December: Looking back, looking ahead

December began quietly enough, but by the time Christmas rolled around, I’d recorded a new album, shot a part in a movie, and performed in Rome and Tuscany. I know. I can’t quite believe it all, myself.

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At Systems Two with pianist Ehud Asherie & producer Eli Wolf.

Early in the month, my friend and frequent collaborator Ehud Asherie and I went into the studio with a bunch of songs—some familiar standards as well as off-the-beaten-path gems—and spent a lovely day recording vocal/piano duos at Systems Two, my favorite studio. We wanted to capture the intimacy and spontaneity of our performances at Mezzrow, and I think we succeeded. (Incidentally, we’ll be at Mezzrow on January 10 and would love to see you there!)

I don’t know what I’m allowed to tell you about the movie thing, so I’ll keep things vague: the film is a mini-series helmed by director Errol Morris. It was picked up by Netflix, but I have no idea when it’ll air. I got to wear a super-glam vintage dress and sing a swinging, new-to-me song for a nightclub scene, in which I played (surprise!) a jazz singer. During my (long) day on set, I learned that a) movie-making involves a lot more waiting around and a lot less glamour than you might expect, and b) no one should wear a corset for 13 hours. I had grooves in my torso. Ow. Restrictive undergarments notwithstanding, I think this is going to be a fantastic project and I’ll definitely share more info as details emerge, which likely won’t be for several months.

img_8484Recent viewings of Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain had had me dreaming of Rome, and in a flash of benevolent synchronicity, I received an invitation to give a couple of private performances in the Eternal City over Christmas. Giddy with delight, I hopped aboard an Alitalia flight with E. and spent a very happy week making music and living la dolce vita.

We saw the Colosseo bathed in honeyed late-afternoon sunlight and watched the city turn pink at sunset from the top of the Gianicolo (Janiculum hill). Ramrod-straight cypresses and imposing pines presided quietly over the ancient city, as they have done for millennia, while high-fashion storefronts and elegant hotels sparkled with Christmas lights and decorations. On Christmas Eve, we stood silently in the Pantheon and listened to a few minutes of midnight mass. The neighborhoods of Trastevere and the Jewish quarter provided welcome respite from the post-holiday throngs at the Fontana di Trevi and the Vatican.

img_8132And—you knew this was coming—the food! We ate fettuccine Alfredo at the restaurant where the eponymous chef/owner invented the dish, and pasta all’Amatriciana in a restaurant frequented by Fellini in his day. Pizza a taglio (paid by weight, not slice) awaited us at Pizzarium, where unique flavor combinations (my favorite was buttery mashed potatoes and mozzarella) and impossibly light, crispy crust have garnered well-deserved international recognition.

We sipped caffe marocchino at the bar at Caffe Sant’Eustachio and swooned over the silken gelato at La Romana and Giolitti. Christmas Eve was spent at La Rosetta, for course after course of the most elegant seafood dinner I’ve ever eaten. Our last day in Rome, we joined new Roman friends for high tea at Babington’s, an English tea room that has stood adjacent to the Spanish Steps since the 18th century, then we walked to Campo de’ Fiori for a final dinner at iconic Roscioli.

img_8621I did spend a couple of days in the throes of a stomach-bug-turned-head-cold, but not even illness could lessen the magic of Rome at Christmastime. In fact, our trip was so filled with beauty and joy that getting sick felt somewhat penitential—a small price to pay for an unforgettable holiday.

Now, here we are, in the first days of 2017. As in years past, one word has presented itself as talisman and goal for the year ahead: communication. It seems fitting, as the year ahead will see the release of no fewer than three new CDs (Duchess’ sophomore release is coming next month, and I have two other projects in post-production right now), and a couple of other non-singing projects are fomenting as well. But first things first. It’s time to take down the Christmas tree.

img_8635In December, I…
Blogged about: November. Singer-friend Gabrielle Stravelli.

Read: The Mother’s Recompense, by Edith Wharton. It had been well over a decade since I’d read Wharton, and returning to her forthright, incisive prose was a treat (although this story was incredibly sad). M Train, by Patti Smith, which I read while sick in bed in Rome. Smith’s dreamlike, poetic memoir is filled with reminiscences of her own travels and occasional illnesses abroad. It was, along with cups of chamomile tea and a deeply cozy hotel bed, comforting while I was under the weather.

Watched: White Christmas. I mean, obviously. Anthony Bourdain’s Rome-themed travel shows.

