May: Looking back, looking ahead

Ebbs and flows—of money, of employment, of time—are hallmarks of the freelance life, and I’ve loved the busy-ness of the past six months. Singing has taken me from a film set to Italy to the Caribbean to Canada, as well on short jaunts to the Midwest, South Carolina, the Pacific Northwest, and the Hamptons (and a vacation took me to Mexico for some much-needed R&R). When not on the road, I’ve been onstage or in the recording studio. Yes, 2017 has been fast-paced and action-packed thus far, and I’ve been having a great time going with the flow of busy-ness.

But…(you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) when one’s energies are directed outwardly for too long, it’s absolutely essential to replenish the well, which is exactly what I was able to do in May. Last month, I hung out with friends, ran a 5K, visited the Met and Cooper Hewitt museums, saw a performance of Shakespeare in the Park, went out to hear some great live jazz, and I even saw an opera. It feels so good to be a tourist at home, gleaning inspiration from New York’s endlessly vibrant art and culture.

Shakespeare in the Park; stopping to smell the roses at Brooklyn Botanic Garden; the Jazz Age exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt museum.

Of course, May hasn’t been all leisure. With the help of the nice folks over at Squarespace, I built a shiny new website, which has been on my to-do list for quite a while. And I’m currently doing a lot of preparation and outreach in anticipation of—drum roll, please—the Anzic Records release of THE LATE SET, my new album with pianist Ehud Asherie, due out in October!

The new homepage over at hilarygardner.com!

Looking ahead, I’ve got a few great gigs on the horizon (including an exciting show with Duchess for Lincoln Center Out of Doors on July 28), and I’m really looking forward to summer. I’ve got a whole list of fun summer plans for the months ahead, including a Circle Line cruise, picnics in the park, beach days, beer gardens, and baseball. Summer’s here. Let’s party.

In May, I…
Blogged about: April. The Song Is You (a remembrance of Josh Wolff). Singer-friend Andrea Wolper.

Read: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. A well-written, enjoyable read about a woman who, had she been born in a different time, might have been remembered as so much more than a famous writer’s tragic wife. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. I’ve felt a strong inclination toward doing more writing, and this book was just the push I needed to get started.

Watched: Der Rosenkavalier, Lincoln Center HD. A big-screen version of Strauss’ gorgeous opera, with Renée Fleming in her last performance as the Marschallin. Exquisite. Julius Caesar, Shakespeare in the Park. This production was way too heavy-handed with the Trump metaphors (we get it, a megalomaniacal narcissist is running our country and imperiling our democracy), but Corey Stoll is always fantastic.

[UPDATE: In the wake of Delta Airlines, Bank of America, and American Express pulling their support from the Public Theater, I would like to add that I support the Public Theater without hesitation or reservation. Part of what art is meant to do—indeed, perhaps its most important function of all—is to, however provocatively, interpret and portray complex issues that pertain to the here and now. For crying out loud, the whole point of Julius Caesar is that democracy is fragile and can be undone, even destroyed, by violence.]

Listened to: Double Bass Double Voice (Emily Braden, Nancy Harms, Steve Whipple). I saw this trio’s CD release show at the Zinc Bar and was completely blown away by their song selections (everything from Duke Ellington to Stevie Wonder to traditional spirituals to Billy Joel), inventive arrangements, playfulness, freedom, and communication.

Spotlight On…Andrea Wolper

Vocalist Andrea Wolper is a fellow Brooklynite. We met through mutual singer friends a couple of years ago, and I was immediately drawn to her warmth and keen intelligence; she and I spent a lovely afternoon last spring walking and talking in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In addition to her singing and teaching, Andrea is also a curator, activist, journalist and poet, a fearless improviser, the past president of International Women in Jazz, and a black belt in Shotokan Karate. All this to say, I have no idea how she found the time to do this interview for my little corner of the internet, but I sure am glad she did!

Andrea’s thoughtful responses to these Spotlight On… questions hold a lot of wisdom, as well as evidence that she and I both love the Oxford comma. In particular, I find her remarks about building on one’s strengths and making peace with one’s limitations very timely and powerful.

