July and August: Looking back, looking ahead

I can’t believe we’re on the cusp of Labor Day weekend. I know that, technically, fall doesn’t begin for a few more weeks, but there’s a perceptible shift that happens once August comes to a close, when the pace of life increases and boots and sweaters start appearing in shop windows. I’m always a little sad to see summer go, but am also amazed at how much fun got packed into July and August, from swinging gigs to weekend getaways.

A few months ago, I was anticipating a fairly quiet summer, gig-wise, but the calendar filled up with some familiar and new collaborations, all of which were hugely rewarding. Duchess had one gig this summer, in which we performed three mini-sets at the Triad (we were shooting video, so we did a “girl group” tribute, a holiday show, and a salute to the Rat Pack) before bidding each other adieu for the summer. The wonderful drummer Jerome Jennings invited me to sing with his band at a swing dance in Brownsville, presented by the NYPD and Jazz at Lincoln Center in an effort to strengthen and improve relationships between the community and police force. It was a very special evening, and I felt honored to be a part of it.

I joined singer-songwriter Marcus Goldhaber for a few duets one evening at the Friars Club, and returned to my beloved Mezzrow with my equally dear Ehud Asherie, where we played some new tunes for a packed house. It’s always exciting to forge new musical friendships, and over the past couple of months, I’ve had the immense good fortune to do a number of gigs with guitarist Greg Ruggiero and pianist Michael Kanan.

Summer Gigs Collage

Summer gigs! Top photo (Mezzrow) by Jeff Evans, Duchess photo by Fran Kaufman.

Interspersed amidst all this music have been a few heavenly weekend getaways. Both the Fourth of July holiday and my birthday were spent lakeside in Connecticut, where fireworks and barbecues were enjoyed to the fullest. A quick but lovely jaunt to Philadelphia for my mother-in-law’s birthday made for an evening of delicious food and belly laughs. And my husband and I spent last weekend in Montauk, where we indulged daily in sunshine, beach time, and lobster dinners.

A few scenes from July 4th in Connecticut.

A few scenes from July 4th in Connecticut.

Montauk moments.

Montauk moments.

Yes, this summer has been a dream. And the fun isn’t over! As I type, my mother is sitting in my living room, and in just a few days, we’ll be winging our way to Italy for a couple of weeks. I’m feeling the crunch of deadlines and last-minute trip preparations now, but soon we’ll be strolling the narrow alleys of Venice and eating gelato in Lucca. I cannot wait. But first…tomorrow (yes, tomorrow) will find me in the recording studio, making a new CD in collaboration with drummer Charles Ruggiero, featuring pianist Jeremy Manasia and bassist Neal Miner. Stay tuned!

In July and August, I…
Blogged about: June. Singer-friend Vanessa Perea. Authenticity.

Read: Every Anxious Wave, by Mo Daviau. Time travel, musicians, and true love. A fun read. Delicious!, by Ruth Reichl. I love Reichl’s memoirs and food writing, so was excited to read this novel, which turned out to be a good beach read. The Hills of Tuscany: A New Life in an Old Land, by Ferenc Maté. Well-written, funny, and the perfect book to read, pre-Italian holiday.

Watched: The Night Of. A gripping and incredibly well-acted HBO mini-series. I am not alone in my frustration with a central female character’s arc, but this show had me on the edge of my seat. Café Society. You know I generally love Woody Allen movies, and I was delighted to see some NYC musician friends onscreen, but I found this film uninspired. Weiner. A fascinating and infuriating documentary. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Good heavens, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell! Summertime. Katherine Hepburn and romance in 1950s-era Venice! The Olympics! Mostly women’s gymnastics.

Listened to: Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi, Um Interpreta e Outro. Ehud hipped me to this beautiful, pre-bossa nova recording with a pair of Brazil’s most iconic composers. Ruben Blades and Willie Colon, Siembra. Blades is seriously one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard; I cannot get enough of this record. rené marie, The Sound of Red. rené is a generous, open-hearted artist, and it’s wonderful to see her star on the rise. Check out her NPR Tiny Desk concert!

