May: Looking back, looking ahead

My heart is full and my head is still spinning from a magical few days spent in the Crescent City. I visited New Orleans for the first time back in October, when DUCHESS performed at Snug Harbor and the Boswell Sisters Revue.  To put it mildly, the city got under my skin in a big way, so when E. and I were deciding where we’d like to go for our first real vacation in several years, we immediately chose New Orleans.  The trip was pure pleasure, with every day spent eating and drinking (oh, how we ate and drank), walking through various neighborhoods, and delighting in incredible music literally around every corner.

Jackson Square under moody skies.

Jackson Square under moody skies.

I fell completely under the spell of JoAnn Clevenger, the septuagenarian proprietress of Upperline, a restaurant that will forever be New Orleans to me, both in spirit and cuisine.  E. kibitzed with Debbie Lindsay, who co-owns Kitchen Witch, a vintage cookbook store (!) in the French Quarter.  Debbie told E. stories about Cosimo Matassa and Allen Toussaint while ringing E. up for a mint-condition Ray Charles box set—because of course Kitchen Witch also sells CDs and vinyl. And late one night at the Spotted Cat, I caught up with an old friend and native New Orleanian, Kevin Louis, swinging out on trumpet and vocals with the New Orleans Jazz Vipers.

One day, we joined a throng of over a thousand people in a second line for a young NOLA musician who had passed away recently; we walked through Tremé surrounded by music that grooved so profoundly that I can only describe it as the sound of life itself.  We visited a little antique shop in the Faubourg-Marigny where E. bought me some costume jewelry from the 1950s and the shop owner told us that next time we visited, he’d have us over to his home, where he keeps the really good stuff.  We drank Sazeracs in a leafy garden at twilight, gaped at the splendor of the Garden District, and got goosebumps at a drum circle in Congo Square, the birthplace of virtually all American music.  There’s so much I want to tell you, and I suspect a more in-depth, focused blog post will be forthcoming.  For now, though, this little photo travelogue will have to suffice.

Looking ahead, I’m getting ready to hit the road with DUCHESS.  We’ve got quite a busy touring schedule this summer, and we’re heading out of town in just a couple of weeks.  DUCHESS’ June calendar contains performances at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, Regattabar in Boston, the Toronto Jazz Festival, the Rochester Jazz Festival, and the Saratoga Jazz Festival; you can check out our complete gig schedule on our website.

In May I…
Blogged about: April.  Singer-Friend Wendy Gilles.  Foodie Tuesday: Spring Green.

Watched: The Mad Men series finale.  I’ll miss the fashion, the martinis, and (most of all) Roger Sterling’s classic quips.

Read: Mostly NOLA guidebooks, to prep for our trip.

Listened to: The Peaceful Side, Billy Strayhorn.  A rare recording of Strayhorn at the piano, playing his own compositions.  Some tracks feature the addition of a string quartet and vocals by the Paris Blue Notes.  Strayhorn’s arrangements—especially the vocals—are beautiful and strikingly modern.  WWOZ, 90.7 FM.  The marvel of modern technology allows me to wake up to the sound of New Orleans right here in Brooklyn.


Clockwise from bottom left: our NOLA B&B served sweet potato-bacon-bourbon bread pudding for breakfast; the garden at our B&B; deciding the day’s itinerary.

NOLA CongoSquare

Scenes from Congo Square, right across the street from our B&B.


Creole tacos, beignets, muffalettas, and lots of cocktails…NOLA is, without question, my kind of town!

Foodie Tuesday: Spring Green

IMG_2447After a long, dark winter, the lush unfurling of springtime is a benediction.  The regeneration of the natural world is energizing and inspiring, and despite (or perhaps thanks to) the intense “circle-of-life” reflection that the season can bring, spring finds me wanting to lighten up. Culinarily speaking, I crave brightness and simplicity, which can be easily found in spring produce: baby asparagus, fava beans, and new peas, to be precise, all of which have made appearances on our dinner table in recent weeks.

A couple of months ago, I was browsing the culinary section of a used bookstore in DUMBO when I chanced upon Amarcord, a memoir by Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of Italian cooking.  Hazan’s forthright description of springtime vignarola is proof positive that Italians are unparalleled when it comes to showcasing the intrinsic glories of seasonal produce.

