March: looking back, looking ahead

Photo proofs of Tennessee Williams at the Morgan Library exhibit.

March is an in-between month, not quite winter and certainly not quite spring, either. Last month, restlessness and impatience nipped at my heels as I dreamed of lilacs and blue skies, only to be met with nor’easter after nor’easter. Snowfall notwithstanding, March brought lots of fun experiences: seeing the Tennessee Williams exhibit at the Morgan Library; listening to Jay Clayton, Sheila Jordan, and Marion Cowings sing at an intimate Upper West Side soirée; and performing with Duchess at Dizzy’s (in the middle of a snowstorm, I might add). March also ushered in occasions to celebrate: my mother’s birthday, the first day of spring, Major League Baseball’s opening day (!), and my fifteen-year anniversary as a New Yorker on March 31.

Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan singing on the UWS. I am so grateful for their joyful and generous spirits!

I suppose at some point I may stop marking my move to New York City as a personal holiday, but the truth is, the anniversary of my arrival in New York feels as significant to me as my actual birthday (August 22, if you’re keeping track). One of the things I have always loved about New York City is its potential and permission for reinvention. A person can live many different lifetimes in this endlessly dynamic city, and the promise of spring reminds me anew that, as Dorothy Parker wrote, “New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”

This year, my New York-iversary coincided with Easter and Passover, leading to a very festive weekend and no small amount of rumination on the twin themes of spring and rebirth. On Good Friday, my friend R. and I headed deep into Brooklyn to attend an invite-only dress rehearsal of Jesus Christ Superstar, starring John Legend and Sara Bareilles. We were there thanks to the largesse of a buddy of mine, who was playing lead trumpet in the show (thanks, S.!) and we were blown away by the energy and talent of the musicians and actors.

The following night, my husband, in-laws, and I had dinner at Gramercy Tavern, a longtime standard-bearer of the New York City restaurant scene. In all my years in New York—and the restaurant business, for that matter—I had never eaten at Gramercy Tavern, and the experience more than lived up to its reputation.  We were delighted by the profusion of tulips and forsythia at the restaurant’s entrance and the warm, golden light that suffused the room. The service was knowledgeable and unpretentious; the food was elegant, imaginative, and (most importantly) delicious. The entire evening was unforgettable.

Three cheers for the world’s greatest city!

Easter Sunday itself was spent with my husband and mother-in-law, walking through the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Precious little was in bloom, but we were all heartened by seeing brave little buds on the trees and lilac bushes.

Looking ahead—well, at the moment, the truth is that I’m not looking too far ahead. Spring will arrive when she’s good and ready. In the meantime, there are daffodils from Trader Joe’s, early dinners in cozy locales with friends, piping hot cups of tea in the morning, and other small, quiet joys that make me happy to be right here, right now.

In March, I…
Blogged about: February. The joys of carbohydrates. Singer-friend Champian Fulton.

Watched: Woman of the Year. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are irresistible. Words and Music. Wildly inaccurate, but delightful to hear so many Rodgers and Hart tunes. Sneaky Pete. Giovanni Ribisi is ridiculously good in this fun show. Jesus Christ Superstar, live and in person!

Read: Playing with the Grown-ups, by Sophie Dahl. I love Sophie Dahl’s writing. This, her first novel, is a coming-of-age story, told with poeticism and compassion, about a young woman with a decidedly unconventional upbringing. At the Kitchen Table, Dahl’s new website with seasonal recipes and thoughtful musings, described by Sophie as “kind of virtual Sunday lunch table, with excellent guests.” Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub. An enormously engaging portrait of the life of a starlet in Hollywood’s golden age. The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. God, I loved this book! On the surface, Mitford’s tale of the romantic mishaps and comic foibles of a beautiful British noblewoman could be construed as frivolous, but her prose is laced throughout with laugh-out-loud zingers and sharply intelligent social commentary.

Listened to: The Red Garland Trio, A Garland of Red. Elegant and swinging. The Boswell Sisters.

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Spotlight On…Champian Fulton

Champian Fulton is a pianist, vocalist, and consummate professional. Raised in Oklahoma, Champian was immersed in jazz literally from birth: she was mentored by her father, trumpeter Stephen Fulton, as well as the legendary Clark Terry and had her first paid gig at age ten, performing for Terry’s 75th birthday celebration.

Champian arrived on the New York City jazz scene over ten years ago with serious chops and a calm self assurance that belied her youth. Since then, she’s recorded nine (nine!) albums as a leader and she performs and teaches throughout the world.

