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.

Advertisements

My Six Months with Sinatra

25303_103754032996556_2094529_nWhen I was a kid growing up in the decidedly un-jazzy wilds of Alaska, I spent hours in my room singing along with Frank Sinatra’s recording of “You Make Me Feel So Young.”  I didn’t know it at the time, but a couple of decades later, I’d spend six months singing with Mr. S. himself.

You see, in 2010, I was the onstage “girl singer” in Twyla Tharp’s Broadway show, Come Fly Away.  The show was, essentially, a ballet set to Sinatra’s music, and Twyla had the good sense to know that, when it comes to the Chairman of the Board, one should accept no substitutes, so she found a way to incorporate the real Sinatra into her show.

Through the magic of technology, Sinatra’s actual recorded voice was extracted from original recordings and piped into the theatre, backed by a live, onstage big band.  Every night, thanks to Twyla’s vision and the technical team’s ingenuity, I sang a few solo numbers and, yes, a couple of “duets” with Frank Sinatra, including, poetically enough, “You Make Me Feel So Young.”

comeflyawayCD300Over the course of Come Fly Away’s six-month run, I began to think of Sinatra’s iconic songs—and, by extension, Sinatra himself—as old friends (handsome, elusive, mysterious, sexy old friends, that is). With each performance, I was fascinated anew by the swaggering bravado of “Learnin’ the Blues,” the defiance of “That’s Life,” and the cool resignation of the barroom soliloquy “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”

There are countless books, articles, and documentaries about Sinatra’s life and career, including his politics, alleged mafia ties, and of course, his tumultuous love affairs.  And yes, his life was by turns salacious and sad and he was, by every account, a complicated man.  But on his centennial, my feelings about Frank Sinatra are simple: I am forever thankful to him for the ways his artistry has shaped the course of my life.

Sinatra pulled me out of my waitressing career and onto a Broadway stage.  His sense of time, phrasing, and devotion to bel canto singing are the cornerstones of my own vocal approach. Thanks to Frank Sinatra, I believe in love and solitude and show business, not to mention the power of a good suit and a stiff drink.

The grand finale in Come Fly Away was “New York, New York.”  Every single night, Sinatra’s voice would fill that big Broadway theatre, as he sang, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere; it’s up to you, New York, New York!”  And every single night, as I remembered singing along with those Sinatra records in my little room, in my little Alaska town, tears of gratitude would fill my eyes.

Thank you, Frank Sinatra, and happy 100th.  I love you madly.

Frank_Sinatra_1

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.

 

 

Spotlight On…Kat Gang

I knew of Kat Gang long before I ever knew her personally.  I’d dug her work as a thoughtful lyricist and high-flying improviser on The Wishbone Project, and I knew she had wowed throngs of listeners at Birdland as a frequent host of the club’s Sunday night jazz party.  Kat even called me to fill in for her at one of her steady gigs in town when she was (I kid you not) climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

It wasn’t until fairly recently, though, that Kat and I actually met face-to-face.  Our paths finally crossed when we teamed up to sing a duet of “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week” at a Sinatra-themed concert that Will Friedwald curated earlier this year.  We not only had a great time singing together, we became good friends, too.  Kat is vivacious and approachable, witty and warm, and she brings all the sparkle of her personality to every song she sings.

Newly returned from a globe-trotting summer—she’s just returned from a jaunt to Iceland, in fact—Kat took some time to answer a few questions about her life as a musical storyteller. Thank you, Kat!

Kat SingingWho or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I have always been a performer.  Ever since I was young, I would put on plays with my sister, turn tables into stages, and sing at the top of my lungs.  I was lucky to be raised in a household with lots of music; my father used to play piano, and I would watch his feet on the pedals.  I could recognize melodies from a very early age.  I had fabulous teachers who supported me and urged me to follow my passion.  One in particular was Louis Curtis, our church choir director—she let me join the choir a year early because I was so eager.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you?  What has been the most challenging?
I have a really good ear.  Therefore, I found that I could get away with less theory work through my innate understanding of harmony.  The technical stuff was always difficult for me; reading music was a painstaking process.  I have always been impatient with the stuff that does not come naturally.  Sometimes your gifts can be a blessing and also a curse!

