June: looking back, looking ahead

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Currently.

I am just beginning to emerge from the throes of a summer cold. The crystal clear blue skies and warm (okay, hot) weather in recent days added insult to injury as I huddled on my couch with the air conditioning off and clad in comfy sweats.

In my fantasy, summer is an unbroken stretch of lazy afternoons picnicking in the park, impromptu cocktail hours with friends, weekend barbecues, and trips to the ballpark. In my reality, summer is a smattering of all of those things interspersed with the same mundane errands and obligations that need tending to all year round. And this damned cold.

June marked the official kickoff of summer, and though there were a lot of very fun musical happenings (Amy Cervini’s CD release show and a tour with Duchess, to name a couple), some of the month’s loveliest moments happened off the bandstand.

My friend V., a public school music teacher, invited me to his students’ concert in the first week of June, and I was deeply moved by the students’ sweetness, openness, and sheer musicality. Kids who had been playing the piano for less than a year performed polished renditions of Chopin etudes as well as their own original compositions; their shyness gave way to personal expression as they sang musical theater pieces and spirituals and pop music covers. I held back tears as I remembered my own music teachers who, as Fred Rogers said, “loved [me] into being,” and my heart swelled with gratitude that people like V. are in the world. Hug a teacher, friends.

One Monday afternoon I met friends at Bosie Tea Parlor, a new-to-me place in the West Village. Afterward, abuzz from the lively conversation (okay, and the tea), I meandered through one of my favorite parts of New York City with no agenda, no deadline, and no destination—the nicest kind of walk. Later in the month, in the company of friends—one an extraordinary singer, the other a mensch and music writer—the most stunning rainbow I’ve ever seen appeared over Manhattan after a summer squall. We looked, we marveled, and we kept snacking and talking for hours.

I’ve had a fairly busy stretch of travel and gigs in recent weeks (I suspect this cold took hold on last week’s flight to a wonderful gig in Miami) and am feeling ready to settle into a more relaxed pace for the rest of the summer. There are performances sprinkled here and there, and I’ve got a trip to New Mexico on the horizon in August (a birthday vacation, huzzah), but looking ahead, I want to  s l o w  d o w n. Less social media, more writing. Less screen time, more reading. Less email, more one-on-one interactions with loved ones. Less “have-to” practicing, more “want-to” practicing. Less is more, right?

In June, I…
Blogged about: April and May. The closing of Caffe Vivaldi. Singer-friend Megan Hook.

Watched: Lots of baseball. Upstairs, Downstairs (only to be crushed to learn the show was canceled after only two seasons). Home Fires (again, only two seasons! That’ll teach me to emotionally invest in WWII-era British dramas on Amazon Prime).

Read: This op-ed. And this one. I found both pieces cathartic and upsetting. I’ll be reading less news this month, for sure.

Listened to: Les McCann, Pretty Lady. Les is (rightfully!) lauded for his grooving, soulful, churchy playing, but he also has such a beautiful way with a ballad, as evidenced on this record. Amy Cervini, No One Ever Tells You. Bluesy and eclectic. I’m proud of my singing sister!

April and May: looking back, looking ahead

April and May, despite their flying past with blinding speed, were lovely. I sang a number of diverse gigs with dear friends, which is always good medicine for the soul. The performances ranged from being the “canary” in a Benny Goodman tribute to channeling my inner Patsy Cline for some western swing at Mezzrow to harmonizing background vocals with Duchess to singing socialist anthems in three different languages in commemoration of the Spanish Civil War…and that’s not even the complete list!

When not singing for my supper in recent weeks, I was delighted to partake in some quintessentially New York City cultural experiences:

  • at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, the scent of lilacs hung heavy in the air and a rainbow array of tulips stood at attention;
  • Passover Seder included our traditional boisterous rendering of Dayenu;
  • we feasted on a rustic seafood stew in a Brooklyn brownstone for a dear friend’s 75th birthday;
  • at Yankee Stadium we leapt from our seats, elated, when Gary Sanchez hit a walk-off three-run homer;
  • an entire evening’s program was dedicated to the key of C minor at the Chamber Music Society; and
  • beloved friends hosted an evening of intimate theatre in their home, where their friend (an accomplished stage and film actor) presented excerpts of a thought-provoking one-man show about the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Kicking off summer: lakeside in CT; a busy bee at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens; Yankee Stadium; my annual nose-in-the-lilacs photo.

As if all of the above weren’t enough, my husband and I celebrated our seven-year wedding anniversary with a trip to Savannah. We had a few touristy to-do’s on our list (eat at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room; take a tour of the Owens-Thomas mansion), but our days were largely free-form. We mostly ambled down shady tree-lined streets, taking in the architecture and thinking about Johnny Mercer. Lest I give the impression that things were too idyllic, I should disclose that I also caught a bitch of a chest cold. However, I found the bourbon cocktails to be extremely medicinal.

