June: looking back, looking ahead

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Currently.

I am just beginning to emerge from the throes of a summer cold. The crystal clear blue skies and warm (okay, hot) weather in recent days added insult to injury as I huddled on my couch with the air conditioning off and clad in comfy sweats.

In my fantasy, summer is an unbroken stretch of lazy afternoons picnicking in the park, impromptu cocktail hours with friends, weekend barbecues, and trips to the ballpark. In my reality, summer is a smattering of all of those things interspersed with the same mundane errands and obligations that need tending to all year round. And this damned cold.

June marked the official kickoff of summer, and though there were a lot of very fun musical happenings (Amy Cervini’s CD release show and a tour with Duchess, to name a couple), some of the month’s loveliest moments happened off the bandstand.

My friend V., a public school music teacher, invited me to his students’ concert in the first week of June, and I was deeply moved by the students’ sweetness, openness, and sheer musicality. Kids who had been playing the piano for less than a year performed polished renditions of Chopin etudes as well as their own original compositions; their shyness gave way to personal expression as they sang musical theater pieces and spirituals and pop music covers. I held back tears as I remembered my own music teachers who, as Fred Rogers said, “loved [me] into being,” and my heart swelled with gratitude that people like V. are in the world. Hug a teacher, friends.

One Monday afternoon I met friends at Bosie Tea Parlor, a new-to-me place in the West Village. Afterward, abuzz from the lively conversation (okay, and the tea), I meandered through one of my favorite parts of New York City with no agenda, no deadline, and no destination—the nicest kind of walk. Later in the month, in the company of friends—one an extraordinary singer, the other a mensch and music writer—the most stunning rainbow I’ve ever seen appeared over Manhattan after a summer squall. We looked, we marveled, and we kept snacking and talking for hours.

I’ve had a fairly busy stretch of travel and gigs in recent weeks (I suspect this cold took hold on last week’s flight to a wonderful gig in Miami) and am feeling ready to settle into a more relaxed pace for the rest of the summer. There are performances sprinkled here and there, and I’ve got a trip to New Mexico on the horizon in August (a birthday vacation, huzzah), but looking ahead, I want to  s l o w  d o w n. Less social media, more writing. Less screen time, more reading. Less email, more one-on-one interactions with loved ones. Less “have-to” practicing, more “want-to” practicing. Less is more, right?

In June, I…
Blogged about: April and May. The closing of Caffe Vivaldi. Singer-friend Megan Hook.

Watched: Lots of baseball. Upstairs, Downstairs (only to be crushed to learn the show was canceled after only two seasons). Home Fires (again, only two seasons! That’ll teach me to emotionally invest in WWII-era British dramas on Amazon Prime).

Read: This op-ed. And this one. I found both pieces cathartic and upsetting. I’ll be reading less news this month, for sure.

Listened to: Les McCann, Pretty Lady. Les is (rightfully!) lauded for his grooving, soulful, churchy playing, but he also has such a beautiful way with a ballad, as evidenced on this record. Amy Cervini, No One Ever Tells You. Bluesy and eclectic. I’m proud of my singing sister!

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April and May: looking back, looking ahead

April and May, despite their flying past with blinding speed, were lovely. I sang a number of diverse gigs with dear friends, which is always good medicine for the soul. The performances ranged from being the “canary” in a Benny Goodman tribute to channeling my inner Patsy Cline for some western swing at Mezzrow to harmonizing background vocals with Duchess to singing socialist anthems in three different languages in commemoration of the Spanish Civil War…and that’s not even the complete list!

When not singing for my supper in recent weeks, I was delighted to partake in some quintessentially New York City cultural experiences:

  • at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, the scent of lilacs hung heavy in the air and a rainbow array of tulips stood at attention;
  • Passover Seder included our traditional boisterous rendering of Dayenu;
  • we feasted on a rustic seafood stew in a Brooklyn brownstone for a dear friend’s 75th birthday;
  • at Yankee Stadium we leapt from our seats, elated, when Gary Sanchez hit a walk-off three-run homer;
  • an entire evening’s program was dedicated to the key of C minor at the Chamber Music Society; and
  • beloved friends hosted an evening of intimate theatre in their home, where their friend (an accomplished stage and film actor) presented excerpts of a thought-provoking one-man show about the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Kicking off summer: lakeside in CT; a busy bee at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens; Yankee Stadium; my annual nose-in-the-lilacs photo.

