An Italian vocalist with an elegant and insightful command of the Great American Songbook, Roberta Gambarini's You Are There (Emarcy, 2008) and Easy To Love (Kindred Rhythm, 2006) are treasures waiting for those who've learnt how to listen.
You Are There
Start with a phenomenally gifted, rapidly ascending vocalist of the same heritage as Enrico Caruso and Frank Sinatra, add as the sole pianist the musician who is in 2009 the reigning patriarch in jazz, and finally select a few sterling examples from the Great American Songbook. The results are predictably spectacular but not "showy" or "exhibitionistic." This is not an album simply to be impressed by. Roberta Gambarini is sufficiently mature, and in command musically, that she can afford to use her virtually unlimited technique to one end: bringing the song to realization for all concernedthe composer, the performer, and the listener. Indeed, "You are there."
Anyone who finds this music "boring" hasn't learned how to listen. If you have yet to discover the "sound of surprise" that is the hallmark of Sinatra's "suicide-song," "saloon-song" albumsRiddle-Jenkins' masterpieces like "Only the Lonely," "No One Cares," "In the Wee Small Hours," "September of My Years," "Close to You"or, for that matter, of Shirley Horn's "Here's to Life" or of Jack Jones' "Paints a Tribute to Tony Bennett," a collection of ballads such as You Are There is apt to be out of reach, regardless of the performer.
To those who understand the American ballad, take notice. To the virtuoso, coloratura, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan credentials that Gambarini evidenced on Easy To Love she brings the crystalline elocution, the ear for narrative-dramatic-poetic meaning, the professional's attention to diction and phrasing that were the strong suits of Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, and not least of all Sinatra. Some of the songs are more than familiar: "Body and Soul" is the most recorded song of all time, and "Stardust" not far behind. She revitalizes both, outfitting them in resplendent new clothes without changing the essential character of either. Other tunes are less familiar because singers either avoid them due to their difficulty or attempt them but get lost while trying to navigate the tunes' hazardous harmonic/melodic progressions. Gambarini takes on notorious "obstacle courses" like Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and "Something to Live For," not to mention Duke Ellington's stirring and noble "Come Sunday" and Irving Berlin's poignant, heart-rending "Suppertime," yet makes you forget about the music's difficulty factor. All that matters is the songits melody and lyrics reassuringly commanding the listener's attention rather than any thoughts about the challenges to the performer.
Perhaps "Deep Purple" is as good a track as any for illustrating what this singer is made of. The tune is admittedly a venerable chestnut. An artist is apt to pass it by quickly (forgivably so) because its apparently trite lyric, melody and chords don't seem worthy of the performer's time and attentionthe amorphous and hazy, abstract and even nonsensical lyric (Cole Porter would shudder), the extended near-moribund whole notes, the "unvocal" melodic leapsin other words, an invitation at practically every measure for stagnation. No doubt Gambarini was aware of all this in electing to go after the song.
A "casual" listening will most likely dismiss the track as a pleasant reading of an old warhorse and little more. But such a response in itself testifies to Gambarini's success at making an awkward old duck sail by the listener's field of vision like an elegant swan. Now do a rewind and subject the performance itself to a close replay. After a verse introduction that's likely to leave even the most knowledgeable "expert" clueless about what's to come, she starts the familiar melodyan incisive, rock-solid E natural below middle C that effortlessly glides to the high note almost two octaves above it before "floating" down to the next resting point and then handing-off to Hank Jones for a chimerical chorus that breathes as though the pianist possessed vocal cords in each of his fingers. But she's not done yet. The last chorus essentially repeats the first but flows even more effortlessly, more reflectively, as the singer brings the meditative reverie to an immensely satisfying closure, connecting the realms of infinite desire and finite vast space that are the subject of this song's singularly abstract lyric. In fact, the alignment of the two realms is so complete the listener is apt to see the vocalist's inserted "cadenza" on the final notewhich amounts to, in effect, a re-enactment of the song's octave leaps in microcosmas proceeding naturally and logically from the requirements of the song itself rather than as a performer's need to impress with a grand exit.
No more than two minutes in length, this single performance of a sentimental "period piece" is as immeasurably satisfying as any number of CDs and musical programs you may encounter in the present millenniumand, far from a relic, ranks among the truly timeless performances that have been recorded since 1917 (the year of the first jazz recording).
Easy to Love
The only thing more incredible than the initial reluctance of recording companies to accept this self-produced album and promote it is the music itself. As crowded as the present-day jazz vocal field has become, at least relative to the numbers of "competent" listeners, this Italian exponent of an American art form sets a new standard, following the lead of Fitzgerald and Vaughan and raising the bar even higher. We've heard some extraordinary, pyrotechnical yet free-swinging performances in recent years from Ann Hampton Callaway, Karrin Allyson, Cheryl Bentyne, Diane Shuur and Kurt Elling (especially his two epic transcriptions of Dexter Gordon improvisations, "Tanya" and "Body and Soul") not to mention some earlier dazzling musical legerdemain by the British pop-jazz coloratura, Cleo Laine. But nothing could prepare even a close follower of the vocal scene for the artistry in evidence throughout Easy to Love.