Listened to: Well, Christmas music, of course. Also lots of podcasts. I’m really digging Homecoming, Milk Street Radio, and Everyday Emergency.

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November: Looking back, looking ahead

Ugh. From the toxicity and anger of election season to 2016’s seemingly endless succession of great musicians’ deaths (Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Mose Allison, and Sharon Jones, all in one week?!), November was kind of a rough month.

By the morning of November 9th, the 24-hour news cycle and the echo chamber of social media had become overwhelming and more than a little depressing. And so, desirous of less “noise” and tired of wasting my mental and spiritual energies (to say nothing of my time) on fruitless discourse, I decided to take down my Facebook account.

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5 miles! Bring on the sweet potatoes.

Oh, I’m still on Twitter and Instagram, but I find that neither platform is the rabbit hole for me that Facebook was. And, full disclosure, I do still have my music page up on Facebook, but since I administer that page with a pseudonymous account (i.e., no “friends”), there are no news feeds, flame wars, fake news, or—somewhat tragically—cat memes to contend with. The bottom line is, I’m happier, more focused and productive, and less inundated with news I can’t use. Huzzah!

November brought some good things, of course: DUCHESS turned 3, I enjoyed some lovely gigs, and of course, there was Thanksgiving to celebrate. This year, I ran my first-ever Turkey Trot with my dear friend Rebecca, and later that day, we feasted with a special kind of abandon that comes from kicking off one’s morning with a 5-mile run.

The month closed with two amazing variety hour performances at Jazz Standard with DUCHESS. We were joined by Christian McBride and Kat Edmonson as our special guests. We played ukuleles and kazoos, we told lots of jokes, a specialty cocktail was created in our honor…oh, yes, and we sang quite a bit, too. It was a blast. Our sophomore release, Laughing at Life, is coming out in February, and we’re in heavy-duty business mode right now, planning tours and preparing for the launch of a special new project, the details of which I can’t divulge just yet.

Lucky gals. Christian McBride and Kat Edmonson!

Lucky gals. Christian McBride and Kat Edmonson!

Looking ahead, I’ve got two recording projects in the works: one is a jazz tribute to the bird and the bee (in collaboration with drummer Charles Ruggiero) and the other is a recording of intimate piano/vocal duets (in collaboration with pianist Ehud Asherie). The former is in post-production, while the latter will be recorded this weekend; both will see release sometime in 2017.

I love everything about the holidays: Christmas music, parties, food, and the sentimentality that overtakes even the most stoic among us. As this year draws to a close, my wish is simple: may we be thankful, may we be hopeful, may we be kind.

In November, I…
Blogged about: DUCHESS turning 3. October. Singer-friend Kat Edmonson.

Read: La Venessiana, a blog about Venice that bestows a few minutes of beauty and escapism upon the reader. Never Eat Your Heart Out, by Judith Moore, an unflinching and gorgeously written memoir that juxtaposes discomfort and beauty on every page.

Watched: In the Room, by Lawrence Dial. A funny and poignant play that got some much-deserved good ink in the Gray Lady. The Crown. Chaplin.

Listened to: Music of great comfort and humanity, especially Carmen McRae and Stevie Wonder. Leo Sidran’s insightful podcast, The Third Story.

 

December: Looking back, looking ahead

Ah, December.  I know the holidays aren’t everybody’s favorite time of year, but this month has been fantastic all the way around, with lots of touring, singing, and holiday celebrations.  The month began with a trip to Israel with my DUCHESS cohorts, Amy and Melissa.  We had an extraordinary experience performing at the inaugural Jerusalem Jazz Festival and taking in the sights, sounds, and flavors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  (DUCHESS has had a pretty amazing 2015; you can check out our year-in-review here.)

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A few sights in Jerusalem, including a panorama of the Old City, Mt. Oliva, and the Tower of David.

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The Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Overwhelming.

An abundance of wonderful food, family, and friends made for a relaxing and joyful holiday season.  I returned home from Israel on the first night of Hanukkah.  Ours being a multi-culti household, we had friends over for a pot roast dinner for Hanukkah; then, on Christmas Eve, E. and I made our traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes at home.  Christmas Day found us at Bouley for an exquisite many-course dinner with family and friends.  On Boxing Day, we traveled to Bensonhurst for Sicilian-style pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens, then took in the dazzling Christmas lights in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights neighborhood, an excursion that I hope will become a new holiday ritual.

