The Everlasting Now

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ca. 1997. Was I ever this young? Apparently, yes.

In the fall of 1997, as an unhappy and broke-ass undergrad, I dropped $80 that should have gone to books (or, you know, food) on a pair of tickets to go see The Artist Formerly Known As Prince at the Gorge Amphitheatre, a stunning outdoor venue in central Washington. Whoever could procure a car and share driving duties with me, I announced to my friends, would be the recipient of a free ticket to the show.

A casual acquaintance came through, having borrowed a car from a casual acquaintance of his, and we ditched class and drove all day to the concert. For hours, long after the crisp fall day had turned dark and downright cold, we danced, sang, and grooved as The Artist (a title that would have been insufferably pretentious on literally anybody else) gave a characteristically astonishing performance.

Driving back to campus in the wee hours of the morning, I felt returned to myself, revitalized by the concert and my newfound knowledge that escaping the stifling confines of my collegiate existence was just a matter of logistics and moxie. A year later, I dropped out of school and moved to Seattle, where my foray into adulthood and professional music began in earnest.

d0dc57a16bfed78a211ac07c10da2821Don’t worry—this isn’t the part where I to try to write a “think piece” about Prince. Much has been (and will continue to be) written about Prince’s genius, his eccentricities, and, of course, his sexuality.  The thing is, none of the articles being written about him are remotely as interesting as his music.

No, my point here is much more pedestrian, really. When I learned that Prince had died, underscoring my heartbreak was an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having had the good goddamn sense to know, almost twenty years ago, that neither the money I spent on tickets nor my skipped classes would matter in the grand scheme of things, but if I missed seeing Prince at the height of his powers, I’d regret it forever.

Of all the things I got wrong in my 20s (ha, like damn near everything), I got one thing right: I took every opportunity to spend what little money I had on live music. As a result, I caught performances by Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Charles Brown, Shirley Horn, Ernestine Anderson, Gloria Lynne, Abbey Lincoln, James Brown, Natalie Cole, Hank Jones, Blossom Dearie, Anita O’Day, Dan Hicks, Amy Winehouse, and many more musicians who are no longer with us.

Prince himself famously said, “Life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.” But live music is at once ephemeral and eternal, giving breath and color and meaning to this thing called life. So, buy the tickets. Drive all night. Spend a few hours in the everlasting now with a musician who inspires you, and give thanks that you shared time and space on this planet with them, if only for a moment.

Spotlight On…Thana Alexa

11232988_10102375596826729_3426312977938051540_nNew York City-born, Croatia-raised vocalist Thana Alexa is formidable.  In addition to being a wonderful singer, with flawless intonation and improvisational skills on par with the finest jazz instrumentalists, she’s a highly accomplished composer and arranger.  Her debut album, Ode to Heroes, was released on Harmonia Mundi/Jazz Village in 2014, and jazz great Joe Locke had this to say: “Technically superior, artistically engaged and emotionally awake, [Thana] shows us that she has the ability to connect head and heart. The results are a gift to us all.”

Thana’s had an extremely busy touring schedule in recent months, performing with her band and in collaboration with her husband, Grammy-winning drummer Antonio Sanchez.  She graciously shared her perspective and insights for my ongoing “Spotlight On…” series here at Ad Alta Voce.  Thank you, Thana!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
Music has been a huge part of my life ever since I picked up the violin at four years old.  My mother always loved classical music and my father loved jazz, blues, soul and funk.  I grew up listening to everything from Mozart to Bob Marley to Earth Wind & Fire to Louis Armstrong to Pat Metheny.  Although my parents were very supportive of my violin playing and singing, I never saw music as a career option, since everyone in my family always had “real jobs.”

When I started college, I decided to major in psychology and minor in music, still thinking that music would always be a prominent hobby in my life.  After a year of college, where I began contemplating my future, I realized that there was a huge emotional and spiritual hole in my life—almost as if I wasn’t being honest with myself.  It became very clear to me that music WAS the only option that would fulfill me and ensure my happiness a human being.  I would say that entertaining the thought of NOT doing what I truly loved in life motivated me more than anything [else] to pursue music.

11138167_10102108336548469_3045587055724263760_nIn the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
As with most singers, I think that listening and using my ears has come very naturally to me. Because singers are not usually taught in the same way that instrumentalists are, we are forced to rely on our ears a lot.  That has opened the door to lots of things for me that I’ve worked hard to master, like sight reading, learning parts very fast, memorizing, being able to harmonize and hear interesting things within a chord, etc.

