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.

 

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January: Looking back, looking ahead

We’re in the heart of winter, now, the time of year when one’s morale can drop as low as the temperature.  The remaining snow is barely recognizable as such, having long since turned various shades of drab gray and brown.  The salt strewn on every sidewalk in New York City is beginning to take its toll on the soles of our shoes.  Sunset is still dispiritingly early, with darkness falling around 5:00pm.  And these first few months of the year are notoriously slow for musicians in terms of gigs.

For the past several years, though, I have had the exceedingly good fortune to be a performer at the Water Island Music Festival, which takes place every January on a tiny residential island just off St. Thomas.  This year, the festival’s always-lovely beach days and musical evenings were further sweetened by the knowledge that we were missing a doozy of a blizzard back in New York City (#sorrynotsorry).

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A change of scene…sun and sand on Water Island, USVI.

It’s amazing what an infusion of sunshine and music-making can do for one’s sense of optimism.  Yes, fish tacos on the beach were heavenly, but so were the braised beef short ribs with chestnuts and dates I made upon our return from the Caribbean.  The days are getting longer!  And I find myself inspired, rather than disheartened, by the prospect of open space on my calendar.  What better time to practice, write, and lay the groundwork for a new project than when it’s dark and cold outside?

2016 is a Leap Year, so this February has 29 days: one extra day in which to savor winter’s hearty food, opportunities for introspection, and crisp, cold air.  I’m looking forward to it.

In January, I…
Blogged about: Jane Monheit.  DUCHESS in Israel.  Acceptance.

Read: A bunch of books (my New Year’s resolution to abandon iPhone games/distractions on the subway and replace them with reading has been transformative), but the standout, by far, was Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter.  The storyline, which spans decades and continents, is too sprawling and involved to describe here, but the characters’ respective journeys toward redemption and healing are the heart and soul of this beautifully written novel.  I don’t often cry at the end of a book, but Beautiful Ruins shattered me.  Also read this month: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen; The Hundred-Foot Journey, by Richard C. Morais; The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice, by Laurel Corona.

Watched: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “They alive, dammit!”  I CANNOT wait for the next season to air.  This show makes me howl.  The Intern. I watched this on the plane home from Water Island.  I enjoyed this film, although it’s not without its flaws.  How refreshing, that the central relationship—between a 30-something woman (Anne Hathaway) and an older man (Robert DeNiro)—was not romantic.  Both characters learned from one another in some important ways, although for a film that was ostensibly about a powerful woman, Hathaway’s character still spent a lot of time getting lectured by men.

Listened to: Catherine Russell, Bring It Back.  Good GOD, get this record if you don’t have it already!  From Duke Ellington-penned standards to century-old trad jazz tunes to contemporary R&B, Catherine Russell inhabits a musical world uniquely her own.  She’s backed by a tasteful, supremely swinging band led by guitarist Matt Munisteri.  Every song sounds brand new in Russell’s capable hands.

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Scenes from the Water Island music festival.  Top: All the festival’s performers (plus a few friends) lunching on the beach.  Bottom left: The view from the performance venue.  Bottom right: Big hat, big glasses, big day at the beach.

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Top: The sun setting over Water Island.  Bottom: Boarding the ferry to St. Thomas, en route to the airport, following another wonderful year at the Water Island Music Festival.

 

 

My Six Months with Sinatra

25303_103754032996556_2094529_nWhen I was a kid growing up in the decidedly un-jazzy wilds of Alaska, I spent hours in my room singing along with Frank Sinatra’s recording of “You Make Me Feel So Young.”  I didn’t know it at the time, but a couple of decades later, I’d spend six months singing with Mr. S. himself.

You see, in 2010, I was the onstage “girl singer” in Twyla Tharp’s Broadway show, Come Fly Away.  The show was, essentially, a ballet set to Sinatra’s music, and Twyla had the good sense to know that, when it comes to the Chairman of the Board, one should accept no substitutes, so she found a way to incorporate the real Sinatra into her show.

