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Roxana Amed: More To Be Heard

R.J. DeLuke By

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This is the music I love. I try to be next to this music, close to this music, because it makes me feel good.
Relaxed and casual, speaking via Zoom from her mother's home in Buenos Aires, singer Roxana Amed—of the smoky, sultry voice and soulful delivery—reflected on where her musical path has taken her.

A native of that city, she moved to Miami in 2013 when her spouse had been offered a good job. Acclimating to the new surroundings, she had some doubt as to whether she would continue her career as a wonderful singer of jazz and Latin-tinged music. In Argentina, she was renowned. More than that, her creative fire was being stoked in that exalted city. Miami was not having the same effect.

"I still feel that there is a vibe in Buenos Aries," she says. "I understand why I was always inspired when I was here. Life was not easy here, but there is something happening. Miami's a city where you just flow, relax, whatever. You enjoy the views, enjoy the sea...But then there is no drama. No, there is no drama there. [chuckles] It was not as inspiring. And I thought that at some point that I was not going to be able to keep singing, you know, because I was in the middle of nowhere. Then I found the musicians, and everything came back."

The musicians she found helped her create her new album, Ontology (Sony Music Latin), set for an April release. It's a sweet mix of original music with a couple of expertly rendered standards thrown in. It should become a springboard for more once the pandemic is squashed.

"When people ask me if I miss singing and performing, I say—well, since I moved to Miami, for the first years, I was performing everywhere I could. And it was mostly really fun bars. They have great audience. I mean, it was fun. Cool." says Amed. "But I come from a city where people go to a theater. They pay the ticket and they shut their mouth and they listen. So it was really challenging for me. But I did that for like two or three years."

"Every time I go to perform [in] New York, the music I was playing made sense. Everybody understood what I was doing. We were playing everywhere. It was like being at home," she says. "Miami was not that easy. New York, maybe because I don't live there, was always great. I met new people many times, because no one knows me there. But those people were like, 'I got it. I dig it. I know what it is. I follow your thing.' Which is all that I wanted."

In Florida, she got a scholarship to pursue a master's degree and started teaching. That consumed her professionally. When the pandemic struck, she didn't have a performing routine that she missed. At one point, she found herself singing the melody of "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" by Charles Mingus "and something got me and I said, 'Oh my god, I haven't been singing with another human being for what? How long?' There was one day that we recorded the last session [for Ontology] in the middle of the pandemic, but we were all kind of freaking out, standing far away from each other. I was the only one without a mask. So it was not really hanging out or embracing my friends and thanking them for their music. It was pretty distant. So I realized that I really miss this. [The virus] will pass. But it was really strange."

Amed has the natural heart of an artist. Music was part of her upbringing. Her father played folk music on guitar and they sometimes played together. The young girl played a small guitar "until I was a little taller, tall enough to start getting piano lessons." She really didn't like the piano, but it helped her develop her ear for music. She always sang and was curious to learn more. "I was singing since I was very young with a very good intonation. I was a little weird."

In school, they selected Amed to direct every time there was a musical production for some event that involved music. She put together ensembles and wrote songs. "That also developed my harmonic ear, because I was always writing voices for everybody. I realized that was not very common...I didn't realize that music was so natural to me. Everybody else knew."

After high school, she studied Spanish literature and other things to satisfy her creativity. But music remained. She was working as a singer at age 18 and eventually got a gig with a big band. "Mostly for private events," she says. "But there I had the chance to play with all these guys. I was twenty-something, and they were in their '60s, and they had been playing jazz in big bands for many years. So they were telling me all these stories, and they were sending me recordings because you didn't have access to anything. The kids today, they go on YouTube and they find whatever."

She was given Judy Garland records. Those got her attention. Her father had Doris Day records. "My father loved Doris Day, with that clean accent, beautiful lines." She was also listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Then someone gave her a Dee Dee Bridgewater record with an orchestra from Paris.

