Roberta Gambarini: Very Easy to Love

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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AAJ: You also need to be free.

RG: Of course, but it's a certain type of freedom. It's guided by taste and respect for the music. You're free, but not free to mess up the music.

AAJ: When you said that, I was thinking about Betty Carter, who seems to do the opposite of what you do, in the sense that she often leaves the melody behind.

RG: In reality, it's very close to what I do, in the sense that she would arrange, she would direct the interpretation and the energy, the dynamics. The functioning is the same. But she chose to stray away from the melody from the beginning, which is a thing I don't like to do. And maybe that's because, being Italian, the melody is almost sacred to me. And for me personally, in addition to the rhythm, the melody is important; I feel a lot the melody [breaks into "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"].

AAJ: That's your parents' favorite song, yes?

RG: Yes, that's why I'm named Roberta—the song came from that movie.

AAJ: Some people see you as polar opposites—that [singer] Betty Carter is taking all these risks, while your music comes out as so perfectly formed...

RG: ...and I don't take risks? OK, you tell those people to come onstage with me! It's just that before going off on an improvisation, I like to honor the melody. I understand there are people who don't agree with it, but that's my choice. I think rendering a melody is the most difficult thing there is—it's hard to really sing a melody.

AAJ: In what sense? Since most people would say, "that's where you start"—the melody is obvious, anybody can sing the melody.

RG: But what does this mean, "sing" the melody? You convey the melody. I don't mean just singing the notes. The way you know you've done your job, for me, is when after you've finished singing, people come to you and say, "Wow. What a beautiful song you sang." Or, "I've heard this song before, but I never realized it's really great." So then you know your work is done: to bring the song to life. First of all, you have to understand the lyric, and do it in a way that mirrors your own experience with the song—it could be a song that's been done a million times.

This is not a new or shocking concept—you can talk to Moody or Jimmy Heath. It's not reinventing the wheel, it's just the way I feel.

AAJ: Is there a song that doesn't have a meaning for you?

RG: No. There's a whole universe of references—transferences, or how you call it. It's akin to acting, but with music: there's a whole world of visceral possibilities between you and the song.

AAJ: You know, you speak English better than most natives speak English. You have this incredible vocabulary—where did it come from?

RG: I like to read. I am a bookaholic.

AAJ: When I was looking at your influence list, I could understand [singer] Eva Cassidy—her purity and directness—but [singers] Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg?

RG: Oh, they're great!

AAJ: They are, but in what sense have they influenced you?

RG: Delivery of the lyrics, for one. Dave Frishberg and his mastery of lyrics—"You Are There" is one of my favorite songs. And Bob Dorough—when I was a little girl, I was fascinated by this whole bebop world. I used to listen to the record by [trumpeter] Miles [Davis] where he sings "Nothing Like You"—and [pianist/vocalist] Mose Allison—so many people influenced me, from all types of genres.

AAJ: You said something in the car that was interesting: about having to choose between a house, a man and children or being on the road.

RG: I guess as Richard Pryor once said, "you ordered shit, you eat shit." [We laugh.] I always wanted to be a jazz musician, to be on the road, to do exactly what I do, go from one place to the other, meeting people, playing different audiences, but of course that's difficult to do if you have a husband who's maybe a stockbroker, and you're trying to raise two kids in the suburbs. And it's not exactly the ideal life if you want to make some money, and live in a nice Victorian or Tudor townhouse....especially at this stage in my career, since I had to start everything at the beginning when I came here. Also, you have to be away so much—it's one thing for a man to be away, but for a woman to be away...

AAJ: It doesn't seem fair.

RG: Well, you order shit... [We laugh some more.] You eat what you order. And besides, I'm doing what I want, what I always dreamed of. You can't have everything! Maybe in the future, there will be a point...my biological clock is ticking.

AAJ: Well, at least I'm sure it's ticking in time.

RG: Yeah. [smiles] No, I'm really happy what I do. But you have to be careful about stress.

