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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."

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