Because of the fact that I love to solo, I’ve had to teach myself how to learn like an instrumentalist and apply it to my voice.  In doing so, I’ve found that experiencing the power of silence and space in soloing is extremely difficult.  Silence is terrifying, but it’s within the space you leave that sometimes the most beautiful music is born.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
The repertoire I sing varies depending on the gig I’m doing.  If I’m performing with my band, then I sing my own original music.  If I’m performing for an event that requires me to sing standards, then I choose the standards that speak to me, make me feel good, and make me believe in what I’m singing.

12717567_10102579202823679_6537363057341000516_nIf you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
Because I got a degree in psychology and put a lot of emphasis on the study of music and psychology, I would probably do some form of music or creative therapy to help people with physical illnesses, mental disorders, etc.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
“Say what you mean and mean what you say.  If you make a mistake…MEAN IT!” (Bernard Purdie)

Fun fact:
I have a weird snort/cough thing that I do to get rid of phlegm during recording sessions and before gigs. Gross! [Ed. note: I’m pretty sure every single singer reading this can relate to this one!]

The Thana Alexa Project (with special guests Antonio Sanchez and Kevin Hays) will be performing at Jazz Standard here in NYC on Wednesday, March 16th.  Other tour dates can be found on her website.   

February: Looking back, looking ahead

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God, I love Anne Taintor.

From time to time, performers and creatives undergo periods of intense self-criticism and insecurity.  February was that kind of month for me, which was unfortunate, because despite being the shortest month of the year, I did quite a bit of singing (and, therefore, quite a bit of self-flagellation).

I’ve been at this singing thing long enough to know that these bouts of “Imposter Syndrome” are a natural, unavoidable occurrence, and that (perhaps most maddening of all) they are often the precursor to a new period of creative growth. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to let the voices of negativity drown out the music, and when that happens, a good talking-to from a wise friend is in order.

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Anne Taintor, YOU GET ME.

Fortunately, a good talking-to from a wise friend is exactly what I got one evening.  My friend Evan, a brilliant clarinetist, laughed when I told him how frustrated I was feeling with myself and my singing. We had a gig coming up in a few days and I was disproportionately anxious about it.

This isn’t that important,” he said. “I mean, think about it: anything could happen.  Next week’s gig could be the last time you see either me or [pianist] Ehud.  Is this neurotic shit what you want to be thinking about while we’re making music together? Just relax.  It doesn’t matter that much.”

When our Mezzrow gig rolled around a few days later, I gave myself permission to not care one whit about being a great (or even a particularly good) singer.  Instead, I decided, I’d just enjoy the beauty of the songs and the exuberance of Ehud and Evan’s playing.  A crazy thing happened: not only was that evening the most fun I’d had on the bandstand in some time, it was actually one of the better performances I’ve given in recent memory.

Now, halfway through March, spring feels closer than ever.  The seeds have been sown for a couple of new projects, and I’m going to do my best to carry Evan’s advice with me into the weeks and months ahead.

In February, I…
Blogged about: Bupkis.  Nada.  No writing whatsoever.  Note to self: stagnation in creative output, however small, leads to neurosis, as evidenced by this entire post.

Read: Immunity, by Taylor Antrim and The Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal, both of which I wanted to enjoy more than I actually did.  The big winner was Vintage, by David Baker, a hilarious, poignant, and extremely well-written debut novel about a down-on-his-luck Chicago food writer on a wild goose chase for an elusive Burgundy.

Watched: House of Cards.  Flawlessly written and acted.  Completely addictive.  I can’t wait to dive into the new season.

Listened to:  Sinatra/Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings.  The most iconic male vocalist of the 20th century, singing some of the most beautiful songs ever written, with string arrangements by Claus Ogerman.  Yes, please.

 

January: Looking back, looking ahead

We’re in the heart of winter, now, the time of year when one’s morale can drop as low as the temperature.  The remaining snow is barely recognizable as such, having long since turned various shades of drab gray and brown.  The salt strewn on every sidewalk in New York City is beginning to take its toll on the soles of our shoes.  Sunset is still dispiritingly early, with darkness falling around 5:00pm.  And these first few months of the year are notoriously slow for musicians in terms of gigs.

