‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple

Every January in recent years, I’ve chosen one word to act as lodestar and touchstone for the new year ahead. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that one word chooses me every January, since I don’t do any research or spiritual deep diving to arrive at my verbal talisman. I’ll just be walking down the street or taking a shower or washing dishes and, as though an imaginary magic 8 ball had just been turned over, a single word will float to the top of my mind. (Well, with one exception: in 2014, the phrase “Done is better than good” announced itself as the year’s motto. Otherwise, all of my words-of-the-year have been single words—nouns, to be specific: fruition, faith, action, communication, acceptance.) This year, for the first time, the word is an imperative verb: simplify.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got a big birthday coming up in 2018, or maybe it’s because I learned that a couple of my high school classmates passed away last year, or maybe it’s because a dear older friend began a note with the words, “When you get to be—in a flash—as old as I am…”, but I’ve never been more urgently aware of the passing of time. The meter’s running, and while some tedium and drudgery are inevitable (the trash does need to be taken out, after all, and the laundry done), I want to spend as many hours as possible in the company of people I love and doing things that are nourishing, whether abstract (writing, singing, meditation) or tangible (cooking, eating, and sharing good food). Heeding the call to distill my priorities and attention down to the really important stuff feels necessary and deeply right.

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, and I didn’t make any this year, other than a sweeping intention to be as present and kind as possible. Nevertheless, in these quiet first days of January, I’ve been getting up earlier in the mornings for some uninterrupted writing time. I’ve been running regularly, eating healthily, and even finding a few minutes most days for meditation. And, after a protracted period of not vocalizing, I’m back to regular warmups and building a practice routine that feels purposeful.

I can find a million reasons on any given day to not make time for music or writing or exercise: there are emails to answer, groceries to buy, two new Dave Chappelle specials on Netflix, it’s too cold outside, inspiration is elusive…but no matter how wily or persuasive Resistance may be, the simple fact is that my days are much happier and more expansive when I prioritize the important before the urgent. Singers sing. Writers write. Runners run. Simple.

Happy new year!

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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.

Spotlight On…Roseanna Vitro

Photo credit: Devon Cass

I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting Roseanna Vitro in person a couple of times, but I’ve been aware of her as a singer, writer, and teacher for a long time. A Grammy-nominated vocalist, Roseanna has performed and taught all over the world. Her projects are ambitious and eclectic: among her many endeavors are tributes to her Southern roots (she hails from Arkansas and began singing jazz in Texas), as well as the songbooks of Clare Fisher, Randy Newman, Ray Charles and Charlie Parker.

I’m moved by the openness and generosity of Roseanna’s answers to the Spotlight On… questions. There’s a lot of wisdom to be gleaned from this interview. Thank you, Roseanna!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I knew I would be a singer since the age of four. My mother, Ruby Mae, is ninety years young and still singing. Her sisters and brothers were all gospel singers. My mother is my inspiration. I sing about everything; it’s in my DNA. Music comforts my soul.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
It was always natural to sing in every possible situation and style of music. When I was young I sang in school programs, competitions, madrigal groups, classical All-State choirs in German, Italian, Latin, and French, theater repertoire, southern gospel and rock ‘n’ roll bands, and folk music. I was solid in my direction. The challenges were “looking the part” and discipline combined with focus. My wild and passionate personality did not lend itself to sitting in a practice room alone with my metronome and scales.

Photo credit: Paul Wickliffe

It has been most challenging to understand I must practice a vocalese solo, like “Moody’s Mood for Love,” much longer than some other singers who are blessed with perfect pitch and a photographic memory. I wanted to conquer every style and sing it as well as the masters. But as you grow up you begin to recognize the types of songs, lyrics and melodies that flow the most naturally out of your voice. The recognition of my shortcomings has not stopped me from choosing difficult melodies plus singing with and listening to the greatest instrumentalists. I take vocal technique lessons every month in my efforts to deal with an aging voice as well.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I was always hungry to learn songs that spoke to my heart first, then intellect, and always [with] a rhythm that moved me. The songs you choose say to the world “who you are.” I learned the popular songs and repertoire I needed to become a club date/party singer in my early 20s, once I was adopted by jazz musicians in Texas.

