Roberta Gambarini: Learning to Love Jazz

Samuel Chell By

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Not long ago a veteran Chicago jazz disc jockey played a track from a female vocalist's new CD only after complaining on the air about the seemingly unending stream of new recordings by female singers sent to his notice each week. The exception to his policy not to play them was due, he explained, to the sender's being a close friend and loyal listener of the show.

From the evidence, the radio announcer's observations about the number of vocal recordings by women would appear valid, but the decision not to play them is regrettable if not without merit altogether. Despite the undeniable challenges, female vocalists are producing some of the freshest, most inventive and, from a jazz educator's perspective, edifying recordings of the present millennium. As deserving as the artist may be, it's the attentive listener who stands to reap the bulk of the rewards. Above all, it is an Italian visitor to these shores who offers listeners in the country of the music's origins an illuminating path to the art of the founding father of jazz improvisation, Louis Armstrong, as well as the revolutionary music created by Charlie Parker, the player most often acclaimed for his mastery of a new and complex musical "language." From her first major album, Easy to Love, to her most recent, So in Love, Roberta Gambarini has offered to listeners an adventure in learning, from head-over-heals infatuation to a full-blown love affair with jazz.

Roberta Gambarini
Easy to Love
Groovin' High

Many listeners will have heard nonagenarian pianist Hank Jones' claim that Roberta Gambarini is the best female jazz singer to come along since the mid-1950s (translation: she's the first bona fide successor to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan). And for anyone who has listened attentively to her head-spinning American debut, Easy to Love, the venerable pianist's statement is unlikely to surprise. To hear Gambarini's version of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" on her first major album is not merely to be seduced by her talent but to be placed in position to experience the musical consciousness of three of the music's all-time creative giants.

Upon hearing Gambarini perform not merely the aforementioned Jimmy McHugh chestnut but the intricate bop version of the tune plus the solos by the tenor saxophones of Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins separated by the trumpet solo of Dizzy Gillespie, as recorded on Sonny Side Up (Verve, 1957), with Gambarini replicating each of the solos (and in the same register as the respective horns), from Stitt's full mellow middle to Gillespie's stratospheric playfulness to Rollins' rumbling nether tones, is revelatory, especially to any listener familiar with the original recording. (Veteran jazz critic Nat Hentoff, writing the liner notes on the original Verve recording, gives the first solo to Rollins. For once, the astute and trusted Hentoff gets it wrong: the first solo is Stitt's, and Gambarini rightly identifies it as such in her vocal transcription.)

Certainly, there are jazz singers current and past with chops comparable to Gambarini's but, searching through memory, the most devoted fan of scat or vocalese is hard-pressed to come up with so dazzling a tour-de-force, executed with such confidence and ease that someone unfamiliar with the original solos might mistake the singer's as improvised. In fact, the language is neither scat nor vocalese: it's the language of Charlie Parker and bebop that the vast majority of the listening public, and perhaps no negligible number of jazz fans, seems unable to "hear." Ask any educator who has taught a jazz appreciation or jazz history course in a classroom of students representing a general cross-section of listeners, young or old, about the greatest challenge of teaching such a class (guaranteed to attract large enrollments when filling a Fine Arts requirement). Contrary to popular notions that the major problem is students' inability to "get" the daring originality and breath-taking beauty of Louis Armstrong's classic 1920s recordings or, at the other end of the spectrum, the extended, late free-form flights of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane between 1966 and 1967, the primary challenge for most students is grasping the meaning of those complex, Joycean streams of notes being played by Parker, Gillespie and pianist Bud Powell on their 1940s Dial and Savoy recordings. (No longer is there any gain to be had in explaining to youthful listeners that Gillespie's "Groovin' High" is based on the chord changes to "Whispering.")

Even musicians who profess to love and play jazz seem to be increasingly suspicious of the old truism— practically insisted upon by trumpeter/jazz apologist Wynton Marsalis and, more recently, at New York's 2007 Jazz in July Festival by pianist Bill Charlap —that every modern jazz player has first had to learn the language of Charlie Parker before innovation or meaningful creation can occur.

But the listener's difficulties, thanks to accomplishments such as Gambarini's, should be considerably lessened: she's doing what all of the great instrumental soloists admired by Marsalis, Charlap and others do as part of paying their dues—taking a Parker or Stitt, Rollins or Coltrane, Gillespie or Clifford Brown solo and transcribing it note for note, frequently followed by playing it at any speed and in any key. Those musicians who prefer not to see the music as such a strict, unforgiving taskmaster may be deceiving themselves. Only after the player has worked assiduously to master the vocabulary, syntax and articulation of the music—in effect, the "language"—has he or she earned the right to claim an "authentic" voice which, though very much in the present and focused on a creation yet to be realized, is continually reflecting the tradition of this indigenous African-American art form.