I’ve always gotten a kick out of Champian. In addition to being an incredibly swinging musician and tireless ambassador of jazz, she’s friendly and funny, a great dresser, and an avid reader. I so appreciate her taking some time out of her always-busy schedule to share some wisdom and insights here. Thank you, Champian!

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
It’s hard to pick just one! At different times it’s different people depending on whether I feel more like a pianist or more like a vocalist. Right now, I am really digging Erroll Garner because he is so endlessly creative. As for vocals, I have been listening to more Ella Fitzgerald than ever before in my life. Especially the record Ella & Oscar, which is later Ella. I think she just sounds so completely at ease and loose—there’s a little arpeggio she does in the first 4 bars of “More Than You Know” that just sends me.

Champian performing with Clark Terry.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
Yes, quite quickly. Ha ha. When I was younger I went through a period of practicing A LOT. Basically all day. But then, as [I] get older and have more to do in life, as well as more performances, I just practice less. Practicing now revolves around maintenance on the piano and the voice, and working on new material. That being said, I think about music and listen every day. It’s infinitely easier to practice singing than piano, simply because I can practice singing anytime anywhere: on the subway, washing dishes, cleaning the house. And yes, I sing on the subway, but only quietly!

If you had a time machine and could travel back in time to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself about singing, life, and/or the music business in general?
Just keep at it. Perseverance is the best skill to acquire early on. Stay busy and stay on top of your game.

Photo credit: Antonio Narvaez

We live in a DIY-era: in addition to performing and recording our music, we ALSO handle social media, book gigs, and perhaps juggle “side gigs” to keep the bills paid. In the face of all these obligations, time management can be hugely challenging. What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping everything in balance?
I’m pretty organized; I keep lots of lists and spreadsheets and my calendar is color-coordinated. I love social media, so tending [to] that on a daily basis is usually pretty easy. I don’t tend to get overwhelmed by the tedious office work and emails, so I just do them when I can and try to keep my email inbox to under 10 emails and file everything else away. My #1 tip is pick up the phone. A ten-minute phone call can accomplish more than ten emails.

Fun fact:
As I mentioned above, I tend to sing to myself on the subway because I actually just love singing and do it when I’m doing almost every other activity. I think I’m pretty quiet, but sometimes, people who are sitting next to me will get up and move! So there you go, it’s a tip to get a little more room on public transportation.

Champian will be performing this week at Talde in Jersey City (3/28) and Shanghai Jazz (3/30) in Madison, NJ. Not in the New York/New Jersey area? Check Champian’s calendar page to see where she’ll be next!

Foodie Tuesday: The Winter of My Discontent or, Carbohydrates: A Love Story

It’s been a long winter. I confess to feeling tired of being cold and wind-whipped. I’ve been impatient and foot-tappingly restless, frustrated by the storms that keep swooping in, uninvited, just when it seems as though spring might be coming into view. As I type, yet another nor’easter is swirling around outside. The calendar tells me spring officially starts in just one week, but looking out the window, I don’t quite believe it.

Last week, an antidote to the winter blues presented itself, as is often the case, in the forms of good company and Italian carbohydrates. An impromptu visit to Eataly with friends on a damp, chilly evening held a number of delights, all of which went a long way toward smoothing the frayed edges of my optimism, including an elegant white wine from Friuli and grilled escarole with pine nuts and currants, topped with shaved Parmigiano and a drizzle of syrupy balsamic vinegar.

The lasagna that followed, though, was nothing less than manna from heaven: silken housemade pasta layered with green beans, bechamel, and a green bean-basil pesto. Creamy and comforting, the dish was saved from heaviness by its vegetal brightness; my spirit was saved from heaviness by the conviviality at our table.

After dinner, soothed and sated (okay, and slightly abuzz from the aforementioned Friulian wine), I made my way to the fresh pasta counter to bring some weekend sustenance back to Brooklyn. By the time I sat down on the subway that evening, full of lasagna and newly-recovered good humor, I realized I had lunch plans the next day at a Veronese-style risotteria and I had just purchased two meals’ worth of fresh pasta. Oh, well. In for a penny, in for a pound; it would be a weekend of carbs.