As if all of the above weren’t enough, my husband and I celebrated our seven-year wedding anniversary with a trip to Savannah. We had a few touristy to-do’s on our list (eat at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room; take a tour of the Owens-Thomas mansion), but our days were largely free-form. We mostly ambled down shady tree-lined streets, taking in the architecture and thinking about Johnny Mercer. Lest I give the impression that things were too idyllic, I should disclose that I also caught a bitch of a chest cold. However, I found the bourbon cocktails to be extremely medicinal.

Scenes from Savannah: sniffly and sipping bourbon for its medicinal value; a plate of home cooking at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room; the Mercer-Williams house; a rendezvous with the Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia himself, Mr. Johnny Mercer.

Looking ahead, I’m feeling quite territorial about my time. Things are bound to get busy this summer, what with tour dates and assorted professional obligations, but I’m determined to set plenty of time aside for reading, seeing friends, picnicking, listening to music, watching baseball, daydreaming in the park…all the things that make summer, well, summer. Spending Memorial Day weekend lakeside in Connecticut felt like a good start.

The pas de deux between productivity and recreation can sometimes more closely resemble the French Danse Apache, but I firmly believe we sacrifice leisure for busy-ness at our peril. The very word “recreation” holds the key: when we take time to smell the roses, i.e. recreate, we re-create ourselves and emerge renewed, ready to meet our obligations with joy and optimism.

In April and May, I…
Blogged about: March. Close-harmony girl groups (for Duchess).

Watched: Baseball, natch. Via Dolorosa, live and in-person, acted by the wonderful Jonathan Tindle. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in preparation for Savannah.

Read: Her First American, by Lore Segal. Vivid, sad, and beautifully written. I loved this novel about a young Jewish woman in love with a Black intellectual in post-WWII New York City. Caroline: Little House, Revisited, by Sarah Miller. I re-read the Little House series a handful of years ago for the first time since my childhood, and the books were…different than I remembered. For one thing, I was stunned by the rampant racism against Native Americans that runs throughout the series. For another, whereas the character of Ma (Caroline) once struck me as a bit of a wet blanket, as an adult woman myself I realized how selfish (and occasionally reckless) Pa was. Reading Miller’s thoughtful re-imagining of the Ingalls’ story as told from Caroline’s perspective was satisfying. Blue Nights, by Joan Didion. Brilliant, stunning prose…and also one of the most depressing books I’ve read in ages. The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer. Definitely a light read, but we all need a little fantasy and escapism from time to time. How to Eat a Peach, by Diana Henry. Part memoir, part cookbook, completely delicious. Diana Henry has long been one of my favorite food writers, and I think this may be her finest book yet.

Listened to: Connie Converse. The only thing more mysterious, heartbreaking, and unique than Converse’s story is her music. Janelle Monaé. I am always sooooo late to the party when it comes to contemporary music, but consider me obsessed. Kat Edmonson. Duchess sings backup vocals for Kat from time to time, and her new album, “Old Fashioned Gal,” accomplishes the nigh-impossible feat of being both a throwback and utterly of its own time. Les McCann. Les McCann. Les McCann.

March: looking back, looking ahead

Photo proofs of Tennessee Williams at the Morgan Library exhibit.

March is an in-between month, not quite winter and certainly not quite spring, either. Last month, restlessness and impatience nipped at my heels as I dreamed of lilacs and blue skies, only to be met with nor’easter after nor’easter. Snowfall notwithstanding, March brought lots of fun experiences: seeing the Tennessee Williams exhibit at the Morgan Library; listening to Jay Clayton, Sheila Jordan, and Marion Cowings sing at an intimate Upper West Side soirée; and performing with Duchess at Dizzy’s (in the middle of a snowstorm, I might add). March also ushered in occasions to celebrate: my mother’s birthday, the first day of spring, Major League Baseball’s opening day (!), and my fifteen-year anniversary as a New Yorker on March 31.

Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan singing on the UWS. I am so grateful for their joyful and generous spirits!

I suppose at some point I may stop marking my move to New York City as a personal holiday, but the truth is, the anniversary of my arrival in New York feels as significant to me as my actual birthday (August 22, if you’re keeping track). One of the things I have always loved about New York City is its potential and permission for reinvention. A person can live many different lifetimes in this endlessly dynamic city, and the promise of spring reminds me anew that, as Dorothy Parker wrote, “New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”

This year, my New York-iversary coincided with Easter and Passover, leading to a very festive weekend and no small amount of rumination on the twin themes of spring and rebirth. On Good Friday, my friend R. and I headed deep into Brooklyn to attend an invite-only dress rehearsal of Jesus Christ Superstar, starring John Legend and Sara Bareilles. We were there thanks to the largesse of a buddy of mine, who was playing lead trumpet in the show (thanks, S.!) and we were blown away by the energy and talent of the musicians and actors.

The following night, my husband, in-laws, and I had dinner at Gramercy Tavern, a longtime standard-bearer of the New York City restaurant scene. In all my years in New York—and the restaurant business, for that matter—I had never eaten at Gramercy Tavern, and the experience more than lived up to its reputation.  We were delighted by the profusion of tulips and forsythia at the restaurant’s entrance and the warm, golden light that suffused the room. The service was knowledgeable and unpretentious; the food was elegant, imaginative, and (most importantly) delicious. The entire evening was unforgettable.

Three cheers for the world’s greatest city!

Easter Sunday itself was spent with my husband and mother-in-law, walking through the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Precious little was in bloom, but we were all heartened by seeing brave little buds on the trees and lilac bushes.

Looking ahead—well, at the moment, the truth is that I’m not looking too far ahead. Spring will arrive when she’s good and ready. In the meantime, there are daffodils from Trader Joe’s, early dinners in cozy locales with friends, piping hot cups of tea in the morning, and other small, quiet joys that make me happy to be right here, right now.

In March, I…
Blogged about: February. The joys of carbohydrates. Singer-friend Champian Fulton.

Watched: Woman of the Year. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are irresistible. Words and Music. Wildly inaccurate, but delightful to hear so many Rodgers and Hart tunes. Sneaky Pete. Giovanni Ribisi is ridiculously good in this fun show. Jesus Christ Superstar, live and in person!

Read: Playing with the Grown-ups, by Sophie Dahl. I love Sophie Dahl’s writing. This, her first novel, is a coming-of-age story, told with poeticism and compassion, about a young woman with a decidedly unconventional upbringing. At the Kitchen Table, Dahl’s new website with seasonal recipes and thoughtful musings, described by Sophie as “kind of virtual Sunday lunch table, with excellent guests.” Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub. An enormously engaging portrait of the life of a starlet in Hollywood’s golden age. The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. God, I loved this book! On the surface, Mitford’s tale of the romantic mishaps and comic foibles of a beautiful British noblewoman could be construed as frivolous, but her prose is laced throughout with laugh-out-loud zingers and sharply intelligent social commentary.

Listened to: The Red Garland Trio, A Garland of Red. Elegant and swinging. The Boswell Sisters.

February: looking back, looking ahead

Early this morning, I was awakened by a cacophony of car horns. Something—I don’t know what, exactly—was making the rush hour traffic in downtown Brooklyn even more slow moving and ill-tempered than usual, and when it became clear that the din wasn’t going to subside any time soon, I decided I might as well get out of bed and see if I could make something of the morning. My reward? Limpid, dazzling sunlight, dappling the scaffolding on the building facing our apartment and glinting off the plastic trash bags in the street below, and a couple of serene, solitary hours in which to write and reflect.

