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Roberta Gambarini: Very Easy to Love

By Published: October 3, 2006
Roberta GambariniAAJ: Your scatting in many ways is unlike other singers,' who tend to rely on a few sounds or few repeating syllables. Yours sounds like a language of its own.

RG: That's a great compliment.

AAJ: How did you learn it?

RG: Not being academically schooled, my acquaintance with scatting was at two years old, when I used to imitate [trumpeter/vocalist] Louis Armstrong and [singer] Ella [Fitzgerald], just because I loved it. Kids love to scat because of the onomatopoeia, kids are very free; you're scatting because it's another way of communicating joy. It's good if you can keep the initial spark that you had in your childhood, and then enrich it later on with the knowledge of scales and harmony.

AAJ: You also need to be free.

RG: Of course, but it's a certain type of freedom. It's guided by taste and respect for the music. You're free, but not free to mess up the music.

AAJ: When you said that, I was thinking about Betty Carter, who seems to do the opposite of what you do, in the sense that she often leaves the melody behind.

RG: In reality, it's very close to what I do, in the sense that she would arrange, she would direct the interpretation and the energy, the dynamics. The functioning is the same. But she chose to stray away from the melody from the beginning, which is a thing I don't like to do. And maybe that's because, being Italian, the melody is almost sacred to me. And for me personally, in addition to the rhythm, the melody is important; I feel a lot the melody [breaks into "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"].

AAJ: That's your parents' favorite song, yes?

RG: Yes, that's why I'm named Roberta—the song came from that movie.

AAJ: Some people see you as polar opposites—that [singer] Betty Carter is taking all these risks, while your music comes out as so perfectly formed...

RG: ...and I don't take risks? OK, you tell those people to come onstage with me! It's just that before going off on an improvisation, I like to honor the melody. I understand there are people who don't agree with it, but that's my choice. I think rendering a melody is the most difficult thing there is—it's hard to really sing a melody.

AAJ: In what sense? Since most people would say, "that's where you start"—the melody is obvious, anybody can sing the melody.

RG: But what does this mean, "sing" the melody? You convey the melody. I don't mean just singing the notes. The way you know you've done your job, for me, is when after you've finished singing, people come to you and say, "Wow. What a beautiful song you sang." Or, "I've heard this song before, but I never realized it's really great." So then you know your work is done: to bring the song to life. First of all, you have to understand the lyric, and do it in a way that mirrors your own experience with the song—it could be a song that's been done a million times.

This is not a new or shocking concept—you can talk to Moody or Jimmy Heath. It's not reinventing the wheel, it's just the way I feel.

AAJ: Is there a song that doesn't have a meaning for you?

RG: No. There's a whole universe of references—transferences, or how you call it. It's akin to acting, but with music: there's a whole world of visceral possibilities between you and the song.

AAJ: You know, you speak English better than most natives speak English. You have this incredible vocabulary—where did it come from?

RG: I like to read. I am a bookaholic.

AAJ: When I was looking at your influence list, I could understand [singer] Eva Cassidy—her purity and directness—but [singers] Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg?

RG: Oh, they're great!

AAJ: They are, but in what sense have they influenced you?

RG: Delivery of the lyrics, for one. Dave Frishberg and his mastery of lyrics—"You Are There" is one of my favorite songs. And Bob Dorough—when I was a little girl, I was fascinated by this whole bebop world. I used to listen to the record by [trumpeter] Miles [Davis] where he sings "Nothing Like You"—and [pianist/vocalist] Mose Allison—so many people influenced me, from all types of genres.

AAJ: You said something in the car that was interesting: about having to choose between a house, a man and children or being on the road.

RG: I guess as Richard Pryor once said, "you ordered shit, you eat shit." [We laugh.] I always wanted to be a jazz musician, to be on the road, to do exactly what I do, go from one place to the other, meeting people, playing different audiences, but of course that's difficult to do if you have a husband who's maybe a stockbroker, and you're trying to raise two kids in the suburbs. And it's not exactly the ideal life if you want to make some money, and live in a nice Victorian or Tudor townhouse....especially at this stage in my career, since I had to start everything at the beginning when I came here. Also, you have to be away so much—it's one thing for a man to be away, but for a woman to be away...

AAJ: It doesn't seem fair.

RG: Well, you order shit... [We laugh some more.] You eat what you order. And besides, I'm doing what I want, what I always dreamed of. You can't have everything! Maybe in the future, there will be a biological clock is ticking.

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