Thank you so much, Andrea (and I’ll join you in a stationery store any time)!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
It started with my mom, who had been a semi-professional singer before she got married. I have a picture by my desk of us singing “Sonny Boy” together when I was about five, and I was always singing, making up songs, putting on little shows. Skipping ahead a few years, I started as an actor, took an overlapping side road as a freelance writer/author, and eventually added music back into my life just because I really missed singing. I didn’t have a plan at that point; I didn’t know that music would become my primary professional focus. I just wanted to sing. So I took some steps and found myself on a path, and at some point I realized it felt like MY path.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Just singing is what came most naturally. Learning what to do with that, and always trying to be braver, freer, more honestly myself is a lifelong process that’s challenging and exhilarating. Learning music theory as an adult (who didn’t go to music school) certainly has been challenging. Identifying and building on my strengths and making peace with my limitations has been a challenge, but that balance shifts over time. And even after all these years I find the business aspects of being a professional musician extremely, sometimes excruciatingly, difficult.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I often have a strong yes or no reaction to songs. But I’ve learned to keep an open mind because there are two songs in my repertoire that I reflexively, vehemently rejected when they were suggested to me. They’re actually great songs; I just had to find my way into them, and when I did, they ended up being favorites. I always want to feel an emotional connection to a song, to bring something genuine and personal to it. And I want songs to make sense in the context of what I’m doing. I’m also a songwriter, and a couple of my own aren’t good fits for me, even though they’re decent songs; and some feel right for certain gigs, but not for others. I’m lucky that I get some sideman work, and singing music written or chosen by other people is a whole other thing. Or is it?

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
There’s a Cole Porter song, “Which?” that touches me. It goes, “Which is the right life, The simple or the night life?…Should I read Euripides or continue with The Graphic? Hear the murmur of the breeze or the roaring of the traffic?” I want to experience everything.

I’m like a kid who says, “I want to be an astronaut, a teacher, and a movie star,” only I’ll say a doctor, an investigative journalist, and a dancer, and a human rights lawyer, and a shop owner…and a movie star!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
“Just keep working.” I moved to New York to attend the Neighborhood Playhouse. One day I went to ballet class in tears over some silly drama. The teacher, Mrs. Cole, floated by me and very quietly said those three words. They may not sound like much, but they held a world of meaning. I shifted my focus away from how upset I was and onto pliés, and everything changed. It was a powerful moment.

When I started out doing gigs, I used to worry when someone in the audience asked me to do a song I didn’t know, or told me I reminded them of a singer I didn’t relate to. The guitarist Michael Howell told me it wasn’t so much about that song or that singer: “They like you, and they’re trying to connect with you.” Again, simple words of wisdom that helped me a lot. Oh, he also told me, “When you’re writing your charts, make the chord symbols big enough that the musicians can see them.” That was some good advice!

Fun fact:
I get excited in stationery stores. I earned a black belt in Shotokan Karate. And I am very serious about coffee.

Andrea is performing a concert dedicated to her late mentor, pianist/improviser/teacher Connie Crothers, at the Renee Weiler Concert Hall (Greenwich Music House) on Saturday, June 3 at 7:15pm. There is no cover and it promises to be a beautiful and moving evening of music. Don’t miss it–more details can be found HERE.

The Song Is You

“You’d never know it, but buddy I’m a kind of poet, and I’ve got a lot of things to say…”

He was seated at the piano, playing and singing “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” when I walked into Tula’s in September, 2001. “Who,” I thought, “is that?” How was it possible that, of all the singers and pianists in town, I had never met this particularly young and handsome one? As is wont to happen in the brash bloom of youth, our eyes met from across the room and that, as Rick famously said in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I learned that Joshua was stranded in Seattle that week. He’d been visiting his family when the planes hit the World Trade Center in his adopted hometown of New York City, and all the flights were grounded, all the airports closed, so he couldn’t get back to his Harlem apartment. Not knowing quite what to do with ourselves in those frightening and disorienting days after the 9/11 attacks, we both sought sanctuary in the local jazz club.

