The Song Is You

“You’d never know it, but buddy I’m a kind of poet, and I’ve got a lot of things to say…”

He was seated at the piano, playing and singing “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” when I walked into Tula’s in September, 2001. “Who,” I thought, “is that?” How was it possible that, of all the singers and pianists in town, I had never met this particularly young and handsome one? As is wont to happen in the brash bloom of youth, our eyes met from across the room and that, as Rick famously said in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I learned that Joshua was stranded in Seattle that week. He’d been visiting his family when the planes hit the World Trade Center in his adopted hometown of New York City, and all the flights were grounded, all the airports closed, so he couldn’t get back to his Harlem apartment. Not knowing quite what to do with ourselves in those frightening and disorienting days after the 9/11 attacks, we both sought sanctuary in the local jazz club.

When I moved to New York a couple of years later, Josh met me for dinner. His relaxed kindness told me that, even though I was broke and overwhelmed and had no idea whatsoever what in the hell I was doing, I had a friend in New York City. A while later, when Ray Passman heard me sit in with Bob Dorough at the Iridium and decided to “present” me in my first New York solo show at the Triad, I called Joshua to play piano. I was as green as grass and did everything wrong, but I still remember the gentle 12/8 feel Josh brought to our rendition of “Tis Autumn,” and how the room seemed to stand still for that tune.

He came with me once to my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, where we played a Christmas show; we duetted on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and switched the roles, with him singing, “I simply must go…” and rebuffing my wolfish advances. He stole the show, of course.

Josh had a way of showing up at exactly the right moment. I had a brief stint singing with a country band, and we played a gig on the Upper West Side one summer night in 2012. To my delight, Josh was in the audience. In fact, he may very well have been the audience. We caught up on the set break, and a few days later he sent me a note asking if I’d like to perform a holiday show with him that November in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where his brother had founded an orchestra. Josh opened that email by asking me, “How ya doing, cowgirl?” I gleefully accepted his invitation, and that autumn, we shared a wonderful weekend of barbecue and music.

Four years ago, another email appeared in my inbox, this time from Josh’s dad. I was in the elevator on my way up to my apartment when I checked my phone and read the news of Josh’s recent hospitalization and subsequent diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer. No treatments could be undertaken or explored beyond keeping him comfortable. In a trance, I exited the elevator and tried, again and again, to turn my key in the lock. It wasn’t until a neighbor in the hallway said, not unkindly, “um, hello,” that I realized I’d gotten off on the wrong floor and was standing in front of a stranger’s door.

I am infinitely grateful for the time spent in the hospital with Josh and his loved ones in the days before his death. Even today, four years later, those hours are too surreal, too painful, too dear to write about. There was singing, there were tears, there was—somehow—laughter, and there was a palpable cloak of compassion enveloping us all that I, an avowed non-believer, can only describe as holy.

It is tempting to withhold forgiveness forever from a world that would silence Josh’s music so abruptly, so cruelly early; he was just thirty-nine years old. But the world doesn’t ask for forgiveness, and anyway, didn’t it give voice and breath and life to Josh’s song in the first place? Where does that leave us? What are we to do with ourselves in this perplexing and infuriating and beautiful life, overflowing with loss and tenderness?

Sing, I think. We are here to sing at full voice, to live right out loud, heedless of the occasional dissonance or cracked high note. And may our music, like Josh’s, be a balm, a window, a catalyst, and—above all—a gift for whomever is listening.

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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.

January: Looking back, looking ahead

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Gorgeous Water Island, USVI.

January was cold and gray, both metaphorically and literally. Between December 26 and January 31, I was in the throes of one minor-but-miserable ailment after another. The final tally? Two stomach bugs. One weeklong bout with influenza. Two colds. Oh, and one inauguration. (Zing! I’ll be here all week. Tip your server.)

Oy vey.

There were some lovely moments in the first month of this new year, however. Despite my hacking cough, I had a wonderful gig at Mezzrow with pianist Ehud Asherie. Then, it was off to the Water Island Music Festival for sun, fun, fish tacos, and lots of music (until the final night, when my G.I. system turned against me…again).

Just a few days after returning home from the Caribbean, I was in transit again; this time, for a brief Duchess tour in Ontario. It felt somewhat poetic to be flying to Canada on Inauguration Day, although we were all bummed to be missing the Women’s March. We spent our entire trip cheering on our marching friends and sharing pictures of hilarious protest signs and poignant moments on social media.

I got yer #NewYorkValues right here.

I got yer #NewYorkValues right here.

It was in Waterloo, Ontario that cold #2 descended upon my sinuses, and I made it through that last gig on Sudafed and an act of will. A few short, sniffly hours of sleep, one flight, and one taxi ride later and I. Was. Home.

Sleeping in my own bed for the past couple of weeks has been deeply restorative. The Spanish-themed potluck dinner we shared with a few dear ones last weekend was a balm for both body and soul. Joining throngs of protesters at the #nobannowall protest in Battery Park was invigorating. And I’ve felt well enough to recommence running for the first time in well over a month.

