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.

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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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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.