Advertisements

August: Looking back, looking ahead

I know that summer doesn’t really end until September 22…but the end of August always feels like the end of honest-to-goodness, hot-shouldered, freckle-nosed, ice-cream-at-every-opportunity summer.  This particular summer has been filled to the brim with singing and travel, friends, food, art, and plenty of time spent just enjoying New York City.  Now, just as with a good book, a good meal, or a good concert, I am feeling both happily satiated and sad to see it end.

BalestriniCollageEdited

A few photos of my time with the Balestrini family.

Perhaps I’m feeling extra sentimental and philosophical because of an anniversary that just passed: exactly twenty Augusts ago—my god, I can barely type the word “twenty”—I arrived in Italy to begin my foreign exchange.  During the months I spent living la dolce vita, I learned to speak Italian, tumbled headlong into a lifelong love affair with Italian food, and became a part of three wonderful Italian families, with whom I still keep in touch and see as often as possible (which is to say, not nearly often enough): the famiglie Balestrini, Amigoni, and Mascheroni.

In the summer of 1995, I had just escaped the confines of both high school and my small Alaska town.  Everything was a revelation, from traveling alone to discovering gelato, to the calls of “Ciao, bella,” as I walked down the street.  Because social media and Skype didn’t exist (I mean, email wasn’t even really a thing yet), I spoke to my parents just once a week on the phone and wrote actual hand-written letters to my friends in the States.  I was fully immersed in Italian life in a way that I doubt is even possible, now.  And, in the process, Italy gave me a world both infinitely bigger and smaller than I could have ever imagined.

AmigoniCollageEdited

The Amigoni family, and a few moments with more Italian loved ones.

I suppose, then, that today’s post is really a love letter to la bella Italia and to the people who changed my life forever, for better, twenty years ago: Domenico, Anna, Chiara, Giovanni, Vittorio, Angela, Cristina, Leo, Eugenio, Gabriella, tutti i figli Mascheroni, Lory (e la tua mamma), Ruta e Dario, and the many other kind souls who welcomed me into your hearts and homes, I hope you all know how very much I love you.

CastleCollageEdited

The castle–yes, castle–that belonged to my 3rd host family, the Mascheroni. My mother came to visit and we spent an incredible day there.


Looking ahead, DUCHESS is heading west this month: California, to be precise.  We’ve got gigs lined up in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco, and we’ll close out our tour with a performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival (!).  On September 29, I’m returning to Mezzrow with the wonderful pianist Ehud Asherie for an intimate evening of vocal/piano duets.

In the meantime, Labor Day weekend is just a couple of days away and the forecast is for sunny skies.  I’m planning to bid summertime a fond farewell with a day trip to Coney Island for a spin on the Wonder Wheel, a stroll on the boardwalk, and perhaps some Russian food in Brighton Beach.

In August, I…
Blogged about: July. Getting older.

Watched: Cymbeline, at Shakespeare in the Park.  I feel so lucky to have experienced the magic of Shakespeare in the Park twice in one summer, without ever having had to queue up for tickets at the crack of dawn!  “Key Largo,” with Bogie and Bacall.  The New York Restoration Project showed this iconic film in a Bed-Stuy garden and it was magical.

Read: Well, “perused” is a better term, but Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann is a book I’m eager to explore more in-depth.  Over the years, McCann photographed many of his colleagues and friends, everyone from Ray Charles to Duke Ellington to Redd Foxx.  This book is the first time his reflections and photographs have been compiled into one volume.  Definitely worth checking out.

Listened to: A lot of Les McCann + Eddie Harris.  This grooves so hard.  “Sock it to me!”  Damn.

 

 

Fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high…

Every summer, I am seduced by the scent of sunscreen and the promise of languid afternoons spent at the beach. But every year, despite my best intentions to wear cute sundresses, shop at farmer’s markets, and be all dewy and cheery in the heat, I seem to wind up cranky and sweaty on a subway platform, cursing the convection oven that once was Manhattan.

This summer has been unremarkable, save the bomb scare in Times Square and a relentless heat wave, neither of which were particularly enjoyable. So I suppose it makes sense that I’ve been reminiscing about a few, more voluptuous, summers of yore. To wit:

The summer I turned 17, I moved to Italy. The honeyed late-August sun poured itself on everything and the world and I were very, very young. I swooned daily over fresh basil, fresh boys and the lushness of life lived in a foreign language.