Through the magic of technology, Sinatra’s actual recorded voice was extracted from original recordings and piped into the theatre, backed by a live, onstage big band.  Every night, thanks to Twyla’s vision and the technical team’s ingenuity, I sang a few solo numbers and, yes, a couple of “duets” with Frank Sinatra, including, poetically enough, “You Make Me Feel So Young.”

comeflyawayCD300Over the course of Come Fly Away’s six-month run, I began to think of Sinatra’s iconic songs—and, by extension, Sinatra himself—as old friends (handsome, elusive, mysterious, sexy old friends, that is). With each performance, I was fascinated anew by the swaggering bravado of “Learnin’ the Blues,” the defiance of “That’s Life,” and the cool resignation of the barroom soliloquy “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”

There are countless books, articles, and documentaries about Sinatra’s life and career, including his politics, alleged mafia ties, and of course, his tumultuous love affairs.  And yes, his life was by turns salacious and sad and he was, by every account, a complicated man.  But on his centennial, my feelings about Frank Sinatra are simple: I am forever thankful to him for the ways his artistry has shaped the course of my life.

Sinatra pulled me out of my waitressing career and onto a Broadway stage.  His sense of time, phrasing, and devotion to bel canto singing are the cornerstones of my own vocal approach. Thanks to Frank Sinatra, I believe in love and solitude and show business, not to mention the power of a good suit and a stiff drink.

The grand finale in Come Fly Away was “New York, New York.”  Every single night, Sinatra’s voice would fill that big Broadway theatre, as he sang, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere; it’s up to you, New York, New York!”  And every single night, as I remembered singing along with those Sinatra records in my little room, in my little Alaska town, tears of gratitude would fill my eyes.

Thank you, Frank Sinatra, and happy 100th.  I love you madly.

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Autumn: Looking back, looking ahead

The fact that I’m writing one recap for all three months of September, October, and November from a hotel room in Jerusalem while on tour with DUCHESS is probably sufficient information for you to gauge the overall level of busy-ness this fall.  I’ve been doing lots of traveling and lots of singing, which has made me happy, if a bit harried.

September’s highlight was the week DUCHESS spent on the west coast, bringing #girlongirlharmony to California.  We had an amazing time on tour, beginning in Los Angeles and culminating in our debut at the Monterey Jazz Festival.  After the tour ended, I hung out for an extra day to spend some time with my parents.  I’m including a couple of pictures here, but a more comprehensive rundown of our tour is here.

The L.A. leg of our CA trip began with a wild & crazy night at Rockwell, singing with Jeff Goldblum. Reggie Watts made the hang, too.

The L.A. leg of our CA trip began with a wild & crazy night at Rockwell, singing with Jeff Goldblum. Reggie Watts made the hang, too.

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DUCHESS at the Monterey Jazz Festival, onstage, at our CD signing, and with Jazz at Lincoln Center bari saxophonist Paul Nedzela.

October began with a fairytale trip to the south of France with my husband and in-laws.  Our “home base” was the tiny mountain village of La Garde-Freinet, home to a charming, twice-weekly outdoor market, mountain trails leading to sweeping vistas of the French countryside, and a sizable expatriate community, as well as natives Jean-Jacques the butcher, Hervé the wine purveyor, and Valerie, proprietress of La Freixenet bakery.

We took day trips to St. Paul-de-Vence, Cap d’Antibes, St. Remo (we hopped the border for an afternoon in Italy), Eze, St. Tropez, and Ramatuelle, taking in the breathtaking scenery and sweet villages.  And, oh, how we ate!  We greeted every morning with Valerie’s croissants (the Platonic ideal of pastry), and rosé accompanied every meal.

The charming Provencal village of La Garde-Freinet.

The charming Provencal village of La Garde-Freinet.