When I moved to New York a couple of years later, Josh met me for dinner. His relaxed kindness told me that, even though I was broke and overwhelmed and had no idea whatsoever what in the hell I was doing, I had a friend in New York City. A while later, when Ray Passman heard me sit in with Bob Dorough at the Iridium and decided to “present” me in my first New York solo show at the Triad, I called Joshua to play piano. I was as green as grass and did everything wrong, but I still remember the gentle 12/8 feel Josh brought to our rendition of “Tis Autumn,” and how the room seemed to stand still for that tune.

He came with me once to my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, where we played a Christmas show; we duetted on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and switched the roles, with him singing, “I simply must go…” and rebuffing my wolfish advances. He stole the show, of course.

Josh had a way of showing up at exactly the right moment. I had a brief stint singing with a country band, and we played a gig on the Upper West Side one summer night in 2012. To my delight, Josh was in the audience. In fact, he may very well have been the audience. We caught up on the set break, and a few days later he sent me a note asking if I’d like to perform a holiday show with him that November in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where his brother had founded an orchestra. Josh opened that email by asking me, “How ya doing, cowgirl?” I gleefully accepted his invitation, and that autumn, we shared a wonderful weekend of barbecue and music.

Four years ago, another email appeared in my inbox, this time from Josh’s dad. I was in the elevator on my way up to my apartment when I checked my phone and read the news of Josh’s recent hospitalization and subsequent diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer. No treatments could be undertaken or explored beyond keeping him comfortable. In a trance, I exited the elevator and tried, again and again, to turn my key in the lock. It wasn’t until a neighbor in the hallway said, not unkindly, “um, hello,” that I realized I’d gotten off on the wrong floor and was standing in front of a stranger’s door.

I am infinitely grateful for the time spent in the hospital with Josh and his loved ones in the days before his death. Even today, four years later, those hours are too surreal, too painful, too dear to write about. There was singing, there were tears, there was—somehow—laughter, and there was a palpable cloak of compassion enveloping us all that I, an avowed non-believer, can only describe as holy.

It is tempting to withhold forgiveness forever from a world that would silence Josh’s music so abruptly, so cruelly early; he was just thirty-nine years old. But the world doesn’t ask for forgiveness, and anyway, didn’t it give voice and breath and life to Josh’s song in the first place? Where does that leave us? What are we to do with ourselves in this perplexing and infuriating and beautiful life, overflowing with loss and tenderness?

Sing, I think. We are here to sing at full voice, to live right out loud, heedless of the occasional dissonance or cracked high note. And may our music, like Josh’s, be a balm, a window, a catalyst, and—above all—a gift for whomever is listening.

April: Looking back, looking ahead

April was filled with travel and music, including a sunny week on the Baja in Mexico, filled with painterly sunsets and pizzas on the grill, weathered wooden doors in sleepy little towns, and morning tea in oversized Talavera mugs. It’s always restorative to soak up the sun for a few days, especially in early April, when one is thoroughly tired of winter (even a relatively mild one) but spring has not yet officially made her presence known.

Mexico…I think that’s a perfectly reasonable size for a margarita, don’t you?

Later in the month, I found myself in the verdant, misty Pacific Northwest with Duchess for some teaching and a few shows in Portland and Seattle. I spent my early twenties in Seattle, discovering the city and adulthood itself through waitressing, singing, and some ill-considered love affairs. Singing has brought me back to Seattle several times in recent years, and I’m always grateful to be able to (at last!) enjoy the memories and familiarity without carrying the weight of old, bad decisions and cringe-worthy moments.

I’ve been traveling pretty frequently, mostly for work, since December and it feels great to be at home for a while. Looking ahead, there’s much to do and the calendar has a way of filling up, for which I am thankful; my official performance schedule is fairly bare until mid-summer, but a number of private party gigs have materialized in recent weeks. I’m also putting the finishing touches on my new website (huzzah!) and firming up release plans for my new recording project, a piano/vocal collaboration with Ehud Asherie.