Looking ahead, the new Duchess CD, Laughing at Life, is coming out on February 10; we’re hitting the road again mid-month for a short midwest tour. Our new podcast, Harmony & Hijinks, is now launched and you can listen for free on iTunes, Stitcher, or the Duchess site (I implore you—please subscribe and leave us a review!).

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The new podcast from Duchess. Give it a listen!

The bird and the bee tribute I recorded in collaboration with drummer Charles Ruggiero is in the final stages of post-production, and I’m headed into the studio this week to mix the piano/vocal duo CD that I recorded in December with Ehud.

So, yes. This may be the winter of our discontent, but there is music to be made. Onward.

In January, I…
Blogged about: December. Singer-friend Rebecca Kilgore.

Read: Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch. This vividly imagined novel about 19th-century circus freak Julia Pastrana (a real person) was an engrossing read. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos. A tour de force of comedic writing: subversive and rife with social commentary, but dripping with diamonds and “dumb blonde” parlance. Edith Wharton called this book ‘The Great American Novel,’ and I’m inclined to agree. The Muse, by Jessie Burton. This book was a slow burn, but rewarding.

Watched: I Love Lucy. I watched episode after episode the week I was sick with the flu. I used to watch reruns when I was home sick as a kid, and it’s as brilliant and hilarious and comforting as ever. Top Chef. I’m totally addicted. The Young Pope. YOU GUYS. This show is Fellini-esque and beautiful and dreamlike and really, really funny. As a lapsed Catholic, perhaps I’m predisposed to love its irreverence, and as a person with eyes, perhaps I’m predisposed to love looking at closeups of Jude Law…but, whatever the reason, I am obsessed with this show.

Listened to: The Beast, by Jerome Jennings. I’ve known Jerome for almost 14 years (!!) and am a big fan of his, personally and musically—he played drums on my CD, The Great City. Jerome’s debut solo recording is swinging, soulful and socially conscious. He’s managed to pull off that most difficult of feats: he’s made an album that is far-reaching and eclectic, but deeply personal and cohesive. Congratulations, Jerome!

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.

 

October: Looking back, looking ahead

We are exactly three weeks away from Thanksgiving, and this year, my plans look a little different than in Novembers past: on Thanksgiving morning, I will be lacing up my running shoes and joining my friend R. in Prospect Park for a 5-mile Turkey Trot.

In early October, I began using a running app that, despite its horrible name, has been a really effective tool for gradually building speed and endurance. As an added bonus, the app comes with DJ-curated running playlists, including a whole lot of 90s hip-hop, which means I may occasionally be spotted lip-syncing to FELLOW BROOKLYNITE Biggie Smalls as I jog through Brooklyn Bridge Park.

New shoes, autumn leaves...Turkey Trot T-minus 3 weeks & counting!

New shoes, autumn leaves…Turkey Trot T-minus 3 weeks & counting!

Last month, I also had the delight and honor of performing with the great saxophonist, Harry Allen, for two sold-out nights at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center).  Talk about a dream gig: singing to a packed house with a swinging, supportive band against the panoramic backdrop of Columbus Circle and Central Park. I’m grateful for every gig I have, but those evenings with Harry at Dizzy’s were truly special.

Singing and swinging with Harry Allen & friends. Photo by Ivana Falconi Allen.

Singing and swinging with Harry Allen & friends. Photo by Ivana Falconi Allen.

Looking ahead, the DUCHESS gals and I have a couple of really exciting shows on the horizon. We’ll be at the Jazz Standard here in NYC on 11/29 and 11/30, joined by special guests Christian McBride and Kat Edmonson. We’re reviving the “variety hour” concept, inspired by Rat Pack-era shows from years ago, and we cannot wait to sing, laugh, and make merry with our friends and fans.

Finally, Tuesday, November 8 is just a handful of days away. Come on, America. Let’s appeal to what Lincoln himself called the “better angels of our nature” and not elect a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, KKK-endorsed (!) narcissistic liar to the highest office in the land.

In October, I…
Blogged about: Traveling through Italy with my mom. Singer-friend Nicky Schrire. DUCHESS turning 3.

Read: Old journals. I’ve been doing a little excavating of my past for a writing project I’ve got in mind. Good heavens, if there is anything more humbling than reading one’s own terrible poetry, penned in one’s lovelorn early 20s, I don’t know what it is. Hilarious and mortifying.

Watched: The Search for General Tso. An informative, fun, and unexpectedly moving film about searching for the origins of a quintessential Chinese-American dish. Trumbo. Bryan Cranston is fantastic as blacklisted Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo, although I wish they’d given the always-excellent Diane Lane, who plays Trumbo’s wife, a little more to do. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Because it’s a Halloween classic (can you believe it’s 50 years old!?).

Listened to: The Land of Desire. This well-researched, conversational podcast exploring the history of France is fun and educational. Worth a listen.

#ImWithHer

Patriotic pumpkins, seen in Brooklyn Heights. Friends, please VOTE!!! #ImWithHer

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.

 

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!