My lunch dates the next day had suggested Risotteria Melotti for our rendezvous, and I wasn’t about to quibble. These particular friends and I have eaten liverwurst and onions on rye at McSorley’s, enjoyed cocktails at the Waldorf, and sipped espresso at Caffé Reggio. They’ve lived all over the world, from Venice to the Congo, and they’re as well versed in the finer points of baseball as they are in jazz and Proust. They’re citizens of the world and real New Yorkers, and when it comes to food (or anything at all, really), I trust them implicitly. Both the risotto—mine was made with shrimp and lemon—and the conversation that day were soul-sustaining and brought cheer to the gray afternoon.

That weekend, my husband and I did indeed feast on that Eataly pasta. We prepared each pasta (pea, mint, and ricotta-stuffed ravioli and lemon-ricotta agnolotti) the same way: tossed in melted butter with a handful of peas and fresh mint, finished with a grating of Parmigiano. We watched Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy spar in “Woman of the Year” as we savored our cozy evening and the pasta, which, with its delicate flavors of lemon and mint, whispered to us of a not-too-distant spring.

The final stretch of winter can be a long haul. Take it from me: when the last, filthy remnants of snow are slow to melt and buds have yet to appear on the trees, the best medicine for sagging morale is sharing in the company of loved ones…and sharing in some pasta doesn’t hurt, either.

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A little over a year ago, in Rome, at Alfredo alla Scrofa, where the eponymous (and divine) fettucine was created.

February: looking back, looking ahead

Early this morning, I was awakened by a cacophony of car horns. Something—I don’t know what, exactly—was making the rush hour traffic in downtown Brooklyn even more slow moving and ill-tempered than usual, and when it became clear that the din wasn’t going to subside any time soon, I decided I might as well get out of bed and see if I could make something of the morning. My reward? Limpid, dazzling sunlight, dappling the scaffolding on the building facing our apartment and glinting off the plastic trash bags in the street below, and a couple of serene, solitary hours in which to write and reflect.

These high/low juxtapositions (stunning morning light shining on garbage and construction, stolen peaceful hours underscored by the relentless honking of car horns) kind of sum up this time of year for me. Sure, there’s beauty to be found, but I find I have to look a little harder for it in late winter/early spring. It’s easy to maintain a rosy outlook on a 75-degree June day, after all, when you’re at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon, cold beer in hand, and the boys in pinstripes are winning. Unflagging good cheer is slightly harder to come by when it’s sleeting sideways on the one Tuesday that you’ve got meetings all over town and the subway is full of people who are as damp and cranky as you are.

Scenes from February travels: twilight in Florida and Wendell Castle’s Steinway.

Looking back, February was busy, filled with travel, gigs, and opportunities to make the best of things. Duchess had a show in Florida, where we availed ourselves of some much-needed balmy temperatures and beach walks…after an hours-long flight delay here in New York on a sodden, gray morning. Later in the month, I flew to Toledo, Ohio for a performance at the beautiful Toledo Museum of Art. The people we met were welcoming and warm, and the venue itself was gorgeous—a glass pavilion with a Steinway designed by Wendell Castle—but I felt lonely in the impersonal downtown hotel, and the weather was (you guessed it) gray and rainy.

Lest I seem ungrateful, I hasten to add that last month brought moments of utter delight, as well, with old and new friends. Upon reflection, many happy moments in February involved food or music (or both): an afternoon spent talking about music and life with Nancy Harrow, a wonderful singer and composer; burgers at Diner with a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen for over a decade; oysters at the Grand Central Oyster Bar with a singer friend from my former restaurant life; a cocktail at the Algonquin with dear ones; a family dinner at Felidia; a post-gig drive through a blizzard with the Duchess gals, laughing all the while; a few brunch gigs around town with different configurations of musician friends.

Recipe for winter happiness: singing + oysters on the half shell. (Top photo by Claude Collerette)

Looking ahead, then, I’ll do my best to embrace the caprices of March and, if actual sunshine is nowhere to be found, I’ll look for it in the kitchen or on the bandstand.

In February, I…
Blogged about: Nothing! Oy. But I did write a remembrance of Keely Smith for JazzTimes Magazine (my first byline!). The March “In Memoriam” issue is on newsstands now.

Read: The Last Days of Café Leila, by Donna BijanThis novel was poignant and, at times, beautifully written, especially the passages about Persian food. I was disappointed by the ending, but would still recommend this book. Cooking for Picasso, by Camille Aubray. Light as a feather but a fun airplane read.

Watched: Battle of the Sexes (also on an airplane). Mozart in the Jungle.

