February: Looking back, looking ahead

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The great Anne Taintor, on point as always.

Annnnnd it’s still winter.  I mean, of course it is: February just ended, after all.  Like me, you’re probably tired of icy winds, clunky winter boots, dry skin, and chapped lips (to name a few grievances). The subways have been a special delight, lately, too, with larger-than-usual numbers of trains being delayed and re-routed due to track work and wintry conditions.  Here in New York City, at least, nerves seem to be collectively a bit on edge.

There’s nothing like music to warm the heart and brighten spirits, though, and happily, February was filled with wonderful music that I enjoyed both on and off the bandstand.  I had the pleasure of catching Russell Malone’s gig at the Jazz Standard, where he celebrated the release of his new album, Love Looks Good on You.  A few days later, I caught Vanessa Perea’s very swinging brunch set over at North Square.  And one epic Thursday evening found me hanging out at no fewer than three different gigs: first, Tony Lustig’s quintet got my toes tapping at Birdland, then I checked out Dave Gibson’s packed CD release gig at Smalls, and my last stop was at Mezzrow, to hear John Dokes croon a couple of tunes.  It’s both humbling and inspiring to know how much incredible music is happening here all the time.

In my singing life, the month began with a quick (insanely quick) jaunt out to Scottsdale, AZ with pianist Joe Alterman, where we performed a duo set for the Centurion Jewelry Show. Despite the fact that Joe and I were in Arizona less than 18 hours total, we managed to enjoy some chips and guacamole and take a leisurely stroll around Scottsdale in the sunshine before our gig.  We had a ball playing music together, as always, and our evening concluded with a fantastic dinner out and a wild ride (on a golf cart!) back to our hotel.

Scenes from sunny AZ: the hotel pool; chips & guac; borrowed bling for our gig at the jewelry show; at dinner after the gig; pianist Joe Alterman & I hitching a ride on a golf cart back to the hotel; NYC as seen from the air.

Scenes from sunny AZ: the hotel pool; chips & guac; borrowed bling for our gig at the jewelry show; at dinner after the gig; pianist Joe Alterman & I hitching a ride on a golf cart back to the hotel; NYC as seen from the air.

Looking ahead, March kicks off with a bang: DUCHESS‘ CD release show at the Jazz Standard is happening tomorrow night (get your tickets here!).  The New York Times gave us a nice mention in their weekly jazz listings, and we’ve got some pretty great press and exciting gigs coming up this spring and summer.  To celebrate, last week we went to Momofuku for their famous fried chicken.

Momofuku, if midday drinking, fried chicken, and shiitake mushroom & brisket buns are wrong, I don't wanna be right.

Friday lunch at Momofuku. If midday drinking, fried chicken, and shiitake mushroom & brisket buns are wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

A little bit later this month, pianist Ehud Asherie and I are reuniting at one of my favorite places in town, Mezzrow, for an evening of piano/vocal duets.  We’ve been working on some new material (a lot of Rodgers and Hart), and I am really looking forward to this show.  Ehud’s a dear friend and a true artist.  It’s a privilege to make music with him.

This Saturday, we’ll all be setting our clocks ahead for “Spring forward.”  Here’s hoping that some warmer temperatures and spring flowers are truly on their way!

In February, I…
Blogged about: Comfort food.  The DUCHESS CD.  January.

Watched: A 1975 episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Richard Pryor, with musical guest Gil Scott-Heron.   Pryor’s hilarious stand-up and several of this episode’s sketches were genuinely edgy, not for mere shock value, but to make us question the status quo and our own prejudices.  Gil Scott-Heron’s performance of Johannesburg (below) grooves so hard.

Read: Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, by James Gavin.  Peggy Lee has long been one of my favorite singers and biggest influences, and James Gavin tells her story in a way that is both meticulously researched and compulsively readable.  I couldn’t put this book down.  Oh, Peggy, you brilliant, crazy broad.

Listened to: Peggy Lee, obviously.  My current obsession is Blues Cross Country, her 1962 collaboration with Quincy Jones.  Peggy is in top form: sexy, soulful, and understated, and the big band charts swing like crazy.  Also in heavy rotation this month: Bob Dylan’s Shadows In the Night.  Standards records by non-jazzers are always a little controversial amongst jazz musicians, and this outing is no exception.  Despite the negative opinions voiced by a number of my respected colleagues, I think Dylan has made a beautiful album.  He chose great tunes and the small-group instrumentation (with a wonderful pedal-steel player) is intimate and spare, putting the lyrics front and center.  This interview is a fascinating glimpse into Dylan’s approach to singing jazz standards and his reverence for Frank Sinatra.