Scenes from Savannah: sniffly and sipping bourbon for its medicinal value; a plate of home cooking at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room; the Mercer-Williams house; a rendezvous with the Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia himself, Mr. Johnny Mercer.

Looking ahead, I’m feeling quite territorial about my time. Things are bound to get busy this summer, what with tour dates and assorted professional obligations, but I’m determined to set plenty of time aside for reading, seeing friends, picnicking, listening to music, watching baseball, daydreaming in the park…all the things that make summer, well, summer. Spending Memorial Day weekend lakeside in Connecticut felt like a good start.

The pas de deux between productivity and recreation can sometimes more closely resemble the French Danse Apache, but I firmly believe we sacrifice leisure for busy-ness at our peril. The very word “recreation” holds the key: when we take time to smell the roses, i.e. recreate, we re-create ourselves and emerge renewed, ready to meet our obligations with joy and optimism.

In April and May, I…
Blogged about: March. Close-harmony girl groups (for Duchess).

Watched: Baseball, natch. Via Dolorosa, live and in-person, acted by the wonderful Jonathan Tindle. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in preparation for Savannah.

Read: Her First American, by Lore Segal. Vivid, sad, and beautifully written. I loved this novel about a young Jewish woman in love with a Black intellectual in post-WWII New York City. Caroline: Little House, Revisited, by Sarah Miller. I re-read the Little House series a handful of years ago for the first time since my childhood, and the books were…different than I remembered. For one thing, I was stunned by the rampant racism against Native Americans that runs throughout the series. For another, whereas the character of Ma (Caroline) once struck me as a bit of a wet blanket, as an adult woman myself I realized how selfish (and occasionally reckless) Pa was. Reading Miller’s thoughtful re-imagining of the Ingalls’ story as told from Caroline’s perspective was satisfying. Blue Nights, by Joan Didion. Brilliant, stunning prose…and also one of the most depressing books I’ve read in ages. The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer. Definitely a light read, but we all need a little fantasy and escapism from time to time. How to Eat a Peach, by Diana Henry. Part memoir, part cookbook, completely delicious. Diana Henry has long been one of my favorite food writers, and I think this may be her finest book yet.

Listened to: Connie Converse. The only thing more mysterious, heartbreaking, and unique than Converse’s story is her music. Janelle Monaé. I am always sooooo late to the party when it comes to contemporary music, but consider me obsessed. Kat Edmonson. Duchess sings backup vocals for Kat from time to time, and her new album, “Old Fashioned Gal,” accomplishes the nigh-impossible feat of being both a throwback and utterly of its own time. Les McCann. Les McCann. Les McCann.

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.

 

 

July: Looking back, looking ahead

It’s August!  The temperatures are hovering in the 90s every day, and the slight sunburn on my shoulders is a (slightly uncomfortable) reminder of yesterday’s picnic on Governor’s Island. Relaxing into August’s hot weather and slower pace feels right, especially after a very fun and very hectic July.

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Scenes from Seattle. What an amazing trip: clear skies, dear friends, and lots of great music.

DUCHESS hit the road again last month.  We trekked out to the beautiful Emerald City of Seattle, my former stomping grounds, for a few days chock full of gigs, sunshine, and time with dear old friends.  We meandered through the Pike Place Market and drank local microbrews at a bar overlooking at Puget Sound.  We paid two visits to my favorite restaurant, Le Pichet, and sipped some rosé at David Butler’s chic downtown wine bar, Le Caviste.  We even kicked up our heels, with a post-gig after-party that included copious amounts of guacamole and a spontaneous dance-off.  Thanks in part to a fantastic write-up in the Seattle Times, our shows at Tula’s and PLU’s Jazz Under the Stars were sold out, so the trip was a resounding success.

A bit later in the month, DUCHESS debuted at Jazz at Lincoln Center, taking the stage at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for two nearly sold-out sets.  We also performed in Tarrytown, singing an outdoor show for the Sunset Jazz at Lyndhurst concert series.  It was the perfect way to close out our very busy summer; our next shows are in September, when we travel to California for the Monterey Jazz Festival and gigs in LA and the Bay Area.

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It’s always a kick in the pants to wind up in the New York Times.

In my solo singing life, I returned to Pompie’s Place for a couple of performances.  Ehud Asherie, the show’s pianist and musical director, has assembled a very swinging band, and it’s been fun singing solos and duets with vocalist Lezlie Harrison in this cabaret/theater hybrid.  The New York Times came out and wrote a great review, and we’ve got two more shows this month: August 7 and August 21.

