Roseanna Vitro: Following Her Muse

Dan Bilawsky By

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The one comfort that I have is that nobody made me do this. I picked everything, I love the music, I knew what I was doing, I went into it with my eyes open.
While the back panel of vocalist Roseanna Vitro's The Music Of Randy Newman (Motéma, 2011) says "File Under: Jazz/Pop/Vocals," those labels don't do her justice. Vitro's vocals are a conduit to the very core of American music—from blues and rock to soul and jazz—and her recorded output over the past three decades speaks to her talents and wide-ranging abilities in all of these arenas. Some vocalists who have been dubbed "jazz singers" are afraid to move outside of the borders of tradition, but Vitro embraces all that she encounters, allowing every experience to enrich and deepen her own artistry.

Throughout her career, whether looking at her formative years in Arkansas and Texas, or her high-profile albums on the Telarc label in the '90s, Vitro has managed to avoid easy categorization, due in large part to the fact that she follows her artistic instincts instead of musical trends. When discussing this aspect of her career, which is immediately apparent when looking at her discography, Vitro notes, matter-of-factly, "I just follow my muse." Her earliest connections to music—her parents—gave her a diverse introduction to music of all shapes and sizes. With a father who was, as Vitro notes, "an Italian opera buff, who was really like a mafia guy, into Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin," and a mother who was raised on country and gospel music, "from a family of ten from the hills of Arkansas," she learned early on that music has no borders. In terms of absorbing all of these influences and allowing them to seep into her sound, Vitro mentions "we all just have to be who we are, and it doesn't mean we can't be educated and then develop, which hopefully I can say I've been doing."

When Vitro made her first big move, decades ago, from her hometown to Houston, Texas, she didn't have experience on her side and she was an unknown entity to the local musicians, but she had determination and the confidence that comes with youth. "It started out in Houston," Vitro says. "I don't even think I had a right to want what I wanted, because I didn't have that much experience about jazz under my belt, but when the jazz musicians discovered me in Houston and treated me with such love and respect [and] had a coming out party for me, once I got jazz and really got on fire about it, I never looked back and I was always looking for the greatest musicians to sing with. I was so spoiled by my first band in Houston. Scott Hardy, a guitarist, who is now a bassist with Leslie Pintchik, who was a child prodigy there and is a fantastic musician, and Bliss Rodriguez, a blind pianist that could play in any key," along with saxophonist Arnett Cobb and other local heavyweights, helped Vitro gain confidence in her own abilities. "These guys just spoiled me," she continues. "I just worked up songs like crazy and, I think, in the early days, this great gig I had at a room called the Green Room, where people like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson came in and sat in with me and liked my singing, gave me the courage to just keep going on."

When Vitro made her move to the Big Apple, she became a regular at Bradley's—the now-defunct venue that was the ultimate hangout for New York musicians during its heyday—and the seeds for her first album were sown on that scene. Vitro recalls, "When I first moved to New York, from Texas, and I wound up living with Fred Hersch and Ed Felson on 13th street, right off the corner of Bradley's, that was a great opportunity for me. When I was considering what I would do for my very first record, I had heard Kenny Barron with Buster Williams and Ben Riley, and I just thought that was the greatest trio I'd ever heard, and I just thought it was a level of smooth and gentle swinging that I hadn't really experienced in Houston. Fred Hersch wrote the arrangements [and] I brought up Arnett Cobb to play on the record because I am a very loyal person... That's just the "one hand washes the other" concept in our music."

Vitro continued to hang out in New York hot spots, listening, observing, and improving her craft, while making the occasional album on small labels like Sea Breeze and Skyline, and occasionally touring in support of these records, but her recording career really took off in the '90s, with Softly (Concord, 1993) and a pair of albums for Telarc Records. While some artists sign contracts and then create a concept for an album, the process went the other way with her first record on Telarc. Vitro recalls, "My husband [Grammy-nominated producer/recording engineer Paul Wickliffe]'s studio, Skyline, was ending. I had never really been involved in my husband's studio [up to that point]. He owned two of the biggest studios in Manhattan, Skyline 1 and 2, and a who's who of the music world, including Al Jarreau, C&C Music Factory and Mariah Carey, who cut Vision Of Love (Columbia, 1990) there, and all of these great famous people [had recorded there]."