Check out Gil Scott-Heron. If this doesn’t make you think and groove, check your pulse.

Foodie Tuesday: A Balm for the Soul

My day.  It has not been stellar.  First of all, I am exhausted.  Last night, my husband’s chest cold-induced snoring, punctuated by bouts of coughing and sneezing, meant we were both deprived of a restful night’s sleep.  At least he had the velvet embrace of NyQuil to take the edge off.  As for me, I tossed and turned, fitful and fretful, finally relocating to the couch where the crick in my neck finally gave way to a few minutes of sleep that were promptly interrupted by a recurring car alarm.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t feeling particularly rosy this morning, and so I made myself a breakfast that felt a little special: scrambled eggs with smoked trout, sautéed leeks, and cream cheese.  Carrying my plate of eggs in one hand and my favorite oversized mug (filled to the brim with tea) in the other, I approached the dining table where I planned to ease into the day by perusing a few blogs over breakfast.  Just as I set my plate on the table beside my computer, the handle broke off the mug I was holding.  The mug crashed onto my plate, shattering it and covering the table, floor, and my breakfast in hot tea, while I shouted an expletive that even I typically reserve for special occasions.  (Thankfully, my computer was spared—no small mercy, considering how much I rely on the damn thing.)11002580_10205236922376233_2586654663424290461_n

Cursing, I went to retrieve a mop from the hall closet.  As I took the mop out of the closet, it knocked a box of Christmas bows and holiday cards from the shelf, scattering them all over the floor of the closet.  More expletives.

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t quite seem to find a rhythm.  My practice session felt futile, and I didn’t make it to the gym.  My mood vacillated between bored and antsy, with an undercurrent of self-loathing, because—let’s face it—I was just engaged in some self-indulgent moping.  Nothing of any real significance had even gone wrong!  I was just off-kilter and terribly out of sorts.

11026013_10205239130471434_545040918442187652_nThis afternoon, I found myself in the kitchen, as I often do, when I’m in a cranky, at-loose-ends kind of mood.  On autopilot, I began peeling and dicing butternut squash, a few Granny Smith apples, and leeks, as I prepared a soup that has been one of my favorite go-to recipes for nearly fifteen years.  I’ve made this soup for special occasions, for winter solace, and for visiting friends.  I’ve written about this soup on this very blog, and whenever I make it, I’m reminded that our most beloved dishes are more than nutritional sustenance: they’re a balm for the soul.

I mean, sure, fancy-schmancy chefs are forever finding ways to reinvent the familiar, and to push the envelope of what “eating well” means.  But for the rest of us, preparing food that is nourishing to the spirit as well as the body is a way of mending the fabric of a tattered day, of soothing frayed nerves and inviting simple pleasures to join us at the table and remind us that tomorrow is another day.

I’m going to ponder the alchemy of food and mood while I eat my soup—far away from my computer, mind you.  And tomorrow will be a better day, I’m sure of it, because tomorrow there will be leftovers waiting in the fridge.

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A big pot of calm-the-hell down and try again tomorrow.

 

Get Some Girl On Girl Harmony for Mardi Gras! DUCHESS’ Debut CD Release is TODAY!

It’s Mardi Gras, which means it’s time to party!  And, in a happy coincidence, the eponymous debut CD from DUCHESS (the vocal trio I’m in with my friends Amy Cervini and Melissa Stylianou) is released TODAY on Anzic Records!  We’re so excited to share our album with you, which DownBeat Magazine described as “smile inducing…a vocal dynamo.”

Official release on Anzic Records on 2/17!

Official release on Anzic Records on 2/17!

So, what are you waiting for?  Visit the Anzic Records store and purchase a hard copy or digital download of our CD.  Or, if you prefer, you can certainly get DUCHESS on iTunes!  Hey, if Amazon is more your thing, we’re on there, too!  Whatever you do, be sure to order your copy of DUCHESS today!  Then, make your reservation for our CD release show at the Jazz Standard on March 3.  There will be hijinks.  There will be harmony.  It’s the hottest ticket in town, and we can’t wait to see you there!

