Roberta Gambarini: Very Easy to Love

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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Roberta GambariniAlthough Italian-born vocalist Roberta Gambarini moved to the U.S. eight years ago, up to now she's been best-known and respected among her fellow musicians. With the release of her North American debut CD Easy to Love (Groovin' High, 2006), the general public is finally being introduced to the exceptional beauty, talent and professionalism that's been impressing top jazz artists for nearly a decade. All About Jazz caught up with this thirty-something "overnight sensation" as she was about to embark on a summer tour.

All About Jazz: I talked to Tamir [Hendelman, pianist on the Easy to Love CD], and asked him what makes Roberta Gambarini so special. This is what he said: "she's a real musician who does her own charts. She's down to earth, she's no diva, and has a great sense of time. Roberta really feels it, she has respect for melody, and her voice has the same subtleties as horns do."

Roberta Gambarini: Oh, wow. Thank you, Tamir.

AAJ: Any of that register with you?

RG: I'm happy, I feel honored, because Tamir's a great musician himself—the same things he says about me, I could definitely say about him. So he's the whole package. And that's also what [pianist] Hank Jones was saying of Tamir. We were traveling back from a gig at Sculler's, in Boston, and he was listening to the record and he said, "this guy is the whole package. He's got everything."

AAJ: It's so nice when everybody admires everybody... And then there was [singer] Meredith d'Ambrosio, who said "Roberta's got pipes, great range, and a brain; she reads well, picks things up fast, loves and understands jazz, and deserves the best. She's a queen."

RG: Oh, God. Thank you, Meredith. I love Meredith. I used to listen to her when I was back in Italy. Meredith and [pianist] Eddie [Higgins] were among the people I got to know very shortly after I moved to the States. And they were wonderful to me. I can say the same things about Meredith, that she's a real musician with a lot of feeling. I love her treatment of songs, there's always something interesting.

AAJ: She said something about your "long struggle." Does it have anything to do with the nine zillion people that are thanked on the back of your CD?

RG: Of course! The struggle was you don't know anybody, and I had no money. It was difficult. But I was lucky to find many true friends and musicians. I have a lot of people to thank, because any move of this type across the pond is not an easy one. First of all, the systems and everything in the societies and cultures are really different. You have to be willing to start from scratch when you come here. You have to tear down what there was before.

AAJ: You first came to Boston. Why?

RG: Because when I was back in Italy, I met [singer] Dominique Eade and her husband, [saxophonist] Allan Chase, from the New England Conservatory. I met them at a festival. And they told me about the existence of this very interesting program called "the artist diploma." I was already in career: it wasn't particularly exciting or rewarding, and the money wasn't pouring in. I made a lot of mistakes, a lot of stuff I would redo or do differently. I had gone as far as I could in Italy, being so stubborn and doing only what I wanted to do, and then it was time to go.

So at the right time came this artist diploma scholarship: a two-year program, where I would receive some private tutoring, which was good too, since I never went to school for jazz. I'm not an academically trained musician, I don't see music that way. I studied classical composition privately, and taught myself to play piano.

This program would allow me to perform, and also to teach some ensemble classes, which was very exciting. It was a competition, and I won the scholarship. So I moved there at the end of August 1998, and right away I learned that I had been selected among the semi-finalists of the Monk competition, which was to be held very shortly. As you might know, I got third place.

AAJ: Some people say you were robbed—that Terry Thornton got first place mostly because of her advanced age, and Jane Monheit got second only because she was the "it" girl du jour.

RG: No, I thought it was great, because I really was the only one in there who didn't belong, who wasn't already known. Plus, I was a foreigner, and people feel you differently. Considering all the elements, I think I got the best possible outcome.

Most of all it gave me the chance to meet people from New York and from the business in general, and I started getting calls. The first gig I did in New York was a tribute to [trumpeter] Kenny Dorham at the Shoenberg Center in Harlem, and [saxophonist] Jimmy Heath was on the gig. Then I got the chance to work with the late, great [drummer] Billy Higgins, and a lot of others, like [saxophonist] Harold Land, at the Jazz Standard. I began to feel that I needed to be in New York, so I moved here.

AAJ: Did you finish the two years in Boston?

RG: No. Unfortunately I couldn't really honor my commitment there—I was running up and down the East Coast—and I was stressed out.

AAJ: That often comes with the territory.

RG: True. But everything's a struggle: for heaven's sake, if you're a Pakistani boy making bricks for 50c a day, I would say that's a worse struggle than being in New York and trying to make it as a jazz singer. You may skip a few meals, but think of that—twelve hours making bricks—or even worse, living in a drought, where there's no food. You can be penniless in New York, but someone can invite you for a good dinner.