She continues, " I was always, sort of, the little jazz singer off doing my thing, and I was never really involved, but when the studio was closing, I literally called up Gary Bartz, Kevin Mahogany, Larry Willis, and all kinds of great musicians and I said we're going to have some jam sessions. Skyline is closing, and it's the end of an era for my husband Paul, and almost everybody knew him, so they came and played on these sessions with me and we had a blast, and that wound up turning into Passion Dance (Telarc, 1995). "

While the vibe behind these sessions might have made the recording a joy, selling the idea of this album to a label wasn't as much fun, but Vitro never wavered in her commitment to this music. "I'm sort of the optimist of the family," Vitro notes. "I'm usually surrounded by Virgos." Vitro's husband, sister and longtime bassist—Dean Johnson—all fall under this sign, which is often connected to people characterized as realists. She continues, "I guess that's kind of a reality check for a dreamer-Pisces-optimist, which I am. I pursued sending that album around to everybody and I got, probably, twenty rejections, and, of course, Paul [Wickliffe] was saying all the time, 'See, I told you nobody would want this record,' and I'd spent, probably, twenty-thousand dollars to get all of these people. Every penny I had, I spent chasing that particular project. Then, I got a letter from Telarc, from Bob Woods over there, saying, 'this is an amazing record, I love your singing.' Elaine Martone [from Telarc] sent me $20,000 dollars, signed me up, and then, all of a sudden, I had a really big shot at that moment. "

While Passion Dance proved to be an artistic success for Vitro, the music business has always thrived on commercial success. With this in mind, the people at Telarc came calling, and as Vitro recalls, they said, "Well, you're going to have to make something more commercial." While Vitro's initial reaction was "Oh god, what I could I possibly do that could be considered commercial," the light bulb went off, and the idea for Catchin' Some Rays: The Music Of Ray Charles (Telarc, 1997) took off.

Vitro's jazz vocal chops were always apparent to those who heard her early recordings, but her blues roots and the soulful side of her singing now had an opportunity to mingle comfortably with her jazz side. Vitro notes, "I'm an innate blues singer and I've just definitely had blues curdling through my being, and in the early days, when I could handle it, it was a nice bottle of tequila and Lightnin' Hopkins for me. Some of the jazz players cannot get next to early blues, they just don't hear it, and I understand that, but it's something that I'm completely comfortable with, so, I went on one of my journey's with the Ray Charles [catalog] and completely listened to everything he ever made, and just loved it. I didn't know that he'd played saxophone and I didn't know [about] some of his jazz roots or some of his history that came out later in the movie, after he'd died, and it was so much fun to talk to David "Fathead" Newman [about it], and tour with Fathead."

While some musicians never get a real glimpse into the realities and life of the figure they might be honoring on a tribute record, Fathead—longtime saxophonist with Ray Charles—proved to be a direct lifeline to the man and his music, and Vitro found the whole experience with him to be a positive one. "That was really great," she begins. "With every tribute record I've done, which are only three—actually four if you count [the] Steve Allen record—I always look to speak with somebody [connected to the artist]. Eddie Gomez on my Bill Evans record, was sort of my conduit to real stories and what was happening, and what was he really like, and 'Fathead' was really great to tour with."

While some might automatically expect that an artist like "Fathead" would deliver a deep-down, bluesy, "Texas Tenor" sound for this type of record, he surprised many people, including Vitro, with a different tonal response. "I expected that from 'Fathead,'" Vitro states, "and I did not get that. I got a beautiful, more Stan Getz/Benny Golson-type of player. 'Fathead' resented that anybody should assume that he'd be a dirty blues player, just because he's from Texas and just because he'd played with Ray Charles. 'Fathead' played some of the most beautiful solos—gentle, sweet, [and] very intellectual. I can only really compare it to Stan Getz and Benny Golson. They are the two that come to mind. I worked with Benny Golson on a couple of gigs, and studied his music, and just love him, and how articulate he is, and what he has offered to our idiom. Stan Getz is another one that comes to mind, with the beauty in his tone and the amazing solos that he played. Fathead was more from that school, and on the road he was the kind of guy that I could really trust to do what he said he was going to do... [and] I loved getting to know him, and I loved touring with him."

As the Twentieth Century was drawing to a close, so, too, was Vitro's relationship with Telarc Records but as one door closed, many others opened. Vitro took her varied experiences and hard-earned wisdom from the clubs into the classroom, to pay-it-forward to the next generation of aspiring vocalists. While her work as the Chair of the Vocal Jazz Department at New Jersey City University, a position she has held since 1998, and other roles in jazz education gave her an opportunity to inspire and instruct from inside brick-and-mortar institutions, she continued to break through walls in her own music. First, she tackled the legacy of pianist Bill Evans on Conviction: Thoughts Of Bill Evans (A Records, 2001) and she followed that record up with a sun-soaked, Brazilian-based journey on Tropical Postcards (Challenge Records, 2004).