You must be there at just the one moment in the spring when baby fava beans, small rosebud artichokes, and very small peas, all at the same early stage of development, appear in the market at the identical time.  If it should last more than two weeks, it is a lucky year; a month, a prodigy.  You also need some cipollotti, young onions, and a small head of romaine lettuce.  The onion is sliced and cooked in olive oil until it is very soft.  You add the lettuce, the trimmed artichokes, the shelled beans and peas, and cook.  The vegetables are so young that it doesn’t take very long.  When done, it doesn’t look very presentable.  It is a dark, mushy mass that you might think a careless cook had produced.  But when you take a mouthful, it is as though spring itself in all its tenderness has been delivered in edible form.

Fava beans team up with asparagus in another quintessentially springtime preparation, which is so simple that it can scarcely be called a “recipe.”  I’ve prepared this salad as a side dish, but tossed with pieces of gently poached chicken breast or topped with a broiled salmon fillet (in which case I’d omit the cheese), it can easily serve as the main event.

Spring Salad (adapted from Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, by Sophie Dahl)

  • 1 bunch of young asparagus
  • 1 cup of cooked fresh fava beans (blanch and remove outer skins) 
  • generous handful of chopped mint
  • 1/2 cup of shaved pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • extra virgin olive oil, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • squeeze of lemon (optional)

Steam or boil the asparagus until the spears are just tender—they should retain a bit of firmness.  Shock the asparagus in an ice bath and chop into 2″ pieces.  Toss the asparagus and the fava beans in a couple of tablespoons of grassy extra virgin olive oil, along with the mint and cheese, then add salt and pepper to taste.  For extra brightness, finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Here in New York City, outdoor space can be tough to come by, and few of us are able to eat what we’ve grown ourselves.  Happily, farmer’s markets abound, bringing the verdant freshness of spring vegetables within reach.  This time of year, it is easy bein’ green.

Veg Collage

Spotlight On…Wendy Gilles

Wendy Gilles and I went to the same college, a lush woodsy campus in the Pacific Northwest. We have many mutual friends.  We even studied under the same voice teacher.  We both are deeply rooted in classical technique and training, but also keep a foot firmly planted in the world of jazz.  We didn’t discover any of these coincidences, however, until we (also coincidentally) became neighbors, living just one block away from one another in New York City.  We formally “met” one another on MySpace (remember MySpace?!) and marveled at the many ways our lives could have intersected, but didn’t, until we both moved to Harlem.

385432_533215656047_573873859_nWendy is a rare bird: she’s an active choral singer and cantor, bringing her precise musicality and a bell-like vocal clarity to some of New York City’s most prestigious professional choirs.  She is also a lyricist and a thoughtful, swinging jazz singer.  For the past few years, Wendy has been singing with the Grammy-winning (!!!) Gil Evans Project, helmed by Ryan Truesdell.  The Gil Evans Project has garnered Wendy some terrific press, as well as a debut at Carnegie Hall and a busy touring schedule.

Wendy is also just a swell gal.  She’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s kind.  Wendy is prepping for her yearly residency with the Gil Evans Project at the Jazz Standard, but she took the time to answer some questions for my little blog, and I’m very grateful.  Thanks, Wendy!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I think the driving force behind choosing to make music my living has always been the joy and gratification I feel when I sing.  It is a visceral and intellectual activity that challenges me, body and mind.  It’s also something I know I am definitely not happy without.  If I had to choose a particular artist who inspired me, it would probably be Ella Fitzgerald.  When I received my first Ella record as a gift at 14 years old, I already loved choral singing, and had an interest in joining our jazz choir, but I was fairly timid about it all.  The first time I really listened to her, something clicked.  After a few listens, I could mimic every song and solo verbatim, and I learned an entirely new musical vocabulary.  Ella unlocked something in me—to imitate her, I had to let go of a lot of preconceived notions I had about sound, timbre, and what was “pretty.”  She also basically taught me how to improvise.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
The easiest part has always been the singing.  I started singing at two years old, and harmonizing with my mom around three years.  Developing my instrument and building my skills as a musician has always been rewarding and intuitive for me.  Academically speaking, I was always really great with ear training, and not-so-great with theory.  The biggest challenges for me in pursuing a career in music have been the more business-related skills: networking, self-promotion, PR, and having confidence in myself as a leader and creative voice.  I also have struggled to find my footing as someone who works in both the classical and jazz worlds. Trying to figure out my identity in both worlds, and to find a balance between them, is an ongoing pursuit.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I would love to be a voiceover artist.  I probably have way too much fun doing several accents and dialects in my everyday life, and I could definitely see myself making a living from it.  I also moonlight as an editor and ghostwriter for a couple of projects already, and could be pretty happy doing that on a larger scale.  I’m a bit of a word nerd, and making sentences more concise, effective, and evocative, satisfies my inner grammarian.