One Seattle summer was all faux-sophistication at sidewalk cafés and drinking rosé as twilight whispered across Puget Sound. I remember goat cheese and asparagus omelets in the morning and garden parties at dusk. I was free in the way that is only possible when one is 23 and unfettered by ambition or obligation.

And recently, I found a journal entry from the summer I lived in Spanish Harlem:

In the absence of a working air conditioner, an ancient fan hums in front of my open window. My rigid and long-standing habit of falling to sleep in total silence has been broken. The noise from the street has become a lullaby of sorts. The shouts of neighbor children and the Spanish admonitions of their mothers are accompanied by the alto saxophone sighing on my stereo as I drift off to sleep. That the saxophonist in question has broken my heart seems vital.

I have always slept on my stomach, a straight line, arms folded above my head. My sleep has always been deep and long and still. July finds me splayed across the whole of my bed, stirring throughout the night. I sleep in satin slips, occasionally with a sheet for cover. My sleep has become light and I rise earlier, perhaps to clear space in the cooler morning for writing, thinking, tea. Perhaps to clear space for the afternoon siesta that has become routine.

I cannot get enough quenepas, the peculiar fruit that was foreign to me until a brief liaison with a Cuban guitarist. He called them mamoncillos. The fruits resemble tiny limes and they hang in a bunch, like grapes. When I crack the peel with my teeth, the taste is bitter and the fruit inside, a pulpy pit, comes out easily. I keep the quenepas in the refrigerator and suck on the cold tart fruit until my mouth is sore.

When my errands are finished, I am anxious to leave midtown Manhattan, with its stodgy businessmen and ladies who lunch. I see blonde Amazons with Coach bags and Banana Republic khaki skirts and I imagine that their lives are as immaculate and crisp as the white cotton blouses they wear. The 6 train can never come soon enough.

I look forward to leaving the stark chill of the subway and ascending the stairs into the enveloping heat of the barrio. I let my hair curl in the humidity. I feel my hips circling in figure eights as I walk. I no longer hurry. Sometimes I stop and buy an horchata, the Mexican drink of rice milk and almond, sold by a young woman who speaks no English, from a sidewalk stand.

Tito Puente and Arturo Sandoval follow me everywhere; when their mambos are not playing on my iPod, their paint-peeling trumpet sections squeal from shop windows and passing cars. My heart has begun beating clave rhythms, although clapping them is still tricky.


Much has changed since my halcyon summers in Italy, Seattle, and Spanish Harlem. I’ve long since traded the barrio for Brooklyn, and I’m happy to report that both my air conditioner and my relationship are highly functional. The beach awaits, Tito Puente is still on my iPod, and today a farmer’s market is bustling a mere block from my home. Even as I type, August is leaning into the sun, beckoning me to follow, suggesting that perhaps this summer is not unremarkable, after all.

Noodle Pudding, or How We Found Italy in Brooklyn

The last night of our Italian vacation, my boyfriend Eli and I ate dinner on the outdoor patio of a trattoria nestled in the rolling hills of northern Italy. The husband-and-wife owners of the trattoria were doing double-duty, acting as chef and waitress, respectively.

The menu was concise and seasonal, and for our first course we selected handmade pastas: ricotta-and-speck-stuffed tortelli in a radicchio  cream sauce for Eli, and pumpkin-and-porcini mushroom-stuffed tortelloni in butter and sage for me.CIMG3755

The mid-August heat had taken its toll on our usually voracious appetites, and the padrona suggested that we share the house antipasto plate for our second course. The generous plate of home-made fennel salami, house-cured pancetta, two types of local cheeses, and house-pickled seasonal vegetables was the perfect end to our meal; hearty but not heavy.CIMG3757

 

The deep purple, fruit-forward house wine we drank was as straightforward and convivial as the trattoria itself. Our dinner lasted a languid two hours and, at less than $25.00 per person, we felt as though we’d won some sort of rustic culinary lottery.

We arrived in New York City the following day, jet-lagged and exhausted, with no food in the house. As we peered into our empty refrigerator, we reminisced about the soulful, unhurried dinner from the night before and asked each other, “Why can’t we have a dinner like that here?” Then we remembered that we could. And, fellow Brooklyn-ites, you can too.