While her follow-up to Tropical Postcards, Live At The Kennedy Center (Challenge, 2006), came out a good two records and five years before The Music Of Randy Newman, this album provided an early glimpse into Vitro's strong connection to Newman's music. Vitro and her solid working band covered a large variety of jazz-friendly material on this recording, but the emotional and literal centerpiece of the album is Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today," and the inclusion of this piece now seems like foreshadowing for Vitro's stunning collection of Newman's music.

While certain difficulties existed in bridging the gap between jazz-leaning ideals and Newman's picturesque pieces, Vitro found an additional challenge in the process. "I'm always looking for a great melody, a great story, and then [an] arrangement [that] suits the song," Vitro notes. "That was one of the hardest things with Randy Newman." "Like Bob Dylan, a lot of his songs, are not of great melodic value. They're stories, and you can even imagine an orchestra [behind them], because for so much of his writing he's had an orchestra," she notes. "You could imagine that for this whole record, I could have filled it out with an orchestra. But I'm way into great melodies, and that was a challenge for me—to find songs that say something that I'm about, but then, also have a melody."

The ten songs that appear on The Music Of Randy Newman are tightly arranged vehicles that usually fall within the four-to-six minute range, but Vitro has been using her mini-tour for this album as an opportunity to expand on the original arrangements, allowing the music to grow and evolve on the bandstand. She notes, "There's something that you really get in a live setting that you don't get from records, even with my Randy Newman Project. Live, what's happened even over only four or five gigs, the band has taken this music to a completely different level." While Vitro found artistic satisfaction with the recording, she notes, "Now, I've had a chance, and the band's had a chance, to really play the music and develop the music, and with jazz musicians, that's what happens. You keep developing. Only at Trumpet's [Jazz Club], last Saturday [July 9, 2011], I started new improvisations that I've been hearing as I've been going along and I started changing my singing of the melody. I wanted to be sure to be true to Randy Newman's lyrics and melodies on the album, because that's what a good singer does in respect to a composer. I'm from the old school, in that you pay tribute to the melody and the lyrics, and then, in the second chorus you blast off. On this particular record, I seldom took a second chorus and, only now and then did I stretch out a little bit."

While the ten songs on this album cover a broad cross-section of Newman's material, Vitro notes that his catalog provides endless riches. "As I've said to other people, there were about three albums worth of songs I could do, that are not on this record. When I'm on the road, people keep mentioning songs to me that I still haven't heard and I studied five books worth of his music and I listened to everything I've got that's been recorded. It's crazy, but, I've worked up 'Political Science' and I've worked up 'Burn On Big River.'" Vitro is quick to point out how timely, politically speaking, both of these songs still are. Even a song as humorous as "Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear" has found its way into live performances of this group.

Roseanna Vitro's Randy Newman Project, from left: Mark Soskin, Dean Johnson, Sara Caswell, Roseanna Vitro, Tim Horner

While Vitro continues to develop the very concept and musical outlines that define the live presentation of the Randy Newman Project Band's performances, she also has the future of this project to contend with. "Jana Herzen [of Motéma Music] asked me to make a Volume 2," notes Vitro, "and I said I don't know that I'm going to do that right now, but, for the people who would like to hear the Randy Newman Project Band, I'm always going to be adding Randy Newman songs because I can't just sing the same songs all the time. I just will go out of my mind, so, I'm definitely adding new material to the project."

The Music Of Randy Newman has received plenty of critical accolades since its release, but the best endorsement of all came from Newman himself, even though it took Vitro quite some time to track him down. "The first attempt I made to reach out to Randy Newman," Vitro notes, "was in January [of 2011]. I was giving a workshop and concert in New Orleans at the JEN [Jazz Educators Network] Convention. I was at the JEN convention and I didn't realize it in advance, but Randy Newman was in concert with an orchestra in New Orleans, and it turns out that Rosana Eckert, who is a wonderful young teacher and singer down at North Texas State, was going to see the concert and sit with the conductor of his orchestra. I gave her a copy of the CD and said, 'Listen, if there is any way you can do it, give a copy to Randy.' So, I didn't even know how to reach Randy Newman. How does somebody like me, a little teacher in New Jersey, reach Randy Newman? You know, I'm not Linda Ronstadt or Etta James or Nina Simone, who are some of the people, some of the artists, who have recorded his songs."

While Eckert informed Vitro that she met Newman and gave him a copy of the record, no comment appeared to be forthcoming. Vitro notes that "Months go by, the record is going to come out, [and] Jana Herzen from Motéma is saying, 'Can you get a quote from Randy Newman?' and I said 'He got a record and I haven't heard anything.' So, then, I find out who his manager is, and then it turns out that Ruth Price, who is a wonderful singer that has run the Jazz Bakery in L.A. for years, loves the Randy Newman record and she knows Randy. So she calls up his manager, she calls up Randy. She says, 'Listen, you've got to check this out. This girl has done a record of your music,' and she [Price] says, 'Well, he's going to be in Australia when you're gigging here.'"