For the past several years, though, I have had the exceedingly good fortune to be a performer at the Water Island Music Festival, which takes place every January on a tiny residential island just off St. Thomas.  This year, the festival’s always-lovely beach days and musical evenings were further sweetened by the knowledge that we were missing a doozy of a blizzard back in New York City (#sorrynotsorry).

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A change of scene…sun and sand on Water Island, USVI.

It’s amazing what an infusion of sunshine and music-making can do for one’s sense of optimism.  Yes, fish tacos on the beach were heavenly, but so were the braised beef short ribs with chestnuts and dates I made upon our return from the Caribbean.  The days are getting longer!  And I find myself inspired, rather than disheartened, by the prospect of open space on my calendar.  What better time to practice, write, and lay the groundwork for a new project than when it’s dark and cold outside?

2016 is a Leap Year, so this February has 29 days: one extra day in which to savor winter’s hearty food, opportunities for introspection, and crisp, cold air.  I’m looking forward to it.

In January, I…
Blogged about: Jane Monheit.  DUCHESS in Israel.  Acceptance.

Read: A bunch of books (my New Year’s resolution to abandon iPhone games/distractions on the subway and replace them with reading has been transformative), but the standout, by far, was Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter.  The storyline, which spans decades and continents, is too sprawling and involved to describe here, but the characters’ respective journeys toward redemption and healing are the heart and soul of this beautifully written novel.  I don’t often cry at the end of a book, but Beautiful Ruins shattered me.  Also read this month: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen; The Hundred-Foot Journey, by Richard C. Morais; The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice, by Laurel Corona.

Watched: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “They alive, dammit!”  I CANNOT wait for the next season to air.  This show makes me howl.  The Intern. I watched this on the plane home from Water Island.  I enjoyed this film, although it’s not without its flaws.  How refreshing, that the central relationship—between a 30-something woman (Anne Hathaway) and an older man (Robert DeNiro)—was not romantic.  Both characters learned from one another in some important ways, although for a film that was ostensibly about a powerful woman, Hathaway’s character still spent a lot of time getting lectured by men.

Listened to: Catherine Russell, Bring It Back.  Good GOD, get this record if you don’t have it already!  From Duke Ellington-penned standards to century-old trad jazz tunes to contemporary R&B, Catherine Russell inhabits a musical world uniquely her own.  She’s backed by a tasteful, supremely swinging band led by guitarist Matt Munisteri.  Every song sounds brand new in Russell’s capable hands.

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Scenes from the Water Island music festival.  Top: All the festival’s performers (plus a few friends) lunching on the beach.  Bottom left: The view from the performance venue.  Bottom right: Big hat, big glasses, big day at the beach.

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Top: The sun setting over Water Island.  Bottom: Boarding the ferry to St. Thomas, en route to the airport, following another wonderful year at the Water Island Music Festival.

 

 

Word of the Year?

I suppose the preamble to this post is that I am a descendent of a long line of prairie women and farmers, and as such, I am congenitally practical.  Practicality is a key component of my midwestern DNA, as is, I fear, the tendency to regard any dish that contains mayonnaise as a salad.  But I digress.

The point is, as a rule, I don’t go in for “woo.”  I’m not one of those people who believes that the “Universe” is listening to my “intentions” and sending me signs or messages in reply.

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But.

Every year, as December winds to a close, I find that a single word will float, unbidden, to the forefront of my mind, usually many times, and become something of a verbal talisman for the year ahead.  (I know.  If that isn’t “woo,” what is?  I can’t even type this without cringing, because I can just hear my grandmother, her vowels as flat as the South Dakota prairie, clucking in disapproval and asking me why I don’t go to Mass anymore.  Again, I digress.)

In years past, action, faith, and fruition have all been my one-word mantras.  This year, though, the word that kept coming to mind again and again and again was…acceptance.  To put it mildly, I was not pleased.

“Acceptance,” I thought, was rather too closely aligned with “defeat,” or at least “surrender.”  And what exactly was I to accept, anyway?  I mean, I have practicing to do, weight to lose, and career milestones to hit.  No.  Another word, please.  ANOTHER WORD.  Try as I might, though, I couldn’t come up with another word that carried the resonance of “acceptance,” so I began to explore what acceptance might mean for me in this new year.

ba78f14d1dd1068111fdfd5185af3d74What would it feel like to accept, rather than fight, the hilariously obvious reality that I am older now, and trying to regain the physique I had ten years ago would not only be a battle, it would be a perpetually losing one?  My life a decade ago was one of waiting tables, climbing the stairs of a fifth-floor walkup multiple times a day, and never cooking at home (let alone hosting dinner parties, which is one of my favorite things to do).  What would it feel like to just work out because it feels good?  What if I just accepted my body exactly the way it is, without any apologies or complaints, and decided to just wear my swimsuit and have a great fucking time at the beach?