It was just last November that producer/arranger/label head/Amy’s husband, Oded Lev-Ari, suggested that the three of us team up for an evening of harmony and hijinks at NYC’s 55 bar.  We’ve covered a lot of ground since that first gig: we traveled to Oklahoma’s Route 66 with CowBop last summer and autumn took us to New Orleans where we were part of a Boswell Sisters tribute.  We shared the stage with the likes of Janis Siegel, Matt Wilson, Jane Monheit, Vince Giordano, and Gene Bertoncini.  We hosted the Birdland Jazz Party and helmed a three-month residency at the 55 bar.  We’ve even picked up ukeleles and a melodica (not to mention kazoos!) from time to time.  The fun quotient has been through the roof, and there are some incredibly exciting things in store in the months ahead.  Stay in the loop by joining our mailing list, and thanks for supporting girl-on-girl harmony!Duchess3

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January: Looking back, looking ahead

Scenes from Water Island: musicians, sunset, and moments from the beach...

Scenes from Water Island: musicians, sunset, and moments from the beach…

Was it really just a couple of weeks ago that I was hanging out in the Virgin Islands for the Water Island Music Festival?  For the second year in a row, E. and I trekked down to St. Thomas and took a short ferry ride over to a tiny residential island for a few days of music-making with and among extraordinary musicians.  During our (plentiful) down time, we ate fish tacos on the beach, swam in the placid turquoise bay at Honeymoon Beach, and took in stunning vistas as we motored around the island on the locals’ preferred form of transport: the golf cart.

From this...

From this…

Of course, all good things must end.  When our time in the Caribbean was up, we tossed blossoms in the water (to ensure our return to the island), boarded our flight, and returned to snowy streets and icy temperatures.

...to this.

…to this.

Last month also heralded the official Rondette Jazz release of the new CD from the George Gee Swing Orchestra, Swing Makes You Happy.  Trombonist/musical director David Gibson arranged a swinging mix of standards, transcriptions, and original compositions for this album, which has been getting some great press: All About Jazz gave the album four stars, and DownBeat named it a January Editors’ Pick.

Finally, January was a great month for musical match-ups.  In addition to performing piano/vocal duets with Wells Hanley in the Caribbean, I teamed up with pianist Ehud Asherie for an intimate evening of standards at Mezzrow.  Saul Rubin and Noah Garabedian (guitar and bass, respectively) were warm, supportive collaborators when we performed at Saul’s long-running vocal series, and pianist Joe Alterman and I hit the road for gigs in Atlanta and Phoenix.

Official release on Anzic Records on 2/17!

Official release on Anzic Records on 2/17!

Looking ahead, there’s some very big news on the horizon: the eponymous debut CD from DUCHESS is being officially released on Tuesday, February 17!  If you haven’t done so already, you can pre-order the album on iTunes or directly from Anzic Records, and please join our mailing list to stay in the know about some big shows and exciting developments in the world of girl on girl harmony!

In January, I…
Blogged about: The ups and downs of freelancing. Singer-friend Bess McCrary. December.

Watched: Chef.  I love food movies, and this one, written and directed by Jon Favreau, boasts a fantastic cast (John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt) and a really fun soundtrack.

Read: An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler.  A contemporary meditation on eating and cooking well, based on M.F.K. Fisher’s iconic missive, How to Cook a Wolf.  Adler’s prose is thoughtful and elegant, and if you’re even a little bit intimidated by cooking, this book is the answer: there are no complicated recipes (there are no recipes at all, really), just sane, simple ways to make cooking a part of your life.  Above, by Isla Morey.  A harrowing, riveting novel about a 16-year-old girl who is abducted by a survivalist and spends years below ground in an abandoned bomb shelter, eventually raising a son in captivity.  An unexpected plot twist raises fascinating questions about freedom vs. captivity, safety vs. danger, and the nature of forgiveness.

Listened to: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook.  When Ehud and I performed at Mezzrow last month, we wound up playing a bunch of Rodgers and Hart tunes, which inspired me to spend some time with this album.  For straightforward, swinging interpretations that put the songs first, there’s no better resource than Ella’s songbook series.

Easy Come, Easy Go

I'm in the top row, far right. Kidding. Although I DID wear this outfit while happily warbling in the alto section.

I’m in the top row, far right. Kidding. Although I DID wear this outfit while happily warbling in the alto section.

Last spring, when I faced an appallingly large tax bill and very much needed to earn more money immediately (if not sooner), a choral gig at an Upper East Side church materialized out of nowhere.  The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and my long-latent inner choir nerd was soon happily ensconced in singing choral masses amidst the smells and bells of the Episcopalian church.  Best of all, I was getting paid to do so.