"She was singing 'Round Midnight,' and I said, 'This is it. She has the freedom.' I will never forget that." Jazz was pulling stronger. Amed was willing to go along, but there were some complications.

"In my very early '20s, I didn't know how to learn that music. There were no jazz teachers. Some were maybe teaching for instrumentalists, but not for vocals. And I couldn't afford going away. So I did what I could. I was learning from the albums and I just enjoyed it. I didn't know if I could really learn anything. But I still think it's the best music in the world. And I kept studying."

Another side of Amed's artistic spirit took her to filmmaking school for three years. "And that was very interesting. I love filmmaking. And I kept ignoring, in a way, that the path was music. So it came formally to my life a little late, the whole thing," she says. It made her "respect time. Because if you let too many years pass, things might not happen. And now I try to push to make things happen because I discovered late that I love this."

It's inevitable that Amed's music has Latin influences. She draws from the soul of such music from her native land, and it can be felt in her compositions. But make no mistake. She takes jazz in her hands and pulls it close to her heart. What does she like about it? "Everything. The composition. The way it is. All this music was written over the years. Those classical lines by Ellington. The broken ones by Monk, the ensembles, the blues. Count Basie blues in the big bands. Jazz like Sinatra's: my god!"

She started discovering other composers like Wayne Shorter and Kenny Wheeler. "And I said, 'Well, this has everything.' The composition, the respect for the individual. Because you know, in classical music, you have to train yourself to death to be able to perform as Mozart would have performed that piece. In jazz, you have to work. You have to be able to perform and then go further and be able to improvise on that. Be able to surrender to whatever happens through you when you are performing with all the information there. There's nothing like that in any other music in the world. It's the combination of these concepts...This is the music I love. I try to be next to this music, close to this music, because it makes me feel good.

"I think it is the thoughtful part and the inspirational part and the possessed part—where people are possessed by music—that is the soul of the states. The soul of that country is there, coming from every voice. African American, non-African American. The soul is there."

Amed has released six albums and one DVD, La Voz Más Allá (Sony, 2009). She is the recipient of the Carlos Gardel Award for Argentine Music and the Martin Fierro Award for best song in a TV production. She has written songs for other artists and worked with the likes of Argentine multi-instrumentalist Pedro Aznar, a veteran of the Pat Metheny band and producer of her first albums. She has also performed at New York City venues like the Jazz Gallery, Dizzy's Club at Lincoln Center, the Jazz Standard, Small's, and Mezzrow.

Amed's new album was recorded at Miami's The Hit Factory/Criteria Recording Studios over three sessions. "It was challenging. Not musically. I felt that I had the right musicians. I knew it was going to be good. But then it took me a while to find the peace of mind," she says. "Because I teach a lot. I come to see my mother four or five times a year [pre-COVID], which is a lot of money and a lot of time. I come to Argentina and I perform and I do everything I can to be able to afford these visits... So, it was challenging because time was passing and I really needed to move forward to put together all the pieces of my own identity. So I did one session in 2019. And I said, 'Okay, by the end of this year, we will have the last sessions' and that would be all."

Scheduling made that impossible, so it extended into 2020 and the pandemic. Songs were sometimes recorded with little rehearsal. As the record's producer, she struggled with those issues: what music was worthy, what changes should be made, if any. "But every day, at the end of the day, I said, 'It happened.'" She kept moving forward.

"I remember we recorded this very good song by the great Wayne Shorter ["Virgo"]. It was just something that had to happen. And then we recorded three takes, and I felt something was happening. We were putting something there. Not only our experience or musicianship as professionals. We were sharing something. And that was a whole sign of hope for me that I said, 'Well, this might happen. I might be able to have an album and there might be some content there and beautiful music.' So there was hope."

All but three songs came to life before the pandemic.

"Everybody was like, 'What should we do?' And by July, I think, I started asking them, 'Hey, would you feel safe and comfortable if we go to the studio and finish the thing?' I kept writing, so I was happy with the things we had to record. And everybody said, 'Yeah, we can go to the studio.' So the studio was available. They were keeping protocols and everything. And it happened. A little freaky, but it happened."

