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."

Although not formally trained, Gambarini arranges most of her music and did nearly all of it on the new disc. The album title, she says, wasn't premeditated. "The concept came out after," says Gambarini. "I had some tunes that I knew I liked, that I connected with." Other tunes came during the process. "So In Love" was not planned initially. "I just decided to do it in the studio. Then later on, when I saw the list of tunes. I saw there was a theme, a kind if unified selection. I also decided to add the two tunes that I had recorded a long time ago, in 2001. I felt they would be homogeneous with the rest of the tunes. They would fit. So I decided to put them in. It wasn't planned ahead."

Selecting songs is a personal thing for an artist. "To select a tune, what I look for is a story—something in the song I can connect to on a profound level. It's usually something in the lyric, but also the melody's very important. It's a combination of three factors. It's got to be something that makes it so I can connect with the tune on a personnel level," says the singer. "For arrangement, all I look for is a presentation that allows the song to be the center of attention and the message of the song to be delivered in the most direct and truthful way possible. The arrangement is just a tool for the song to be presented and communicated in the purest way possible for me."

Leaving room for improvisation is also an important facet. "Absolutely," she says. "Because of the nature of our work, if there's no improvisation and if everything is predetermined from the beginning, then I believe that truthfulness cannot be communicated. We change every minute. We're never the same. If there's no room for us to express the changes that we go through, there can't be any truthfulness. In my presentation there's always room for improvisation or changes of expression."

The songs brought in for So In Love from the 2001 session are "Medley from Cinema Paradisio" and "You Must Believe In Spring." They were recorded after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and the latter song took on a special significance.

Gambarini was in her New York apartment when images of the airplane attacks on the Twin Towers came on her television. Naturally, there was chaos, confusion and fear. She says the events made her feel more like a New Yorker and an American.

"I was scheduled to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival in mid-September. There was a question whether we were going or not going. For a few days planes couldn't leave, then when they allowed a few planes to leave, everybody was traumatized. You didn't really feel much like flying. But I'm glad in the end I did. (She flew out Sept. 15) We went to the stretch of coast near Monterey. I have a lot of friends in Big Sur. There's a studio in Big Sur near Pfeiffer Beach, which is one of my favorite places. ... I went there and I recorded with George Mraz and Eric Gunnison and Al Foster. We recorded these tunes and, it seemed to me ("You Must Believe In Spring") was a good choice of song and of lyric, given the tragic situation. It reflected what I was thinking at the moment and what I was trying to do, which was trying to produce music and try to produce beauty in a situation where everyone was still very much in shock."

Roberta GambariniFor any jazz singer, the pianist is very important. Gambarini says the three on the record date—two youngsters, Tamir Hendelman and Gerald Clayton, and the veteran Eric Gunnison—are all special. "I've known all of them for a long time. Gerald was introduced to me by Benny Carter when he was 16. I've known Eric for many, many years. Eric was the piano player for Carmen McRae, so in addition to knowing him for about 10 years, since I moved to the States, I was also very familiar with his playing before. I saw him live many times with Carmen, in Italy. Tamir was on my first album. He's been a friend for many years. Those are three of my favorite piano players."

Having good musicians around her helps her be at her freest in the music. Gambarini has always, it seems, had fine people around her, including George Mraz, Willie Jones III, Hargrove, Moody, Jeff Hamilton, Chucho Valdes, Cedar Walton, Russell Malone and many more. She has also recorded a number with Dave Brubeck for a yet-to-be- released album the legendary pianist is doing for Disney Productions. Gambarini sang "Alice in Wonderland" with Brubeck.

Roberta Gambarini"Those musical associations are among the great parts of her long trip from her home town of Torino, where her parents, Giuseppe and Anna Maria, listened to jazz music. Her father played some sax and liked Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins, so there was lots of music in the house and lots of jazz. The Gambarinis had a special fondness for the tune "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and their daughter was named after the Jerome Kern musical revue "Roberta" from which the song came. (In the 1935 RKO film, Roberta, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance to that song).

They also took their daughter to venues where American jazz greats played, and Roberta was able to see some of them. She listened to their music on record too, and not just Carmen McRae, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and so on, but instrumentalists like Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and bands like Duke Ellington. So Gambarini always had a connection to jazz, as well as to the English language, which she began studying as a child.

There was no music training in Italian schools, but as a teenager she met some people who were involved in a network of jazz clubs around Northern and Central Italy. They would organize gigs and at times get calls to play with touring Americans like Dexter Gordon, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Johnny Griffin. She ended up doing some gigs and little by little entered into the professional circuit. She longed to come to the United States, but it wasn't economically possible.