Right after Christmas, just as my bank account had started to right itself and I had finally begun feeling more confident in my sight-reading skills, the choir director pulled me aside and apologetically told me that, due to budget cuts, the music program was being scaled back (a tale as old as the gospels themselves) and he had to downsize.  As the most recent hires, one unlucky soprano and I were let go, and just like that, my heaven-sent gig disappeared.

I felt something akin to what I felt some years ago, when I received word that the Broadway show that had been my ticket out of waitressing was closing.  Yes, there was mild disappointment and a little financial anxiety, but mostly I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for getting to do the gig, even if it was for just a brief time.

I have found that, when it comes to keeping one’s mental health in the always-shifting world of self-employment, it’s good to remember these words: easy come, easy go.  One of the first things you learn as a freelancer, after all, is that gigs are like trains: there’s always another one coming.  (Some of the other things you learn as a freelancer: always get a 50% deposit when booking a gig, don’t expect health insurance or paid sick leave, and there is no feeling more satisfying than the smugness of being able to shop at Trader Joe’s in the mid-morning on a Tuesday when everybody else is working and the lines are short.)

Lest I sound too nonchalant about my ever-fluctuating employment status, I should probably disclose that I pondered much of this blog entry while relaxing on the beach earlier this month, and it’s pretty tough to be angst-ridden when you’re wiggling your toes in the sand.

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It’s easy to be sans souci with this view…

You see, for the second year in a row, I was the featured jazz singer at the Water Island Music Festival in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  The festival takes place over the course of three evenings of intimate house concerts on a tiny residential island just off the coast of St. Thomas.  By day, I ate fish tacos and soaked up the sun.  By night, I sang 20-minute sets of jazz standards with a wonderful pianist-friend for a warm, appreciative audience.  After the show, along with my husband and all the other festival performers, I drank beer, hung out in a hot tub, and talked about music and art under a starry Caribbean sky.  Talk about a heaven-sent gig!

I’ve currently got a couple of feelers out for another church job, and there is already talk brewing about next year’s Water Island Music Festival.  Maybe it’ll be easy to find another steady choral gig, and maybe it won’t.  Maybe my annual Caribbean gig will continue for years to come, and maybe it won’t.  Whatever happens, I hope to embrace the ebbs and flows of this freelance life with equanimity and, most of all, gratitude for a life spent in song.

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After the final performance at the 10th annual Water Island Music Festival.

Spotlight On…Bess McCrary

10301503_921470471197751_4956422380118880592_nI love lippy dames, no-nonsense broads with a good sense of humor and a low bullshit threshold.  It makes perfect sense, then, that singer-songwriter Bess McCrary and I hit it off right away.  (We met in the ladies’ dressing room of a big band gig where we were both doing the “canary” thing, and within five minutes were cracking each other up.)

Her first album, “For Happy,” is made up entirely of Bess’s original songs, and is a tribute to her mother, who passed away in 2008 after a long battle with cancer.  Bess then faced a bout with cancer herself, and was unsure, in the wake of her treatment, if she’d be able to sing again.  Luckily for all of us, Bess (now healthy!) kept singing and writing, and her second album, “Resurrect Me,” is slated for release this year.

And so, without further ado, let’s kick off the first “Spotlight On…” post of 2015.  Thank you, Bess!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
My extended family was very musical.  My paternal grandmother could hear a song once and play it on multiple instruments.  Same goes for one of my first cousins.  My talents always seemed so small in comparison; they were untrained prodigies who seemed almost casual about their abilities.  My mom also loved to sing and filled the house with music from her diverse record collection.  She put me in acting classes at age four because I was, ummm, fibbing a lot.  I was taught to harmonize around age six by my dad and just fell in love with all things music and then, all things that involved a stage and then, on a good day, some clapping!! Oooooohhhh, the clapping!!  I remember the day it bit me and filled me with what felt like the best feeling EVER. [Ed. note: THANK YOU for being so candid about how much we performers crave (need?) applause!]

cd-cover-thumb1In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Naturally: Writing songs.  I put my first song down on paper when I was 13.  I learned very quickly that our culture loves a good song, and I could sing about anything, no matter how dark or terrible, if I just made that sh*t rhyme.

Challenging: Writing good songs.  Am I allowed to say, “Touché” to myself?

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
A neurologist who works in psychiatry. Humans (myself included) are all cuckoo.  It soothes me to know why, and I’m a neurology buff.  I believe F-MRI machines and other modern factors will lead medicine to conclusions about mental health and illness that will force us to remove the stigma and make [treating mental illness] a part of our general preventative health culture.  I think it would be an unbelievably fascinating, challenging, and rewarding profession that would accomplish some real change in the world.  Or I would like to be one of my cats.  Those two really have it good.

