Laurie is a singer, lyricist, performing artist, recording artist and Chair of the Vocal Program at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, California.
Fearless Bay Area vocalist Laurie Antonioli has never shied away from plunging into jazz’s deepest pools. She’s raced through bebop steeplechases with cult saxophonist Pony Poindexter, collaborated with Bobby McFerrin during his formative San Francisco years, performed and collaborated with tenor sax legend Joe Henderson, and recorded a breathtaking duo album with pianist Richie Beirach, just for starters.
With her latest project, Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light, Antonioli plumbs new emotional depths exploring her earliest musical inspiration, the vividly confessional songs of Joni Mitchell.
An internationally acclaimed jazz singer and influential educator, Antonioli doesn’t just interpret Mitchell’s music, she unveils unexpected emotional insights and uncovers submerged musical ideas while turning each song into her own revelatory tale. “Joni’s music is such a part of me, it’s like a second skin,” says Antonioli. “So is jazz, of course, but this goes even deeper. It’s where I started. You can hear how much she has influenced me now that I’ve come out with this recording.”
Mitchell’s songs have been so widely embraced by jazz singers in recent years that her music is ready for inclusion as the most contemporary chapter of the American Songbook. Part of what sets Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light apart is that Antonioli approaches Mitchell’s music as a jazz artist who leads a working band that, together, retains their group sound while also paying homage to a widely-known repertoire of music. This same band is also featured on her critically acclaimed 2010 album American Dreams (Intrinsic Music).
Indeed, Antonioli credits her longtime pianist Matt Clark, a devoted Joniphile, with inspiring her to tackle the project. He plays for all of her vocal classes at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, where Antonioli is the founding director of the vocal jazz department. Hanging out between courses he “started playing ‘Boho Dance’ and I started singing along,” Antonioli recalls. “I asked: do you know this tune, do you know that one? And he knew them all, by heart, just about every song she ever wrote. That was the moment I knew we had to do this project.”
The album opens with a version of “People’s Parties” so lush, vulnerable, and beautiful that Antonioli leaves no doubt about her ability to put a personal stamp on Mitchell’s most soul- baring songs. Antonioli’s arrangement makes brilliant use of the singer Theo Bleckmann, who contributes the lapidary background vocals. Antonioli captures the yearning for transcendence amidst the quotidian in “Barangrill,” a Sheldon Brown arrangement in which his overdubbed clarinets hint at numinous secrets behind everyday encounters.
If one track in particular makes the album a required acquisition for Mitchell fans it’s the discovery of “Eastern Rain,” an obscure early song best known from Fairport Convention’s 1969 album What We Did on Our Holidays (but that Mitchell herself never recorded). Brown’s arrangement makes a fascinating connection, summoning a Balkan flavor with a kaval-like cadence from a clarinet minus a mouthpiece as a “ghost voice” in the intro and ending, as well as setting the song in a 7/8 meter, the most typical Balkan time signature. The song started as a folk song and ends up as a mysterious yearning for love, with an exotic backstory one can imagine through the layered soundscape created by the musicians. In fact, the American Dreams Band’s approach is one of layers, group improvisation, and combining different instruments, Antonioli’s voice often taking on wordless participation. The bass clarinet shows up throughout the recording and is one of the defining sounds of the band.
Dave MacNab’s arrangement strips the romance away from “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” as Antonioli lays bare the consuming desperation of substance abuse. And for sheer emotional reinvention, her reharmonized version of “Both Sides Now” transforms the song into a gentle lament over dues paid rather than a triumphant declaration of wisdom gained through maturity. On “Woman of Heart and Mind,” the reharmonization is far subtler but equally effective, with Antonioli’s dark and womanly sound giving the song even more bite.
A master scat singer, Antonioli finally lets loose on “This Flight Tonight,” swooping from her translucent upper register to her burnished chest tone. Brown’s liquid clarinet sets up a haunting version of “River” with all the quiet intensity of a whispered prayer. The album closes with the supple, playful funk of “California,” and an unadorned version of “Marcie,” a sharply etched portrait of loneliness from Mitchell’s debut album Song to a Seagull. Together they serve as a parting reminder that Antonioli knows when a new perspective can add to a song, and when there’s no need to improve on perfection.
A Bay Area native, Antonioli started playing guitar and writing songs as a teenager in the early 1970s, inspired by the era’s definitive singer/songwriters, particularly Joni Mitchell. She caught the jazz bug listening to her grandmother’s 78s of Nellie Lutcher, the jazz pianist and vocalist whose sassy style resulted in numerous R&B hits in the mid-1940s. Her jazz investigations led her to Billie Holiday, who inspired Antonioli to start singing standards and improvising.
“All through high school and my teen years Joni was a primary focus,” Antonioli says. “I played and wrote songs on my guitar, and learned a lot of her open tunings. Some of the songs on the new recording I’d actually done as a teenager and it felt very natural to interpret them in this setting. I veered off into jazz when I was 18 and was also very much aware of Joni’s relationships with Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter. In a weird way we were in our jazz phases at the same time.”
Laurie studied for two years at Mt. Hood Community College’s pioneering jazz vocal program in Portland, Oregon. She started absorbing the seminal recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Lee Morgan, while soaking up musical wisdom in person listening to the brilliant vocalist Nancy King. Back in the Bay Area, she had a chance to put her rapidly maturing scat chops to work at the age of 20, when Mark Murphy started inviting her to sit in at his weekly gig at The Dock, a music spot in Tiburon.
