Dana Lauren: Songs From Her Heart

R.J. DeLuke By

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What does it take for someone who has been singing since she was a toddler—and had her sights set singing as a vocation since in elementary school—to make a strong go of it? Great focus and a strong will would be necessary traits. Willingness to learn and a thick skin would also be valuable, particularly in the jazz genre, in which emotional depth and artistic truth go hand-in-hand with the sheer technique needed to pull off successful performances.

There are a lot of singers out there trying to do it. Few will ever reach the heights that, say, the marvelous Roberta Gambarini has reached in the last decade (and there are still stars for her to reach). But there are a handful with the promise to scale some heights, and among those is Dana Lauren, whose self-produced It's You or No One (2010) shows a singer of maturity beyond her 21 years. She posses a fine vocal instrument and a resourceful way of treating the standard repertoire that she loves.

Still a student at Berklee School of Music, she's been gigging since 2005, exhibiting the necessary focus and drive by bugging club owners and music industry folk herself, in order to get her foot into some doors. Renowned trumpeter Arturo Sandoval has played a key role, producing her first self-produced CD—Stairway to the Stars (2008)—and getting her a gig at the Blue Note in New York City. But most of the grunt work, including production of this latest CD, comes right from the youngster. With all that busy work, and her schooling as well, it didn't distract from creating a fine disk. Backed by a splendid group of musicians, Lauren shows off her considerable talent; one that opens the window to a bright future. But behind that talent is a person who is still humble, grounded, yet confident and determined.

"I really want this. And I know how difficult it is and how competitive an industry it is," she says assuredly, but without a drop of boastfulness. "If I'm not driven, no one's going to want to attach their name to mine."

There is a passion behind those words, and yet she's realistic about what it takes to secure that she's on the right path. It's a path that started when she was a toddler. She says home video evidence shows her singing—of all things—the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies television program with her father, "my favorite song to sing. I could barely talk, but I could sing that song word-for-word. It was really strange," she recalls. "But my mom always had music playing. My dad was always teaching me songs. I was always singing."

She's continued that path, taking private lessons throughout her elementary and high schools years—classical piano, jazz piano and classical voice—then attending the New England Conservatory, before switching to Berklee, where she has one semester to go before getting her degree. She's also been educated in the real world, singing in places like the Blue Note and Sculler's, in Boston.

"I always keep in my head that I never want to be done learning," says Lauren. "And I don't think any musician or any person in life is ever done learning. If a person feels that they've learned all they can learn, that's when you become cocky and ignorant. I don't think anybody wants to meet or hear anyone like that. At least I know I don't."

On the new disk, she covers songs including "That Old Black Magic," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "I Had the Craziest Dream," and "Give Me the Simple Life." She's fond of the classic repertoire and wants to go through that vernacular before she expands further. She does so with a band comprised of Joel Frahm on sax, Manuel Valera on piano, Luques Curtis on bass, Will Graefe on guitar and Jake Goldbas on drums. There's also a sweet guest spot by bassist Christian McBride. The arranging is done by Lauren and Valera (mostly Lauren), and they do so adroitly. It's another side of her talent.

"It was really important to me to do a different jazz vocal CD," she says. "Not so different that people will listen to it and not recognize the songs. I still wanted to make it swing. Do some standards like 'Old Black Magic' and 'Sunny Side of the Street,' but then so some songs that people haven't heard much before. And do some arrangements that were different."

"I love, love, love them," she eagerly states about jazz standards. She also knows it's a great learning ground and jumping off point for aspiring jazz musicians. "I think it's really important. To be a jazz musician you have to understand where it all came from and understand the music and all the musicians before you try to create something new and crazy and avant-garde." She notes that at the New England Conservatory, "a lot of people there were trying to sound different and crazy, but when you went to a jam session and called 'Bye Bye Blackbird,' they were like, 'Do you have a chart?' What?

"Brad Mehldau is one of my favorite jazz musicians," Lauren continues. "He's amazing. I had a chance to meet and talk to him ... He stresses the importance of being able to play bebop and understanding that music. Without it, he wouldn't be able to create the kind of music he does, that is so solid and influential. Stuff no other pianist has done before."

