Roz Corral, and others) at St. Peters as part of their Midtown Jazz at Midday series on Wednesday, September 24 at 1:00 pm.  Go! 

 

Get your kicks (on Route 66): DUCHESS on the road

TulsaArrival

Arriving in Tulsa!

Any musician will tell you that life on the road can be a rough haul.  We’re talking about sub-par food, crazy-early mornings, and a whole lot of togetherness with your bandmates, which can all make for tired and cranky campers.  Unless, of course, the tour is along Route 66 with DUCHESS and Cow Bop.  In that case, we’re talking about excellent food, the loveliest hostess and accommodations in all of Oklahoma, and some of the swingingest music on either side of the Mississippi.

Yup, Amy, Melissa, and I have just returned from a whirlwind jaunt along historic Route 66, where we opened for (and were accompanied by!) the inimitable Cow Bop. We performed for big-hearted, wonderful audiences in some fantastic venues: the gorgeous 1920s-era Coleman Theatre, followed by a show at Oklahoma City’s down-home, hipper-than-hip club, the Blue Door.  We closed our our run with two back-to-back shows at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in Tulsa.  Along the way, we ate copious helpings of chips and guacamole, drank more than a few beers, and had more fun than even we could have predicted.

ColemanPre&PostShowCollage

Pre- and post-show at the Coleman Theatre. Our dresses just happened to coordinate with Bruce’s cowboy ensemble.

Our aforementioned hostess-with-the-mostess was Nana, a dear friend’s mother-in-law, who put us up (and put up with us!) for the duration of our tour. She had sandwiches waiting for us when we pulled into her driveway after a long travel day, and she made us feel completely at home.  We shared several memorable meals with Nana, including burgers and ice cream at Braum’s and an incredible Mexican lunch at El Rio Verde.

Amy and I left the driving to Melissa, who was a champ behind the wheel of Ruby, our little red sedan.  Cool as a cucumber, Melissa drove us all the way to Oklahoma City in blinding rain, where we played our hearts out for the intrepid folks who braved the weather to come see us.  Before our final show in Tulsa, we took girl-on-girl harmony to the streets and busked, making the acquaintance of Tulsa Jazz founder John Taylor in the process!

The post-gig hangs with Cow Bop are hard to describe, but I believe the word I’m looking for is “epic.”  Oh, and we played kazoos.  Lots and lots of kazoos.

I know.  You wish you’d been there.  We wish you’d been there.  Or maybe you were there and you just want to re-live the magic.  Well, thanks to the vision of Cow Bop’s founder, Bruce Forman, and Rifftime’s David Howard, you can!  All our shows were live-streamed and archived.  So crack open a Dos Equis, open a bag of Fritos, and tune in. You can catch the shows here, here, and here.

Thank you to Nana, Bruce Forman and Cow Bop, Rifftime, Darcie at the Coleman Theatre, Greg Johnson at the Blue Door, the OK Jazz Hall of Fame, and all of the new friends and fans we met along the highway that’s the best.  Until next time, Route 66!

ColemanCollage

The stunning Coleman Theatre in Miami, OK.

A successful first show! I'll drink to that.

A successful first show! I’ll drink to that.

Clockwise, from top: Melissa "Mario Andretti" Stylianou, driving in the blinding rain; the Blue Door; group kazoo solo; DUCHESS with Greg Johnson, song-lover and proprietor of the Blue Door.

Clockwise, from top: Melissa “Mario Andretti” Stylianou, driving in the blinding rain; Oklahoma City’s hippest club, the Blue Door; DUCHESS with Greg Johnson, song-lover and proprietor of the Blue Door; group kazoo solo.

 

DUCHESS with Route 66 friends & fans! Clockwise from top: with Pinto Pammy (CowBop's chanteuse), with Tulsa Jazz founder John Taylor, with Rifftime's David Howard, with Nana and "fan of the day" Ken Harwood.

DUCHESS with Route 66 friends & fans! Clockwise from top: with the fabulous Pinto Pammy (Cow Bop’s chanteuse); with Tulsa Jazz founder John Taylor; with Rifftime’s David Howard; with Nana and “fan of the day” Ken Harwood.

What a great tour!  Here's to Route 66, CowBop, and girl-on-girl harmony!

What a great tour! Here’s to Route 66, Cow Bop, and girl-on-girl harmony!