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
OH.  Oh!  I can’t.  I don’t even.  Where would I start?  I’m going to be a cheesy cheater and say that I just love my regular band!!  I want to keep hiring them, and would certainly do so if I got this “gig of a lifetime” right now.  It’s true, so why not give them props, right?  David Cook, who is my killer MD and keys player (and oftentimes producer/arranger/co-writer).  Bill Campbell, who is my kick-ass drummer, Jeff Hanley, who plays the best bass for me, and Al Street, who matches my musical weirdness on guitar like nobody else.  We just got out of the studio for my second album and I can’t even explain the service these guys paid to the songs I wrote.

10427298_873240839354048_690003317356638886_nWhat’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Less talk, more do.

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
While making production decisions for my upcoming album, I was obsessed with the production on Kimbra’s album, Vows, and also production on Sarah Blasko’s newest album.  For inspiration in songwriting, I’ve been turning to world music and of course and as always, the radio.

My next two genre-forays are into country and the wide world of musical theatre!!  I can’t tell you much about the latter because details are still falling into place but let’s just say…I’ve always wanted to write for the stage!  As for country music…I just keep writing country songs these days.  So there’s that.  I’m excited to hone my craft while increasing my catalogue!

Fun Fact…
I can dilate and constrict my pupils at will.  I taught myself when I was 14.  It’s probably my best parlor trick.  Probably!!

Bess is performing this Friday, January 9, at Rockwood Music Hall (Stage 3) at 7:00 pm.  She’s also been chosen as a 2015 artist-in-residence at the Serenbe Institute.  Look for her new album, “Resurrect Me,” this year.

December: Looking back, looking ahead

holiday-sale-image-1024x765And just like that, in the blink of an eye, another holiday season has come and gone. December was a month filled with music, friends, and a whole lot of food and wine. Bouncing from gig to gig and party to party was fun, but it was also exhausting, so I was delighted that the month—and 2014 itself—culminated in a quiet New Year’s Eve dinner at home.

I try not to make New Year’s resolutions, but the first days of a brand-new year seem to invite contemplation and a bit of much-welcomed slowness, which I savor.  In years past, I have gravitated toward single words that encapsulate my intentions, hopes, and aspirations for the year ahead: faith, fruition, and action, to name a few.  This year, though, I am greeting the new year with a phrase that I saw making the rounds on Facebook, courtesy of Elizabeth Gilbert: “Done is better than good.”

You see, I can get so hung up on my fear of not being able to make something good enough (a recording, a yoga practice, a piece of writing) that sometimes I don’t start at all.  There’s something incredibly freeing about the idea that “done,” with all its inevitable flaws and quirks, still trumps “good.”  “Done is better than good” means that wrong notes, tight hamstrings, and typos are far too inconsequential to keep me from creating something, however meaningful or mundane.  What a relief!

Multi-culti holidays in Brooklyn: the tree and menorah at Borough Hall, our own tree and menorah, a Chinese food ornament (!) and an eggnog latte by the tree.

Multi-culti holidays in Brooklyn: the tree and menorah at Borough Hall, our own tree and menorah, a Chinese food ornament (!) and an eggnog latte by the tree.

Good food, good drinks, good friends...this was a holiday season to celebrate!

Good food, good drinks, good friends…this was a holiday season to celebrate!

NYE Collage

Our NYE dinner: smoked salmon hors d’oeuvres and cheeses to start, then Beef Wellington, followed by chocolate Pavlova.  The wine flowed like…well, you know.  

In December, I…
Blogged about: Fast & Festive Holiday Eating.  November.

Watched: A bunch of Harry Potter movies.  The magic, the metaphor, and the banquet scenes in these films make for perfect holiday entertainment.

Read: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman; this lovely story was part romance, part historical look at turn-of-the-century New York, and part fairy tale.  Under Magnolia, by Frances Mayes; I love Mayes’ narratives of building a life in Italy and was riveted by this lyrical memoir of her Southern upbringing.  Be Safe I Love You, by Cara Hoffman; a harrowing and beautifully written novel about a woman newly returned home from a tour of duty in Iraq.  Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin; a wise singer-cook friend lent me this book, and reading Colwin’s no-nonsense, funny prose was like meeting a new friend.

Listened to: Uptown Funk, by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars.  Tongue-in-cheek and irrepressibly fun, this song got me through a few brutally early mornings last month.