Roberta Gambarini
So in Love

The point is that Gambarini is, in some respects, a musical anomaly, someone who, as Hank Jones testified, comes along once in a lifetime. She's not a "singer": she's a complete musician whose instrument happens to be the human voice (which is similar to, yet not exactly the same as, to revert to a cliche, "using the voice like an instrument"). For evidence, simply compare Gambarini's versions, factoring in even her command of English diction, of Cole Porter's "From This Moment On" (So in Love) or Jobim's "Chega de Saudade" / "No More Blues" (Easy to Love) with the interpretations of the same songs by more popular, more heralded jazz singers. Whatever listeners' final evaluation, the differences soon become obvious.

An even more edifying comparison is to listen to "Monk's Mood," the first track on what many have heralded as the most essential musical "find" of the new millennium, Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note, 1957/2005) followed by Monk's tune "Reflections" (Thelonious Monk Trio, Prestige, 1952). The next step is to listen to Gabarini's vocalization of the two songs in the closing medley of Easy to Love. She captures all of the elusive beauty, individuality and spirituality in Monk's playing, allowing some listeners to discover, for the first time, not merely Monk but Monk as heard by someone who understands him and, more importantly, can "translate" those understandings for the rest of us (or at least for those listeners who may have missed Carmen McRae's late-career, stand-out recording, including tenor saxophonists Clifford Jordan and Charlie Rouse, Carmen Sings Monk, Novus, 1998).

Of course, there's much more to being a jazz singer than pyrotechnics (otherwise, heaven help Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee), but Gambarini gives evidence of being able to distill a tune, such as the Cole Porter title song of So in Love, to its expressive essence. In fact, she's so strong—as a musician, actress, stage presence—that her self-assured confidence at times seems to be her greatest obstacle. One almost wishes she could be slightly less definitive, less perfect, more vulnerable and spontaneous in order to capture a bit more of the surprise, delight and emotion of in-the-moment creation, whether on the ballads or up-tempo numbers. So far, she's still singing for the listener—and a highly fastidious one to be sure— rather than directly to the listener. With the self-assurance of greater acceptance and fame, one hopes that she can forget about merely "impressing" the audience, whether with her chops or her ultra-calm composure, and emulate Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, who could be vulnerable and excitable, capable of reaching or straining yet not always attaining perfection. And no singer who hopes to convey the story in the song can afford to take lightly any of Frank Sinatra's masterful 1950s Capitol albums with arranger Nelson Riddle, 21 albums organized like "tone poems," each representing a high-water mark in the performance of American popular song.

It's of no little significance that Gambarini has singled out Louis Armstrong as her greatest vocal influence because she, like the putative inventor of scat singing itself ("Heebie Jeebies," 1926). not to mention the foremost jazz divas who followed him, approaches the human voice as a jazz instrument. Of course, Gambarini is no Fitzgerald or Vaughan—yet. But if she gets some of the same opportunities, she could come as close as anyone. She's still at a stage where she no doubt feels obliged to "prove" herself, but one can easily imagine her doing what Fitzgerald does when she "duels" a line-up of all-star instrumentalists one by one (and disposes of each) on "C-Jam Blues" (Bluella, Pablo, 1996) or coming close to what Vaughan does with "Autumn Leaves" (Crazy and Mixed Up, Pablo, 1982) and Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now" (In the City of the Lights, Justin Time, 1985/1999). Rare moments by both singers, fortunately captured on recordings—but, like McRae's Monk session, late in the careers of both. Just give the new challenger a little more time.

In sum, Roberta Gambarini proved with her first release that she is indeed special. More than that, she's singular, a polymath blessed not only with an exceptional instrument and enviable technique but with a genuine understanding of the "language" of jazz as spoken by its founding fathers and leading innovators along with a keen intellect and deep love of this music and its heritage (her knowledge of, and respect for, American jazz history is evident in her choice of friends, co- musicians and repertory) and, last but not least, speaking the English language as though it were her first— all of which put her, to borrow the description Ellington saved for Ella Fitzgerald, "beyond category."