“Nancy and Mark used their voices like instruments, improvising with ease, while also being able to touch people deeply with a lyric. This was very provocative to me,” she says. “Mark was so generous about inviting me on the bandstand, always inviting me to sit in and sing. At that young age I was into bebop, big time, and all that scat singing led me to Pony Poindexter.”
Poindexter, a marvelous musician, deft vocalist, and dedicated entertainer, provided Antonioli with invaluable bandstand training and insight into the jazz life. The New Orleans-born saxophonist had cultivated an avid following in Europe, where he had lived for much of the 1960s and 70s. He recruited the 22-year-old Antonioli for an extensive European tour that turned into an eight-month sojourn in 1980.
“Pony taught me in the oral tradition, all those Bird and Diz tunes—scat syllable for scat syllable,” Antonioli says. “We’d do two sets. We sang bop syllables in tandem. I got to sing one song per
set with lyrics. I’d usually do a ballad. In fact, at that time, the song ‘Left Alone,’ by Mal Waldron and Billie Holiday, was one of my favorites. Meeting Mal in Munich during this time was synchronistic.”
Antonioli recorded her debut album for Catero Records, 1985’s Soul Eyes, a ravishing duo session with piano great George Cables (the title track features Mal Waldron’s lyrics for his oft- played standard, which he gave to Laurie after hearing her sing in Munich). Throughout the decade, she was one of the region’s most visible singers, booked at leading venues and festivals with her own band, performing regularly with Bobby McFerrin and sitting in with luminaries like Tete Montoliu, Jon Hendricks, and Cedar Walton at Keystone Korner. She forged particularly close ties with Joe Henderson, a creative relationship that lasted some two decades until his death in 2001.
“I’m so grateful I got in at the tail end of a scene that no longer exists: the opportunity to interact and absorb the music from the masters,” Antonioli says. “That’s how I learned. Teaching as much as I do, I’m always trying to make sense of things I learned through osmosis, and translate that into information for students.”
Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light isn’t Antonioli’s first innovative foray into her musical roots. Her second album, 2004’s Foreign Affair, is a bracing blend of post-bop jazz and Balkan music created with players from Serbia, Albania, Germany, and the U.S. A collaboration with bassist and composer Nenad Vasilic, the project draws on her Montenegrin roots, an interest ignited by the Eastern European music she heard growing up. She then discovered the Bulgarian Women’s Choir—a “life-changing” experience, says Antonioli—and assembled a band with Balkan musicians while living in Austria.
In 2005, her long-running partnership with Richie Beirach culminated in the release of The Duo Session on Nabel Records, a critically acclaimed album featuring Miles Davis jazz standards and Antonioli’s lyrics set to the pianist’s compositions. “The quality of this record is almost unrivaled,” Concerto magazine wrote. “And if we were to hear something better we’d have heard the new Ella.” A second duo album with Beirach, featuring his originals with lyrics by Antonioli as well as spontaneous duets, is scheduled for release in 2015.
Antonioli’s work as an educator kept her off the U.S. scene for some years. At the recommendation of her mentor Mark Murphy, KUG University hired her as a professor for the vocal jazz department in 2002. Founded by Sheila Jordan, the prestigious program had featured a succession of vocal masters, including Sheila Jordan, Mark Murphy, Andy Bey, and Jay Clayton.
In the summer of 2006, she returned to the Bay Area to run the Vocal Jazz Studies program at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley (formerly the Jazzschool). Antonioli developed a unique eight-semester Vocal Performance program for the “solo” singer, and the Conservatory was recently accredited as the only stand-alone jazz institution in the United States, Antonioli’s curriculum holding up under the rigors of reviewing committees.
“I’ve poured a great deal of my creative energy into developing this program,” she says. “Jazz has allowed me to travel in the world, record, teach. It’s been an amazing form of practice and discipline. But ultimately, it’s the ‘feeling’ of the music I hope to capture and bring to the classroom. The classroom, you see, is one of the few places students can access learning this music anymore. I hope to keep it from becoming a sterile academic art form, which is, frankly, a big problem in jazz education. My recipe: the singers perform weekly with the best instrumentalists I can hire. Hands-on experience with musicians who are better than they are: simple, and how we all learned ‘back in the day.’ Ultimately it’s on the students to find their way. Becoming an artist is a solitary pursuit and no amount of education can “make” someone into an artist.”
Antonioli gained widespread attention with the release of 2010’s American Dreams, a project encompassing unlikely jazz fare like the cowboy lament “Dreary Black Hills” and “America the Beautiful” as well as her extraordinary collaborations with Austrian pianist/composer Fritz Pauer, best known to American jazz fans as the longtime accompanist of trumpet legend Art Farmer. The album served as a potent reminder that Antonioli is a major talent, an artist with a global vision rooted in American soil. “It is not hyperbole to say that Laurie Antonioli is emerging as the most important vocalist, let alone jazz vocalist, this decade.” wrote C. Michael Bailey in his review of the album.
With Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light Antonioli once again extends the possibilities of jazz, providing new insight into some of the era’s best-loved songs. Joni Mitchell is no longer performing but Ms. Antonioli is in her prime as a vocal artist. Having carried Joni’s music with her for over forty years, she is a profoundly appropriate interpreter of this multifaceted, poetic, and deeply personal music. •