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Ashley Pezzotti: Telling Her Story

R.J. DeLuke By

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I wanted to approach [composing] from a very accessible way, almost like I'm playing and writing a letter to my nine-year-old self. —Ashley Pezzotti
As a child, Ashley Pezzotti, from Brooklyn, by way of Miami, was singing and performing. It hasn't stopped. And though only 23, it seems she has a strong career ahead of her.

The title of her first album, We've Only Just Begun, out earlier this year, is a harbinger by title. As a work of art, its very strong. It displays not only an outstanding vocal instrument with a sassy flair for negotiating the jazz genre, but solid songwriting—something that is important to her.

Also in 2019, with the recording behind her, she was enrolled in the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program, where she was mentored by a number of noted jazz musicians, most importantly singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who made an impact on a career that is already ascending.

"Dee Dee Bridgewater changed my life," says Pezzotti. "She's the greatest mentor I've ever had."

Pezzotti considers herself a jazz singer, but prior to investigating that music, she was singing R&B and "was in a metal band for a little while. I don't pigeon hole myself into one thing, but I think when you're a jazz singer you can do anything."

Her family jokes that her singing began when she was "pretty much out of the womb. At least that's what my parents tell me," says the bright and upbeat Pezzotti. "I don't know anything else. I wouldn't change it." The performing spawned in front of her grandparents, but quickly had her on small stages at the age of four.

"My mom told me my grandparents used to babysit me and I would put on little concerts for them. I would get on the coffee table and perform for them. My grandparents told my parents, 'You have to take her to voice lessons. She has a gift.'"

Her mother found a place for vocal instruction, but the minimum age was nine. Pezzotti's gift was such that the rules were waived. She was four. "I couldn't read or write or anything. I was taking voice lessons and I guess the rest is history."

History, for recording, starts with We've only Just Begun. She brought in musicians that she had known for awhile, like saxophonist Alex Weitz, who attended the University of Miami with Pezzotti. "Ever since I met him, we've been collaborating. We co-write a lot of my originals and we perform a lot together. I thought he'd be a great fit for the record." Pianist Emmet Cohen she met in high school. "I thought he would be a great fit for my music, with his style and the mastery of his craft. Bob, we met in high school too. I've always admired his playing. Kyle, his playing speaks for itself. He's fantastic. I'm honored I got to work with this great group of musicians." It contains standards, but many originals. Sometimes with a young writer, quality can drop standing along songs that have set the bar high. Not the case here.

"I love jazz standards and I love the straight ahead vibe. I wanted to kind of write my own stories. I love jazz music, but so many people have recorded them. I wanted to tell my own stories with my own compositions, as well as the jazz standards. So I tried to write stories that were relatable to me in my life, so I could share them with people. That's why it's half originals, half standards. I wanted to share my stories."

A highlight is "I Hope You Find Her," a poignant ballad by the singer that showcases here rich voice and great feel for a melody; under the heady lyric, her delicate phrasing and ability to deliver the goods could almost go unnoticed. It's the story of a brokenhearted woman apparently hoping for a wonderful new love for her ex, until: "I hope she leaves you, I hope she makes you weep..." and more until "I hope you love her like I love you." Revenge can be sweet.

"September in the Rain" is a scat vehicle, "Drunk on Love" is an original with a smart lyric and bouncing swing. One could image Dave Frishberg doing it. "We've Only Just Begun" shows her sharp and confident attack, displaying a crystal voice that can go just about anywhere with superb vitality. "Darn That Dream" has always been a beautiful standard ballad and Pezzotti is exquisite, caressing and stretching the lyric in the manner of the masters. The closer, "Jackie," shows if she had to sit in with The Manhattan Transfer or New York Voices she could.

"I've been pleasantly surprised," she says. "It's always a scary thing when you share a piece of yourself with people, like I did with these compositions. I've been getting great feedback. Everyone's been enjoying my compositions, especially.

Pezzotti doesn't have an agent or a booking manager, so has been handing those tasks herself. But she's managed to do some touring with the music, doing shows in Miami and at Birdland in New York. Also in Georgia, Arizona and Chicago's Jazz Showcase.

