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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."

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