AAJ: In talking to people about you, someone actually called you "a cult figure." Do you know about that?

RG: Yeah... it's flattering, it's very nice. I think it's because most of my "notoriety"—or why I'm known to the jazz fans—is through word of mouth. And that's good, because I don't have a big publicity machine behind me, or access to the media. But I was lucky to know a great many wonderful musicians. I understand in this business it's hard for take a chance on somebody unknown, who speaks with the accent of a pizza girl...

AAJ: But you don't sing with an accent.

RG: I know, but still, it's someone who looks different, doesn't have the same history—a lot of people took the chance, and risked for me, and I really appreciate it. Without that, I'd be in my little room, singing to the birds.

AAJ: Somebody took a gamble...

RG: I really appreciate that, especially in a world where everything is calculated on money. People took chances because they loved the music—so many great musicians—[saxophonist] James Moody and his wife Linda, they were just great to me.

AAJ: Benny Carter?

RG: [Saxophonist] Benny Carter was one of the first people that I had a mentoring relationship with. And Hilma, his wife, who is great. Benny organized my first gig in Los Angeles, and told all of his friends, but Moody is my mentor too, a father-figure—everywhere he tries to plug me, and he speaks about me.

AAJ: Ever feel like quitting?

RG: Nooooo. If I did, what would I do? I don't know how to do anything! I don't even know how to sing the way I'd like to, so I'm always wanting to sing better and better.

AAJ: I think that's why jazz guys are living and working to such advanced ages: there's always something else to figure out.

RG: Hank Jones is the same. His attention and focus are always excellent; there's always something to reach for.

AAJ: Excellence is a word that's often used in our culture, sometimes very loosely.

RG: But it doesn't necessarily mean striving to get above everybody else—that's the competition factor. It's more like Ulysses—the instinct that drove Ulysses to go places—the demon of knowledge. The will and the grit to know things. That's why you can go on without food, because you have that hunger. When you understand something, there's a special pleasure in that—and musically, when you really hear something...

AAJ: I have a vision of you sitting in a bus station with your suitcase, looking at the cards on the bulletin board to find an apartment. Was it that bad?

RG: No, I had an apartment in Roxbury, a little room. It was shared and very cheap. Then I was starting to think I would be a singing waitress in an Italian restaurant, because my money was going, we didn't even have living expenses paid for. When the Monk competition came in, I got a little sum of money that got me through the next two or three months. Then I met a publisher from New York who hired me to do something I've always done with pleasure: transcriptions. So little by little I realized I could support myself.

AAJ: Did you ever consider doing anything else but singing?

RG: Oh no, it was do or die. There wasn't even a question. My parents helped me a lot in that. They are jazz fans—my dad used to be a tenor saxophonist—but the economic situation in Italy was too bad in those times, so he went to work in a factory, and my mother is a seamstress. But they are true jazz lovers.

I'd always been singing to records, but when I first started getting opportunities—local musicians heard me when I was 17—they were very happy, they never said, "No." I was always received very well, I have to say... I moved to Milano two years after that, because Milano was the center of jazz life, with a lot of musicians. Those were really hard days.

I used to go [home] to Torino, which is a short train ride, on Sundays. My mother would give me a big sack of rice that would last me a week. So it was rice and potatoes and strachinella—which is a type of soft cheese—but little by little, things picked up. My parents saw me go through all kinds of stuff—one day I'm going write my book!—and they never once said, "When are you going to get yourself a real job?" I would be discouraged and then call my dad, and he would say, "Are you kidding me? What? Now that you're so successful? One day you'll be in America, and you'll do great." That's always been my support system, and to this day I'm still amazed. Maybe they saw that the power of my commitment was beyond rational: this blood connection with the music that I honestly feel.

Roberta GambariniAAJ: Your scatting in many ways is unlike other singers,' who tend to rely on a few sounds or few repeating syllables. Yours sounds like a language of its own.

RG: That's a great compliment.

AAJ: How did you learn it?

RG: Not being academically schooled, my acquaintance with scatting was at two years old, when I used to imitate [trumpeter/vocalist] Louis Armstrong and [singer] Ella [Fitzgerald], just because I loved it. Kids love to scat because of the onomatopoeia, kids are very free; you're scatting because it's another way of communicating joy. It's good if you can keep the initial spark that you had in your childhood, and then enrich it later on with the knowledge of scales and harmony.

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