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.

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