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.

February: Looking back, looking ahead

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God, I love Anne Taintor.

From time to time, performers and creatives undergo periods of intense self-criticism and insecurity.  February was that kind of month for me, which was unfortunate, because despite being the shortest month of the year, I did quite a bit of singing (and, therefore, quite a bit of self-flagellation).

I’ve been at this singing thing long enough to know that these bouts of “Imposter Syndrome” are a natural, unavoidable occurrence, and that (perhaps most maddening of all) they are often the precursor to a new period of creative growth. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to let the voices of negativity drown out the music, and when that happens, a good talking-to from a wise friend is in order.

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Anne Taintor, YOU GET ME.

Fortunately, a good talking-to from a wise friend is exactly what I got one evening.  My friend Evan, a brilliant clarinetist, laughed when I told him how frustrated I was feeling with myself and my singing. We had a gig coming up in a few days and I was disproportionately anxious about it.

This isn’t that important,” he said. “I mean, think about it: anything could happen.  Next week’s gig could be the last time you see either me or [pianist] Ehud.  Is this neurotic shit what you want to be thinking about while we’re making music together? Just relax.  It doesn’t matter that much.”

When our Mezzrow gig rolled around a few days later, I gave myself permission to not care one whit about being a great (or even a particularly good) singer.  Instead, I decided, I’d just enjoy the beauty of the songs and the exuberance of Ehud and Evan’s playing.  A crazy thing happened: not only was that evening the most fun I’d had on the bandstand in some time, it was actually one of the better performances I’ve given in recent memory.

Now, halfway through March, spring feels closer than ever.  The seeds have been sown for a couple of new projects, and I’m going to do my best to carry Evan’s advice with me into the weeks and months ahead.

In February, I…
Blogged about: Bupkis.  Nada.  No writing whatsoever.  Note to self: stagnation in creative output, however small, leads to neurosis, as evidenced by this entire post.

Read: Immunity, by Taylor Antrim and The Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal, both of which I wanted to enjoy more than I actually did.  The big winner was Vintage, by David Baker, a hilarious, poignant, and extremely well-written debut novel about a down-on-his-luck Chicago food writer on a wild goose chase for an elusive Burgundy.

Watched: House of Cards.  Flawlessly written and acted.  Completely addictive.  I can’t wait to dive into the new season.

Listened to:  Sinatra/Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings.  The most iconic male vocalist of the 20th century, singing some of the most beautiful songs ever written, with string arrangements by Claus Ogerman.  Yes, please.

 

February: Looking back, looking ahead

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The great Anne Taintor, on point as always.

Annnnnd it’s still winter.  I mean, of course it is: February just ended, after all.  Like me, you’re probably tired of icy winds, clunky winter boots, dry skin, and chapped lips (to name a few grievances). The subways have been a special delight, lately, too, with larger-than-usual numbers of trains being delayed and re-routed due to track work and wintry conditions.  Here in New York City, at least, nerves seem to be collectively a bit on edge.

There’s nothing like music to warm the heart and brighten spirits, though, and happily, February was filled with wonderful music that I enjoyed both on and off the bandstand.  I had the pleasure of catching Russell Malone’s gig at the Jazz Standard, where he celebrated the release of his new album, Love Looks Good on You.  A few days later, I caught Vanessa Perea’s very swinging brunch set over at North Square.  And one epic Thursday evening found me hanging out at no fewer than three different gigs: first, Tony Lustig’s quintet got my toes tapping at Birdland, then I checked out Dave Gibson’s packed CD release gig at Smalls, and my last stop was at Mezzrow, to hear John Dokes croon a couple of tunes.  It’s both humbling and inspiring to know how much incredible music is happening here all the time.

In my singing life, the month began with a quick (insanely quick) jaunt out to Scottsdale, AZ with pianist Joe Alterman, where we performed a duo set for the Centurion Jewelry Show. Despite the fact that Joe and I were in Arizona less than 18 hours total, we managed to enjoy some chips and guacamole and take a leisurely stroll around Scottsdale in the sunshine before our gig.  We had a ball playing music together, as always, and our evening concluded with a fantastic dinner out and a wild ride (on a golf cart!) back to our hotel.

Scenes from sunny AZ: the hotel pool; chips & guac; borrowed bling for our gig at the jewelry show; at dinner after the gig; pianist Joe Alterman & I hitching a ride on a golf cart back to the hotel; NYC as seen from the air.

Scenes from sunny AZ: the hotel pool; chips & guac; borrowed bling for our gig at the jewelry show; at dinner after the gig; pianist Joe Alterman & I hitching a ride on a golf cart back to the hotel; NYC as seen from the air.

Looking ahead, March kicks off with a bang: DUCHESS‘ CD release show at the Jazz Standard is happening tomorrow night (get your tickets here!).  The New York Times gave us a nice mention in their weekly jazz listings, and we’ve got some pretty great press and exciting gigs coming up this spring and summer.  To celebrate, last week we went to Momofuku for their famous fried chicken.

Momofuku, if midday drinking, fried chicken, and shiitake mushroom & brisket buns are wrong, I don't wanna be right.

Friday lunch at Momofuku. If midday drinking, fried chicken, and shiitake mushroom & brisket buns are wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

A little bit later this month, pianist Ehud Asherie and I are reuniting at one of my favorite places in town, Mezzrow, for an evening of piano/vocal duets.  We’ve been working on some new material (a lot of Rodgers and Hart), and I am really looking forward to this show.  Ehud’s a dear friend and a true artist.  It’s a privilege to make music with him.

This Saturday, we’ll all be setting our clocks ahead for “Spring forward.”  Here’s hoping that some warmer temperatures and spring flowers are truly on their way!

In February, I…
Blogged about: Comfort food.  The DUCHESS CD.  January.

Watched: A 1975 episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Richard Pryor, with musical guest Gil Scott-Heron.   Pryor’s hilarious stand-up and several of this episode’s sketches were genuinely edgy, not for mere shock value, but to make us question the status quo and our own prejudices.  Gil Scott-Heron’s performance of Johannesburg (below) grooves so hard.

Read: Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, by James Gavin.  Peggy Lee has long been one of my favorite singers and biggest influences, and James Gavin tells her story in a way that is both meticulously researched and compulsively readable.  I couldn’t put this book down.  Oh, Peggy, you brilliant, crazy broad.

Listened to: Peggy Lee, obviously.  My current obsession is Blues Cross Country, her 1962 collaboration with Quincy Jones.  Peggy is in top form: sexy, soulful, and understated, and the big band charts swing like crazy.  Also in heavy rotation this month: Bob Dylan’s Shadows In the Night.  Standards records by non-jazzers are always a little controversial amongst jazz musicians, and this outing is no exception.  Despite the negative opinions voiced by a number of my respected colleagues, I think Dylan has made a beautiful album.  He chose great tunes and the small-group instrumentation (with a wonderful pedal-steel player) is intimate and spare, putting the lyrics front and center.  This interview is a fascinating glimpse into Dylan’s approach to singing jazz standards and his reverence for Frank Sinatra.

Check out Gil Scott-Heron. If this doesn’t make you think and groove, check your pulse.