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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September: Looking back, looking ahead

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La Serenissima…

We have veered so sharply into misty, cool autumn over the past couple of days, it scarcely seems possible that, a scant two weeks ago, I was picking sun-warmed tomatoes from Domenico’s garden for an al fresco lunch in Italy. And yet…

Last month, my mother and I spent over two weeks traveling in Italy. We began with six days in Venice, then spent a week in Tuscany (Lucca, followed by Siena), before heading back up north to Merate, where I spent my foreign exchange, to visit my host families and friends.

Since I was seventeen, my mother and I have lived thousands of miles apart, so we relished the chance to walk through Italian days together, enjoying unencumbered hours in the most beautiful of places. We ate gelato and pasta, laughed ourselves silly on multiple occasions, and were overwhelmed by the beauty of the piazze, churches, and people we encountered every day.

Italy is infinite and immediate. Sleek modernity exists casually, effortlessly, beside (and often, within) centuries-old art, architecture, and traditions. By the end of our stay, I was speaking and thinking and dreaming in Italian again. When it was time to bid Italy and my beloved host families farewell, I wept, as I always do.

One afternoon, in Venice’s sun-dappled Campo Santa Margherita, I sipped an Aperol spritz and wrote the following passage in my journal:

When one is partnered–and, perhaps, especially when one is happily so—traveling to a beloved, familiar (and yet mysterious) place is the closest we ever come to falling in love again. Heady infatuation, “getting-to-know-you” growing pains, the frustrations of familiarity and rediscovery of forgotten joys…travel is not only about one’s relationship to a place, it’s about one’s relationship to oneself.

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Piazza del Campo under moody Siena skies.

Looking ahead, I’m excited about several new projects: the new Duchess CD is slated for an early 2017 release, and a recording I made with drummer Charles Ruggiero is entering post-production in the coming weeks. My dear friend and musical partner Ehud Asherie and I are also making plans to head into the studio later this fall.

And, in the meantime, autumn in New York is here! Autumnal cooking, the donning of thick sweaters, and crisp October air all make me very happy.

In September, I…
Blogged about: July & August. Loving NYC. How We Spent Our Summer Vacation (DUCHESS blog).

Read: Fodor’s travel guides, mostly. And a lot of maps. And my 21-year-old Italian/English dictionary.

Watched: The first presidential debate. Listen, I know that Hillary Clinton may not be everyone’s ideal candidate (although I am, and have long been, a Hillary supporter). But if you watched that debate and were anything less than horrified by Trump’s staggering lack of knowledge and preparation (to say nothing of his visible contempt for Hillary Clinton, moderator Lester Holt, and the American public), I can only say this to you: Donald Trump is a racist, misogynist, and narcissist. He is wildly unfit for the presidency, and his value system runs counter to every principle upon which the United States of America were founded. You can support Hillary Clinton’s campaign HERE.

Listened to: The musical lilts and cadences of the Italian language. Even in my sleep, words and phrases I thought I’d forgotten filled my dreams and found their way into my speech the next day.

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Lucca’s medieval walls at sunset.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Foodie Tuesday: Benvenuti!

Welcome to the very first Foodie Tuesday here at Ad Alta Voce. From here on out, Tuesdays will celebrate all things food-related, including (but not limited to!) recipes, restaurants, markets and specialty stores, chefs and food personalities, cooking shows, and perhaps even the occasional guest post.

Since my own wedding is only about a month away, it seems fitting to begin Foodie Tuesdays with a post about a happily married pair of food-lovers: actress Debi Mazar and musician/buon gustaio Gabriele Corcos, hosts of the Cooking Channel’s new series, “Extra Virgin.”  With no small amount of playful banter and genuine affection, Debi and Gabriele spend each episode creating rustic, Tuscan-inspired meals for their children, friends, and each other.

Given my affinity for smart, lippy dames and 1940s-inspired attire, it’s no surprise that I am a wee bit smitten with the tart-tongued Debi Mazar. Pairing vintage elegance with a Queens accent, Debi is both fabulous and down-to-earth.  Sure, she hangs out with Madonna and attends Hollywood premieres, but she’s also a relatable working mother.  Debi’s love of at-home entertaining is rooted in practicality: “…if we go out to dinner, then it means we’ll probably also go to the movies. And between dinner and the movies and getting a babysitter, it’s about $400 for the night. So we have people over for a great meal. It’s been our way of having a social life.”