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Dyker Heights’ Christmas lights extravaganza; our Christmas table; Sicilian-style pizza in Bensonhurst.

I’m closing out this festive month with back-to-back nights at the Jazz Standard with DUCHESS, followed by a marathon New Year’s Eve gig at a swanky NYC restaurant.  I love these last days of the year, when we’re teetering on the edge of a brand new beginning; I love the proverbial clean slate.  Then again, New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap, and with good reason: nothing sets us up for failure like deciding to make sweeping, life-altering changes literally overnight. Whether one’s goals involve greater self-care, self-improvement, or self-discipline, I agree with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: “The beginning is always today.”

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That said, I can’t help but be invigorated by the cosmic turn-of-the-page that comes with a new year.  Once the Christmas decorations are all put away and the holiday excesses have died down, I invariably find myself reflecting on the potential and possibilities contained in the year ahead.  True, I do have some big hopes and dreams for 2016, but my actual New Year’s resolutions are small, do-able actions that will, I hope, bring about larger shifts in my attention span and the scope of my imagination:

  1. Listen to podcasts at the gym instead of my same old workout music playlist.  As usual, I’m late to the party, but I am having the best time exploring the world of podcasts. My time on the StairMaster goes by a lot faster when I’m happily listening to an interview with a singer I admire or tales of Old Hollywood.
  2. Read on the subway; no more silly iPhone games.  It’s a well-known fact that I loathe the subway.  Overcrowded cars (which is to say, most of them, most of the time) make me claustrophobic; the long, unexplained stops between stations make me panicky, and the smells…oh, God, the smells!  BUT…all of the above notwithstanding, the subway is still the quickest, most affordable means of getting around NYC and I don’t anticipate getting a chauffeur any time soon, so why not make the most of my time on the train?

In December, I…
Blogged about: Autumn.  My Six Months with Sinatra. DUCHESS’ Year in Review.

Read: Invisible City, by Julia Dahl.  I’m not usually a big mystery-novel reader, but this one is set in Brooklyn, specifically in the Hasidic community.  It was a fast and engaging read, and I’m curious to check out more of Dahl’s work.  My Kitchen Year: 136 recipes that saved my life, by Ruth Reichl.  I’ve long been a fan of Reichl’s writing, and her cookbook/memoir is a beautifully photographed, thoughtful meditation on how what we cook and eat reflects the seasons of the year and of our lives.

Watched: A few movies I’ve been eager to see.  Joy boasted a great cast and a true rags-to-riches story; I’ll watch Jennifer Lawrence in just about anything.  Spotlight was somber and brilliantly acted.  Brooklyn was heartwarming and sweet.  There are still lots of movies I want to see (the final installment of the Hunger Games, Trumbo, and The Big Short, among others), but these were my top three.

Listened to: Podcasts!  Janis Siegel gave a wonderful interview on The Third Story with Leo Sidran; my culinary hero, Nigella Lawson, chatted with Bon Appétit; You Must Remember This took me back in time to the Hollywood of yore.

December: Looking back, looking ahead

holiday-sale-image-1024x765And just like that, in the blink of an eye, another holiday season has come and gone. December was a month filled with music, friends, and a whole lot of food and wine. Bouncing from gig to gig and party to party was fun, but it was also exhausting, so I was delighted that the month—and 2014 itself—culminated in a quiet New Year’s Eve dinner at home.

I try not to make New Year’s resolutions, but the first days of a brand-new year seem to invite contemplation and a bit of much-welcomed slowness, which I savor.  In years past, I have gravitated toward single words that encapsulate my intentions, hopes, and aspirations for the year ahead: faith, fruition, and action, to name a few.  This year, though, I am greeting the new year with a phrase that I saw making the rounds on Facebook, courtesy of Elizabeth Gilbert: “Done is better than good.”

You see, I can get so hung up on my fear of not being able to make something good enough (a recording, a yoga practice, a piece of writing) that sometimes I don’t start at all.  There’s something incredibly freeing about the idea that “done,” with all its inevitable flaws and quirks, still trumps “good.”  “Done is better than good” means that wrong notes, tight hamstrings, and typos are far too inconsequential to keep me from creating something, however meaningful or mundane.  What a relief!

Multi-culti holidays in Brooklyn: the tree and menorah at Borough Hall, our own tree and menorah, a Chinese food ornament (!) and an eggnog latte by the tree.

Multi-culti holidays in Brooklyn: the tree and menorah at Borough Hall, our own tree and menorah, a Chinese food ornament (!) and an eggnog latte by the tree.