I am buying armloads of lilacs at every street corner flower stand that still carries them and waiting, with bated breath, for warmer temperatures and clearer skies.

In April, I…
Blogged about: February and March.

Read: In Altre Parole, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’ve longed to recommence thinking and speaking in Italian, and since a return to la bella Italia isn’t on the horizon at present, I figured that reading in Italian would be a good place to start. I found Lahiri’s bilingual memoir of studying and writing in Italian to be circular and overly precious, but I loved the ritual of reading aloud in Italian every evening with an Italian/English dictionary at my side. I’ve got a couple of Italian-language books here at home, and the Brooklyn Public Library has a great foreign language section, so I’m looking forward to making this a new habit.

Watched: Z: The Beginning of Everything. Christina Ricci stars in this Amazon series about the early years of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The clothes, music, and art direction are lots of fun, once you get past Ricci’s Southern accent. The New York Yankees! This team is on fire and I had a blast at my first game of the season. I can’t wait to go back.

Listened to: Louis Prima, The Wildest. God, what a fun record.

February and March: Looking back, looking ahead

One year ago, I wrote a “looking back, looking ahead” post for all of spring, comprising the months of March, April, and May. I’d like to avoid such a backlog this time around, but here I am, reflecting on February and March, smack dab in the middle of April. The funny/annoying thing is, while February and March were certainly not a snooze fest, they were fairly relaxed (March, in particular), so I don’t really even have a good excuse for my radio silence here.

Duchess has had a lot going on in the past couple of months: our new album, Laughing at Life, was released to critical acclaim in February, and we rode the momentum with the launch of our podcast, Harmony & Hijinks, as well as tours to the midwest and Canada and a standing-room-only four-night run at Greenwich Village’s 55 bar.

In my solo singing life, we continued post-production on The Late Set, my upcoming CD with pianist Ehud Asherie. In the last days of March, I spent a couple of days in Hilton Head, South Carolina singing at the Jazz Corner with Ehud, joined by New Orleans clarinetist Evan Christopher.

A few of the home-cooked meals that brightened February and March: butternut squash and pork sausage done cacio e pepe style; beef stew with anchovies and olives; kielbasa on split pea puree with caraway butter.

February and March were also filled with some lovely meals—both at home and in restaurants—and (probably too much) time binge-watching some fantastic new and new-to-me TV shows on Amazon Prime.

A few meals eaten out and about: savory ramen in Toronto; a pre-Valentine’s Day Spanish-style feast at Brooklyn’s La Vara; a rainy-day visit to Peking Duck House in Chinatown, following a screening of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” at Film Forum.

Looking ahead, there’s much to tell about April, including recent travels to Mexico and an upcoming Pacific Northwest tour with Duchess, but I’ll save all that for a couple of weeks, when I’ll be writing my end-of-month musings at the appropriate time (!).

In February and March, I…
Blogged about: January. Getting back on my (culinary) feet.

Read: La Venessiana, a Venice-centric blog that, however briefly, transports me to La Serenissima. This article by Tamar Adler about having a “house meal.” I wouldn’t say we have a “house meal,” per se—that is, we don’t do a lot of template cooking—but I find great comfort in the handful of stalwart recipes that we make again and again.

Watched: A whole lot of great shows on Amazon Prime. The Man in the High Castle, which asks the question, “What if the other side had won WWII?” Completely engrossing. Mozart in the Jungle, which boasts a fantastic cast (Gael Garcia Bernal, Bernadette Peters) and puts classical music in the spotlight. Goliath, starring the always-excellent Billy Bob Thornton as a brilliant but troubled lawyer who takes on a wrongful death case against a huge corporation and his old law firm. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, set in 1958 New York City and centering on a young Jewish housewife’s foray into the world of stand-up comedy. The soundtrack for the pilot was filled with Blossom Dearie, Peggy Lee, and super-young Barbra Streisand. I am delighted—delighted!—that this show was greenlit for two seasons.