Lauren's recording is worthy of repeated listening. "That Old Black Magic" jumps forward, the band giving it an exotic rhythmic base that Lauren moves into, phrasing like a horn; doing it with sleek dexterity and an inviting manner. Frahm takes one of his many tasty solos on the record before the band bebops out, with Valera tossing in fleet and stylish piano runs. When Lauren re-enters, her approach is different, playing with the rhythm as well as the harmonies. "A Small Hotel" also comes out softly swinging; an uplifting jaunt, with Lauren dancing around the melody without stretching it too far. A ballad highlight is "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," a songs stamped indelibly stamped years ago by Frank Sinatra. But this rendering is a worthy addition, Lauren's supple voice—backed only by piano—blissfully assuring that those hours are surely the time that she's missed most of all. Lauren, backed by only Valera, imbues it with the right amount of pathos without being dreary; a delight.

"On the Sunny Side of the Street" is a duet with the brilliant McBride, who sets the pace with his strong sound. When Lauren enters, he carries the voice on his broad shoulders. The singer keeps her statement simple, bending a phrase and note here or there, blending nicely. Later, she plays gleefully with the rhythm, while McBride keeps the song tethered. Her voice is soft and graceful, her improvisations slight, but right.

"He's the man. He's the definition of The Man. He's amazing," says Lauren says of McBride, whom she met in 2008 at a summer jazz program in Aspen, Colorado, where she was a scholarship student. "Doing this song with him was kind of unreal. Being at Avatar (Avatar Studios, NYC), which is one of the greatest recording studios in the world. Studio A is where we recorded. Just to feel all the energy of the musicians that have been in that room. Harry Connick, Jr. recorded in there. Diana Krall recorded there. Jane Monheit. Herbie Hancock. So there's this energy in there. Then, recording with Christian. He swings so hard with such a full sound; you forget that you're just playing with one instrument. You feel like you're playing with an entire band. You don't even need the band with him. It swings so hard."

She adds, "Sometimes I listen to that and I really think about it, I have to ground myself. He's one of my close friends. Sometimes you forget when you know somebody, [just] how big they are. Christian is just big. He's legendary. And I had a chance to record with him, so it's pretty cool."

In planning for the recording, "I look for songs that not a lot of people have done. Like the title track. A lot of people have told me they've never heard of that song. It's such a great song ... They're old songs, but a lot of people haven't even heard them. I like to bring them out into light," says Lauren. "I feel really confident in the direction that I'm heading. What I'm doing now is taking kind of obscure standards and adding new life to them ... Sometimes I'll hear an arrangement of a standard and my jaw will drop. I'll say, 'You killed this. You ruined it.' It doesn't even sound like the same song. I never, ever want people to feel that way with me and my music.

"It's weird. I get a feeling when I practice a good song. It is the melody and the lyrics I have a connection to. Every song on this album I have an emotional connection to. 'Sunny Side of the Street,' for example. Freshman year [college] was an interesting time for me. It was kind of a dark time. I was trying to discover who I was, like most people at the age of 18. That recording just uplifted me. I'd have it playing in my room. And every time I listened to it I'd feel better. So in doing the new CD, I felt it was kind of like a beginning."

She adds, "This CD feels like the true beginning of my career. Me, as an artist, saying something. I felt like it was important for that song to be a part of it. Because of how it made me feel, at that time in my life. I am proud of my first CD. It does show that I was young. My friends who know me listen to it and say, 'I can tell you didn't produce this.' It's not what I would have chosen to do, necessarily. I do respect the decisions that Arturo [Sandoval] made. He, obviously, is an extremely accomplished musician and he did a beautiful job with everything. But I'm really proud of this CD because this is me. I made the calls. I picked the songs. I did the arrangements with Manuel. It was a cool experience for me. I feel like this is it. This is the one that's going to happen."

It began happening in Bloomfield, Connecticut, where she grew up in a family that appreciated music (as a youngster, her father sang in synagogue: "He used to make all the old ladies cry"). Her mother played the records of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Connick and Mel Torme. "I was surrounded by standards, vocally. Elton John was another major influence. He was the first concert I ever went to, when I was 7."