A gorgeous afternoon in Eze, with lunch at La Chèvre d'Or.

A gorgeous afternoon in Eze, with lunch at La Chèvre d’Or.

November was a whirlwind of more travel and great DUCHESS gigs, which you can read about on our blog. Another huge November highlight?  Oh, no biggie…I JUST GOT TO MEET NIGELLA LAWSON, THAT’S ALL!  She appeared at the 92nd Street Y in conversation with the wonderful chef/writer Gabrielle Hamilton, and afterward there was a book signing.  (For the record, Nigella was luminous and poised. I was supremely awkward and starstruck.)  Then came Thanksgiving, which was just as it should be: filled with family, friends, delicious food, and the acquisition of a Christmas tree.

NIGELLA!!!!

NIGELLA!!!!

I am very thankful for the extraordinary privilege of traveling freely and sharing the joy of music with others.  Looking ahead, as we enter the holiday season, I hope we can all extend one another peace and kindness, which are needed now more than ever.

This fall, I…
Blogged about: The 20-year anniversary of my year in Italy. rené marie. Dorothy Parker’s thoughts on New York City. Kendra Shank.

Read: Simply Nigella (OBVIOUSLY). Her sweet potato mac & cheese recipe was a hit at Thanksgiving. It’s what I do: a photographer’s life of love and war, by Lynsey Addario.  A riveting memoir by a Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer.  The Lola Quartet, by Emily St. John Mandel. Another haunting, lyrical novel by the author of Station ElevenThe Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, by Matthew Dicks. A fun and poignant novel about the ways our high school years can shape the rest of our lives. 

Watched: Bridge of Spies. Trainwreck. This incredible mash-up of old Hollywood musicals, set to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”

Listened to: Recreational Love, the new album from the bird and the bee. Rufus Wainwright. Roy Ayers.

Lady Day at 100

033-billie-holiday-theredlistToo often, when we hear about Billie Holiday, we hear mainly about her struggles with substance abuse.  We hear about her tumultuous love life and troubled childhood. We see photographs of the now-iconic gardenia in her hair and the glass of gin in her hand and we marvel at the “feeling” she put into her music, an organic by-product of the tragedy and hopelessness in her personal life.

Well, yes, it’s true that Billie Holiday could tear your heart out with her plaintive, spare renderings of sad songs.  But it’s condescending and reductive to attribute the emotional impact of Billie Holiday’s singing to her tempestuous personal life.  She was a masterful musician, first and foremost, and it’s a shame to gloss over that fact in favor of the more salacious elements of her story.

When I listen to early Billie Holiday recordings, I marvel again and again at the suppleness and horn-like flexibility of her voice.  With her distinctive timbre and unique way of shaping vowels, Lady’s sound is unmistakable.  She possessed a rhythmic dexterity and playfulness that enabled her to interact with her bandmates as though she were another horn; in short, she swung like mad.  Her time was perfect.  A true improviser, she mitigated the limitations of her somewhat narrow vocal range by composing new melodies on the spot.

Her later recordings reveal a voice that is weathered and worn, but, as evidenced in recorded rehearsals from the 1950s with pianist Jimmie Rowles, Billie Holiday’s musical inventiveness showed no signs of slowing down.

I don’t mean to suggest that we can (or even should) leave Holiday’s personal life out of the discussion when we remember her, but if we must rehash the ups and downs of her addictions and love affairs, can we also make sure to acknowledge the depth of Billie Holiday’s courage? When Holiday joined Artie Shaw’s band in the 1930s, she was one of the first black singers to appear with a white orchestra—then she left him when she got tired of his bullshit and rightly surmised that she could make a lot more money cutting records on her own.

In 1939, she forced white audiences to acknowledge the brutality of racism when she performed Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” a graphic and painful song about lynchings in the Jim Crow-era American South.  Holiday herself said she feared for her own safety, but she kept singing it, and successfully fought to record “Strange Fruit,” turning to Milt Gabler at the fledgling Commodore Records when other labels balked.

