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.

 

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.