Dana Lauren Performing with Joel Frahm

She took classical piano lessons starting at the age of seven and started jazz piano at 14. In high school, she auditioned for the jazz ensemble. "It was a group of mostly seniors guys and I was a freshman girl. The director actually took the spot away from the other pianist and gave it to me, which caused a little bit of drama. But it was really exciting, because it was the first time I played in a group setting. I had never done that before. That's when I realized I really wanted to improvise. It was so much freer than the classical pieces I was playing. It's just something that I felt strongly that I could do."

As she got into the music, she began picking up CDs, Bud Powell and Wynton Kelly being among the first. Dave Brubeck was also an influence when she entered her teens. "I went to a Starbucks with my cousin ... They have these jazz compilations [CDs]. 'Strange Meadowlark' was on that, from Time Out (Columbia, 1959). I fell in love with it. So I went and bought all his CDs. He was a major influence on me when I was 13, 14.," she says, adding to the list "Freddie Hubbard. Ella Fitzgerald. I still do love her."

Singing is something she always did while she practiced piano. As she got into the music, "I knew that I wanted to sing jazz. It was just getting the chance to sing it in a performance setting. My choir did 'No More Blues.' A cheesy arrangement of it. My director gave me a solo." It got a great response and she eventually joined a jazz choir. Another key step was attending the summer band camp that is attached to the Litchfield Jazz Festival in Connecticut. She studied there with Jennifer Barnes, "an amazing vocalist. She really took me under her wing. I still talk to her sometimes. She was amazing. Explaining what would help set me apart from other vocalists. She said, 'I really think you have a lot of potential. But you have to practice. You can't rest on being really good at a young age. Because [if you do] you'll never get any better.' At the time I thought it was kind of harsh. But I look back and I see it's one of the many things that gave me that push."

Lauren began getting small gigs around where she lived. She was taking piano lessons at Martocchio Music with Damian Curtis. "I had a gig at a small event, a charity golf tournament. ... I was 15 and I needed a bassist. Damian said his brother was a really good bassist. At the time I didn't realize it was Luques Curtis, who's an in-demand bassist on the jazz scene. I had no idea. That's how we met. And he's still my bassist today. He's a Grammy Award-winning bassist now. It's weird how it all worked out."

In high school, she won the Outstanding Vocal Soloist Award at the 2006 Berklee College of Music High School Jazz Festival. She was on her vocational path. "Definitely. Even when I was in elementary school, I used to tell my parents, 'I'm going to be a singer. That's what I want to do.' So yeah, I knew that music was always what I wanted to do," she says.

At the New England Conservatory, she went through an intensive theory program, including ear training, dictation, transcribing solos and identifying chords. But the most helpful aspect was studying with Dominique Eade, who made an indelible mark. "She's amazing. She really helped me develop the sound of my instrument. Showing me how to use my voice in different ways."

She found the conservatory somewhat restrictive when it came to playing gigs outside of school to further hone her skills. Transferring to Berklee, she found an environment that fostered musicians who were able to get gigs. "My whole feeling is you learn during performance," she says. "I didn't want to be the person to graduate, and then be scrambling to get gigs. I want it so when I graduate, I already have a steady career. I feel like that's what I'm in school to do. Berklee is really supportive of that." After doing a week at the Blue Note earlier this year, "I missed my first week of classes. One of my teachers was joking. He said, 'Oh yeah. I'm going to punish you for performing at the Blue Note.' He said, 'No way. Don't worry about your classes. Go and perform and we'll figure it out when you get back.'"

Nonetheless, at NEC she still worked on getting gigs. "I pushed a lot of major clubs. I really pushed the gig at Regatta Bar [near Boston]. I think I was 19, two years ago. I got booked there. The 55 Bar in New York I played a bunch of times. I was constantly pushing to perform because I really wanted to," she says. "It would get frustrating. I'd send five e-mails and nobody would get back to me. But my dad always said the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I just kept contacting them ... people started to recognize my name."

Dana Lauren in the Studio with Christian McBride

A big break occurred by serendipity when, on her 18th birthday in 2006, she attended the Newport Jazz Festival with her mother. They were enjoying a performance by Sandoval and wanted to get a CD from the artist afterward, at a booth where he was autographing them. The line was too long, so they went to another stage at the Fort Adams State Park venue to see another performance. One their way out of that, there was Sandoval, speaking with a security guard.

