‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple

Every January in recent years, I’ve chosen one word to act as lodestar and touchstone for the new year ahead. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that one word chooses me every January, since I don’t do any research or spiritual deep diving to arrive at my verbal talisman. I’ll just be walking down the street or taking a shower or washing dishes and, as though an imaginary magic 8 ball had just been turned over, a single word will float to the top of my mind. (Well, with one exception: in 2014, the phrase “Done is better than good” announced itself as the year’s motto. Otherwise, all of my words-of-the-year have been single words—nouns, to be specific: fruition, faith, action, communication, acceptance.) This year, for the first time, the word is an imperative verb: simplify.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got a big birthday coming up in 2018, or maybe it’s because I learned that a couple of my high school classmates passed away last year, or maybe it’s because a dear older friend began a note with the words, “When you get to be—in a flash—as old as I am…”, but I’ve never been more urgently aware of the passing of time. The meter’s running, and while some tedium and drudgery are inevitable (the trash does need to be taken out, after all, and the laundry done), I want to spend as many hours as possible in the company of people I love and doing things that are nourishing, whether abstract (writing, singing, meditation) or tangible (cooking, eating, and sharing good food). Heeding the call to distill my priorities and attention down to the really important stuff feels necessary and deeply right.

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, and I didn’t make any this year, other than a sweeping intention to be as present and kind as possible. Nevertheless, in these quiet first days of January, I’ve been getting up earlier in the mornings for some uninterrupted writing time. I’ve been running regularly, eating healthily, and even finding a few minutes most days for meditation. And, after a protracted period of not vocalizing, I’m back to regular warmups and building a practice routine that feels purposeful.

I can find a million reasons on any given day to not make time for music or writing or exercise: there are emails to answer, groceries to buy, two new Dave Chappelle specials on Netflix, it’s too cold outside, inspiration is elusive…but no matter how wily or persuasive Resistance may be, the simple fact is that my days are much happier and more expansive when I prioritize the important before the urgent. Singers sing. Writers write. Runners run. Simple.

Happy new year!

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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.

Summer: Looking back, looking ahead (or: September, we hardly knew ye)

This summer was filled with some great stuff: cheering for the Yankees at baseball games; strolling through riotously blooming botanical gardens; enjoying barbecues in Brooklyn and country weekends of canoeing and lakeside reading in Connecticut; toasting a couple of dear friends as they got married in a ceremony brimming with laughter, tears, and music; watching Casablanca and eating an impromptu living-room picnic after getting rained out at an outdoor movie.

Summer’s happy places: Yankee Stadium, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and a quiet lakeside idyll in Connecticut.

But, as A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote in The Green Fields of the Mind, “There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it,” and indeed, proverbial autumn loomed large this summer. There were upsetting headlines (Nazis are trying to stage a comeback? The president is tweeting threats of nuclear war? Seriously?). Friends and I traded diagnoses, fears, and familial travails like baseball cards. My routine physical turned into a protracted series of exams and consultations in which I learned I’d need a big ol’ surgery to remove a softball-sized fibroid. I was scared a lot this summer. Then, September belonged to the surgery itself: preparing for the procedure, going under the knife, and recovering.

Me with my mom, the best nurse a gal could hope for; socks from my DUCHESS sisters that kind of sum things up; me at my first post-surgery outing at (where else?) Yankee Stadium.

Now, thoroughly ensconced in actual autumn, my big takeaways are forehead-slappingly obvious and not particularly insightful: We all get sick. We all die. The world is—and has always been—on fire. Given all these dismal realities, the only things that really matter are family and friends and a living a life full of love and kindness and gratitude. THANKS, HALLMARK.

While I’ve been sitting here this morning, trying (and failing) to piece together a cogent recap of my summer and the gifts that fear and uncertainty can bring, I’ve also been listening to the radio. Right now, Ella Fitzgerald is singing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” with the Basie band, and her exuberant, freewheeling vocal, imploring us to choose joy, is really the whole truth. Looking ahead, I’m going to do my best to follow the song’s advice:

Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worry on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street

Can’t you hear a pitter-pat?
And that happy tune is your step
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street

I used to walk in the shade
With those blues on parade
But I’m not afraid
This rover crossed over

If I never have a cent
I’ll be rich as Rockefeller
Gold dust at my feet
On the sunny side of the street

This summer, I…
Blogged about: May. Music from 100 Years Ago. Singer-friend Roseanna Vitro.

Read: Kafka Was the Rage, by Anatole Broyard. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This gorgeous essay about food and memory. What She Ate, by Laura Shapiro. The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, by Irwin Shaw. One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts, by Shirley Jackson.

Watched: The Handmaid’s Tale. Casablanca. So much Yankees baseball. The Great British Baking Show. Desk Set. Every single episode of Game of Thrones. I Called Him Morgan.

Listened to: Sly & the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Luiz Bonfa, Solo in Rio. Lots of the Nat Cole Trio. Tanto Tempo, Bebel Gilberto.

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.

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.