I still love New York

Sometimes it seems like New York City is on its way to becoming (or, depending on whom you ask, is already) a tiny island filled with nothing but banks and Duane Reade stores. A number of my friends have recently moved west, having decided that New York is “over,” and L.A. is now the place to be.

I get it. I know that living in New York City is not for everyone. But if a hipster is somebody who loves something before it’s cool enough to capture the fancy of the general public, I suppose I, then, am the opposite. I love New York City as much today as ever, even though lots of people seem to have decided it’s not cool anymore.

By the time this post is published, I’ll be in Tuscany, on a long-anticipated vacation with my mother. When it comes time to depart Italy, I know I’ll be terribly sad to leave la dolce vita, but there will be solace in knowing that autumn in New York awaits.

Brooklyn Bridge will be filled with tourists and locals, strolling in the still-warm September sun. The greatest musicians in the world will be performing at Mezzrow in Greenwich Village every night. The leaves will be starting to turn in Central Park. And, as I walk briskly through Manhattan’s “canyons of steel,” with every footfall, my heart will beat, “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home.” 

I love New York, today and every day.

July and August: Looking back, looking ahead

I can’t believe we’re on the cusp of Labor Day weekend. I know that, technically, fall doesn’t begin for a few more weeks, but there’s a perceptible shift that happens once August comes to a close, when the pace of life increases and boots and sweaters start appearing in shop windows. I’m always a little sad to see summer go, but am also amazed at how much fun got packed into July and August, from swinging gigs to weekend getaways.

A few months ago, I was anticipating a fairly quiet summer, gig-wise, but the calendar filled up with some familiar and new collaborations, all of which were hugely rewarding. Duchess had one gig this summer, in which we performed three mini-sets at the Triad (we were shooting video, so we did a “girl group” tribute, a holiday show, and a salute to the Rat Pack) before bidding each other adieu for the summer. The wonderful drummer Jerome Jennings invited me to sing with his band at a swing dance in Brownsville, presented by the NYPD and Jazz at Lincoln Center in an effort to strengthen and improve relationships between the community and police force. It was a very special evening, and I felt honored to be a part of it.

I joined singer-songwriter Marcus Goldhaber for a few duets one evening at the Friars Club, and returned to my beloved Mezzrow with my equally dear Ehud Asherie, where we played some new tunes for a packed house. It’s always exciting to forge new musical friendships, and over the past couple of months, I’ve had the immense good fortune to do a number of gigs with guitarist Greg Ruggiero and pianist Michael Kanan.

Summer Gigs Collage

Summer gigs! Top photo (Mezzrow) by Jeff Evans, Duchess photo by Fran Kaufman.

Interspersed amidst all this music have been a few heavenly weekend getaways. Both the Fourth of July holiday and my birthday were spent lakeside in Connecticut, where fireworks and barbecues were enjoyed to the fullest. A quick but lovely jaunt to Philadelphia for my mother-in-law’s birthday made for an evening of delicious food and belly laughs. And my husband and I spent last weekend in Montauk, where we indulged daily in sunshine, beach time, and lobster dinners.

A few scenes from July 4th in Connecticut.

A few scenes from July 4th in Connecticut.

Montauk moments.

Montauk moments.

Yes, this summer has been a dream. And the fun isn’t over! As I type, my mother is sitting in my living room, and in just a few days, we’ll be winging our way to Italy for a couple of weeks. I’m feeling the crunch of deadlines and last-minute trip preparations now, but soon we’ll be strolling the narrow alleys of Venice and eating gelato in Lucca. I cannot wait. But first…tomorrow (yes, tomorrow) will find me in the recording studio, making a new CD in collaboration with drummer Charles Ruggiero, featuring pianist Jeremy Manasia and bassist Neal Miner. Stay tuned!

In July and August, I…
Blogged about: June. Singer-friend Vanessa Perea. Authenticity.

Read: Every Anxious Wave, by Mo Daviau. Time travel, musicians, and true love. A fun read. Delicious!, by Ruth Reichl. I love Reichl’s memoirs and food writing, so was excited to read this novel, which turned out to be a good beach read. The Hills of Tuscany: A New Life in an Old Land, by Ferenc Maté. Well-written, funny, and the perfect book to read, pre-Italian holiday.