What if I decided that my career is fine just the way it is, with some gigs that are fancy and exciting, and other gigs that are not at all glamorous, but are nonetheless opportunities to sing and be surrounded by musicians, some of my favorite people on the planet?  What if the things that seem effortless for so many of my singer friends—harmony, form, improvisation—will never, ever come easily to me, and that’s okay?  

Well, we’re a few weeks into 2016 by now, and I can, unequivocally, tell you this: embracing “acceptance” as my one-word touchstone has been a goddamn revelation.  I am here and it is now.  Neither my body nor my musicality can be described as “perfect” (whatever that even means), but nonetheless, I’m going to show up every day and do the best I can with what I’ve been given.

Here’s a little secret that I didn’t know when the word “acceptance” stubbornly insisted on being my North Star for 2016: acceptance is more about self-love and kindness than it is about defeat or surrender. Choosing to better the things I can and be at peace with what is immutable is, as it turns out, right in line with the pragmatism that is my midwestern birthright.  Perhaps my grandmother would not be clucking in disapproval, after all.

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Spotlight On…Jane Monheit

janemonheit_photo_billwestmoreland_webAs is true for many fans of vocal jazz, I first became aware of Jane Monheit when she burst onto the jazz scene over 15 years ago after wowing the judges and crowds at the Thelonious Monk Competition.  As her star rose in the ensuing years, Jane was rapturously received by audiences and critics.  At the same time, some skeptics wondered aloud how—or, indeed, if—someone as young as Jane (she made her first album at 20 years old) and (gasp!) as attractive as Jane could really be a true jazz singer.

Amidst the flurry of all that attention, which I imagine must have been overwhelming, Jane coolly went about her business, touring and recording virtually nonstop.  Today, with eleven solo albums to her credit, any debate has long since ceased: Jane is unquestionably one of the foremost voices in jazz.

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Jane and the gals of DUCHESS.

Jane is also a highly collaborative artist, and an enthusiastic supporter of other singers.  During her year-long residency at Birdland, where she hosted a weekly jazz party, I had the immense pleasure of sharing the stage with Jane for a duet of “Corcovado.”  More recently, she made a cameo with DUCHESS, joining us onstage at the Jazz Standard for a lovely version of “Que Sera, Sera.”

Jane Monheit is a class act, a nice person, and she happens to be hilarious (if you’re not following her on Twitter, you really should). She was kind enough to take time out of her touring schedule to answer a few questions for my blog. Thank you, Jane!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I grew up singing, among musicians, hearing music every day. I literally never even considered a career outside of singing! It was just a question of genre, since I was surrounded by so many different kinds of music at home. I think deep down I always knew it would be jazz, though.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Most naturally….that’s probably just my actual sound. I’ve always believed in singing in the most natural way, as opposed to cultivating a sound that seems to match a certain genre or trend. Our simplest, most sincere voices tell the most truth, I think. Most challenging….that would be just dealing with the daily pressures of this business. Growing a thick skin. Knowing when to say no. I’ve always been an overly sensitive person, and show business can be pretty harrowing if you let certain aspects of it get to you. I am far better at dealing with this now, at 38, than I was in the beginning!!

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
It has to be a gut-punch. I have to have no choice. If you choose to sing a standard, a song that has been done a thousand times, and done by legends and icons…you’d better have a reason, and a good one! It needs to be personal. It needs to be true love.

09_jm_2010-282x300If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
Oh I have no idea!!!! I’d have most likely gone into musical theater. Still singing, of course!!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Once, when I was twenty and had just placed second in the Monk Competition, Wayne Shorter came up to me and said, “It’s all about reconnaissance.” I dont think, back then, that I listened quite closely enough. I understand now what he meant.

Fun fact:
I’m a full-on crazy cat lady. I live for horror films and novels. (And naps.) I’m a vegetarian. I have the sense of humor of a fourteen year old boy and my ability to curse is the stuff of legend [Ed. note: Gurl, I feel you.]. I’m watching South Park in my pajamas as I type this. I am not a grown-up!!!