Billie Holiday’s penultimate album, Lady In Satin, was recorded not long before her death.  In the album’s original liner notes, Irving Townsend notes that all of the songs on Lady In Satin were new to Billie Holiday.  What’s more, she insisted that Ray Ellis be the album’s arranger and conductor; she’d heard the young arranger’s first album and instinctively knew that he was the right person with whom to record the poignant love songs she’d chosen.

Yet, when Lady In Satin is discussed, we tend to talk only about the diminished quality of Billie Holiday’s voice, and of the way the (predominantly) melancholy ballads on the album mirrored her personal downfall.  I would humbly ask that we also pay tribute to the fact that, even as she neared the end of her life, Holiday was acting as her own A&R person, choosing brand-new repertoire and a young up-and-comer to arrange and conduct what she would describe as the best album she ever made.

Today, on her centennial, I give thanks that throughout every twist, turn, and travail of her too-brief life, Billie Holiday kept singing.  Thank you, Lady.

 

 

March: Looking back, looking ahead

Yesterday marked my twelve-year anniversary as a New Yorker.  Twelve years!  That’s longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere.  New York affords its denizens many things: museums, music, theatre, late-night food delivery, (increasingly expensive) public transportation, and endless diversity, to name but a few.  But I think that the greatest gift that this city bestows on its citizenry, though, is the potential and permission for reinvention.  By chance or by design, a person can live many different lifetimes here.  My own tenure in NYC has encompassed half a dozen apartments, five waitressing jobs, a college degree, a Broadway show, and countless gigs spanning multiple musical genres.  It’s been a wild and wonderful ride so far, and I am so grateful for the chance to live and make music in this most wonderful of cities.

DUCHESS backstage at the Jazz Standard, March 3, 2015.

DUCHESS backstage at the Jazz Standard, March 3, 2015.

March was filled with joy-inducing musical experiences. The month kicked off with DUCHESS‘ CD release show at the Jazz Standard.  Despite wintry weather (read: yet another blizzard), we had a packed house and a good time was had by all.  Then, a couple of weeks later, I returned to Mezzrow to perform with my old pal Ehud Asherie, a brilliant pianist with whom I’ve been exploring the music of Rodgers & Hart.  Our dear friend Michael Steinman, of JAZZ LIVES, wrote a couple of lovely posts about the evening, which you can read here and here.  And, if you’re so inclined, you can check out a video of our version of “Ten Cents a Dance” below.

Looking ahead, I’ll be doing some choral singing at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services this week (what does “Maundy” mean, anyway?), and it’s always a treat to celebrate Passover with my husband and his family.  I’m also looking forward to being part of this show, helmed by the aforementioned Ehud Asherie and featuring the brilliant vocalists Brianna Thomas and Lezlie Harrison.  And a big highlight in April will be mid-month, when Stevie Wonder brings his “Songs In The Key Of Life” tour to town.  That album is one of the most important musical touchstones in my life, and I still can’t believe I’ll get to experience hearing it live!

In March, I…
Blogged about: Singer-friend Nancy Harms.  February.

Watched: The Breakfast Club.  In a movie theatre.  I was too young to see it on the big screen when this iconic John Hughes film was released 30 years ago (!!!), so I couldn’t miss the chance to catch the revival.  After all these years, the film’s poignancy and humor still feel relevant.

Read: JAZZ LIVES.  How lucky we musicians are to have Michael Steinman in our midst!  His ears and heart are wide open, as revealed in his beautiful post about Louis Armstrong.  Michael’s eloquence and kindness extends to present-day players, too, as evidenced in this gem about a recent performance by Michael Kanan and friends.

Listened to: Mary Foster Conklin‘s WBAI radio broadcast in honor of International Women’s Day.  She curated a wonderful two-hour set of female vocalists, performing (almost) exclusively songs written by women.

 

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.