11115692_578835753007_7991289144007838251_nImagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
Hmm. I would love to sit next to Nat King Cole at the piano and sing duets.  I think one of the most fun concert ideas I could imagine would be recreating the Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley collaboration.  I love all of those arrangements, and the band is just so in the pocket.  I’m lucky enough to get to sing with a serious dream band in real life, when I sing with the Gil Evans Project.  Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I sing with those guys.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
The best advice I’ve received is the same advice I give to aspiring singers who ask for guidance: be as diverse and flexible a musician as possible—don’t pigeonhole yourself.  Certainly, develop and hone your craft, but know that each kind of musical style has the potential to inform and improve upon another.  I would also say that it is important to value collaboration over personal achievement.  The best artists I know are humble, collaborative people who derive so much from making music with others.  If you’re intently focused mostly on just yourself and your sound, you’ll miss the best stuff that’s going on around you, and may even inhibit your ability to truly excel.

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
I listen to a lot of the Wailin’ Jennys (voices in close harmony are like balm for my soul), Love This Giant by St. Vincent and David Byrne, anything from Audra McDonald, Joni Mitchell, Kate McGarry, Patty Griffin.  I haven’t actually been listening to a ton of jazz, lately.  I’ve been beefing up on some Renaissance polyphony, especially Carlo Gesualdo.

Fun Fact…
I grew up spending a lot more time in a dance studio than in a practice room.  I took tap, jazz, and ballet lessons from the time I was three, until I left for college.

Wendy will be appearing with The Gil Evans Project at the Jazz Standard this week, May 14-17. Get your tickets and treat yourself to some beautiful music!


April: Looking back, looking ahead

“Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment.” -Ellis Peters

11204887_10205714760681892_444853869013410021_nTo begin a post with a quote feels very “college-admissions-essay” to me, but Ellis Peters’ words seem especially fitting in these first days of May. Seemingly overnight, New York City has burst into exuberant, riotous bud and flower.  E. and I took a trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on Sunday and the beauty was overwhelming.  The scent of lilacs wafted on the breeze, the rainbow-hued tulips were dazzling, and we were so happy to stroll in the springtime sunshine that our first sunburns of the season went unnoticed until the following morning.

But, as the song goes, “spring can really hang you up the most,” and that feels pretty goddamn true, lately, too.  Last week, I was devastated to learn that my first singing teacher and musical mentor died of breast cancer. During my wretchedly awkward early teenage years, Janet Stotts gave me a sense of self and of belonging in the world.  She was an extraordinary woman who touched thousands of lives, and I am deeply grateful to have been her student.

11205157_10205714768602090_7286000846154644776_nAnd, this being May, we are nearing the two-year anniversary of Joshua Wolff‘s passing.  Josh was a wonderful pianist and a dear friend, and he’s never far from my thoughts. I remember wandering in a daze through my lushly blooming neighborhood two springs ago, when Josh was ill, bewildered that the world could contain such heartbreaking suffering and loveliness at the same time.

I’m sorry.  I don’t mean to be a downer.  But there is something about the tender newness of spring that invites reflection on life’s opposites: yes, we are fragile and vulnerable, and our time here is short.  But there will always be a spring, audacious and resilient.  Isn’t that amazing?  No matter how bruised and battered we are by the harshness of winters both literal and metaphorical, the life force “that through the green fuse drives the flower” (Dylan Thomas) always reasserts itself.  And I am, indeed, perpetually astonished.

In April I…
Blogged about: March.  Lady Day at 100.* The “Charlie” to our “Angels,” Oded Lev-Ari (for DUCHESS).
*My Billie Holiday post was chosen by WordPress for the “Freshly Pressed” homepage, and was shared hundreds of times on social media.  I’m honored that the post resonated with so many people.

Watched: A Star Has Burnt My Eye, a mixed-media theatrical production that told the strange, sad story of the mysterious songwriter Connie Converse.  This show haunted me for days afterward.

Read: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.  A poetic novel about a troupe of wandering Shakespearean actors and classical musicians, post-apocalypse (a flu has killed 99% of the world’s population).  This book explores questions about why we make art, and whether creative expression matters in the face of unspeakable horrors.  The way that the author interweaves her characters’ lives in this sprawling, yet cohesive story is masterful.

Listened to: Stevie Wonder, Songs In The Key Of Life.  LIVE!!!  Songs In The Key Of Life has been a part of my musical consciousness as long as I can remember.  Getting to see and hear Stevie Wonder perform this album live and in person was the thrill of a lifetime.  I pretty much wept for three hours.