Jane Monheit will be back at Birdland this Saturday, January 16, performing music from the Ella Fitzgerald songbook.  Keep an eye out for her next album, also a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald, produced by Nicholas Payton!

December: Looking back, looking ahead

Ah, December.  I know the holidays aren’t everybody’s favorite time of year, but this month has been fantastic all the way around, with lots of touring, singing, and holiday celebrations.  The month began with a trip to Israel with my DUCHESS cohorts, Amy and Melissa.  We had an extraordinary experience performing at the inaugural Jerusalem Jazz Festival and taking in the sights, sounds, and flavors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  (DUCHESS has had a pretty amazing 2015; you can check out our year-in-review here.)

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A few sights in Jerusalem, including a panorama of the Old City, Mt. Oliva, and the Tower of David.

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The Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Overwhelming.

An abundance of wonderful food, family, and friends made for a relaxing and joyful holiday season.  I returned home from Israel on the first night of Hanukkah.  Ours being a multi-culti household, we had friends over for a pot roast dinner for Hanukkah; then, on Christmas Eve, E. and I made our traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes at home.  Christmas Day found us at Bouley for an exquisite many-course dinner with family and friends.  On Boxing Day, we traveled to Bensonhurst for Sicilian-style pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens, then took in the dazzling Christmas lights in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights neighborhood, an excursion that I hope will become a new holiday ritual.

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Dyker Heights’ Christmas lights extravaganza; our Christmas table; Sicilian-style pizza in Bensonhurst.

I’m closing out this festive month with back-to-back nights at the Jazz Standard with DUCHESS, followed by a marathon New Year’s Eve gig at a swanky NYC restaurant.  I love these last days of the year, when we’re teetering on the edge of a brand new beginning; I love the proverbial clean slate.  Then again, New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap, and with good reason: nothing sets us up for failure like deciding to make sweeping, life-altering changes literally overnight. Whether one’s goals involve greater self-care, self-improvement, or self-discipline, I agree with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: “The beginning is always today.”

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That said, I can’t help but be invigorated by the cosmic turn-of-the-page that comes with a new year.  Once the Christmas decorations are all put away and the holiday excesses have died down, I invariably find myself reflecting on the potential and possibilities contained in the year ahead.  True, I do have some big hopes and dreams for 2016, but my actual New Year’s resolutions are small, do-able actions that will, I hope, bring about larger shifts in my attention span and the scope of my imagination:

  1. Listen to podcasts at the gym instead of my same old workout music playlist.  As usual, I’m late to the party, but I am having the best time exploring the world of podcasts. My time on the StairMaster goes by a lot faster when I’m happily listening to an interview with a singer I admire or tales of Old Hollywood.
  2. Read on the subway; no more silly iPhone games.  It’s a well-known fact that I loathe the subway.  Overcrowded cars (which is to say, most of them, most of the time) make me claustrophobic; the long, unexplained stops between stations make me panicky, and the smells…oh, God, the smells!  BUT…all of the above notwithstanding, the subway is still the quickest, most affordable means of getting around NYC and I don’t anticipate getting a chauffeur any time soon, so why not make the most of my time on the train?

In December, I…
Blogged about: Autumn.  My Six Months with Sinatra. DUCHESS’ Year in Review.

Read: Invisible City, by Julia Dahl.  I’m not usually a big mystery-novel reader, but this one is set in Brooklyn, specifically in the Hasidic community.  It was a fast and engaging read, and I’m curious to check out more of Dahl’s work.  My Kitchen Year: 136 recipes that saved my life, by Ruth Reichl.  I’ve long been a fan of Reichl’s writing, and her cookbook/memoir is a beautifully photographed, thoughtful meditation on how what we cook and eat reflects the seasons of the year and of our lives.

Watched: A few movies I’ve been eager to see.  Joy boasted a great cast and a true rags-to-riches story; I’ll watch Jennifer Lawrence in just about anything.  Spotlight was somber and brilliantly acted.  Brooklyn was heartwarming and sweet.  There are still lots of movies I want to see (the final installment of the Hunger Games, Trumbo, and The Big Short, among others), but these were my top three.

Listened to: Podcasts!  Janis Siegel gave a wonderful interview on The Third Story with Leo Sidran; my culinary hero, Nigella Lawson, chatted with Bon Appétit; You Must Remember This took me back in time to the Hollywood of yore.