Good food, good drinks, good friends...this was a holiday season to celebrate!

Good food, good drinks, good friends…this was a holiday season to celebrate!

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Our NYE dinner: smoked salmon hors d’oeuvres and cheeses to start, then Beef Wellington, followed by chocolate Pavlova.  The wine flowed like…well, you know.  

In December, I…
Blogged about: Fast & Festive Holiday Eating.  November.

Watched: A bunch of Harry Potter movies.  The magic, the metaphor, and the banquet scenes in these films make for perfect holiday entertainment.

Read: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman; this lovely story was part romance, part historical look at turn-of-the-century New York, and part fairy tale.  Under Magnolia, by Frances Mayes; I love Mayes’ narratives of building a life in Italy and was riveted by this lyrical memoir of her Southern upbringing.  Be Safe I Love You, by Cara Hoffman; a harrowing and beautifully written novel about a woman newly returned home from a tour of duty in Iraq.  Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin; a wise singer-cook friend lent me this book, and reading Colwin’s no-nonsense, funny prose was like meeting a new friend.

Listened to: Uptown Funk, by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars.  Tongue-in-cheek and irrepressibly fun, this song got me through a few brutally early mornings last month.

Foodie Tuesday: Fast & Festive

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Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, and I’ve been whiling away my December afternoons by cooking.  Whether I’m baking cookies and listening to Christmas music or preparing the Sunday roast while serenely sipping a glass of wine, the kitchen is the perfect place for reflecting on the joy of the season.

HA HA, JUST KIDDING.  I’VE HAD THREE COLDS AND HAVE BEEN SO BUSY I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT DAY IT IS RIGHT NOW.  I ONLY KNOW THAT I’M WICKED BEHIND ON EVERYTHING, AND PUTTERING AROUND IN THE KITCHEN LIKE A DERANGED JUNE CLEAVER IS ABOUT THE LAST DAMN THING ON MY MIND.

Ahem.

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Seriously, though, how does this happen?  I remember being a kid and feeling like Christmas would never arrive, and now I look at the calendar and just fucking panic because the time is flying by so quickly.  This particular holiday season feels especially frenetic, as I’ll be singing on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year, so our big holiday home cooking extravaganza is likely not going to happen until New Year’s Eve.  What to do in the meantime, then, for some festive (but low-maintenance) holiday treats?  Well, below are some foodstuffs and libations that will spark the holiday spirit but which require little to no effort to throw together and may, in fact, inspire a night out on the town.

1. Appetizers for dinner.  Swing into your corner store and pick up a couple of good cheeses (mix it up: try a cloth-bound cheddar and a soft, creamy blue or a nutty Parmigiano and silken triple-creme), some marinated olives, some sliced prosciutto or store-bought pâté, and a baguette, and voilà: an elegant, no-fuss repast that feels chic and celebratory.   These noshes are perfect for when you’d love to have dinner with a friend but don’t want to spend a bunch of money at a restaurant or slave over a hot stove at home.

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2. Eggnog.  I know, it’s so obvious, so slow-and-over-the-center-of-the-plate, that I’m almost embarrassed to include eggnog on this list.  But this wildly caloric holiday tipple is a classic for a reason. I tend to loathe mornings, but this time of year, I look forward to making an eggnog latte and sitting by the Christmas tree while I wake up and prepare to face the day. And, at the end of a long day battling crowded subways and an ever-expanding to-do list, a glass of eggnog dusted with a whisper of freshly grated nutmeg and bolstered by a shot of bourbon or dark rum (my favorite) is a balm for the spirit.

3. Clementines.  I’ve never been a big fan of oranges, but last year at about this time, I was leaving an evening yoga class (insert “caricature of a Brooklynite” joke here), and the teacher offered me a clementine for the road, which I ate slowly as I walked home.  The night air was still and icy, and each wedge of clementine seemed to contain a bright, intense burst of sunshine. Eating that clementine in that winter night air felt meditative and right; it was one of those food experiences that is memorable for its simplicity and clarity.  I love to end my day with a cup of herbal tea and a clementine.  (The shot of vitamin C feels restorative, too, as cold and flu bugs abound this time of year.)

4. Oysters.  I know that it is now perfectly acceptable to consume oysters in the months without the letter “R” in their name—May, June, July, and August—but just as I only drink rosé in the warm months, I only eat oysters when there’s a chill in the air.  For a decadent treat, I love to spontaneously duck into a charming bistro and enjoy a dozen oysters on the half-shell while I read a good book (it feels vaguely illicit and Parisian).

