Spotlight On…Marianne Solivan

Marianne Solivan is good vibes in human form. We met years ago, somewhere on the jazz scene here in New York; maybe it was at Zeb’s, or perhaps Smalls, or was it Swing 46? I may not remember the exact time and place of our first meeting, but I remember vividly how much I liked Marianne from the second we started chatting. She exudes generosity and a deep love of singers and singing.

Marianne’s voice is as warm, honest, and down-to-earth as her personality. She is equally comfortable singing a hard-swinging blues as she is improvising in Spanish over a salsa groove or tenderly interpreting a ballad (any of which she might have penned herself, I might add).

In addition to being a wonderful singer and a great hang, Marianne may also be the hardest working woman in show business. She maintains a busy touring schedule, she helms her own big band, and she’s a sought-after jazz vocal educator, too. Singers, take note: next month, Marianne will be teaching a couple of workshops (The Art of the Song and Rhythm Section Grooves), in which both fledgling and experienced singers will have the chance to hone their craft in a supportive and challenging environment. Space is still available, so don’t miss out! Email jazzinmind@gmail.com for details and registration.

Marianne took the time to answer these (new!) Spotlight On… interview questions from the road, in the middle of her jam-packed European tour last month. Thank you so much, Marianne!

Photo credit: Gulnara Khamatova

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
Oh…that’s a tough one. My first instinct is to say Ella, Carmen and Betty. Ella because she introduced me to this music. When I heard her sing I fell in love with jazz. She also continues to remind me of the constant silver lining in life. I hear that in her voice on every song. Carmen because she is still teaching me how to swing, phrase, and be exactly who I am in every tune. And Betty….oh man, it’s what I aspire to: to be fully free and fearless. To always push myself further and play with the band on a deeply intimate level.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
Well, due to some past vocal issues I do lots of simple but strategic vocal warm-ups every day if possible. I work on learning new tunes and I shed older ones. I work on really learning the harmony of tunes I’ve been singing and getting more ideas for arrangements and such. It’s not too regimented but it’s consistent.

If you had a time machine and could travel back in time to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself about singing, life, and/or the music business in general?
Oh god! Well, I would tell myself to go and find Betty Carter and stay as close to her as possible. I would also go back to the beginning of my singing and tell myself to never try to sound like anyone else. I would tell myself how precious my own sound is and to never try and change that.

We live in a DIY-era: in addition to performing and recording our music, we ALSO handle social media, book gigs, and perhaps juggle “side gigs” to keep the bills paid. In the face of all these obligations, time management can be hugely challenging. What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping everything in balance?
Well, first off, be kind to [my]self! I will never get done all that I want and/or need to get done. It’s just an overwhelming amount of work, so when I am tired or need down time I don’t punish myself about it. I need to rest and to enjoy life and not feel that I’m chained to my job at all times.

Marianne and her Jazz Vocal Workshop students after their successful performance.

When I got better at doing this, I finally got to a place where I enjoyed all [of] this work. It’s part of the deal: if you wanna be a singer, bandleader, front person, you have to do so much of it alone at home with your computer. It can be isolating and infuriating and just tiring, but when I think that it all leads to me being onstage singing, it helps me deal with it all. The payoff for the work, for me, is totally worth it. Every time I get to sing I know all that time and effort was well worth it.

Fun fact:
Oh man…I think I’m pretty much a nut, so who knows? Umm…ok, I really have issues with heights. I have melted down on the elevator up the Eiffel Tower, and on funiculars all over the world. Ferris wheels kill me, though I still try and get on them with hopes that I’ll overcome it. And on a more day-to-day basis, staircases that don’t have the back of each step (so you can see down as you walk up), or glass ones like in the Apple store, put me in a panic. A total panic.

Marianne will be performing in the Poconos at the Deer Head Inn on December 16 and at Smalls, (right here in NYC!) on December 17. Visit her website for all the details.

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Spotlight On…Roseanna Vitro

Photo credit: Devon Cass

I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting Roseanna Vitro in person a couple of times, but I’ve been aware of her as a singer, writer, and teacher for a long time. A Grammy-nominated vocalist, Roseanna has performed and taught all over the world. Her projects are ambitious and eclectic: among her many endeavors are tributes to her Southern roots (she hails from Arkansas and began singing jazz in Texas), as well as the songbooks of Clare Fisher, Randy Newman, Ray Charles and Charlie Parker.