Listened to: Luiz Bonfa, Solo in Rio, 1959, damn near every morning. A lovely way to start the day. At the Supper Club, with Peggy Lee subbing for Jo Stafford. A friend gave me a CD of some rare live radio broadcasts from 1946 and 1949, recorded for the Armed Forces Radio Service, and they are a delight from start to finish (thank you, Stan!). Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin. His interviews with Elaine Stritch and John Turturro had me howling with laughter.

Foodie Tuesday: Back on my feet

Weeks of colds and flus, along with lots of travel, had left me feeling out of sorts and in need of sustenance in the early days of February. Food just wasn’t very appealing when I was so under the weather. As for eating while on tour (well, with Duchess, anyway), it’s a seemingly never-ending succession of Bugles eaten by the fistful.*

All this to say, I missed the kitchen. I craved the elemental comfort of preparing a dish that was nourishing to both body and soul, but neither my energy level nor my stomach were up to making—or eating—anything too elaborate or adventurous. I needed to ease back into things.

The dish that put me back on my feet couldn’t be simpler or more delicious. I remembered a recipe in a back issue of Bon Appétit for whole roasted cauliflower with whipped goat cheese (!) that called for relatively few ingredients and was easy to prepare. It did not disappoint.

As New Orleans-based chef Alon Shaya instructed, I poached a whole cauliflower in a fragrant broth** of water, white wine, lemon, and bay leaf, then oven-roasted the cauliflower until burnished and tender. While the cauliflower roasted, I blitzed the goat cheese, feta, and cream cheese in the food processor. Ta-da! Dinner was served, and it couldn’t have been simpler.

Ease of preparation is a plus, but a dish worth its salt, so to speak, has to be delicious as well. Happily, the monochrome palette of the pale cauliflower and the white goat cheese was soothing rather than boring. The whipped feta and goat cheese made a tangy counterpoint to the cauliflower’s mellowness, and a baby spinach salad, dressed with a lightly sweet vinaigrette, was the perfect accompaniment.

This recipe is a perfect in-between-seasons dish: it’s hearty and rib-sticking, but not heavy. The prep and cooking involve enough kitchen puttering to feel festive, but poaching and roasting a whole cauliflower is an utterly stress-free cooking experience.

One can easily feel off-kilter and (at the risk of sounding a bit melodramatic) a bit vulnerable as we tiptoe gingerly into this tentative springtime. As the song goes, “spring can really hang you up the most.”  But take heart! Spiritual ballast awaits us in the kitchen.

Alon Shaya’s Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Whipped Goat Cheese (from Bon Appétit)

Ingredients

Roasted cauliflower

  • 2 1/2 cups dry white wine
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 head of cauliflower, leaves removed

Whipped goat cheese and assembly

  • 4 ounces fresh goat cheese
  • 3 ounces cream cheese
  • 3 ounces feta
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for serving
  • Coarse sea salt (for serving)

Roasted cauliflower:

Preheat oven to 475°. Bring wine, oil, kosher salt, juice, butter, sugar, bay leaf, and 8 cups water to a boil in a large pot. Add cauliflower, reduce heat, and simmer, turning occasionally, until a knife easily inserts into center, 15-20 minutes.

Using 2 slotted spoons or a mesh spider, transfer cauliflower to a rimmed baking sheet, draining well. Roast, rotating sheet halfway through, until brown all over, 30-40 minutes.

Cauliflower-poaching-liquid-turned-soup. Repurposing leftovers is so satisfying. It’s the little things, right?

Whipped goat cheese and assembly:

While cauliflower is roasting, blend goat cheese, cream cheese, feta, cream, and 2 tablespoons oil in a food processor until smooth; season with sea salt. Transfer whipped goat cheese to a serving bowl and drizzle with oil.

Transfer cauliflower to a plate. Drizzle with oil; sprinkle with sea salt. Serve with whipped goat cheese.