AAJ: You were pretty stressed about an hour ago, on the phone—trying to put yourself together for the tour.

RG: I know. It's difficult, but it's what you feel is right, what you're doing.

AAJ: What's the worst part about living your dream?

RG: I think the worst part is the rejection. Everybody deals with this at early stages of their career, and even after. Look at the career of [singer] Frank Sinatra—the guy was on top of the world and he fell, and he came back up. Unbelievable. And [singer] Sammy Davis Jr. faced atrocious racism—and all the cats I know, what they went through with this racial thing—but they overcame it.

So you may get it at any stage of the game. You have to be very centered, and not let it get to you. I was rejected by every record company in the country—that was good training.

AAJ: When you were shopping the project that became Easy to Love?

RG: And even before. It was difficult, like everybody else. Live auditions, auditions for two, three, four different companies, something's happening, happening, happening—and then it doesn't happen. Now I'm trying to launch a record company with very little money. I have a lot of debts. On the other hand, I did the record that I wanted to do, which I probably couldn't have done if I'd been with a major record company. So...you have your own order, and you eat what you order, and you know it.

At the same time I was lucky to have the support and love people like Moody, Linda and Jimmy Heath, Mona Heath, [trombonist] Slide Hampton, so many people—Hank Jones, and Benny Carter, [saxophonist] Michael Brecker, and the Claytons, and—oh gosh—it was unbelievable. So this makes up for the rejection by the corporate part.

My record for example is doing great with the radios, and I'm very happy about this. Like with some stations in central America, Kansas, Montana—it's got a grass roots thing.

AAJ: There's something common to all of these influences and paths: that intimate connection you make with an audience.

RG: I think it's the song. I sing the music.

AAJ: It's more than the song. You do something more. When you go a cappella...

RG: The melody is even more outlined.

AAJ: Yes, there's the intensity of that, and the fact that you're stepping away from all your supports. People resonate to that, it goes right to the heart. When you start a song that way, it's also impressive because with your incredible pitch, nobody has to clue you in as to where to start. Do you know how powerful that is?

RG: No. I don't really relate to thinking what is powerful for other people. I look for the moment when I'm transported: in the best of those moments, you feel almost that you are played by the melody. That's the power, but it's not my power, as an individual.

Roberta Gambarini

AAJ: It's more like becoming the instrument of the song.

RG: That's my ultimate goal, really, to be so empty of b.s. that in the end all you have to do is stand there and sing. But of course it takes a long preparation to get to that, to get rid of a lot of habits. There was a phrase in [author Franz] Kafka's diaries—I read it in Italian, and I don't remember the exact translation—but it's like to know yourself, you have to forget about yourself, or something like that.

AAJ: You mean you have to stop all that clacking and clattering in your head?

RG: Yes, but I'm vulgarizing it, there's much more to it.

AAJ: Is there anything else you wish for, musically? Do you see yourself having a club someday?

RG: Oh, hell no!!! [laughs] Oh my God! Are you kidding me? It's too much work. I wish there would be a club—I came to New York when Bradley's was already closed—I wish, but it's too much work and I don't have a good business sense.

AAJ: A record label?

RG: No, that I already own, unfortunately. This Grooving High is really mine, we had to do a record label to put the record out—I have debts until 3016!—but that's cool, a lot of people have to do that.

AAJ: How about other professional dreams?

RG: Act in a movie. By Pedro Almodovar. Why not?

Selected Discography

Roberta Gambarini, Easy to Love (Grooving High, 2006)
Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Band, Dizzy's Business (MCG, 2006)
Pratt Brothers Big Band/Roberta Gambarini, 16 Men and a Chick Singer Swingin' (CAP, 2005)
New Stories, Hope is in the Air: The Music of Elmo Hope (Origin, 2004)
Roberta Gambarini/Antonio Scarana, Apreslude (Splasc(h), 1991)

Photo Credits
Top and Center Photos: Courtesy of AAJ Visual Arts Gallery
Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Roberta Gambarini


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