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 songskind 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 Roditiall 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.
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)
Page 1: John Kelman
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Groovin' High Records