*Not that there’s anything wrong with Bugles eaten by the fistful. Bugles, if you’re reading, we would LOVE a corporate sponsorship. You are the finest snack around.

**As an added bonus, the leftover poaching liquid makes a lovely base for a soup. I opted for a pear/cauliflower soup with a drizzle of brown butter and almonds, an homage to an East Village restaurant I miss.

January: Looking back, looking ahead

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Gorgeous Water Island, USVI.

January was cold and gray, both metaphorically and literally. Between December 26 and January 31, I was in the throes of one minor-but-miserable ailment after another. The final tally? Two stomach bugs. One weeklong bout with influenza. Two colds. Oh, and one inauguration. (Zing! I’ll be here all week. Tip your server.)

Oy vey.

There were some lovely moments in the first month of this new year, however. Despite my hacking cough, I had a wonderful gig at Mezzrow with pianist Ehud Asherie. Then, it was off to the Water Island Music Festival for sun, fun, fish tacos, and lots of music (until the final night, when my G.I. system turned against me…again).

Just a few days after returning home from the Caribbean, I was in transit again; this time, for a brief Duchess tour in Ontario. It felt somewhat poetic to be flying to Canada on Inauguration Day, although we were all bummed to be missing the Women’s March. We spent our entire trip cheering on our marching friends and sharing pictures of hilarious protest signs and poignant moments on social media.

I got yer #NewYorkValues right here.

I got yer #NewYorkValues right here.

It was in Waterloo, Ontario that cold #2 descended upon my sinuses, and I made it through that last gig on Sudafed and an act of will. A few short, sniffly hours of sleep, one flight, and one taxi ride later and I. Was. Home.

Sleeping in my own bed for the past couple of weeks has been deeply restorative. The Spanish-themed potluck dinner we shared with a few dear ones last weekend was a balm for both body and soul. Joining throngs of protesters at the #nobannowall protest in Battery Park was invigorating. And I’ve felt well enough to recommence running for the first time in well over a month.

Looking ahead, the new Duchess CD, Laughing at Life, is coming out on February 10; we’re hitting the road again mid-month for a short midwest tour. Our new podcast, Harmony & Hijinks, is now launched and you can listen for free on iTunes, Stitcher, or the Duchess site (I implore you—please subscribe and leave us a review!).

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The new podcast from Duchess. Give it a listen!

The bird and the bee tribute I recorded in collaboration with drummer Charles Ruggiero is in the final stages of post-production, and I’m headed into the studio this week to mix the piano/vocal duo CD that I recorded in December with Ehud.

So, yes. This may be the winter of our discontent, but there is music to be made. Onward.

In January, I…
Blogged about: December. Singer-friend Rebecca Kilgore.

Read: Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch. This vividly imagined novel about 19th-century circus freak Julia Pastrana (a real person) was an engrossing read. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos. A tour de force of comedic writing: subversive and rife with social commentary, but dripping with diamonds and “dumb blonde” parlance. Edith Wharton called this book ‘The Great American Novel,’ and I’m inclined to agree. The Muse, by Jessie Burton. This book was a slow burn, but rewarding.

Watched: I Love Lucy. I watched episode after episode the week I was sick with the flu. I used to watch reruns when I was home sick as a kid, and it’s as brilliant and hilarious and comforting as ever. Top Chef. I’m totally addicted. The Young Pope. YOU GUYS. This show is Fellini-esque and beautiful and dreamlike and really, really funny. As a lapsed Catholic, perhaps I’m predisposed to love its irreverence, and as a person with eyes, perhaps I’m predisposed to love looking at closeups of Jude Law…but, whatever the reason, I am obsessed with this show.

Listened to: The Beast, by Jerome Jennings. I’ve known Jerome for almost 14 years (!!) and am a big fan of his, personally and musically—he played drums on my CD, The Great City. Jerome’s debut solo recording is swinging, soulful and socially conscious. He’s managed to pull off that most difficult of feats: he’s made an album that is far-reaching and eclectic, but deeply personal and cohesive. Congratulations, Jerome!