June 19, 2009
The really great ones make it sound easy: like walking down the street, nothing to it. That applies to instrumentalists as well as singers. Vocalist Roberta Gambarini unequivocally falls into that category. Friday night at Dazzle, Gambarini showed why she's garnering increased attention in the jazz world and why many people are placing her in the very top rankings of female jazz vocalists.
Gambarini is originally from Italy, but she's fluent in both English and bebop. At her Dazzle performance she breezed through a dozen jazz standards showing poise, grace and confidence as a singer and as a performer. Her easy-going demeanor belied the vocal fireworks she ignited throughout the set. She has complete control of her delicate soprano, and she displayed a remarkable range. Plus, she has the jazz chops. The best example of that was her rendition of "On the Sunny Side of the Street, on which she scatted the solos recorded by Sonny Stitt and Dizzy Gillespie. Note for note. Fluent in bebop indeed. She had written some words to the solos, but primarily she raised the art of improvisatory scat singing several notches. Having perfect pitch, she commenced several songs by herself, singing unaccompanied for several measures before the band joined in.
Her backup band included some of Denver's finest. Not the cops, but an A list rhythm section. Pianist Eric Gunnison, formerly accompanist for jazz diva Carmen McRae, has worked with her numerous times over the years and performs on her forthcoming album due for release this August. He alternated between tasteful accompaniment and fiery solos. The always active Paul Romaine on drums and the solid Mark Simon on bass completed the rhythm section.
Gambarini didn't stick exclusively with simply singing. During one song she created a trombone sound (or was that a flugelhorn?). Whichever, it had a warm mid brass timbre, and it all looked and sounded totally incongruous coming from the diminutive singer. She sang "Estate" in its original Italian, and even though I didn't understand a word, it was one of the more emotional performances of the evening. The surprise selection of the evening was a Willie Nelson song, "Crazy," which she made fit right in with the classics from the Great American Songbook.
She tours throughout the world and makes a habit of hobnobbing with the best players in jazzmusicians like James Moody, Roy Hargrove, Jeff Hamilton, Gerald Clayton, Al Foster and, of course, Hank Jones. Besides just listening, checking the company kept by new jazz artists is another good way to judge their jazz cred. Gambarini's got it.