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

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