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Roberta Gambarini: Very Easy to Love

Although 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.

AAJ: 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.

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.

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?



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