I can feel it to my toes when I’m singing a truth. Some songs you simply have to sing; you have no choice. Songs like “So Many Stars,” “You Are There,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “Certas Canções,” “Long As You’re Livin’,” “Happy Madness,” “Waltz for Debbie,” “But Beautiful.” I think of repertoire as a collection of songs that fulfill my personal mandate for happiness: A) songs that speak to your heart, B) songs that make a statement about life, C) songs that are silly and fun, D) songs with deep grooves…they just feel good.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I wouldn’t have chosen another profession. I have discovered I can blend into a corporate atmosphere if I have to. I learned I am a good teacher for over-sensitive, talented singers who don’t fit the cookie cutter model. I love gathering vast amounts of information for singers and sharing in our community. I totally dig producing vocal projects at this stage because I love other singers. I have enjoyed the challenge of writing, “Voices in Jazz” for Jazztimes.com, interviewing famous and not famous singers. It’s always about singing and enjoying your life, helping others, and my best gig is being a mother. But, there isn’t another profession for me.

Photo credit: Janis Wilkins

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
I’ve received much advice in my long career. I’ve made major mistakes which cause me to wince even now. I think the most important advice I needed to digest and still work on is keeping my mouth closed when I’m nervous or anxious. Just sing, don’t talk.

Fun fact:
This isn’t actually a fun fact. I think the “nervous” factor is a quirk. I guess being “silly” would be my fun quirk in response to nerves. It’s taken me years of looking back to understand how fear or deep feelings like: “I’m good, I know I have something special to offer” versus “I’ll never be good enough” affect your mistakes.

The wisdom is: Music is a business, and business has no feelings. It’s just business. Enjoy your music, don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t let your success rely on the big power brokers in our business. If you’re happy, you are a success.

Roseanna will be performing at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack, NY on August 5. For those of us in NYC, mark your calendars for August 12, when she’s bringing “Bossas and Ballads on a Summer Night” to Jazz at Kitano!

A Chance Discovery

Peggy Lee & Jimmy Durante on the air in the 1940s.

I love the old-fashioned image of people gathered around a radio at night to listen, rapt, as their favorite entertainers played music, told jokes, or acted out detective stories. You’d think, then, that I’d have been the first to jump on the proverbial bandwagon when podcasts really started to take hold in this century.

As is so often the case in matters technological and/or internet-related, though, I was late to the podcast party: I started listening to podcasts in earnest less than a year ago. Since then, I’ve become devoted to a number of modern day radio programmes (wordier but more elegant, no?), dedicated to topics ranging from Old Hollywood to food to French history to medicine. I’ve even, to my delight, donned the mantle of podcast guest and podcast co-host as a member of Duchess.

And so it is with all the fervor of the newly converted that I share a recent podcast discovery with you: Music from 100 Years Ago, hosted by Brice Fuqua. I chanced upon this podcast on a busy New York City afternoon filled with too many subway rides. “This looks like it might be good,” I thought, and downloaded a few episodes while waiting for my train. Dear reader, I loathe the subway, so it is no small thing when I confess that I was disappointed when my subterranean odyssey ended that afternoon and I had to put the headphones away.

Fuqua is a host after my own heart. For each episode, he chooses a smart, wide-ranging array of music from the first half of the twentieth century, all centered around a specific theme (god, I love a theme). The topic of any given show might be straightforward—say, the music of a specific composer or year—or completely hilarious, like a recent episode featuring songs about chickens.

Here are a few recent episodes that I’ve especially enjoyed:

Fuqua is knowledgable without being pedantic. He keeps his commentary concise and conversational, letting the music do the talking. I don’t know where or how Fuqua has amassed such a diverse and vast music collection, but his listeners are the beneficiaries, getting to hear rare recordings of hot jazz, 1930s-era classical music broadcasts, gospel vocal groups, singing cowboys, and (much!) more.

Brice Fuqua launched Music from 100 Years Ago back in 2006 and has since aired well over five hundred episodes, all of which you can find on his website (you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes). Rather than kick myself for being a Johnny-come-lately, I’m choosing to celebrate the fact that there is so much treasure yet to discover in the Music from 100 Years Ago archives…and I hope that Mr. Fuqua decides to keep his podcast going for at least five hundred more episodes. Happy listening!

 

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.

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.

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!