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.

Advertisements

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.

‘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!

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…Marianne Solivan

Marianne Solivan is good vibes in human form. We met years ago, somewhere on the jazz scene here in New York; maybe it was at Zeb’s, or perhaps Smalls, or was it Swing 46? I may not remember the exact time and place of our first meeting, but I remember vividly how much I liked Marianne from the second we started chatting. She exudes generosity and a deep love of singers and singing.

Marianne’s voice is as warm, honest, and down-to-earth as her personality. She is equally comfortable singing a hard-swinging blues as she is improvising in Spanish over a salsa groove or tenderly interpreting a ballad (any of which she might have penned herself, I might add).

In addition to being a wonderful singer and a great hang, Marianne may also be the hardest working woman in show business. She maintains a busy touring schedule, she helms her own big band, and she’s a sought-after jazz vocal educator, too. Singers, take note: next month, Marianne will be teaching a couple of workshops (The Art of the Song and Rhythm Section Grooves), in which both fledgling and experienced singers will have the chance to hone their craft in a supportive and challenging environment. Space is still available, so don’t miss out! Email jazzinmind@gmail.com for details and registration.

Marianne took the time to answer these (new!) Spotlight On… interview questions from the road, in the middle of her jam-packed European tour last month. Thank you so much, Marianne!

Photo credit: Gulnara Khamatova

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
Oh…that’s a tough one. My first instinct is to say Ella, Carmen and Betty. Ella because she introduced me to this music. When I heard her sing I fell in love with jazz. She also continues to remind me of the constant silver lining in life. I hear that in her voice on every song. Carmen because she is still teaching me how to swing, phrase, and be exactly who I am in every tune. And Betty….oh man, it’s what I aspire to: to be fully free and fearless. To always push myself further and play with the band on a deeply intimate level.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
Well, due to some past vocal issues I do lots of simple but strategic vocal warm-ups every day if possible. I work on learning new tunes and I shed older ones. I work on really learning the harmony of tunes I’ve been singing and getting more ideas for arrangements and such. It’s not too regimented but it’s consistent.

If you had a time machine and could travel back in time to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself about singing, life, and/or the music business in general?
Oh god! Well, I would tell myself to go and find Betty Carter and stay as close to her as possible. I would also go back to the beginning of my singing and tell myself to never try to sound like anyone else. I would tell myself how precious my own sound is and to never try and change that.

We live in a DIY-era: in addition to performing and recording our music, we ALSO handle social media, book gigs, and perhaps juggle “side gigs” to keep the bills paid. In the face of all these obligations, time management can be hugely challenging. What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping everything in balance?
Well, first off, be kind to [my]self! I will never get done all that I want and/or need to get done. It’s just an overwhelming amount of work, so when I am tired or need down time I don’t punish myself about it. I need to rest and to enjoy life and not feel that I’m chained to my job at all times.

Marianne and her Jazz Vocal Workshop students after their successful performance.

When I got better at doing this, I finally got to a place where I enjoyed all [of] this work. It’s part of the deal: if you wanna be a singer, bandleader, front person, you have to do so much of it alone at home with your computer. It can be isolating and infuriating and just tiring, but when I think that it all leads to me being onstage singing, it helps me deal with it all. The payoff for the work, for me, is totally worth it. Every time I get to sing I know all that time and effort was well worth it.

Fun fact:
Oh man…I think I’m pretty much a nut, so who knows? Umm…ok, I really have issues with heights. I have melted down on the elevator up the Eiffel Tower, and on funiculars all over the world. Ferris wheels kill me, though I still try and get on them with hopes that I’ll overcome it. And on a more day-to-day basis, staircases that don’t have the back of each step (so you can see down as you walk up), or glass ones like in the Apple store, put me in a panic. A total panic.

Marianne will be performing in the Poconos at the Deer Head Inn on December 16 and at Smalls, (right here in NYC!) on December 17. Visit her website for all the details.

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.

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!