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I think about this question a lot. There is something important about singing that I can reduce, in essence, to communicating: telling someone a story, [telling someone] your story.  I think I would like to be a translator, someone who is always telling and re-telling stories, and communicating between languages.  How and why people communicate is a fascinating study. Maybe I could learn Italian and live in Tuscany and drink wine and eat pasta and re-tell people’s stories.  That would be awesome.

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime.  Who is in your “dream band?”
I love Chet Baker, his improvisational lines and sound.  I love Carmen McRae and her boldness and the way she takes her time.  I would love to trade fours with Ella, or try and hold my own with Keith Jarrett as we both make up a song on the spot.  Brad Mehldau’s trio is pretty tight—I can imagine singing with them and being in sonic heaven.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
One of my favorite quotes (I think it is by Woody Allen) is, “80% of life is showing up.”  This is especially true for our profession: the extent to which one must persevere—even on terrible gigs, even when no one is listening—is so extreme.  We do what we love and are therefore guided by some other power.  A club owner told me once, “You have to sing the songs that are connected to your heart.”  Be present, be authentic, that’s about it.  And Bobby McFerrin told me to just “keep singing.”  I’m gonna go with that!

arborscoverWhat are your current musical obsessions?  Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
There’s a singer who I cannot get enough of named Paula Morelenbaum, who evokes the smoothness and intricate harmonies of Brazil.  I also find, recently, that Bill Frisell’s “Ghost Town” can be an antidote to the harshness and chaos of living in New York City.

Fun Fact…
I live downtown and, whenever I head out on the 4/5 train, I buy a 25¢ Blow Pop from the subway candy stand.  It’s a little OCD and a little nod to my sugar addiction!

Kat’s recent album, Dream Your Troubles Away (Arbors Jazz), was released to glowing reviews; the Midwest Record called it “…a classic jazz thrush album from start to finish…what easy sophistication is all about. A stone cold winner.”  She’ll be celebrating the album’s release at Birdland on September 18 at 6:00 pm.  Don’t miss it!  You can also catch Kat every Wednesday night at the Plaza Hotel, singing and swinging in classic Old New York style.

Spotlight On…Mary Foster Conklin

I love singers who love repertoire, and who turn a song inside out, upside down, and sideways to plumb every last drop of meaning from the lyrics.  I also love smart, funny dames whose elegance and ruby-red lipstick belie the fact that they can curse like a sailor.  And I love real New Yorkers, who adore but never sentimentalize this dirty old town.  It’s no surprise, then, that Mary Foster Conklin is one of my favorite singers on the scene.

I first heard Mary at the Metropolitan Room, where she was holding the audience in thrall during her Fran Landesman tribute, “Life’s a Bitch.”  She artfully spun stories of Fran’s Greenwich Village and London heydays and performed swinging, fiercely intelligent interpretations of songs like “Small Day Tomorrow” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.”  I became an instant fan of Mary’s, whom the New York Times described as “a poetic rebel full of salt and vinegar.”  Mary is every bit as witty and warm in person as she is onstage, and I am very glad she took the time to answer a few questions for the “Spotlight On…” series.

Thank you, Mary!

MaryFosterConklinSinging

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
1. A great choirmaster in high school who had Big Ears and eclectic taste in music;
2. A pushy director who shamed me into putting together my first club act in my 20s; and
3. A 1984 sub gig with a punk band in the bombed out East Village after their lead singer (a friend who sadly suffered from schizophrenia) walked off an outdoor concert in New Haven and was MIA. That was my first NYC performance in a club.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you?  What has been the most challenging?
Words are easy, music is hard.  [Music] requires more attention and practice.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
Something on the business side of the arts—producing, fund raising or grantwriting, to create more work for artists.

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime.  Who is in your “dream band?”MaryStanding
Bill Evans or Count Basie on piano, John Kirby or Paul Chambers on bass, Art Blakey on drums, Ben Webster or Lester Young on sax.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Be ruthless about perfecting your musicianship and never reveal your budget when recording.