Lady Day at 100

033-billie-holiday-theredlistToo often, when we hear about Billie Holiday, we hear mainly about her struggles with substance abuse.  We hear about her tumultuous love life and troubled childhood. We see photographs of the now-iconic gardenia in her hair and the glass of gin in her hand and we marvel at the “feeling” she put into her music, an organic by-product of the tragedy and hopelessness in her personal life.

Well, yes, it’s true that Billie Holiday could tear your heart out with her plaintive, spare renderings of sad songs.  But it’s condescending and reductive to attribute the emotional impact of Billie Holiday’s singing to her tempestuous personal life.  She was a masterful musician, first and foremost, and it’s a shame to gloss over that fact in favor of the more salacious elements of her story.

When I listen to early Billie Holiday recordings, I marvel again and again at the suppleness and horn-like flexibility of her voice.  With her distinctive timbre and unique way of shaping vowels, Lady’s sound is unmistakable.  She possessed a rhythmic dexterity and playfulness that enabled her to interact with her bandmates as though she were another horn; in short, she swung like mad.  Her time was perfect.  A true improviser, she mitigated the limitations of her somewhat narrow vocal range by composing new melodies on the spot.

Her later recordings reveal a voice that is weathered and worn, but, as evidenced in recorded rehearsals from the 1950s with pianist Jimmie Rowles, Billie Holiday’s musical inventiveness showed no signs of slowing down.

I don’t mean to suggest that we can (or even should) leave Holiday’s personal life out of the discussion when we remember her, but if we must rehash the ups and downs of her addictions and love affairs, can we also make sure to acknowledge the depth of Billie Holiday’s courage? When Holiday joined Artie Shaw’s band in the 1930s, she was one of the first black singers to appear with a white orchestra—then she left him when she got tired of his bullshit and rightly surmised that she could make a lot more money cutting records on her own.

In 1939, she forced white audiences to acknowledge the brutality of racism when she performed Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” a graphic and painful song about lynchings in the Jim Crow-era American South.  Holiday herself said she feared for her own safety, but she kept singing it, and successfully fought to record “Strange Fruit,” turning to Milt Gabler at the fledgling Commodore Records when other labels balked.

Billie Holiday’s penultimate album, Lady In Satin, was recorded not long before her death.  In the album’s original liner notes, Irving Townsend notes that all of the songs on Lady In Satin were new to Billie Holiday.  What’s more, she insisted that Ray Ellis be the album’s arranger and conductor; she’d heard the young arranger’s first album and instinctively knew that he was the right person with whom to record the poignant love songs she’d chosen.

Yet, when Lady In Satin is discussed, we tend to talk only about the diminished quality of Billie Holiday’s voice, and of the way the (predominantly) melancholy ballads on the album mirrored her personal downfall.  I would humbly ask that we also pay tribute to the fact that, even as she neared the end of her life, Holiday was acting as her own A&R person, choosing brand-new repertoire and a young up-and-comer to arrange and conduct what she would describe as the best album she ever made.

Today, on her centennial, I give thanks that throughout every twist, turn, and travail of her too-brief life, Billie Holiday kept singing.  Thank you, Lady.



March: Looking back, looking ahead

Yesterday marked my twelve-year anniversary as a New Yorker.  Twelve years!  That’s longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere.  New York affords its denizens many things: museums, music, theatre, late-night food delivery, (increasingly expensive) public transportation, and endless diversity, to name but a few.  But I think that the greatest gift that this city bestows on its citizenry, though, is the potential and permission for reinvention.  By chance or by design, a person can live many different lifetimes here.  My own tenure in NYC has encompassed half a dozen apartments, five waitressing jobs, a college degree, a Broadway show, and countless gigs spanning multiple musical genres.  It’s been a wild and wonderful ride so far, and I am so grateful for the chance to live and make music in this most wonderful of cities.

DUCHESS backstage at the Jazz Standard, March 3, 2015.

DUCHESS backstage at the Jazz Standard, March 3, 2015.

March was filled with joy-inducing musical experiences. The month kicked off with DUCHESS‘ CD release show at the Jazz Standard.  Despite wintry weather (read: yet another blizzard), we had a packed house and a good time was had by all.  Then, a couple of weeks later, I returned to Mezzrow to perform with my old pal Ehud Asherie, a brilliant pianist with whom I’ve been exploring the music of Rodgers & Hart.  Our dear friend Michael Steinman, of JAZZ LIVES, wrote a couple of lovely posts about the evening, which you can read here and here.  And, if you’re so inclined, you can check out a video of our version of “Ten Cents a Dance” below.