Listened to: Fresh, by Sly and the Family Stone. God, when the horns and vocal enter on “Skin I’m In”!! Sly Stone was such a revolutionary; it seems like he influenced everybody. Fools Rush In, by Louis Armstrong. Sheer beauty.

January: Looking back, looking ahead

After the rush and sparkle of the holiday season have died down, I like to, if possible, get out of town. Walking along icy sidewalks past piles of desiccated, discarded Christmas trees and realizing that months—months!—of winter remain can bum out even the most stalwart soul. What better antidote than sunshine and guacamole?

Scenes from the Baja: representing Brooklyn on a morning run; sunrise over the Gulf of California; the best chips & guac ever; the backyard…fan palms and mountains.

Mid-January, I flew south of the border to spend a week in Mexico, where my parents live. Time seemed to expand that week, and I don’t think it was entirely a function of being on vacation. On the Baja, I rose with the sun and went to bed embarrassingly early. I minimized screen time. There were no sirens and no street lights; nights were starry and silent. When driving, we often had to stop and let cows cross the road before proceeding. In short, each day’s rhythms were set by nature. It was a deeply restorative time and I returned to New York rested and invigorated…once I got over the 24-hour stomach bug I picked up on the flight home, that is. C’est la vie.

Road trips! Clockwise from top: a sweet café in Todos Santos; making way for the cows’ commute; a quick stop in charming El Triunfo; sunset in La Paz.

Looking ahead, I’ve got a little travel coming up in February: Florida with Duchess and a duo show with Ehud Asherie in Toledo, Ohio. But for the most part, I’m sticking close to home and doing my best to maintain some of that Baja expansiveness in my Brooklyn life: early(ish) to bed and early to rise, dedicating time daily to writing and singing, and keeping screen time to a minimum. Simplifying. So far, I think it’s going well.

In January, I…
Blogged about: Simplifying. Year’s End.

Read: Devotion, by Patti Smith. As ever, beautiful writing—and in this thin volume, Patti Smith pulls back the curtain on her own creative process. Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler. An extremely well written novel about a young woman’s coming of age, set in the NYC restaurant scene circa 2006. This book was, at times, uncomfortably familiar (especially the many scenes at Park Bar). Still Life, by Louise Penny. My Duchess sister, Amy, gave me this book before my surgery, and I finally got around to finishing it. It’s the first in a series of mysteries set in a picturesque Canada town. The scenery, townspeople, and protagonist (Chief Inspector Gamache) are all incredibly endearing, and food descriptions abound. I may be hooked.

Watched: The Durrells in Corfu, an incredibly charming show about an English family (that of novelist Lawrence Durrell and naturalist Gerald Durrell, in fact) expatriated to a remote Greek isle in the 1930s. Grace and Frankie. There is such nuance and depth of storytelling in this hilarious show. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are goddamned national treasures. Lots of movies: Ingrid Goes West, Beatriz at Dinner (both watched on the plane), The Big Sick, Lady Bird.

Listened to: Honey and Salt, by Matt Wilson. I listened to this album in Baja as I walked along an empty beach with the sea on one side, mountains on the other, and a vast, uninterrupted sky above. Such beautiful surroundings were the perfect place to absorb this album, rich with humor, wisdom, sorrow, and humanity. A generous, expansive work of art. Le Nozze di Figaro, at the Metropolitan Opera. Mozart’s melodies, perfectly constructed and lyrical, are a balm for the ears and soul.

‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple

Every January in recent years, I’ve chosen one word to act as lodestar and touchstone for the new year ahead. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that one word chooses me every January, since I don’t do any research or spiritual deep diving to arrive at my verbal talisman. I’ll just be walking down the street or taking a shower or washing dishes and, as though an imaginary magic 8 ball had just been turned over, a single word will float to the top of my mind. (Well, with one exception: in 2014, the phrase “Done is better than good” announced itself as the year’s motto. Otherwise, all of my words-of-the-year have been single words—nouns, to be specific: fruition, faith, action, communication, acceptance.) This year, for the first time, the word is an imperative verb: simplify.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got a big birthday coming up in 2018, or maybe it’s because I learned that a couple of my high school classmates passed away last year, or maybe it’s because a dear older friend began a note with the words, “When you get to be—in a flash—as old as I am…”, but I’ve never been more urgently aware of the passing of time. The meter’s running, and while some tedium and drudgery are inevitable (the trash does need to be taken out, after all, and the laundry done), I want to spend as many hours as possible in the company of people I love and doing things that are nourishing, whether abstract (writing, singing, meditation) or tangible (cooking, eating, and sharing good food). Heeding the call to distill my priorities and attention down to the really important stuff feels necessary and deeply right.