That her last two albums have carried a sense of the anticlimactic should not be surprising. In effect, she's shown us her stuff; now's the time to hone her interpretive skills—and on a range of material that's likely to reach a broader audience. She transforms the Cole Porter title song of So in Love from a quasi-operatic, theatrical aria (it's from the musical comedy Kiss Me Kate) to a slow and intimate but no less intense ballad. The aforementioned "From This Moment On," taken at blinding speed but not at the expense of a single syllable, should please the staunchest jazz fan, and the tribute to the late tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, "You Ain't Nothin' But a J.A.M.F." should prove that this lady can sing the blues as though she were born in the land of their origin.

Finally, by once again teaming up with legendary saxophonist James Moody, who played a solo on "Mood for Love" (His Swedish Crowns, Dragon, 1949) that inspired King Pleasure (The Source, Prestige, 1952) and Eddie Jefferson (There I Go Again, Prestige, 1953) to create the cornerstone of modern vocalese, she cements the connection between the human voice and its instrumental equivalent. Some of the major instrumental voices in jazz (trumpeter Miles Davis, bassist Charles Mingus) have on occasion spoken of vocalese in derogatory terms. But they didn't have the opportunity of following closely the seminal influence of Moody's original solo—as evidenced in numerous recordings by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross not to mention an indisputable masterpiece like The Manhattan Transfer's Vocalese (Atlantic, 1985) or Kurt Elling's "Tanya Jean" (The Messenger, Blue Note, 1997).

Without undue hairsplitting, Gambarini's approach, as mentioned at the outset, is in some respects without precedent, intent on exposing the language of jazz improvisation—the creative thought process of the improvising musician—as well as the style, or particular "dialect," spoken in common by a Gillespie, Rollins and Stitt. Admittedly, there are a few signs on her most recent release that her endeavors at greater diversification are not always for the better. When taking a slow and relatively transparent tune like Willie Nelson's "Crazy" at a slower than customary tempo, and stretching it beyond several minutes, she can lose the listener's attention during the second half of the song—a danger made all the greater by spare accompaniment (as yet, Gambarini has not had the luxury of a large orchestra to work with) and the requirements of today's medium (Peggy Lee recorded hundreds of tunes from the Great American Songbook, bringing in each at 2-3 minutes per song—six tunes per side, or a 35-minute program, was considered ample by vinyl LP standards; the 80-minute capacity of the CD format, on the other hand, conditions consumers to expect considerably more—quantitatively speaking).

No review of So in Love would seem complete without some mention of the glammed-up, air-brushed image of the featured artist in a seductive pose on the front cover. However pleased the photographer/producer was with the visual production values, one only hopes the featured performer doesn't take it too seriously. It's the equivalent of a Playboy pin-up—artificial, disappointing and even a bit ominous. Moreover, it's questionable whether the audience for Gambarini's music-making will buy it. On the other hand, if that's what it takes to get Americans to learn their Latin, more power to their extraordinarily qualified teacher.

Tracks and Personnel

Easy to Love

Tracks: Easy to Love; Only Trust Your Heart; Lover Man; On The Sunny Side Of The Street; Porgy, I's Your Woman Now/I Loves You, Porgy; Lover Come Back To Me; The Two Lonely People; Centerpiece; Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry; No More Blues; Smoke Gets In Your Eyes/All The Things You Are Too Late Now; Multi-Colored Blue; Monk's Prayer/Looking Back.

Personnel: Roberta Gambarini: vocals; James Moody: tenor sax and vocals (3, 8); Tamir Handelman: piano (all except 2); Gerald Clayton: piano (2); John Clayton: bass (2, 3, 5, 8, 11); Chuck Berghofer: bass (1, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14); Willie Jones III: drums (1-3, 5, 8, 11, 14); Joe LaBarbera: drums (4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13).

So in Love

Tracks: So In Love; Day In, Day Out; Get Out Of Town; Crazy; That Old Black Magic; Estate; Beatles Medley: Golden Slumbers / Here, There And Everywhere; I See Your Face Before Me; From This Moment On; You Must Believe In Spring; This Is Always; You Ain't Nothing But a J.A.M.F.; Medley From "Cinema Paradiso": Main Theme / Song For Elena; Over The Rainbow.

Personnel: James Moody: tenor sax; Roy Hargrove: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tamir Hendelman: piano; Eric Gunnison: piano; Gerald Clayton: piano; Chuck Berghofer: bass; Neil Swainson: bass; George Mraz: bass; Jake Hanna: drums; Al Foster: drums; Montez Coleman: drums; Jeff Hamilton: drums.

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