Noodle Pudding is an oddly-named and unassuming little restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. Because we were starving and didn’t want to risk having to wait for a table—their no-reservations policy can mean a long wait, especially on a Saturday night—we showed up around 5:30 pm. Diners, mostly families from the neighborhood, were already starting to fill the dining room. The host called nearly everyone by name; these were clearly the “regulars.”

Normally, the thought of a 5:30 dinner gives me hives: I have my whole retirement in Boca Raton to eat dinner at 5:30! Plus, the Early Bird Seating generally means lots and lots of small children. I am not a super-fan of lots and lots of small children. At Noodle Pudding, though, on this late-summer evening, the atmosphere was genteel and relaxed. Eating in the company of families from around the neighborhood seemed pleasant, homey, and right.

Eli and I were greeted warmly and led to a table near the open window. We decided to follow the same blueprint as our dinner at the trattoria just one night prior: pastas for the first course, then a lighter, shared antipasto plate to finish.

The pastas, both handmade, were excellent.  The tagliatelle al ragu’ was a little saucier than the traditional Northern Italian style, but the flavor was right on the money: redolent of pork and beef, with a touch of rosemary.  The gnocchi were little potato pillows, the butter and sage sauce as delicate as any we tried in Italy.  

We’d seen beautifully ripe tomatoes from the nearby Farmer’s Market being delivered to the restaurant when we arrived, so we had to try the antipasto plate, with burrata, that creamiest of mozzarellas, accompanied by prosciutto and tomatoes.  I’ll let the picture do the talking, but suffice it to say that all the flavors of an Italian summer were on this plate.

CIMG3827

One of the myriad things to love about Noodle Pudding is the price point: with a glass of wine each, plus a 20% gratuity (our server was engaging and efficient), our meal still totaled less than $65.

Thanks to Noodle Pudding, we were able to make our Italian vacation last one more night.

Noodle Pudding, 38 Henry St., Brooklyn NY 11201, (718) 625-3737 Cash Only, No Reservations, Closed Mondays

Peanut M&Ms and Grace.

b111819a7b27dcadc70018d68864b832
It’s about a million degrees in New York City right now. The cloud cover will eventually lead to rain–and lots of it–but not before it weighs us down and makes the air heavy and hard to breathe.

Walking down the sidewalk today, I thought, “God, this is miserable! Heat, humidity, cranky pedestrians…what could be worse?” Then I descended the stairs into the subway and my question was answered. The only thing worse than navigating crowded, filthy New York sidewalks in oppressive heat is navigating crowded, filthy New York subway platforms in oppressive heat.  

The A train arrived, I found a seat in an air-conditioned car and I had just begun losing myself in my magazine, when…”Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention!  I am not here raising money for a basketball team or a football team, I am here to put some money in my pocket, stay off the streets, and do somethin’ positive!  I have Peanut M&Ms for only a dollar!” 

This enterprising teen, for any readers who don’t live in NYC, was giving the exact same spiel that every other enterprising teen uses when hawking their (most likely) stolen candy on the subway.  And he was loud.  And I was tired.  And I was trying to read.  And I really didn’t want to engage with the teen, or my fellow passengers.

His sales pitch ended; I inwardly rolled my eyes and focused on my magazine.  Just a few minutes later, the teen began again, “Ladies and Gentlemen”–I felt irritation start to rise up inside me–“this gentleman here just bought eight packs of M&Ms and told me to give them away for free!  He’s lookin’ out for the folks that ain’t got the dollar!  Who wants some Peanut M&Ms?”

I looked up and the irritation that had surged just a moment prior simply dissolved.  Riders who were just as hot, sweaty and fed up as I, reached out their hands and were given a sweet treat from a stranger to make their ride easier.  The teen, for his part, was happy to have made a sale and become the Good Humor Man, in one fell swoop.  Grace on the A train.

I had been so buried in my magazine, trying to block out my surroundings, that I never did see who had been the M&M benefactor of the 4:30 A train to Brooklyn.  Whoever he was, he reminded me that I–we–always have the choice to participate generously in the present moment.  In so doing, we can bring sweetness to those around us.

God, I love New York.images