Those challenges extended to post-production. "Usually, I sit by the engineer and I mix every detail. Like, 'No, this has to go here. This has to go there.' I love the post-production part. But that is not exactly happening like that because of safety protocols. So all that time, where I drive engineers crazy, that didn't happen. But I was happy with the results anyway. It was different."

When it came to mastering the music, she gathered a crew, but she was not familiar with them. "I never met many of the people that are part of my team now. But I guess we are so desperate for creating and sharing and finding passion somewhere that we are making it work. I'm very thankful to my fellow musicians...They gave me a sense of home far from home. So that itself is already a great outcome."

Along with the Shorter tune, she recorded "Blue and Green" from Miles Davis and Bill Evans but also inspired by the rendition Cassandra Wilson did on her Miles tribute album, Traveling Miles (Blue Note, 1999).

"You find something, a thread to pull from a standard. Sometimes we do standards because they are the best in the world, and we love them and we want to do it and say whatever. I wanted to sing that song. It doesn't matter if it had been recorded 500 times. But in my case, I feel that I'm new to this, to the scene. I am not American. I had to be very respectful about the American traditional repertoire. So, it was another reason to trust in our own compositions... I admire Wayne Shorter. He still surprises me. So, I will take the risk of doing something he wrote because that is something I take for myself. Something I need to do with all due respect."

For "Blue and Green," she was first inspired by an arrangement she heard by Kermit Moore, whom she met when he was pursuing a doctorate at the University of Miami. Cassandra Wilson put a lyric to the tune and called it "Sky and Seas (Blue and Green)," and Amed used those words. The lyrics, Amed feels, "speak about home, about being dragged away, until you find the light in the middle of the night and you know where you have to go and you find your home there... I love that song. So even though many people have recorded that, I really wanted to do it, and I'm happy I did."

"Tumbleweed" opens the album with Amed singing in English. Her voice is captivating, as it is throughout the recording. She has a certain commanding presence in the music. Her voice is strong but can move into fragile emotions and illuminating places. Pianist Martin Bejerano provided her with music rooted in the Argentine folk sound and a Latin jazz vamp.

She says the music found her at the confluence of two worlds, Argentina and North America, and the result is an album that best describes her.

Shorter's "Virgo" shows Amed's vocal dexterity as she weaves a complex melody, precise and never wavering, with phrasing and dynamics that come naturally. "Milonga por la Ausencia" opens with scat singing that is strong and an appropriate lead-in to the lyrics she wrote. Mark Small's saxophone adds the right zest. The title cut, "Ontology," is an Amed original and a gorgeous ballad. She is masterful in her sense of melody and harmony. Throughout, the expressiveness of her vocal instrument is enticing.

The recording is an important step for Amed. She is determined not to let her performing career melt away. "Maybe later this year, I will perform it. I have learned to work with social media. And I have learned to communicate with people through social media. I always want to create content. I don't like taking pictures of stupid things. I can't do that. But I can see videos there and pictures and comments about my friends, musicians. So that gives you a sense of company. And the sense of release. I hope that maybe we can do a [live stream] or something in a big place in Miami. I will do everything to make it happen."

Amed is driven. Persistence will be needed when the pandemic is resolved, and musicians will slowly get their opportunities. She will be ready.

"When I moved to Miami, I thought that I was not ever able to do this again. The whole thing of putting together a career, to put a band together, to record," she says. "I said, 'I have to figure out a way to live here, take care of my mother, whatever, and this [career] is gone. This will not happen.' And then it happened. So I hope that I still have one chance to start performing when this passes. Start writing again for a new project. Now I know that I have the people to do it. I know myself better too, and so I think it will happen.

"I'd like to share what I found out with the rest of the people. That is the goal. You do things to share. Not to please your ego or anything like that, but because you need to share what is happening to you. And so I'm looking forward to that moment. Whatever is the format. I will find a way. And we'll see."

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