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Denise Donatelli: Songbird With A Grammy Nomination

Denise Donatelli:  Songbird With A Grammy Nomination
Marcia Hillman By

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Los Angeles-based vocalist Denise Donatelli won a Grammy nomination with her third CD, When Lights Are Low (Savant Records, 2010). An East Coast native and a recipient of classical piano training, she turned to singing jazz, wound up relocating to the West Coast and has since pursued her performance and recording career. This interview was conducted shortly after her Grammy weekend experience.

All About Jazz: Talk a little about your musical background.

Denise Donatelli: I was born into a musical family. My mother was a singer in New York, before she and my dad married, and although my dad was a clothing manufacturer by trade, he played piano by ear. Music is in the Donatelli genes. My grandfather and uncles were musicians in Italy [and] as far back as I can remember, there was always music playing in the house. When I was three years old, my mother found me playing "Silent Night," by ear on the piano. My oldest sister was studying piano at that time, so my mother took me to her piano instructor, a Juilliard graduate and teacher to Keith Jarrett at the time. He told my mother that he wouldn't take on a student so young but changed his mind after he realized my potential. Classical piano lessons ensued, and I studied for the next 15 years. I won numerous Superior Awards at the National Federation of Music Clubs competitions and piano recitals, sometimes carpooling with Keith Jarrett.

AAJ: How did you find your way into singing and jazz?

DD: My oldest sister, who was also a classical pianist, was very much into jazz. We lived in a rural area of Allentown, Pennsylvania and music stores weren't conveniently located, so she subscribed to the Capital and Columbia music clubs. We were inundated with the most amazing jazz music and I listened to it all: Carmen, Sarah, Ella, Nancy, Joe Williams, Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Ahmad Jamal, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. I would sing along and memorized the lyrics of every standard. By the time I was eight, I could recite the lyrics to "Cloudburst" and "Gimme That Wine!" There was also a lot of Sinatra in the house. Jazz music touched me in a way that classical music couldn't.

Even though I was being groomed to be a classical pianist, by the time I entered my junior year of high school, I realized that I was disenchanted with classical music. I stopped my piano studies to the dismay of my parents. I loved to sing but couldn't overcome performance anxiety.

I married shortly after my first year of college and had two sons. Unfortunately, the marriage didn't work out and I was a single mother for most of their formative years. I didn't start singing again until they were teenagers and we were living in Atlanta. A musician friend of mine took me to a jazz jam and after much prodding and a couple of glasses of wine, I sat in with guitarist Russell Malone, who frequently stopped by the club when he wasn't touring with Diana Krall. After that, I started getting calls for gigs. During the day, I worked at Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and three nights a week I sang at the Ritz Carlton with a trio. That gig lasted for about four years. It was a lot of fun and that's where I honed my jazz chops. Every Friday night the regulars would come in and hang—including Freddy Cole, when he wasn't touring.

AAJ: How did you wind up on the West Coast?

DD: While working at Turner, I met some people from Los Angeles and decided to move west. I met Neal Hefti, and he gave me a list of clubs and bookers and I immediately started to book gigs. My first gig was with Tom Garvin. I recorded a demo with him and later my first CD, In The Company of Friends (Jazzed Media, 2005). My second CD was done with Geoffrey Keezer.I had been a fan of Geoffrey Keezer for some time, and got very excited when a friend of mine told me he was living on the West Coast as well. When I was looking to record my second CD, I hoped that he would write for me. I put the word out to mutual contacts and within a week, I got an email message from Geoffrey. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and musical collaboration.

AAJ: When Lights Are Low is your third CD. What led you to the concept and material choice?

DD: After working together on my second CD, What Lies Within (Savant, 2008), Geoffrey knew my capabilities and wanted to write arrangements that would better showcase my vocal abilities. We used the same process as we did when we were conceptualizing What Lies Within. I feel it's important that the arranger be inspired by the tune, so I sent Geoffrey a list of about 50 tunes or so, and we went through the process of elimination together. Geoffrey suggested "Don't Explain" and "Why Did I Choose You." The latter song was a top ten pick in USA TODAY, by Elysa Gardner, and Geoffrey received a Grammy nomination for his arrangement of "Don't Explain," for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying A Vocalist. The arrangement is haunting and poignant. I think it's the definitive arrangement.

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