Snow and Shin Hanga

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow at Nezu Shrine

I love walking through New York City during a snowfall. Every corner bar aglow with candlelight in the windows becomes an Edward Hopper tableau. As pedestrians hurry past, turning their collars up against the wind and snow, I wonder what’s in their grocery bags and what they’ll have for dinner to stave off the chill. I make a mental bow of gratitude to the people driving cabs and delivering take-out and wonder what they’ll do to warm up when their shift is over. Then I make my own way home, where a tattered but beloved cashmere schmatta and (if I’m lucky) a bowl of soup await.

Winter arrived last Friday with a record-setting snowstorm. When the snowfall was at its heaviest, I was in a Lower Manhattan restaurant with friends, watching the snowflakes swirl among the skyscrapers. By the time we said our goodbyes and parted company, the snow had turned to sleet. Holding the conviviality of the evening as close as a secret, I made my way through ankle-deep slushy puddles and caught the subway back to Brooklyn, where I ate a couple of clementines and sipped mint tea infused with cinnamon. The coziness of the scene was tempered with a touch of melancholy; my husband was working late into the night and I made sure to leave the light on for him before I turned in for the night, alone.

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow at Ukimido Katata

Japanese shin-hanga artists understood the magic of an evening snowfall and the fine line between solitude and loneliness. Shin-hanga, which literally means “new prints,” was an art movement that flourished in the early 20th century in which artist, carver, printer and publisher collaborated to create woodblock prints that honored Japan’s centuries-old ukiyo-e printmaking tradition while incorporating European influences, particularly Impressionism’s attention to light and perspective.

Looking at shin-hanga winter scenes, I can almost smell the wood-smoke-and-snow fragrance in the air and, just as in present-day New York, I wonder about the people I see. Is the kimono-clad woman in Kawase Hasui’s Shiba-Zojo Temple entering or departing the temple—or is does she just happen to be passing by the sacred place on her way from a visit with a friend? Is the lone figure in Snow at Terajima Village (another Kawase Hasui work) focused solely on getting home and out of the weather, or is he strolling slowly to better enjoy the lamplight reflected on the water as snow crunches under his feet?

The pristine beauty of freshly fallen snow never lasts long. But for a few precious hours, the world around us is hushed and still. It is good for us to fall silent, too, and gratefully make our way through the cold to the warm light of home.

Kawase Hasui, Twenty Views of Tokyo: Shiba Zojo Temple

Kawase Hasui, Twelve Scenes of Tokyo: Evening Snow at Terajima Village

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snowy Winter Night Street Scene

Kawase Hasui, Snow in Mukojima

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow on Sumida River

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Foodie Tuesday: The Winter of My Discontent or, Carbohydrates: A Love Story

It’s been a long winter. I confess to feeling tired of being cold and wind-whipped. I’ve been impatient and foot-tappingly restless, frustrated by the storms that keep swooping in, uninvited, just when it seems as though spring might be coming into view. As I type, yet another nor’easter is swirling around outside. The calendar tells me spring officially starts in just one week, but looking out the window, I don’t quite believe it.

Last week, an antidote to the winter blues presented itself, as is often the case, in the forms of good company and Italian carbohydrates. An impromptu visit to Eataly with friends on a damp, chilly evening held a number of delights, all of which went a long way toward smoothing the frayed edges of my optimism, including an elegant white wine from Friuli and grilled escarole with pine nuts and currants, topped with shaved Parmigiano and a drizzle of syrupy balsamic vinegar.

The lasagna that followed, though, was nothing less than manna from heaven: silken housemade pasta layered with green beans, bechamel, and a green bean-basil pesto. Creamy and comforting, the dish was saved from heaviness by its vegetal brightness; my spirit was saved from heaviness by the conviviality at our table.

After dinner, soothed and sated (okay, and slightly abuzz from the aforementioned Friulian wine), I made my way to the fresh pasta counter to bring some weekend sustenance back to Brooklyn. By the time I sat down on the subway that evening, full of lasagna and newly-recovered good humor, I realized I had lunch plans the next day at a Veronese-style risotteria and I had just purchased two meals’ worth of fresh pasta. Oh, well. In for a penny, in for a pound; it would be a weekend of carbs.

My lunch dates the next day had suggested Risotteria Melotti for our rendezvous, and I wasn’t about to quibble. These particular friends and I have eaten liverwurst and onions on rye at McSorley’s, enjoyed cocktails at the Waldorf, and sipped espresso at Caffé Reggio. They’ve lived all over the world, from Venice to the Congo, and they’re as well versed in the finer points of baseball as they are in jazz and Proust. They’re citizens of the world and real New Yorkers, and when it comes to food (or anything at all, really), I trust them implicitly. Both the risotto—mine was made with shrimp and lemon—and the conversation that day were soul-sustaining and brought cheer to the gray afternoon.

That weekend, my husband and I did indeed feast on that Eataly pasta. We prepared each pasta (pea, mint, and ricotta-stuffed ravioli and lemon-ricotta agnolotti) the same way: tossed in melted butter with a handful of peas and fresh mint, finished with a grating of Parmigiano. We watched Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy spar in “Woman of the Year” as we savored our cozy evening and the pasta, which, with its delicate flavors of lemon and mint, whispered to us of a not-too-distant spring.