Jimmy McHugh's/Dorothy Fields' "Sunny Side of the Street" is in itself a tour de force that's likely to challenge the listener of this extraordinary performance as much as its maker. First, give the Italian vocalist credit for recognizing the significance of the materialan "apparent" lightweight Tin Pan Alley hit given a casual, at times humorous, reading by a quasi-vocalist (Dizzy Gillespie) with instrumental solos by Gillespie and his two partners, tenor greats Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins. But to the attentive listener, the 1957 Verve session, Sonny Side Up, is a recording for the ages, testimony to the rich and complex musical language of its three peerless masters and a perfect example of the rare, unrepeatable, combustible chemistry of their meeting. (Note to the attentive listener: when Gambarini utters Stitt's name, she's at the end of his chorus, about to make the adjustment to the upper register for the next solo, which is by the incomparable Gillespie; when she drops back down and sings "Can't you hear that pitter patter pitter patter sound," she's singing Rollins' solomore deliberative and motivic, less joyously free and "flying" than either of the two predecessors. I wonder which horn part Roberta enjoys singing the most?)
It probably would have been sufficient for most any other vocalist to do little more than "acknowledge" the earlier occasionperhaps a few inflections of Gillespie's singing sandwiching solos by some present-day prodigious players (the Marsalises with Chris Potter, or Rollins himself, would be a promising assemblage and deployment of personnel). But not good enough for Roberta Gambarini. She decides to sing, by herself, the solos and the ensemble work by these American geniuses as it all went down during this extraordinary moment of recording history! Think of someone with a native tongue other than English writing a novel not merely in English but in the style of James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf (Joseph Conrad is perhaps the only writer who, after learning English at the age of 19, came close).
When you pick up this indispensable recording, be sure to have two CD or MP3 players handy. Start out with the Gillespie recording, but stop after each section: the playing of the song by the three instrumentalists; then the Stitt solo; next the Gillespie solo; then the Rollins solo; finally, the vocal chorus by Gillespie. And before proceeding with each new section, play the identical stretch as sung by Gambarini.
She not only nails the notes (numerous saxophonists have had trouble transcribing an intricate Stitt or Gillespie solo) but captures the individual instruments and the colorations unique to each instrumentalist! Moreover, she's able to pull it off with free-flowing extemporaneousness, effortlessly negotiating the elliptical leaps in the musicians' registers, setting up the double-time sections, and occasionally revealing an unmistakable "smile" in her voicethis awesome performance, intimidating at least to musicians who have aspired to play like Gillespie or Stitt, is for Gambarini (as music always was for Gillespie) a form of "play": she's having fun!
Fortunately, the accomplishment of this recording and the brilliance of its creator is slowly being recognized. When in summer 2008 a teenaged alto saxophonist from Sicily brought his instrument into the heart of jazz and the home of its most fabled maker, proceeding to perform "Charlie Parker with Strings" in the world-famous New York club named after the progenitor, his feat was met with resounding silence and the stunning indifference of press and public on American shores. In the case of Gambarini, we can hope the combination of her talent and her determination to be heard will be too much even for an under-prepared public to ignore. On second thought, their loss is their loss, not yours. Grab your coat, get your hat, leave your worries on the doorstep.
Tracks and Personnel
You Are There
Track listing: You Are There; I'll Be Tired Of You; People Time; When Lights Are Low; Deep Purple; Reminiscing; Suppertime; Just Squeeze Me; Something To Live For; Stardust; Lush Life; You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me; Come Sunday; How Are Things In Glocca Morra?.
Personnel: Roberta Gambarini: vocals; Hank Jones: piano.
Easy to Love
Track listing: Easy to Love; Only Trust Your Heart; Lover Man; On The Sunny Side Of The Street; Porgy, I's Your Woman Now/I Loves You, Porgy; Lover Come Back To Me; The Two Lonely People; Centerpiece; Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry; No More Blues; Smoke Gets In Your Eyes/All The Things You Are; Too Late Now; Multi-Colored Blue; Monk's Prayer/Looking Back.
Personnel: Roberta Gambarini: vocals; James Moody: tenor sax and vocals (3, 8); Tamir Handelman: piano (1, 3-14); Gerald Clayton: piano (2); John Clayton: bass (2, 3, 5, 8, 11); Chuck Berghofer: bass (1, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14); Willie Jones III: drums (1-3, 5, 8, 11, 14); Joe LaBarbera: drums (4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13).