Lauren fondly recalls, "So my crazy mom said, 'Let's go over talk to him.' I was, like, 'Oh my god, mom. No. Leave him alone.' I'm sure he just wanted to relax. But we walked over and he started joking with me .. My mom goes, 'She's a jazz singer.' I'm like, 'Oh my god. I'm so embarrassed.' I'm sure he gets that all day. 'I'm a singer, I'm a trumpet player, I'm a drummer. Listen to my CD.'"

She told the trumpeter she was a student at NEC, and he responded that he had a gig at Sculler's in Boston that fall. They exchanged phone numbers and Lauren figured that's where it would end. But that same afternoon, "we were watching Al Jarreau and George Benson play, and he called me. I looked at my phone and said, 'Oh my god. He's actually calling me. This is insane.' So I answered the phone and he gave me the dates at Sculler's. He said I could bring two songs and to make sure I brought the music. He said 'I'll call you when it gets closer.' That was it."

The gig went down as planned and there was the college freshman playing a major jazz club. "A lot of my faculty, my teachers, hadn't had the chance to play at Sculler's yet. So that was a little crazy. I remember talking to Dominique [Eade] at one point and saying, 'Do I really deserve this?' I felt kind of awkward at first. She said, 'If you have that kind of opportunity, then you deserve it.' She was so supportive and so cool. To have that support from her made it a lot easier."

Gigs with Sandoval in New Orleans, Miami, and in New York at Birdland, Blue Note and the Iridium followed. In 2007, she did her first record with Sandoval. Things have been going pretty well since. As she continues her education, she continues to be influenced by things she hears. Among them: the underappreciated (for her singing, that is), Doris Day. "I cannot stop listening to her," she says of the lady who was a noted singer before she hit the Hollywood silver screen as America's darling. "I love her. I think she has such a flawless voice and she does so many songs that I've never heard other singers do."

Adds Lauren, "I like to hear singers like that—that do music you haven't really heard much. Another person I love, and people think I'm crazy, I love Lady Gaga. I think she's brilliant. She's amazing. She can sing and she can play the piano. A group that I love since about age 14 is the Real Group (a cappella band from Sweden). Their intonation is flawless and their arrangements are so cool. I'm not really a big fan of vocal jazz, but I just love them."

As her career starts to grow, she's humbled by the praise she's received from reviewers. The subject of a recent feature in a Hartford, Connecticut, magazine, she looked upon the situation as surreal, a sign of her humility and level-headedness. "I look at it and I say, 'This is not real.' You know when you go to an arcade and you can get your face printed on a magazine?" she said with a chuckle. "That's what it feels like. It's amazing. I'm really excited."

Lauren also says she's gone through a "cleansing" in her personal life, looking forward. "I realized there were people in my life who were not positive influences on me, even though I feel like I'm a strong person and I'm not easily influenced by other people ... So I've made it a point to surround myself with people who are driven and focused and energetic and positive. When you surround yourself with people like that, it makes you feel better. That's something I really focus on."

Mature words from this young woman with a bright future. She's busy trying to book gigs in support of the new disk, and notes that she has a booking agent interested in possibly taking over those duties, enabling her to focus more on her schooling and her art.

As for the future, there's much to ponder and a lot to look forward to for this gifted musician. "I always have goals. I really want to go on tour. That's something I'm focusing on now. I want to travel and play every night," she says. Looking beyond, there are other aspirations. Why shouldn't there be? "The ultimate dream for most musicians is a Grammy. Just to be nominated," would be a blessing. "With a lot of hard work, it's one of my goals."

With her attitude and facility, don't be surprised to see that nomination and other accolades over the coming years. There is plenty of time for that. And plenty of talent.

Selected Discography

Dana Lauren, It's You Or No One (Self Produced, 2010)
Dana Lauren, Stairway to the Stars (Self Produced, 2008)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 5: Carla Ten Eyck, Courtesy of Dana Lauren

Pages 2-4: Courtesy of Dana Lauren

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