The final stretch of winter can be a long haul. Take it from me: when the last, filthy remnants of snow are slow to melt and buds have yet to appear on the trees, the best medicine for sagging morale is sharing in the company of loved ones…and sharing in some pasta doesn’t hurt, either.

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A little over a year ago, in Rome, at Alfredo alla Scrofa, where the eponymous (and divine) fettucine was created.

February: looking back, looking ahead

Early this morning, I was awakened by a cacophony of car horns. Something—I don’t know what, exactly—was making the rush hour traffic in downtown Brooklyn even more slow moving and ill-tempered than usual, and when it became clear that the din wasn’t going to subside any time soon, I decided I might as well get out of bed and see if I could make something of the morning. My reward? Limpid, dazzling sunlight, dappling the scaffolding on the building facing our apartment and glinting off the plastic trash bags in the street below, and a couple of serene, solitary hours in which to write and reflect.

These high/low juxtapositions (stunning morning light shining on garbage and construction, stolen peaceful hours underscored by the relentless honking of car horns) kind of sum up this time of year for me. Sure, there’s beauty to be found, but I find I have to look a little harder for it in late winter/early spring. It’s easy to maintain a rosy outlook on a 75-degree June day, after all, when you’re at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon, cold beer in hand, and the boys in pinstripes are winning. Unflagging good cheer is slightly harder to come by when it’s sleeting sideways on the one Tuesday that you’ve got meetings all over town and the subway is full of people who are as damp and cranky as you are.

Scenes from February travels: twilight in Florida and Wendell Castle’s Steinway.

Looking back, February was busy, filled with travel, gigs, and opportunities to make the best of things. Duchess had a show in Florida, where we availed ourselves of some much-needed balmy temperatures and beach walks…after an hours-long flight delay here in New York on a sodden, gray morning. Later in the month, I flew to Toledo, Ohio for a performance at the beautiful Toledo Museum of Art. The people we met were welcoming and warm, and the venue itself was gorgeous—a glass pavilion with a Steinway designed by Wendell Castle—but I felt lonely in the impersonal downtown hotel, and the weather was (you guessed it) gray and rainy.

Lest I seem ungrateful, I hasten to add that last month brought moments of utter delight, as well, with old and new friends. Upon reflection, many happy moments in February involved food or music (or both): an afternoon spent talking about music and life with Nancy Harrow, a wonderful singer and composer; burgers at Diner with a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen for over a decade; oysters at the Grand Central Oyster Bar with a singer friend from my former restaurant life; a cocktail at the Algonquin with dear ones; a family dinner at Felidia; a post-gig drive through a blizzard with the Duchess gals, laughing all the while; a few brunch gigs around town with different configurations of musician friends.

Recipe for winter happiness: singing + oysters on the half shell. (Top photo by Claude Collerette)

Looking ahead, then, I’ll do my best to embrace the caprices of March and, if actual sunshine is nowhere to be found, I’ll look for it in the kitchen or on the bandstand.

In February, I…
Blogged about: Nothing! Oy. But I did write a remembrance of Keely Smith for JazzTimes Magazine (my first byline!). The March “In Memoriam” issue is on newsstands now.

Read: The Last Days of Café Leila, by Donna BijanThis novel was poignant and, at times, beautifully written, especially the passages about Persian food. I was disappointed by the ending, but would still recommend this book. Cooking for Picasso, by Camille Aubray. Light as a feather but a fun airplane read.

Watched: Battle of the Sexes (also on an airplane). Mozart in the Jungle.

Listened to: Fresh, by Sly and the Family Stone. God, when the horns and vocal enter on “Skin I’m In”!! Sly Stone was such a revolutionary; it seems like he influenced everybody. Fools Rush In, by Louis Armstrong. Sheer beauty.

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.

 

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.

 

 

Foodie Tuesday: Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup!

I’ve been a bit stuck on a theme, lately: it’s cold outside, winter’s here, let’s all eat comfort food, blah blah blah.  So it’s probably not a surprise–and goddess knows I hope it’s not a foray into Dullsville–that today’s Foodie Tuesday post is about soup.

Soup is the very embodiment of “making much from little”: water, vegetables, and a gentle flame join forces on the stove to create a meal far greater than the sum of its parts.  Soup will welcome the odds and ends from your produce bin, exalting lowly root vegetables and leafy greens, however wilted they may be. In our home, soup has soothed frayed nerves and mended wounds.  Ladled hot into a bowl after a long, busy winter’s day, soup can seem like a benediction.

One of my favorite things about soup is its adaptability.  Last night, for example, I made a vegetable soup with leeks, potatoes, kale, fennel, and tomatoes.  To the broth, at the direction of the inimitable Diana Henry, I added a generous pinch of saffron, a ribbon of orange zest, and a few sprigs of thyme…et voilà! Niçoise stew.

Homemade rouille, bolstered and brightened by tomato paste and lemon juice, respectively, added body and nuance to the soup.  And the Gruyère at the bottom of my bowl melted into the hot broth and clung to the vegetables in silky strands.  Was I gilding the lily?  Maybe, but then again, when is cheese ever a bad idea?

As I head out into this New York day filled with appointments and obligations, it does my heart good to know that a pot of leftover soup is waiting in the fridge. As Louis Carroll wisely wrote:

Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish,
Game, or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two
pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Soo – oop of the e – e – evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!