What are your current musical obsessions?  Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
Cecile McLorin Salvant, René Marie, Kurt Elling, and Snarky Puppy have been recent downloads.  I loved the show After Midnight and I think Taylor Mac is a genius.  His show about the 20s blew me away.

Fun Fact…
I once spent an evening playing bridge with Tennessee Williams.  He cheated.

Mary will be singing in “Renegade Cabaret in Exile Up a Tree,” a free show in the East Village’s El Jardin del Paraiso on Thursday, August 21 at 8:00 pm.  She’ll also pay tribute to composer Matt Dennis (she’ll be joined by Bob Dorough, Roz Corral, and others) at St. Peters as part of their Midtown Jazz at Midday series on Wednesday, September 24 at 1:00 pm.  Go! 

 

Spotlight On….Janis Siegel

One of my very first musical purchases was a copy (on vinyl, no less!) of the Manhattan Transfer’s eponymous debut album.  I was a teenager in the wilds of Wasilla, Alaska then, and a fledgling singer.  When the Manhattan Transfer came to Anchorage to do a concert, I was front and center, astonished that so much music—so much joy—could come from four voices.

Post-recording session, 2007.  (L to R: Yaron Gershovsky, Kevin Osborne, Lincoln Briney, Laurel Massé, me, Janis Siegel)

Post-recording session, 2007. (L to R: Yaron Gershovsky, Kevin Osborne, Lincoln Briney, Laurel Massé, me, Janis Siegel)

So you see, I’d been a big fan of Janis Siegel’s for quite some time when my phone rang one afternoon in 2007.  It was Janis herself (!) calling to hire me for a recording project (!!).  If I had to choose the exact moment in which I felt I’d really and truly arrived in New York City, it would be when I received that phone call.

Since then, I’ve gotten to know Janis as a person as well as a musician, and I’ve become an even bigger fan of hers.  In addition to being a Grammy-winning vocalist and arranger, she’s an incredible cook, a great writer, and a very generous human being.

Thank you, Janis, for your kindness and inspiration.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
My early inspirations were Janis Joplin, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Motown music and Laura Nyro.  Music gave me the most joy, expression, and connection.  I naturally gravitated towards singing, writing, playing my guitar and traveling, whereas the academic life I was expected to pursue did not hold the same passion. I left nursing school/college at age 18 to pursue my muse.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Singing harmony has been the most natural thing for me. I’ve been doing it since I’m a girl, without any training.  My challenges have been sight reading, writing counterpoint, learning to sing less, and learning how to protect my voice from the rigors of the road, aging, and illness.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I would be an emergency room nurse or a surgical nurse.  I have always been fascinated with medicine and originally went to school to pursue a career in nursing.  I think I would enjoy and thrive on the challenges presented in these kind of traumatic/react-in-the-moment situations. Ultimately, I enjoy healing.

JanisImagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime.  Who is in your “dream band?”
Fred Hersch – piano, Boris Koslov – bass, Steve Gadd – drums, Nguyen Le – guitar, Romero Lubambo – guitar, Tivon Pennicott – tenor sax, Luisito Quintero – percussion

My dream band of the past: Art Tatum – piano, Ray Brown – bass, Gene Krupa – drums, Cannonball Adderley – alto sax, Michael Brecker – soprano and tenor sax, Clifford Brown – trumpet

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Food breeds loyalty.

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
During the past two years I’ve been learning some songs in different languages…Spanish, Greek, French and currently, Portuguese.  I also am obsessed with different kinds of rhythmic structures from different musical cultures.  Right now in steady rotation: Nando Lauria, Sara Tavares, Monika Borzym, Robert Glasper, Janelle Monae, Santi Ibarretxe, Taylor Eigsti, Snarky Puppy, Bach…

Fun Facts…
One or all of these are true:
1. I have a morbid fascination with skin diseases.
2. I used to collect sea shells and dreamed of being a marine biologist.
3. My great uncle Chick was a Catskill comedian and my grandmother was a hat model who spoke Italian.
4. I once stayed several days at the Hell’s Angels car graveyard retreat in Reseda, California with the vice president of the Oakland Angels, Mexican Eddie.