A couple of interviews hit the airwaves last month: my appearance on Song Travels with Michael Feinstein aired on NPR, as well as my conversation with Judy Carmichael for Sirius XM’s Jazz Inspired. It’s always fun to talk about songs, singing, and life in the arts with kindred spirits, and both Michael and Judy are such thoughtful, generous hosts.

Looking ahead, August happens to be my birthday month, so I have a favor to ask: will you please take a moment, right now, to vote in the DownBeat Readers’ Poll and the HotHouse Jazz Awards?  You’ll find some familiar names in there, including (ahem) yours truly in DownBeat’s female vocalist category, as well as DUCHESS in several categories (both polls).

Things are a bit quieter on the gig front in the coming few weeks, so I intend to go to the beach, hear some live music, and surrender to the slower rhythms of the dog days of summer.

In July, I…
Blogged about: June.  Nature in the city.  Singer-friend Katy Bourne.

Watched:  Downtown theater.  My friend Jennifer Peterman and her writing partner, Tom Gualtieri, teamed up for a reading of some of their respective work to benefit Stage Left Studio, a performance space that had served as an incubator for developing works in New York City for ten years but which was closing due to the ever-escalating Manhattan rents.  In that spare, tiny theater, Jen and Tom brought characters to life—characters that they had created—and made us all laugh and cry with their honesty and humanity.

I also saw Melissa Ritz perform her one-woman show, Bombshell of Rhythm, about the 1930s female bandleader, Ina Ray Hutton.  She not only conceived and wrote the entire show, she sang, danced, and played multiple characters, commanding the stage for 75 minutes.  Melissa has performed Bombshell of Rhythm throughout the USA and, by sheer dint of her moxie and imagination, she has brought new life to a largely forgotten figure of American popular music.

This kind of open-hearted, grassroots storytelling is deeply moving to witness and, I believe, crucial to the creative soul of a city.  Sadly, in Manhattan, the skyrocketing rents are making it harder and harder for fledgling artists to do their work.  I implore all of us to go out and support new works in off-the-beaten-path venues.

Read:  The Music at Long Verney, by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  My friend Michael Steinman edited this collection of short stories, and I trust both his aesthetics and heart. Warner’s cool, reserved prose took a bit of time to get used to, but yielded rich rewards, like this gem:

“For though it was news to her that she had the soul of an artist, she accepted the revelation.  It isn’t what you do that matters; everyone has a right to earn a living, and fooling a wiling public is as good a way as any other.  They enjoy it, you enjoy it, everyone’s happy.  Where the soul of an artist comes in is when you won’t let the public fool you.”

Listened to:  Jackie Wilson.  I’ve been a fan of Mr. Excitement for many years; his rendition of “Danny Boy” is, for my money, one of the greatest vocal performances ever recorded in any genre, in any era. Pure greatness.

June: Looking back, looking ahead

A riot of June roses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

A riot of June roses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

There’s been a rather conspicuous lack of blogging activity from yours truly as of late. The first few weeks of June were quite sedate, and I definitely had time to do some writing.  But I was busy being…well, not busy.  It was divine.

In early June, E. and I spent a languid Sunday strolling throughout the entirety of Central Park after brunch with friends on the Upper West Side.  An ordinary Tuesday was transformed into a memorable one when I paid a solo visit to the exuberantly blooming rose garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  We also celebrated E.’s birthday (twice!) with pizza at Lucali one evening and steaks at Peter Luger a couple of nights later.  Happily, I also recommenced running and made it a point to get to yoga class more often, too.  The combination of sunny days, great food, and exercise made for a fabulous start to my summer.

Sunset yoga in Ft. Greene Park

Sunset yoga in Ft. Greene Park

It’s a good thing I had some time off to rest and rejuvenate, because the last week of June kicked off the first installment of the DUCHESS summer tour.  From Ottawa to Boston to Toronto to Rochester to Saratoga, we logged hundreds of miles, laughed hundreds of laughs, did lots of interviews and a national television appearance on Canada AM, saw a couple of amazing shows (the Roots and John Pizzarelli), and lip-synched for a good cause. You can read about our adventures in more detail and see some fun photos on the DUCHESS blog.

Looking ahead, I’m gearing up for more travel. I’m heading to Cooperstown with Harry Allen this weekend for a concert celebrating the Great American Songbook.  Then, DUCHESS is traveling to the west coast mid-month for a few shows in Washington.  My Song Travels with Michael Feinstein interview will be airing on NPR this month, too, as will my appearance on Judy Carmichael’s Sirius XM show, Jazz Inspired.  I’m looking forward to more road trips, more laughs, and lots more music.