It’s fitting, then, that Debi married Gabriele, who hails from the olive-growing countryside of Fiesole, in Tuscany.  He describes himself as “a very hungry guy” who “cook(s) to feed my kids right, and to possibly get laid at least twice a week…to keep traditions alive, and because my kitchen is the warmest place in my house…”  Gabriele is quintessentially Italian: he not only understands how to cook and eat well, he understands why doing so is of the utmost importance.


There are lots of good reasons to watch “Extra Virgin.”  The recipes are back-to-basics Italian soul food, eschewing esoteric ingredients and complicated techniques in favor of wholesome, seasonal flavors.  And it’s fun to live vicariously through Debi and Gabriele, whether they’re raising chickens in their Los Angeles backyard or grilling porterhouses in their Tuscan kitchen.

The best reason to tune in to “Extra Virgin,” though, is to be reminded that the main ingredients for la dolce vita—the sweet life—are simple and readily available.  We just need a kitchen, a sense of humor, and most of all, the people we love. Buon appetito!

“Extra Virgin” airs on The Cooking Channel every Wednesday at 10:30 pm ET.

Seeing red (tape).

By the time I graduated high school, I was so ready to get the hell out of Wasilla, Alaska that if they’d told me I was going to do my foreign exchange on the moon, I probably would have accepted. As it turned out, I was sent to Italy. The year I spent living la dolce vita, I was 17, blonde (yes, blonde), and ripe for adventure. It was, as the song goes, a very good year.La Dolce Vita

Diving headlong into a love affair with la bella Italia, I quickly learned the lilting cadences and animated gestures of the Italian language and became virtually fluent in about six months. The language of Italian food proved just as enticing: my host father, Domenico, grew beautiful tomatoes in his backyard garden that, warmed by the sun, were the flavor of summer. Italian gelato, not yet popular in the States, was a gastronomic reverie of sweet, frozen silk. And on a sunny, early spring afternoon, a three-hour lunch on the Grand Canal in Venice sealed the deal: la cucina italiana was the cuisine of my heart.

I fell so naturally into the rhythms of Italian life that I began to think I was, in my soul, truly an Italian. Then one day, my host father and I drove into town so that I could withdraw money from the bank. The bank, inexplicably, was closed. “How is this possible?!” I demanded. “It’s a Wednesday afternoon! They’re supposed to be open! What’s going on?” I became nearly apoplectic.

Domenico shrugged, totally unperturbed. “Boh. Proviamo ancora domani. Dai, andiamo a casa a mangiare.” (I don’t know. We’ll try again tomorrow. Come on, let’s go home and eat.)

In that moment, I realized that I could live in Italy for the rest of my life. I could speak perfect Italian and make pasta as beautifully al dente as the most traditional of Italian mothers. I could drive an Alfa Romeo and marry someone named GianCarlo, but I would always, always be an American, hailing from the land of 24-hour supermarkets and “your way, right away.” That year in Italy, though, when faced with bureaucracy and inconvenience, I had no choice but to adapt and follow Domenico’s go-with-the-flow example.

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All these years later, my New York life is defined in large part by the 24/7 access we modern-day city dwellers have to services, information, and Chinese takeout. Convenience nowadays feels like a birthright. Yet, this week I’ve been met with one bureaucratic hassle after another: the postponing of a flu shot due to misinformation, miscommunication between my doctor and insurance company (leading to a big fat bill for me), and the weekend disarray of the NYC subway system on a weekend filled with errands and travel.

chinese_takeoutTired, discouraged, and a bit overwrought, I am reminded of Domenico’s tranquillita‘ in the face of unforeseen annoyances. Bureaucracy, ineptitude and “necessary track work” can throw our well-ordered to-do lists into chaos. Domenico taught me that, on those days when we can’t get everything–or anything–done, there’s at least one thing that we can do: go home and eat. Or, in my case, have dinner delivered. New York is good like that.