Then she heard about a program at the New England Conservatory of Music that could get her to the U.S. and into a program to get some training and also perform and teach. First she sent tapes, then went for a live audition and was accepted. She moved to the Boston area in 1998. Shortly after that, she entered the Thelonious Monk Institute's vocal jazz competition. She finished third there and got some buzz. She made contacts on the New York scene and did some gigs there. She heeded her inner call to get to the Big Apple, passing on the NEC program.

Benny Carter was an initial champion of the singer in the U.S., and other veterans like Clark Terry and James Moody were also key. Moody has been a part of her projects ever since, right up to So In Love. Hank Jones also became an important figure, and the two have done tours together in addition to the excellent duet recording.

It might be worth quoting what Jones, an elite jazz pianist, told this writer in 2003 about Gambarini: "Given a chance for people to hear her, a lot of people would become fans immediately. She has a versatile style and she has a voice that is almost limitless as far as range is concerned. She has wonderful clarity. You can understand every word she says, which is not possible with some singers. ... Her versatility reminds me of Ella Fitzgerald. I worked with Ella for about five years. ... She certainly has the versatility that Ella had. If she gets a chance to be exposed like she should be in this country, there's no question she'll be recognized as one of the great singers to come along perhaps in a generation. Without mentioning any names, I'll go on record as saying she's better than the ones I've heard, by far. There's no comparison. Playing for her is one of the highlights of my life. It's a pleasure working with someone like that. It doesn't become work at all. It's a pleasure."

So, guys with great jazz pedigrees discovered Gambarini about a decade ago and her fan base grows, the more people get to experience the music. She comes through the legacy of Ella and Sarah and Carmen, and there is no one doing it these days who carries those flags with more style, strength and spirit. Her recognition is growing.

"I'm grateful I had the opportunities that I had, honestly," says Gambarini, who always speaks with humility. "I could never have had those opportunities if I hadn't moved (to the U.S.), as heavy as it was. As I look back, it was very, very difficult. It still is, to a degree. Your status changes, your friendships. My family is still all in Italy. So it was very, very difficult choices on a personal level.

Roberta Gambarini with James Moody

"I realize it was necessary. I'm very happy. I love this country. I feel like I really belong. It's my new home. I have a lot of friends. Moody and Linda (his wife) are like family to me. It was a good move and it was worth it, at least for me. I grew up with this type of music. Those (jazz musicians) were my idols and (playing with them) were my dreams. The dream of living in New York. It was all worth the sacrifices.

Gambarini toured much of the summer with the Roy Hargrove big band in Europe and is part of a Dizzy Gillespie birthday celebration at New York City's Blue Note in late October. Her schedule is heavy throughout the year, including dates overseas.

"I have a lot of future desires. It's a matter of organizing the schedule," says Gambarini. "I would like to work more with Paquito D'Rivera. (A few years ago) we had started putting together songs for a project, which would have some Cuban songs—kind of an eclectic mix. But we didn't have the time because we were both all over the world. I want to try to get together with him again and talk about that project.

"Generally, I would like to do more music from Latin America. By that I mean boleros, Cuban music, especially the romantic, melodic songs of those areas. I love also Argentinean music, mostly tango and Astor Piazzolla, so who knows."

At the Umbria Jazz Winter festival, between Christmas and New Year's Eve, she is involved in a program doing Italian songs from between the 1950s and 1960s, "songs that have a heavy influence of American music and standards. They can work well in a jazz context. It's going to be fun."

"It's a dream come true," she says, looking back again at her dreams to become a singer and how things have come to pass. "The main thing that really shocks me every time is ... I was at the Hollywood Bowl last week. It was big band night and I was singing both with Roy Hargrove's big band and the Dizzy All-Stars big band. I was up there on stand with James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Claudio Roditi—all people I used to go and see. It's a great experience. I went to see James Moody with my parents when I was 9. That's still the greatest thing. I still have to pinch myself. It's all really incredible."

Granted, but it's all well earned.

Selected Discography

Roberta Gambarini, So In Love (Groovin' High/Emarcy, 2009)
Roy Hargrove, Emergence (Groovin' High/Emarcy, 2009)
Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, I'm BeBoppin' Too (Half Note Records, 2009)
Roberta Gambarini, You Are There (Groovin' High/Emarcy, 2007)
Roberta Gambarini, Easy to Love (Groovin' High, 2006)

Photo Credits

Page 1: John Kelman

All Other Photos: Courtesy of Groovin' High Records

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