I’m moved by the openness and generosity of Roseanna’s answers to the Spotlight On… questions. There’s a lot of wisdom to be gleaned from this interview. Thank you, Roseanna!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I knew I would be a singer since the age of four. My mother, Ruby Mae, is ninety years young and still singing. Her sisters and brothers were all gospel singers. My mother is my inspiration. I sing about everything; it’s in my DNA. Music comforts my soul.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
It was always natural to sing in every possible situation and style of music. When I was young I sang in school programs, competitions, madrigal groups, classical All-State choirs in German, Italian, Latin, and French, theater repertoire, southern gospel and rock ‘n’ roll bands, and folk music. I was solid in my direction. The challenges were “looking the part” and discipline combined with focus. My wild and passionate personality did not lend itself to sitting in a practice room alone with my metronome and scales.

Photo credit: Paul Wickliffe

It has been most challenging to understand I must practice a vocalese solo, like “Moody’s Mood for Love,” much longer than some other singers who are blessed with perfect pitch and a photographic memory. I wanted to conquer every style and sing it as well as the masters. But as you grow up you begin to recognize the types of songs, lyrics and melodies that flow the most naturally out of your voice. The recognition of my shortcomings has not stopped me from choosing difficult melodies plus singing with and listening to the greatest instrumentalists. I take vocal technique lessons every month in my efforts to deal with an aging voice as well.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I was always hungry to learn songs that spoke to my heart first, then intellect, and always [with] a rhythm that moved me. The songs you choose say to the world “who you are.” I learned the popular songs and repertoire I needed to become a club date/party singer in my early 20s, once I was adopted by jazz musicians in Texas.

I can feel it to my toes when I’m singing a truth. Some songs you simply have to sing; you have no choice. Songs like “So Many Stars,” “You Are There,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “Certas Canções,” “Long As You’re Livin’,” “Happy Madness,” “Waltz for Debbie,” “But Beautiful.” I think of repertoire as a collection of songs that fulfill my personal mandate for happiness: A) songs that speak to your heart, B) songs that make a statement about life, C) songs that are silly and fun, D) songs with deep grooves…they just feel good.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I wouldn’t have chosen another profession. I have discovered I can blend into a corporate atmosphere if I have to. I learned I am a good teacher for over-sensitive, talented singers who don’t fit the cookie cutter model. I love gathering vast amounts of information for singers and sharing in our community. I totally dig producing vocal projects at this stage because I love other singers. I have enjoyed the challenge of writing, “Voices in Jazz” for Jazztimes.com, interviewing famous and not famous singers. It’s always about singing and enjoying your life, helping others, and my best gig is being a mother. But, there isn’t another profession for me.

Photo credit: Janis Wilkins

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
I’ve received much advice in my long career. I’ve made major mistakes which cause me to wince even now. I think the most important advice I needed to digest and still work on is keeping my mouth closed when I’m nervous or anxious. Just sing, don’t talk.

Fun fact:
This isn’t actually a fun fact. I think the “nervous” factor is a quirk. I guess being “silly” would be my fun quirk in response to nerves. It’s taken me years of looking back to understand how fear or deep feelings like: “I’m good, I know I have something special to offer” versus “I’ll never be good enough” affect your mistakes.

The wisdom is: Music is a business, and business has no feelings. It’s just business. Enjoy your music, don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t let your success rely on the big power brokers in our business. If you’re happy, you are a success.

Roseanna will be performing at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack, NY on August 5. For those of us in NYC, mark your calendars for August 12, when she’s bringing “Bossas and Ballads on a Summer Night” to Jazz at Kitano!

Irene Kral

g02655op4o1Irene Kral was the younger sister of Roy Kral, of Jackie & Roy.  Early in Irene’s career she sang with both Maynard Ferguson’s and Herb Pomeroy’s big bands.  She made a fantastic record with the Junior Mance trio called Better Than Anything and was a serious champion of songwriters like Tommy Wolf, Bob Dorough, and Dave Frishberg.  Carmen McRae numbered among Irene’s many fans, and Carmen was, by all accounts, not easily impressed.

Unfortunately, Irene died of cancer in 1978; she was only 46 years old.  A few years earlier, in 1974, she and Alan Broadbent recorded Where Is Love, a collection of voice and piano ballad duets.  

I’m not sure if Irene was already ill when she made this record, which she called “the definitive example of [her] work,” but the following passage from her self-penned liner notes suggests this may have been the case:

I would like to dedicate this album to my late father…from whom I have, hopefully, inherited the strength to overcome life’s adversities and enjoy its beauty.

With clarion tone, elegant phrasing, and deep emotion, Irene Kral reminds us that, in this life, we love people who don’t always love us back.  We feel lonely.  We have to say goodbye to people and places we love.  Our most joyful moments are suffused with tears, knowing that the moment–and we–will be gone too soon.  

Somehow, Irene communicates all this without one unnecessary vocal flourish, without a shred of sentimentality.  Her interpretations are pure, generous, and without vanity.  Alan Broadbent is supportive, creative and utterly deferential to the songs and Irene’s singing.  

Irene Kral’s Where Is Love is a desert-island record.