Spotlight On…Vanessa Perea

24421640993_25a85801d1_bI heard Vanessa Perea sing for the first time at North Square, where she was performing in an intimate setting, backed by guitar and bass. Her boyfriend, trombonist Robert Edwards, joined in for a few tunes, as well. I was struck by Vanessa’s excellent time and phrasing, as well as her warm, flexible timbre and spot-on intonation.

A lot has happened since I first met Vanessa. For one thing, her debut album, Soulful Days, was released on the Zoho label to critical acclaim: Jazz Times lauded her “remarkable air of maturity, recalling the interpretive fearlessness of Anita O’Day.” She can be heard regularly throughout the tri-state area in a variety of settings, from leading her own jazz quartet to fronting a funk band.

In other news, she and the aforementioned Robert Edwards are getting married this month! Congratulations, Vanessa, and thank you for answering some questions for my blog!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I was inspired by many different artists growing up. I used to listen to a lot of pop/R&B music and, of course, Spanish music because of my parents. I also studied with a classical voice teacher who taught me art songs and Broadway tunes.

I knew I wanted to perform, but I didn’t know that I could make an actual living in music, and I was falling in love with so many different styles of music. I decided to go to college for music; later on I transferred to the music education department. When I got there, I met some wonderful people who were real inspirations to me. The teachers and students were all working musicians [who were] still practicing and performing; some students and teachers were even on the same gigs together. That was so cool to me. I listened to jazz for the first time in college and decided to study it from then on.

13124763_804275414290_3594342722857042727_nIn the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? 
Rhythm and melody. I always find myself doing rhythmic things with my singing. It’s not something I plan out. It just happens. It’s like I’m trying to sync my singing with my dancing! And, melody. I was always a soprano in choir, so I naturally cling to melodies.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
It’s hard to say one thing. I listen to the lyrics, the melody, the harmony, various versions by other artists… but lately, I have been paying more attention to the lyrics.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I think I would like to be a nurse. I’d like to help people. I think I would be good at it. [Ed. note: I am struck by how many of the singers I’ve interviewed have chosen a healing, helping profession in response to this question. It suggests that what I have long suspected may be true: music is, itself, a healing vocation.]

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
I guess it sounds cliché, but when I was fresh out of college, people used to tell me to “keep listening.” It’s true. There is always something new to hear and learn from.

Fun fact:
I have a thing for shoe repair shops. I love them! I love the feeling of bringing in my old pair of shoes that need a new heel and picking them up looking brand new. I love their history and charm. I actually go to the same shoe repair my dad used to go to when he moved to this country in the 80s. The guy still asks for my mom and dad every time I’m in there.

Vanessa will be singing throughout the summer in New York and New Jersey, from Manhattan’s Carnegie Club and Flatiron Room to Atlantic City and beyond. Check out the details on her calendar.

June: Looking back, looking ahead

I’m drafting this post from a lakeside idyll near a small town in Connecticut. I’ve spent the last few days sequestered from the city’s hustle and bustle, walking around the lake in the cool mornings and going to bed early, savoring the total darkness and silence that one only finds in the countryside. Our holiday weekend culminates in tomorrow’s barbecue, followed by 4th of July fireworks in the evening.

All this to say, summer is here and I am loving every moment.

Looking back, it seems as though most of my summer gigging took place in June. On June 10, I had the delight of performing at the Sheen Center in collaboration with my friend, Brazilian soprano Angelica de la Riva, as we celebrated the iconic collaboration between Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim. The house was packed, the band (comprising Brazilian and American musicians) was exquisite, and we met Elizabeth Jobim at the after-party! Yes, that’s right: Antonio Carlos Jobim’s daughter was in the house for our show. Meeting her was a thrill.

Scenes from the Sinatra/Jobim Sessions show. Top left: me with bassist Eduardo Belo. Top right: pianist Manuel Valera, saxophonist Joel Frahm and I after the show. Middle photos: Angelica and I onstage. Bottom left: Angelica and I with the full band, post-show. Bottom right: Angelica, Eduardo, and I with Elizabeth Jobim at the after-party.

Scenes from the Sinatra/Jobim Sessions show. Top left: me with bassist Eduardo Belo. Top right: pianist Manuel Valera, saxophonist Joel Frahm and I after the show. Middle photos: Angelica and I onstage. Bottom left: Angelica and I with the full band, post-show. Bottom right: Angelica, Eduardo, and I with Elizabeth Jobim at the after-party. (All photos except after-party shot by Angel Morales)

Duchess was busy in June, too. We did a big photo shoot for our newly-recorded second CD, Laughing at Life (more on that release schedule as details develop!). A few days later, we found ourselves back in the recording studio singing background vocals for the very sweet and talented Kat Edmonson’s upcoming new album. Her songs are well-crafted and charming, and we had a wonderful time singing with her.