While that seemed to be another failed attempt, it wasn't the end of the story. It proved to be quite a struggle to get Newman's thoughts on this record, but the pianist-composer finally weighed in on it just a few days prior to Vitro's interview with All About Jazz, and his response was as positive as can be. The pianist-composer noted, "It's a great honor to have musicians of this quality devote themselves to doing these really great versions of some of my songs. I feel about it much the way I did when Harry Nilsson did an album of my songs. Roseanna is a great artist."

While this quote is certainly a feather in her cap, and validation for a project that might put off some jazz purists, Vitro understands that taking artistic risks and following her own path outside of the jazz mainstream won't always result in positive press. She states, "Even though every artist always wishes that everybody could love them and you always wish that everybody could get you, it's just not going to happen. And the one comfort that I have is that nobody made me do this. I picked everything, I love the music, I knew what I was doing, I went into it with my eyes open, and I know that some people don't like me and some people don't like my singing and, I wish they did; I wish they loved me, but it's not going to happen, as an artist. It's just not. So, being strong about your choices is very important."

These choices, whether conventional or left of center, have served Vitro well throughout her career and the future seems full of possibilities. "I don't know what I'm going to do next," Vitro notes, "but I'm thinking of a quintet record that's a sister of Passion Dance. I'm really thinking I want to go back. I don't want the straight-ahead jazzers to think, in anyway, because I have roots in rock and pop and all the different music I love, that I am not always working on my jazz chops. That's where I think I'm going for the next record. I also have an album of Kenny Werner and I, just doing piano and voice. We went to the studio and recorded about twenty songs. We did really some unusual songs again. I sang "Pensitiva," which really doesn't have any vocal versions out there. Cedar Walton's "Midnight Waltz," for which I just perfected the lyrics. I hope to always reconnect with Kenny throughout our lives. When I first moved to New York and I asked everybody, 'Who are the greatest young piano players,' they said 'Fred Hersch and Kenny Werner,' and, so, my plot began."

While Vitro has already recorded with a long list of jazz luminaries, she still admits that there are some musicians she'd love to work with in the future. "Absolutely," she begins. "I will always have my dreams. I haven't recorded with Lewis Nash yet and I'd love to sing with Roy Haynes. I have sung with Ron Carter and that was really cool and, of course, Christian McBride, and I was thinking about Cyrus Chestnut recently. I love his crazy versatility. He's really got that gospel-bluesy thing, it's really under there, and I think there might be something there for us, working together.

"And I'd like to make a record with Monty Alexander," Vitro continues. "Monty and I are old friends from Bradley's. In fact, I used to have a crush on him—oh my god, but I just had the biggest crush on him. He sat in with me once at the Jazz Standard and Bruce Barth was on piano, and, of course, Bruce is great, and I had my wonderful group, but when Monty sat in, the swing level went to some kind of crazy swing meter. And I love that he doesn't read music. I love it, and he's certainly a dying breed, and I'm not advocating musicians not reading music, but he just learns so much by ear, and his swing meter and his spiritual side, his heart and his spirit is always in there, and I love that about Monty, so I would love to do a swing record with Monty."

Bassist Rufus Reid also comes up as a strong choice on Vitro's list. "That's right, and I love Rufus," she notes. "When I did some gigs with Rufus, he said, 'Don't you sing anything that doesn't have lyrics?,' and I said, 'Well, I'm kind of a lyric singer, but I do like scatting melodies,' so he got me thinking about that," Vitro states.

When it comes to horn players, Vitro has an equally superb musician on her wish list, which speaks to her taste and class. "I'd like to sing with Sonny Rollins," she says. "He seems kind of busy... and Mark Soskin [pianist on The Music Of Randy Newman] has recently done some gigs with Sonny again, and we love to hear his stories about playing with Sonny. You know, I always say, 'If you're going to dream, dream big.'"

But Vitro's talents speak to reality, not dreams. Vitro's voice tells stories in expert fashion and strikes to the very heart of every song that she sings, regardless of style. She has carved her own path that continues to serve her well as she follows her muse to some marvelous, and unexpected destinations.

Selected Discography

Roseanna Vitro, The Music Of Randy Newman (Motéma, 2011)
Roseanna Vitro, Live At The Kennedy Center (Challenge, 2006)
Roseanna Vitro, Catchin' Some Rays: The Music Of Ray Charles (Telarc, 1997)
Roseanna Vitro, Passion Dance (Telarc, 1995)
Roseanna Vitro, Softly (Concord, 1993)

Photo Credits
Page 3: John R. Fowler
Page 4: Courtesy of Roseanna Vitro
All Other Photos: John Abbot

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