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5. Bubbles.  I couldn’t write about oysters (or the holidays, for that matter) without mentioning sparkling wine.  Whether it’s champagne, prosecco, or cava, if it has bubbles, I want some.  Just one bracing sip of ice-cold sparkling wine calls to mind the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon’s (likely apocryphal) exclamation upon discovering champagne: “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” The holidays’ hectic pace notwithstanding, there is much to celebrate this time of year, and there’s really nothing more celebratory than a flute of bubbly.

If you’ve  managed to keep your pantry as full as your calendar this holiday season, I salute you.  For my part, though, I’m surrendering the notion that I can keep my sanity intact and spend leisurely hours in the kitchen this time of year.  Until the holiday frenzy is past, I foresee a lot of catch-as-catch can meals and, yes, sparkling wine in my future.  Cin-cin, santé, and happy holiday eating and drinking!

November: Looking back, looking ahead

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Thanksgiving in Connecticut: a wintry lake, a cuddly dachshund, and cranberry sauce on the stove.

I suppose it’s in keeping with the hustle and bustle of the holiday season that I’m just sitting down now, in the second week of December, to write my November retrospective.  There was a lot of singing, a lot of laughter, and a lot of food (Thanksgiving was spent in a lakeside idyll in Connecticut).  There was also my second cold of the season, which I can only partially blame for the radio silence here.  Most of the blame for my absence from the blogosphere stems squarely from busy-ness and, truth be told, a bit of procrastination.

In any case, here I am, with a pictorial backward glance at November, which flew by at record speed.  Highlights last month included taping Song Travels with Michael Feinstein for NPR, singing at the Rainbow Room with the George Gee Swing Orchestra, and seeing my DownBeat feature in print!  DUCHESS made a few cameos around town singing with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, Jane Monheit, and an all-star cast of singers at Will Friedwald’s Hugh Martin Centennial.

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Can this be real?! My “Players” feature in the December 2014 issue of DownBeat

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A few musical highlights from November. Top left: pianist Ehud Asherie and I had a ball taping “Song Travels” for NPR with Michael Feinstein; Top right: DUCHESS with Jane Monheit backstage at Birdland; Bottom photo: singing with the very swinging Joe Alterman trio at Greenwich House.

So far, December has been pretty hectic, but my husband and I did find time last week to trim the Christmas tree and sip some extremely potent rum-laced eggnog.  Looking ahead, I’ve got a solid week of daily Christmas gigs, and then it’s Hanukkah latkes, Christmas feasting, and (yes) more eggnog.

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Christmas has come to our corner of Brooklyn!

In November, I…
Blogged About: Very little.  I didn’t wind up writing at all for Ad Alta Voce (hangs head in shame), but I did contribute a post to the DUCHESS blog about all our recent guest appearances: We’re Good at Parties.

Watched: The Comeback.  Lisa Kudrow is so good in this HBO series.  I binge-watched the first season in just a few days, marveling at the show’s razor-sharp commentary on our reality-TV culture, as well as Kudrow’s ability to be simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.  The show’s current season is just as funny, smart, and unexpectedly poignant as the first.

Read: Bon Appétit.  I received a subscription to this magazine as a gift last year and I look forward to every issue, but especially the holiday recipes.  I really want to make this rack of lamb or these veal shanks for New Year’s Eve dinner.

Listened to: Brasil, by Joao Gilberto (featuring Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Maria Bethania).  I stumbled upon this brief but gorgeous album by accident and it immediately went into constant rotation.  I love Brazilian singers’ intimate, conversational approach to singing, and this album is a study in melodic beauty and deep, deep groove.  These days, of course, it’s all Christmas music, all the time; a recent happy discovery is Ramsey Lewis’ 1961 recording, The Sound of Christmas.

Can I interest you in…Hanukkah?

I am a total shiksa (a lapsed Catholic, to be exact), but I live with a Chosen Person, which means that our December is now filled with Christmas cookies and latkes. December 24th will find us eating Chinese food at Shun Lee before heading to Midnight Mass downtown. In honor of Hanukkah and the blended holiday festivities we now enjoy, here’s a duet from another Catholic/Jewish duo, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart:

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And here’s Adam Sandler’s now-iconic Hanukkah Song (you’ll have to sit through a commercial at the beginning–thanks, Hulu–but it’s worth it!):

Happy Hanukkah!