The last week of the month took the Duchess gals out to Northern California for a fast-paced and very fun tour. We opened the Jazz on the Plazz festival in Los Gatos before heading to gigs in Santa Cruz, Sausalito, and Oakland. In typical Duchess fashion, we found some time to eat well and do a bit of sightseeing in between shows. You can read more about our adventures on the Duchess blog.

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Looking ahead…well, I’m not looking too terribly far ahead, to be honest with you. I’m just savoring the relaxed rhythms of summer. My fondest hope (and strongest resolution) is to fill the open spaces on my calendar in the coming months with a happy mix of music, writing, and leisure.

In June, I…
Blogged about: Swinging into summer (DUCHESS). Spring.

Read: Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, by Luke Barr. How I would have loved to have known M.F.K. Fisher! Using Fisher’s old journals and correspondence with Julia and Paul Child (among others) as research materials, Fisher’s great-nephew has written a vivid, insightful account of the year America’s most important culinary (forgive me) tastemakers gathered in Provence (chez Julia Child) to cook, eat, and contemplate food. Those shared meals and conversations in Provence shaped their—and our—collective, uniquely American understanding of what it means to cook and eat well.

Watched: Hadestown. The ancient myths celebrate, lament, and help us understand the frailties and failings of our humanity. This stunning, imaginative re-telling of Orpheus and Eurydice is swampy, foot-stomping, and soulful. Hadestown closes on July 31. Do whatever you must to get there and experience it.

Listened to: Rough mixes for the second Duchess CD, “Laughing at Life.” I’m very excited about this record, which features lots of very swinging new arrangements by Oded Lev-Ari, as well as guest appearances by Wycliffe Gordon and Anat Cohen.

Spring: Looking back, looking ahead

All too quickly, spring has come and gone and we are careening full tilt toward summer. What can I say about the past few months? March took me to Mexico, where I spent a lovely week with my parents, who live on the Baja.

We sipped mango smoothies in the mornings and strolled long stretches of the all-but-deserted beach in the afternoon. We cooked lots of delicious food and drank lots of ice-cold Mexican beer. We road-tripped to El Triunfo, Todos Santos (my favorite) and La Paz. I delighted in painterly Baja sunsets and the velvety-dark night sky, perfect for stargazing. I can’t wait to go back.

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April’s highlight was a quick tour to Montana with Duchess. That same month, I joined millions of fans in mourning Prince’s untimely death. Then, May ushered in a stubborn summer cold (yuck) and the recording of Duchess’ second CD (yay!).

Looking ahead, I am eagerly anticipating a return to Northern California for a tour with Duchess next week. June has been fast-paced and full of activity, but the rest of the summer looks quite relaxed, with time for afternoons spent reading in the park, weekend getaways, and (I hope!) spontaneous beach days.

Also on my summer agenda? Digging deep into this book and honing my sight-reading skills. Summer school, if you will.

This spring, I…
Blogged about: Singer-friend Thana Alexa. Duchess’ upcoming new CD & recent Montana tour. The Everlasting Now.

Read: I did a lot of reading the past few months. I’ll spare you the complete list, but here are some of the books that stand out. And Again, by Jessica Chiarella. A vaguely dystopian novel whose premise centers on the complex ethical issues surrounding human cloning. At its core, though, this is really a novel about identity; what actually is the “self” when a person’s body (and a lifetime of scars, piercings, tattoos, and illnesses) can be erased and recreated as new? Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin. In all honesty, Rubin’s approach to life often comes across as austere, or even joyless, but her research on how and why we form (and keep!) habits was interesting and useful. A House in the Heights, by Truman Capote. Some of the loveliest prose I have ever read, with the added delight of being set in my neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights. I wanted to memorize each sentence. Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff. A challenging and extremely well-written portrait of a marriage. The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin. A feather-light but enjoyable imagining of the real-life friendship between Truman Capote and New York socialites in the 1950s. The Voiceover Artist, by Dave Reidy. Wry and sweet, and imbued throughout with a sense of place (the novel is set in Chicago), I enjoyed this debut novel. In Some Other World, Maybe, by Shari Goldhagen. I expected this novel to be a fluffy read, but it was poignant and smart and human. I really liked it.

Watched: Birdman (on the plane from Montana). Sophie’s Choice. I’d read William Styron’s novel and seen the film adaptation years ago, but was blown away all over again by the actors’ nuanced, earnest performances. Silicon Valley and Veep, both of which make me cackle.

Listened to: Chris Isaak, The Baja Sessions. I’ve loved this record for years, but after my idyllic week on the Baja in March, I’ll forever associate it with long drives through Mexico. Prince. Lots and lots of Prince. Peggy Lee.

 

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.