Watched: The Night Of. A gripping and incredibly well-acted HBO mini-series. I am not alone in my frustration with a central female character’s arc, but this show had me on the edge of my seat. Café Society. You know I generally love Woody Allen movies, and I was delighted to see some NYC musician friends onscreen, but I found this film uninspired. Weiner. A fascinating and infuriating documentary. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Good heavens, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell! Summertime. Katherine Hepburn and romance in 1950s-era Venice! The Olympics! Mostly women’s gymnastics.

Listened to: Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi, Um Interpreta e Outro. Ehud hipped me to this beautiful, pre-bossa nova recording with a pair of Brazil’s most iconic composers. Ruben Blades and Willie Colon, Siembra. Blades is seriously one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard; I cannot get enough of this record. rené marie, The Sound of Red. rené is a generous, open-hearted artist, and it’s wonderful to see her star on the rise. Check out her NPR Tiny Desk concert!

Closer to Authentic

51TKgMSTFwLA few months ago, I read The Dirty Life, a memoir by Kristin Kimball. Kimball was a successful writer living in Manhattan when she met her now-husband, Mark, whom she describes as “a wingnut farmer.” They moved to upstate New York and founded Essex Farm.

At first glance, the premise of Kimball’s memoir sounds like the setup for a rom-com: city slicker falls for country bumpkin, they start a farm together, hijinks ensue (picture falling face-down in the mud and chasing runaway cows), and they live happily every after. The Dirty Life does reveal Kimball’s deep love for both her husband and life on the farm, but it also describes her painful acclimation to backbreaking farm work, begun each day before dawn, and the financial anxiety of knowing that an early winter could mean losing their farm and home.

The difficulties and risks of farm life notwithstanding, Kimball and her husband persevered and do, indeed, appear to be living happily ever after. They have young children and Essex Farm is thriving as the world’s first full-diet CSA. Kristin Kimball is a thoughtful and vivid writer, and while her book reaffirmed that a life in the countryside is emphatically not for me, the following passage in The Dirty Life has continued to haunt me (emphasis mine):

The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it. I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to authentic.

In the passage above, Kimball is referring to the clarity she found while harnessing horses and carrying heavy loads as part of her day-to-day work on the farm, but her summation of what defines authenticity is elegant and universally applicable.  The narrower the gap between who we think we are and how we behave, the closer we get to authentic.

As an inveterate list-maker, I love the idea of putting two columns on a page: the first one being, “Who do you think you are?” and the second, “How do you behave?” The more overlap between the columns, the more authentic a life the list-maker can claim. Simple. But as I’ve mused here before, simple isn’t the same thing as easy. Sometimes, the distance between who I think I am (singer, writer, regular exerciser and healthy eater) and my daily routine (harried errand-runner, sporadic blogger, sunny day picnic enthusiast) feels much greater than I’d like.

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Believe it or not, buying groceries paves the way for disciplined creativity. Caveat: I am never this pulled-together while running errands.

I’ll continue trying to narrow the gap between my self-perception and habits. Daily vocal exercises are one way of keeping my focus “on the ground,” as Kimball puts it. Even if those whoops, hollers, and scales feel effortless one day and arduous the next, they’re a powerful affirmation: I am a singer. 

But damn it, even the most tedious of errands must be run (oh, hi, DMV, what a pleasure to see you!), and even sporadic writing is still better than not writing at all. Buying groceries and straightening up the apartment are not necessarily identity-related tasks, but, like Kimball, when I’m doing them, I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’m not one of those romantic artist types who flourishes amidst chaos; my creativity thrives in the security of a stocked fridge and tidy practice space.

As for finding some lazy hours in these halcyon late-summer days for languid lunches in the park—including wine and cheese, obviously—well, that’s the urban equivalent of “making hay while the sun shines.” And that feels like time authentically well spent.

 

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.

duchess Collage

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

College_Blog

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.