I'm trying to make the effort to play at places because I really wanna share my tunes with everyone. It's been really fun. I'm having a great time. In each city I play with local musicians... It's cool to meet new musicians and have new conversations with people through the music."

Pezzotti was born in New York to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican/Ecuadorian mother, but they soon moved to Florida. [She has plans to move back to New York in August]. The Latin influence is inescapable, but she was classically trained and also did musical theater. "I started performing when I was a kid. I can't say the exact age, but I know I was on a Spanish channel... I performed a song in Spanish. I think I was nine years old. I was in competitions as a kid and performing in West Palm Beach. I did a Latin festival. I was singing salsa and meringue. I was also singing pop. I performed locally as a child. Then I got into rock and roll when I was in high school. I was in a band for a couple years. We performed locally. We wrote all our own tunes. But as most bands do, we broke up."

"I didn't discover jazz until I was a sophomore in high school. Even then, I didn't take it seriously until I was a sophomore in college. Jazz is the newest genre I delved into, and by far my favorite," she says. Her decision to make music a career wasn't something she stressed over, or that struck her suddenly. It was the world she was in. She enjoyed it and has never left.

"It's just always been how I've lived my life. I never thought, 'Maybe I can become a doctor or a lawyer.' I never thought about a career. I've just always done music. It always felt natural to me. I never really thought, 'Let me pursue music.' It's just something I've always done."

She listened to Marc Anthony, Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys and others early on. Her first jazz singer was Ella Fitzgerald. "I went to a performing arts high school and I was in the choir. They placed me into the jazz program, but I didn't know anything about jazz. Then I heard Ella for the first time. I heard her scat solo on 'One Note Samba.' From there I was influenced by Anita O'Day, Jon Hendricks, Chris Connor, June Christy. A lot of influences.

Pezzotti was selected to participate in the Grammy Jazz Ensembles in her junior and senior high school years, 2013 and 2014. She was named a YoungArts winner in jazz and popular voice categories around the same time. "I guess that gave me the nudge to pursue jazz. I went to the University of Miami. I didn't become serious about jazz until my sophomore year, when I started to delve into bebop and listening to instrumentalists and figuring out the improvisation thing. The high school programs gave me a push in the right direction and gave me more of an education about jazz... I wasn't aware and didn't have the right exposure."

At 16, she performed on national television with country star Keith Urban at the American Country Awards. "That was really fun. I never listened to country music and didn't know who Keith Urban was when I was invited to do this. It was before I did Grammy band. The Grammy Foundation invited me to perform with him. It was in Las Vegas. We had rehearsals. There were all these famous country stars like Carrie Underwood. I had no idea who anybody was. It was a really cool experience. It kind of gave me confirmation that I should be doing music and this is what I was meant to do."

Her recent participation in the Betty Carter program turned out to be an epiphany.

"It was truly amazing. I was in in D.C. for two weeks with the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program. The program focuses on young composers. Not only do you have to be a performer, but have great compositions. During the camp we workshopped a lot," she recalls. "We were placed into groups with other musicians and played each others' originals. We had a great faculty. It was Jason Moran, Casey Benjamin, Gregory Hutchinson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Chris Thomas and Marcus Printup. They each work-hopped us individually and as a group, on our compositions."

Of Bridgewater, she says, "She's such an incredible woman. I had opportunities to hang out with her, eat lunch and just talk about her life. She's such and incredible and inspiring women. She's accomplished so much. She gave great feedback to me. She left me very inspired. She challenged me and pushed me. I'm just so grateful to have been able to learn from her.

While she has a love of jazz, part of her vision is bridging the gap with other forms of music.

"I'm inspired by so many different genres... I want to be the female Miles Davis, where I'm always presenting something new and combining genres. R&B is such a huge part of my inspiration and things I've grown up with. The same with my Latin culture. I want to do more to combine those elements and incorporate it with the jazz that I'm influenced by as well."

She's thinking about her second recording. "I want to be a little more experimental, combining all of my influences on it. Showing the world what I have to say and who I am as a person. I do want to keep performing and playing with new people. I've had such a fun time on tour, it's made me want more."
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