These high/low juxtapositions (stunning morning light shining on garbage and construction, stolen peaceful hours underscored by the relentless honking of car horns) kind of sum up this time of year for me. Sure, there’s beauty to be found, but I find I have to look a little harder for it in late winter/early spring. It’s easy to maintain a rosy outlook on a 75-degree June day, after all, when you’re at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon, cold beer in hand, and the boys in pinstripes are winning. Unflagging good cheer is slightly harder to come by when it’s sleeting sideways on the one Tuesday that you’ve got meetings all over town and the subway is full of people who are as damp and cranky as you are.

Scenes from February travels: twilight in Florida and Wendell Castle’s Steinway.

Looking back, February was busy, filled with travel, gigs, and opportunities to make the best of things. Duchess had a show in Florida, where we availed ourselves of some much-needed balmy temperatures and beach walks…after an hours-long flight delay here in New York on a sodden, gray morning. Later in the month, I flew to Toledo, Ohio for a performance at the beautiful Toledo Museum of Art. The people we met were welcoming and warm, and the venue itself was gorgeous—a glass pavilion with a Steinway designed by Wendell Castle—but I felt lonely in the impersonal downtown hotel, and the weather was (you guessed it) gray and rainy.

Lest I seem ungrateful, I hasten to add that last month brought moments of utter delight, as well, with old and new friends. Upon reflection, many happy moments in February involved food or music (or both): an afternoon spent talking about music and life with Nancy Harrow, a wonderful singer and composer; burgers at Diner with a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen for over a decade; oysters at the Grand Central Oyster Bar with a singer friend from my former restaurant life; a cocktail at the Algonquin with dear ones; a family dinner at Felidia; a post-gig drive through a blizzard with the Duchess gals, laughing all the while; a few brunch gigs around town with different configurations of musician friends.

Recipe for winter happiness: singing + oysters on the half shell. (Top photo by Claude Collerette)

Looking ahead, then, I’ll do my best to embrace the caprices of March and, if actual sunshine is nowhere to be found, I’ll look for it in the kitchen or on the bandstand.

In February, I…
Blogged about: Nothing! Oy. But I did write a remembrance of Keely Smith for JazzTimes Magazine (my first byline!). The March “In Memoriam” issue is on newsstands now.

Read: The Last Days of Café Leila, by Donna BijanThis novel was poignant and, at times, beautifully written, especially the passages about Persian food. I was disappointed by the ending, but would still recommend this book. Cooking for Picasso, by Camille Aubray. Light as a feather but a fun airplane read.

Watched: Battle of the Sexes (also on an airplane). Mozart in the Jungle.

Listened to: Fresh, by Sly and the Family Stone. God, when the horns and vocal enter on “Skin I’m In”!! Sly Stone was such a revolutionary; it seems like he influenced everybody. Fools Rush In, by Louis Armstrong. Sheer beauty.

January: Looking back, looking ahead

After the rush and sparkle of the holiday season have died down, I like to, if possible, get out of town. Walking along icy sidewalks past piles of desiccated, discarded Christmas trees and realizing that months—months!—of winter remain can bum out even the most stalwart soul. What better antidote than sunshine and guacamole?

Scenes from the Baja: representing Brooklyn on a morning run; sunrise over the Gulf of California; the best chips & guac ever; the backyard…fan palms and mountains.

Mid-January, I flew south of the border to spend a week in Mexico, where my parents live. Time seemed to expand that week, and I don’t think it was entirely a function of being on vacation. On the Baja, I rose with the sun and went to bed embarrassingly early. I minimized screen time. There were no sirens and no street lights; nights were starry and silent. When driving, we often had to stop and let cows cross the road before proceeding. In short, each day’s rhythms were set by nature. It was a deeply restorative time and I returned to New York rested and invigorated…once I got over the 24-hour stomach bug I picked up on the flight home, that is. C’est la vie.

Road trips! Clockwise from top: a sweet café in Todos Santos; making way for the cows’ commute; a quick stop in charming El Triunfo; sunset in La Paz.

Looking ahead, I’ve got a little travel coming up in February: Florida with Duchess and a duo show with Ehud Asherie in Toledo, Ohio. But for the most part, I’m sticking close to home and doing my best to maintain some of that Baja expansiveness in my Brooklyn life: early(ish) to bed and early to rise, dedicating time daily to writing and singing, and keeping screen time to a minimum. Simplifying. So far, I think it’s going well.

