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Roberta Gambarini: Making Listeners Fall 'So In Love'

R.J. DeLuke By

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It's been an out-of-the-ordinary career trip for Roberta Gambarini—a trip that's seen her go from a young girl in Italy, scatting along with records by American singers Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, to struggling to get singing gigs in her native land, to grabbing an opportunity to come to the United States, to gaining recognition by respected elders like Benny Carter, James Moody, Clark Terry and nonagenarian pianist Hank Jones, who has proclaimed her "the best jazz singer to emerge in sixty years."

She was accepted into certain jazz circles over a decade ago, and doors opened, even if slowly at first. But always behind that acceptance was a natural, exceptional talent, without which she wouldn't have opened certain ears and eyes— and doors—in the first place. She's blossomed, since coming to the United States in 1998, into one of the very best singers out there. She owns a wonderful instrument: her vocal cords, displaying power and nuance, rich textures and flexibility. And she's always working on how to convey a song with the right feeling and tell a story. It's important to her.

Conveying the song with meaning, making it special in some way to the listener, is the difference between artists and entertainers. Add to those qualities Gambarini's vocal magic, and the musical trips she takes listeners on become even more personal and delightful.

There are few artists of her quality, with complete musicianship along with that kind of vocal instrument, out there.

In her short recording career, Gambarini has produced music of consistently dazzling quality. She was nominated for a Grammy on her debut, Easy to Love (Groovin' High, 2006). Her second, a duet album with Hank Jones, You Are There (Groovin' High/Emarcy, 2007), is an exemplary model of singer/pianist grace and elegance. (Grammys, where were you?) Released over the summer was So In Love (Groovin' High/Emarcy 2009), putting Gambarini in settings ranging from duet to quintet. It's a fine addition to her discography and shows her getting better yet.

She's also found on two big band recordings released this year, Roy Hargrove's Emergence (Groovin' High/Emarcy, 2009) and I'm BeBoppin' Too (Half Note Records, 2009) with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. So it's been a busy year for the singer, who took awhile to get her first album released. Now her growing list of fans eagerly awaits the next one.

The new record shows her in full command, whether on ballads like the sumptuous title cut and the delicious "Over the Rainbow," or on swingers like "That Old Black Magic"' and "From This Moment On." She also takes on some The Beatles music, and takes a touching stroll through the Patsy Cline hit "Crazy." Yet another side of this sassy singer is the jazzy blues "You Ain't Nothin' But a JAMF," with a lyric she wrote to a melody penned by sax great Johnny Griffin. It's a gas, showing her scat powers and also how she can get down and funky. (Griffin died in 2008 and is one of three Gambarini friends to whom the album is dedicated, the others being Ronnie Matthews and David "Fathead" Newman, who died in 2008 and 2009, respectively).

Roberta GambariniBeatles songs may seem an odd choice from a girl from Turin, but she does a fine job with "Golden Slumbers/Here There and Everywhere" blended together. "Those are famous songs," she says. "I even heard Carmen McRae (McRae) sing 'Golden Slumbers" live many years ago. I knew the Beatles and the songs. There's a good version by George Benson also. [The Other Side of Abbey Road (A&M, 1969)]. So I was familiar with the tunes from many points of view."

Of the Patsy Cline hit, Gambarini notes it is "something I got hip to when I moved to the States. Strangely enough, Patsy Cline is not known in Italy. The great Willie Nelson is not a household name. It's known by people with a certain special interest. But you don't hear a lot of Willie or Merle Haggard on the radio (in Italy). That, too, was something new that I discovered when I moved here."

"I See Your Face Before Me" reveals a Frank Sinatra influence, a song she was hearing in her head leading up to the recording session. She says she particularly likes Sinatra 's way with ballads, "But I also remember Johnny Hartman's version that he did with John Coltrane [John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse!, 1963)]. And Miles Davis [Davis, The Musings of Miles (Prestige, 1955)]. It's a song that has had a lot of treatments from jazz."


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