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, and I didn’t make any this year, other than a sweeping intention to be as present and kind as possible. Nevertheless, in these quiet first days of January, I’ve been getting up earlier in the mornings for some uninterrupted writing time. I’ve been running regularly, eating healthily, and even finding a few minutes most days for meditation. And, after a protracted period of not vocalizing, I’m back to regular warmups and building a practice routine that feels purposeful.

I can find a million reasons on any given day to not make time for music or writing or exercise: there are emails to answer, groceries to buy, two new Dave Chappelle specials on Netflix, it’s too cold outside, inspiration is elusive…but no matter how wily or persuasive Resistance may be, the simple fact is that my days are much happier and more expansive when I prioritize the important before the urgent. Singers sing. Writers write. Runners run. Simple.

Happy new year!

Year’s end: Looking back, looking ahead

Radio City Music Hall, in full Christmas regalia.

All’s well that ends well, the saying goes, but October and November were nonetheless pretty difficult months. We entered the holiday season a bit shaken but with unshakeable gratitude, keeping our festivities mostly quiet and homespun. We hosted a few small-scale dinners at home and visited friends for a couple of parties in Brooklyn. We stepped out on the town a bit, too, enjoying some fantastic dinners out (La Scalinatella! Nom Wah Tea Parlor!) and we also took in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which did indeed live up to its name.

On the singing front, October saw the release of my new album, The Late Set, a collection of intimate piano/vocal duos with pianist Ehud Asherie; we enjoyed a sold-out CD release show here in NYC and headed out to the Pacific Northwest in early November for a whirlwind tour. Duchess headlined at Jazz Standard in December, then weathered SantaCon (!) and two snowstorms (!!) to play our last shows of the year in Connecticut and Tarrytown.

Singing in the new year. Welcome, 2018!

For the last hurrah of 2017, I did something I’ve never done in all my years of New Year’s Eve gigging: I sang in a jazz club for people who came for the express purpose of hearing music. Please forgive the profusion of italics; after years of being sonic wallpaper at fancy restaurants, singing for an attentive audience on New Year’s Eve was pretty exciting and, I choose to believe, a good omen for the year ahead.

Looking (way) back, I vividly remember being twenty-two and believing firmly, with the self-assurance indigenous to people in their early twenties who happen to have read a couple of novels and therefore believe themselves to be preternaturally Wise People, that life’s joys and sorrows were meted out by the Universe based on some kind of vague karmic meritocracy. I blame my erstwhile embrace of this horseshit philosophy on the youthful desire to make sense of a perplexing and troubling world. (Okay, and Oprah. I also blame Oprah, who has championed pop psychology nonsense like The Secret and Dr. Phil since, it seems, time immemorial.)

What I have come to understand in the years hence is that life’s joys and sorrows are only sometimes determined by one’s intentions and choices (and let’s just leave the “Universe” out of this, shall we?). At least as often, we are at the mercy of our genetics, the circumstances of our birth, or the pure happenstance of being in the right or wrong place at precisely the right or wrong time. And when the proverbial shit hits the fan (which it most certainly will, for all of us), the most and best we can do is be as strong and kind as possible. As I reflect on 2017, especially its turbulent autumn, I am suffused with gratitude for kindnesses great and small, extended at every turn by a community of family, friends, and strangers. Looking ahead, my New Year’s resolutions are simple: Be present. Choose kindness.

In October, November, and December, I…
Blogged about: Summer. Duchess turning 4. Singer-friend Marianne Solivan.

Read: The Girl from Venice, by Martin Cruz Smith. I picked this up in the airport on a flight delay and had a hell of a time getting through it. But I persevered, and in the process, did a little armchair (and time) travel to WWII-era Venice. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin. Plainspoken, friendly tomes about cooking and eating; perfect to revisit while in the holiday cooking frenzy.

Watched: The Deuce. Meet Me in St. Louis, without which the holidays cannot officially begin. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Alias Grace. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. Stranger Things. The Netflix Yule Log, for which I make no apologies. It’s cozy!

Listened to: Politely!, by Keely Smith with Billy May & his orchestra. The Song Is All, by Nancy Harrow. A lot of Christmas music.