In January, I…
Blogged about: Simplifying. Year’s End.

Read: Devotion, by Patti Smith. As ever, beautiful writing—and in this thin volume, Patti Smith pulls back the curtain on her own creative process. Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler. An extremely well written novel about a young woman’s coming of age, set in the NYC restaurant scene circa 2006. This book was, at times, uncomfortably familiar (especially the many scenes at Park Bar). Still Life, by Louise Penny. My Duchess sister, Amy, gave me this book before my surgery, and I finally got around to finishing it. It’s the first in a series of mysteries set in a picturesque Canada town. The scenery, townspeople, and protagonist (Chief Inspector Gamache) are all incredibly endearing, and food descriptions abound. I may be hooked.

Watched: The Durrells in Corfu, an incredibly charming show about an English family (that of novelist Lawrence Durrell and naturalist Gerald Durrell, in fact) expatriated to a remote Greek isle in the 1930s. Grace and Frankie. There is such nuance and depth of storytelling in this hilarious show. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are goddamned national treasures. Lots of movies: Ingrid Goes West, Beatriz at Dinner (both watched on the plane), The Big Sick, Lady Bird.

Listened to: Honey and Salt, by Matt Wilson. I listened to this album in Baja as I walked along an empty beach with the sea on one side, mountains on the other, and a vast, uninterrupted sky above. Such beautiful surroundings were the perfect place to absorb this album, rich with humor, wisdom, sorrow, and humanity. A generous, expansive work of art. Le Nozze di Figaro, at the Metropolitan Opera. Mozart’s melodies, perfectly constructed and lyrical, are a balm for the ears and soul.

Year’s end: Looking back, looking ahead

Radio City Music Hall, in full Christmas regalia.

All’s well that ends well, the saying goes, but October and November were nonetheless pretty difficult months. We entered the holiday season a bit shaken but with unshakeable gratitude, keeping our festivities mostly quiet and homespun. We hosted a few small-scale dinners at home and visited friends for a couple of parties in Brooklyn. We stepped out on the town a bit, too, enjoying some fantastic dinners out (La Scalinatella! Nom Wah Tea Parlor!) and we also took in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which did indeed live up to its name.

On the singing front, October saw the release of my new album, The Late Set, a collection of intimate piano/vocal duos with pianist Ehud Asherie; we enjoyed a sold-out CD release show here in NYC and headed out to the Pacific Northwest in early November for a whirlwind tour. Duchess headlined at Jazz Standard in December, then weathered SantaCon (!) and two snowstorms (!!) to play our last shows of the year in Connecticut and Tarrytown.

Singing in the new year. Welcome, 2018!

For the last hurrah of 2017, I did something I’ve never done in all my years of New Year’s Eve gigging: I sang in a jazz club for people who came for the express purpose of hearing music. Please forgive the profusion of italics; after years of being sonic wallpaper at fancy restaurants, singing for an attentive audience on New Year’s Eve was pretty exciting and, I choose to believe, a good omen for the year ahead.

Looking (way) back, I vividly remember being twenty-two and believing firmly, with the self-assurance indigenous to people in their early twenties who happen to have read a couple of novels and therefore believe themselves to be preternaturally Wise People, that life’s joys and sorrows were meted out by the Universe based on some kind of vague karmic meritocracy. I blame my erstwhile embrace of this horseshit philosophy on the youthful desire to make sense of a perplexing and troubling world. (Okay, and Oprah. I also blame Oprah, who has championed pop psychology nonsense like The Secret and Dr. Phil since, it seems, time immemorial.)

What I have come to understand in the years hence is that life’s joys and sorrows are only sometimes determined by one’s intentions and choices (and let’s just leave the “Universe” out of this, shall we?). At least as often, we are at the mercy of our genetics, the circumstances of our birth, or the pure happenstance of being in the right or wrong place at precisely the right or wrong time. And when the proverbial shit hits the fan (which it most certainly will, for all of us), the most and best we can do is be as strong and kind as possible. As I reflect on 2017, especially its turbulent autumn, I am suffused with gratitude for kindnesses great and small, extended at every turn by a community of family, friends, and strangers. Looking ahead, my New Year’s resolutions are simple: Be present. Choose kindness.