Janis has some upcoming summer shows with the Manhattan Transfer, following her recent solo tour of the Philippines and Australia, which garnered rave reviews.  You can keep up with Janis’ solo performance schedule on her website or visit the Manhattan Transfer website for their tour dates.

Spotlight On…Amy Cervini

Amy Cervini  is not only a singer I admire greatly, but she and I go way back as musical collaborators, too.  From a vocal quartet to “duet night” at the 55 bar to the girl-on-girl harmonic hijinks of DUCHESS, Amy and I have logged quite a few musical miles together.  And no matter what the setting—backed by a full orchestra or singing a cappella, fronting a big band or a rhythm section—Amy’s fearlessness and joy are constantly inspiring.

amy cervini jazzHere’s something you should know about Amy: she accomplishes more before noon than many people do in a week.  Seriously.  Amy performs, she teaches, she’s a publicist and manager, she’s a relentless supporter of her fellow musicians on the scene, and—oh, yeah—she’s raising two gorgeous kids with her husband, producer-arranger-composer Oded Lev-Ari.  How she gets everything done, I have no idea, but she just released her fourth (fourth!) CD, Jazz Country, to rave reviews, and recently completed a West Coast tour.

Amy graciously took some time out of her always-packed schedule to answer a few questions for the inaugural post in the “Spotlight On…” series here at Ad Alta Voce.  Thank you, Amy!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I’ve been playing music since I was a child and began playing in big bands when I was around 11 or so.  Both of my siblings also played and we really connected over this shared interest.  I actually tried really hard NOT to be a musician and tried moving schools from an arts high school to “regular” high school, but found myself in the music room rather than the classroom.  I finally had to surrender!  I discovered that performing and specifically singing is an essential part of who I am.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging? 
Having started as an instrumentalist rather than a vocalist, I can sometimes have a very “non-singer” approach to things.  I ended up singing rather than playing because I felt like the horn was a barrier, stopping me from saying what I needed to say.  Then, I had to learn to stop thinking like an instrumentalist all the time.  My focus had to shift from notes and time to telling a story.  Let me clarify: notes and time are still important, but the main focus had to become telling a story.  It took a while for me to get that.  I think the thing that has been the most natural for me has been the feel of the music that I sing most often, jazz.  I think that some singers struggle with the feel because they are introduced to jazz later in their life, but because of my saxophone background, I had been listening to jazz since I was about 11.AmyCerviniClose

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I think I would be a marine biologist.  That’s what I was thinking in high school and college when I tried not to be a musician.  I love the water.  I don’t know if I could hang with all the math that is required to be a scientist, but I used to be good at it back in the day so maybe…

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
My dream band is (one of many, I’m sure, but this is the first that comes to mind): Cannonball Adderley on saxophone, Bruce Barth on piano, Christian McBride on bass, and Matt Wilson on drums.

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
Because of my Jazz Country project, there’s a lot of country going on right now.  Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, etc.  Lately I’ve been so busy learning music that I need to perform that I don’t have a whole lot of time to actually listen to new things.  I also have a big stack of CDs to listen to by my friends and colleagues.  I recently had a chance to listen to Jean Rohe‘s new CD; it’s beautiful!  Still waiting for a moment to check out a new one by Gian Slater.

Fun Fact
I hate bananas.  I am actually quite picky with food.  I’ve expanded my palate a ton since moving to NYC but I still don’t really like most fish, I don’t care for tomatoes, I don’t like beets, I don’t like cooked fruit…the list sort of goes on for a while.  I’m a pretty laid back gal so I think that surprises people.

You can catch Amy performing live this month in an intimate duo setting (voice and guitar) at the Lexington Hotel (511 Lexington Avenue) at 6:00 pm on June 12 and June 24.  Rumor has it that DUCHESS may be making an appearance, too!  Amy also holds a once-monthly residency at the 55 bar; her next show there is on July 3 (7:00-9:00 pm).