In June, I…
Blogged about: May.  DUCHESS: On the road again!

Watched: The Tempest.  I had never attended a Shakespeare in the Park performance, and I was utterly unprepared for the emotional impact of Shakespeare’s meditation on forgiveness and redemption.  The beauty and rhythm of the poetry was made all the more magical by the lushness of Central Park, the changing colors of the night sky, and the lazy fireflies floating in the air above us.  It was, quite simply, one of the most thrilling artistic experiences of my life.

Read: The Dream Lover, by Elizabeth Berg.  A meticulously researched fictional portrait of the life of George Sand.  Full disclosure?  I found this book pretty slow going, but it made me curious to read some writing by Sand herself.

Listened to: Slow New York and Sunday Morning In Saturday’s Shoes, Richard Julian.  Time for Two, Michael Franks.  Spending long hours in the car last month provided the perfect opportunity to savor the wry irony and tenderness of these two masterful songwriters.

A sunny Sunday in Central Park

A sunny Sunday in Central Park

Scenes from Shakespeare in the Park on a balmy June night

Scenes from Shakespeare in the Park on a balmy June night.

May: Looking back, looking ahead

My heart is full and my head is still spinning from a magical few days spent in the Crescent City. I visited New Orleans for the first time back in October, when DUCHESS performed at Snug Harbor and the Boswell Sisters Revue.  To put it mildly, the city got under my skin in a big way, so when E. and I were deciding where we’d like to go for our first real vacation in several years, we immediately chose New Orleans.  The trip was pure pleasure, with every day spent eating and drinking (oh, how we ate and drank), walking through various neighborhoods, and delighting in incredible music literally around every corner.

Jackson Square under moody skies.

Jackson Square under moody skies.

I fell completely under the spell of JoAnn Clevenger, the septuagenarian proprietress of Upperline, a restaurant that will forever be New Orleans to me, both in spirit and cuisine.  E. kibitzed with Debbie Lindsay, who co-owns Kitchen Witch, a vintage cookbook store (!) in the French Quarter.  Debbie told E. stories about Cosimo Matassa and Allen Toussaint while ringing E. up for a mint-condition Ray Charles box set—because of course Kitchen Witch also sells CDs and vinyl. And late one night at the Spotted Cat, I caught up with an old friend and native New Orleanian, Kevin Louis, swinging out on trumpet and vocals with the New Orleans Jazz Vipers.

One day, we joined a throng of over a thousand people in a second line for a young NOLA musician who had passed away recently; we walked through Tremé surrounded by music that grooved so profoundly that I can only describe it as the sound of life itself.  We visited a little antique shop in the Faubourg-Marigny where E. bought me some costume jewelry from the 1950s and the shop owner told us that next time we visited, he’d have us over to his home, where he keeps the really good stuff.  We drank Sazeracs in a leafy garden at twilight, gaped at the splendor of the Garden District, and got goosebumps at a drum circle in Congo Square, the birthplace of virtually all American music.  There’s so much I want to tell you, and I suspect a more in-depth, focused blog post will be forthcoming.  For now, though, this little photo travelogue will have to suffice.

Looking ahead, I’m getting ready to hit the road with DUCHESS.  We’ve got quite a busy touring schedule this summer, and we’re heading out of town in just a couple of weeks.  DUCHESS’ June calendar contains performances at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, Regattabar in Boston, the Toronto Jazz Festival, the Rochester Jazz Festival, and the Saratoga Jazz Festival; you can check out our complete gig schedule on our website.

In May I…
Blogged about: April.  Singer-Friend Wendy Gilles.  Foodie Tuesday: Spring Green.

Watched: The Mad Men series finale.  I’ll miss the fashion, the martinis, and (most of all) Roger Sterling’s classic quips.

Read: Mostly NOLA guidebooks, to prep for our trip.

Listened to: The Peaceful Side, Billy Strayhorn.  A rare recording of Strayhorn at the piano, playing his own compositions.  Some tracks feature the addition of a string quartet and vocals by the Paris Blue Notes.  Strayhorn’s arrangements—especially the vocals—are beautiful and strikingly modern.  WWOZ, 90.7 FM.  The marvel of modern technology allows me to wake up to the sound of New Orleans right here in Brooklyn.

NOLA B&B

Clockwise from bottom left: our NOLA B&B served sweet potato-bacon-bourbon bread pudding for breakfast; the garden at our B&B; deciding the day’s itinerary.

NOLA CongoSquare

Scenes from Congo Square, right across the street from our B&B.

NOLA Food

Creole tacos, beignets, muffalettas, and lots of cocktails…NOLA is, without question, my kind of town!