In October, November, and December, I…
Blogged about: Summer. Duchess turning 4. Singer-friend Marianne Solivan.

Read: The Girl from Venice, by Martin Cruz Smith. I picked this up in the airport on a flight delay and had a hell of a time getting through it. But I persevered, and in the process, did a little armchair (and time) travel to WWII-era Venice. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin. Plainspoken, friendly tomes about cooking and eating; perfect to revisit while in the holiday cooking frenzy.

Watched: The Deuce. Meet Me in St. Louis, without which the holidays cannot officially begin. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Alias Grace. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. Stranger Things. The Netflix Yule Log, for which I make no apologies. It’s cozy!

Listened to: Politely!, by Keely Smith with Billy May & his orchestra. The Song Is All, by Nancy Harrow. A lot of Christmas music.

Summer: Looking back, looking ahead (or: September, we hardly knew ye)

This summer was filled with some great stuff: cheering for the Yankees at baseball games; strolling through riotously blooming botanical gardens; enjoying barbecues in Brooklyn and country weekends of canoeing and lakeside reading in Connecticut; toasting a couple of dear friends as they got married in a ceremony brimming with laughter, tears, and music; watching Casablanca and eating an impromptu living-room picnic after getting rained out at an outdoor movie.

Summer’s happy places: Yankee Stadium, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and a quiet lakeside idyll in Connecticut.

But, as A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote in The Green Fields of the Mind, “There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it,” and indeed, proverbial autumn loomed large this summer. There were upsetting headlines (Nazis are trying to stage a comeback? The president is tweeting threats of nuclear war? Seriously?). Friends and I traded diagnoses, fears, and familial travails like baseball cards. My routine physical turned into a protracted series of exams and consultations in which I learned I’d need a big ol’ surgery to remove a softball-sized fibroid. I was scared a lot this summer. Then, September belonged to the surgery itself: preparing for the procedure, going under the knife, and recovering.

Me with my mom, the best nurse a gal could hope for; socks from my DUCHESS sisters that kind of sum things up; me at my first post-surgery outing at (where else?) Yankee Stadium.

Now, thoroughly ensconced in actual autumn, my big takeaways are forehead-slappingly obvious and not particularly insightful: We all get sick. We all die. The world is—and has always been—on fire. Given all these dismal realities, the only things that really matter are family and friends and a living a life full of love and kindness and gratitude. THANKS, HALLMARK.

While I’ve been sitting here this morning, trying (and failing) to piece together a cogent recap of my summer and the gifts that fear and uncertainty can bring, I’ve also been listening to the radio. Right now, Ella Fitzgerald is singing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” with the Basie band, and her exuberant, freewheeling vocal, imploring us to choose joy, is really the whole truth. Looking ahead, I’m going to do my best to follow the song’s advice:

Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worry on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street

Can’t you hear a pitter-pat?
And that happy tune is your step
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street

I used to walk in the shade
With those blues on parade
But I’m not afraid
This rover crossed over

If I never have a cent
I’ll be rich as Rockefeller
Gold dust at my feet
On the sunny side of the street

This summer, I…
Blogged about: May. Music from 100 Years Ago. Singer-friend Roseanna Vitro.

Read: Kafka Was the Rage, by Anatole Broyard. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This gorgeous essay about food and memory. What She Ate, by Laura Shapiro. The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, by Irwin Shaw. One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts, by Shirley Jackson.

Watched: The Handmaid’s Tale. Casablanca. So much Yankees baseball. The Great British Baking Show. Desk Set. Every single episode of Game of Thrones. I Called Him Morgan.

Listened to: Sly & the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Luiz Bonfa, Solo in Rio. Lots of the Nat Cole Trio. Tanto Tempo, Bebel Gilberto.