Looking ahead, I’ll be doing some choral singing at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services this week (what does “Maundy” mean, anyway?), and it’s always a treat to celebrate Passover with my husband and his family.  I’m also looking forward to being part of this show, helmed by the aforementioned Ehud Asherie and featuring the brilliant vocalists Brianna Thomas and Lezlie Harrison.  And a big highlight in April will be mid-month, when Stevie Wonder brings his “Songs In The Key Of Life” tour to town.  That album is one of the most important musical touchstones in my life, and I still can’t believe I’ll get to experience hearing it live!

In March, I…
Blogged about: Singer-friend Nancy Harms.  February.

Watched: The Breakfast Club.  In a movie theatre.  I was too young to see it on the big screen when this iconic John Hughes film was released 30 years ago (!!!), so I couldn’t miss the chance to catch the revival.  After all these years, the film’s poignancy and humor still feel relevant.

Read: JAZZ LIVES.  How lucky we musicians are to have Michael Steinman in our midst!  His ears and heart are wide open, as revealed in his beautiful post about Louis Armstrong.  Michael’s eloquence and kindness extends to present-day players, too, as evidenced in this gem about a recent performance by Michael Kanan and friends.

Listened to: Mary Foster Conklin‘s WBAI radio broadcast in honor of International Women’s Day.  She curated a wonderful two-hour set of female vocalists, performing (almost) exclusively songs written by women.


Spotlight On…Nancy Harms

1044963_10151618354920415_970921141_nNancy Harms‘ singing embodies a quiet sort of mystery, a coolness that is reserved but always tinged with sweetness. We have met in person once or twice, but most of what I know about Nancy comes from the world of social media and, of course, her music.  Nancy’s most recent solo effort, Dreams in Apartments, was met with a warm critical reception: the Wall St. Journal’s Will Friedwald wrote, “…after hearing [Nancy] just once, you’ll never want to let her go.”

The success of Dreams in Apartments has taken Nancy to Copenhagen, Oslo, Paris, and Torino already this year, and her ongoing collaboration with pianist Jeremy Siskind will find her touring the western United States this spring.  We New Yorkers will have to keep an eye on Nancy’s calendar to find out when she’ll be performing here next.  Until then, a big thank-you to Nancy Harms for answering a few questions for the “Spotlight On…” series!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
Right out of college, I had a lovely job of teaching music to elementary-aged kids in a small town and I really enjoyed it.  But it wasn’t enough.  As great as it was, it left a hole and I felt like I was living someone else’s life.  I began to explore the world of jazz singing more and more, and as I did I felt as though I was getting closer and closer to home.  I have been singing in public since the age of four, but with little exposure to jazz and not many examples of professional artists in my community, it took me a while to find out exactly what was calling me out of my teaching life.  Figuring out how one goes about taking the leap into that wonderful, wild world of being a professional musician was no small task for me, but I knew that’s what I had to do.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
I have a pretty good ear in some respects and have tended to rely on that too much in my musical life…as a result, working on sight-reading and theory have not been the most attractive or easy things for me.  I’m a very intuitive person so I can easily get frustrated when I’m asked to break things down or name them…I just like to absorb the info in my own way and then put it to use and call it a day.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
Photographer.  I’m not that practiced or studied in photography, but I really love being behind a camera and capturing things through my own “eye.”  I also love to see other people’s photos…a glimpse into how they see the world/what attracts their eye…Shapes?  Colors?  Light?  Good stuff.

10999351_10152788199825415_3848357921430398608_nImagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Paul Chambers, Jeff “Tain” Watts.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
I have received so much incredible advice as I have a mentor (Arne Fogel) who has given me an embarrassment of riches in that category.  But something that is sticking out in my head now is the advice that another singer gave me on arranging tunes.  She said that she just spends some time with the lyric, maybe even just speaking it, and finds out what the lyric means to her and then tries to put that into sound.  This made so much sense to me…our brilliance lies in how true we are to ourselves. [Ed. Note: I added the emphasis to Nancy’s last sentence, here, because it resonated within me so powerfully.  What a succinct, beautiful truth.]

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
I’m in love with the new Kate McGarry tune “Ten Little Indians” at the moment. So tender.

Fun Fact…
I have a surprising laugh that is often (lovingly) compared to the sweet song of the pterodactyl.

Keep up with Nancy’s touring schedule on her website.  You can also check out one of her original songs, “And It’s Beautiful,” below.