In conversation with roberta gambarini
The history of jazz is replete with great male and female jazz singers. And why shouldn't it be? After all, it's been around longer than any other musical instrument. The voice began its long development around two million years ago, making it one of humankind's first vehicles for creative expression. That so many would master its use was an evolutionary inevitability. That such mastery would be adapted to jazz was only slightly less inevitable.
Singing is fundamental to religious worship, folksong, and more complex musical expressions, such as Broadway musicals and opera. Clearly, the human voice can draw-in a listener in ways a musical instrument cannot. It’s a different experience. It’s also not as easy as it looks.
Singing in the shower is one thing; holding an audience rapt for several sets in a major venue is quite another. Doing it with effortless ease and spontaneity is the mark of an artist who's mastered the craft. Roberta Gambarini is one such contemporary jazz singer.
Why don’t we start out by talking about your new album? It's due to be released in late-February/early-March, 2009. What’s it called?
So In Love.
Is there an overall theme to the CD?
Not really. I don’t like the concept album. I never liked it in general. What I usually do, I pick songs in a somewhat subconscious way, if you want. I pick songs that really strike me, or that I relate to very deeply, and then I write the arrangement and I do it. Oftentimes, at the end of the whole thing, when I see all the songs, then I find out, 'Oh, yeah, you know, there’s a theme in here somewhere.' But it’s never the other way around. Having looked back now at the list of songs I came up with, maybe if there would be a theme, it’s definitely a sentimental, romantic album. It’s about several aspects of love in a broad way too. I know it involves love of life, and it’s about love, definitely. Hence, the title, So In Love.
A subject that most people are very interested in.
Yeah, but the 'so' is very important. It’s not just in love, it’s about so in love. I think everything is brought to the extreme, so it’s an exploration to the farther, extreme regions of love.
What are some other tunes on the album?
We have a mix of the great American songbook, jazz tunes, and some [other kinds of] songs … for example, a Beatles medley. One is 'Golden Slumbers,' and the other is 'Here, There and Everywhere.' I arranged them so that it comes in a little suite. And we have a series of songs by Cole Porter that I can’t live without: for example, 'So In Love,' the title track, and we have 'Get Out of Town.' We have some Johnny Mercer lyrics—he’s my favorite lyricist—and 'That Old Black Magic.' We also have a Michel Legrand tune, 'You Must Believe in Spring.' We have more great American songbook tunes with 'I See Your Face Before Me,' which is a song associated with Sinatra that I’m very fond of. And at the very end, we have a medley from the soundtrack to the movie Cinema Paradiso, music composed by Ennio Morricone—the title track and 'Song for Elena,' which is this beautiful theme that you hear throughout.
Who’s on the album with you?
A lot of people. I decided to have all the people I have a history with, by being on the road and playing together. A history also of the personal friendships—and there are many of them, because I’ve played with a lot of people. Most of them are featured in different combinations. For example, we have both pianist Eric Gunnison out of Denver and Tamir Hendelman, a wonderful, wonderful piano player from the West Coast who plays with the Jeff Hamilton Trio and the Clayton-Hamilton big band. He’s very, very good—very, very great. He was on my first album, Easy to Love. And I have as a special guest a young piano player I really, really like: Gerald Clayton, who’s John Clayton’s kid. He’s 24 years old.
He’s from the west coast?
Yeah, but he lives in New York now. And on the bass, I have some tracks with Neil Swainson. Some tracks with Chuck Berghofer, another LA, great musician who worked a lot with Frank Sinatra. And we have also two tunes with the great George Mraz. And the drummers, wow, you’re going to love the drummers. We got the great Jake Hanna. We have Jeff Hamilton as a guest on one track. We have young Montez Coleman, who's originally from St. Louis, now a part of the New York/Brooklyn scene—a wonderful drummer. And then we have some special guest horn players: the great James Moody and Roy Hargrove, all combined differently.
Why did you decide to do it that way?
One thing is that I was on the road a lot, and I wanted to do it in LA with the great Al Schmidt, who's a dream engineer. But he's very, very busy. He works with Diana Krall and Placido Domingo. And every time I would be in LA I would go and record a few tunes—maybe an hour-and-a-half with Hargrove—and when I would come back I would do the others. But I don't mind, because it's like a kaleidoscope, and it's the way life works. You don't always have the ideal conditions. A lot of things go down not the way you planned them. And so I went along with that to see what we could do with it. I'm happy at the end.
What label is the album on? The label is Groovin' High, distributed by Emarcy/Universal. That’s our label: myself and Larry Clothier, my agent.
In the recording sessions, were there any surprises, things that happened that you didn't expect?
Yeah, there are always things that happen that you didn't expect. Like, for example, you pick one tune just on the whim of the moment and you find out if it works, which happened when we decided to do 'Over the Rainbow.' Just one take, one chorus—me and Tamir Hendelman. We were very happy with the way it sounded. A lot of things happen, but on this recording, fortunately, [they] were all good things related to the music. The human aspect went so easy, because all these people are very, very good musicians. And Al Schmidt is so easy to work with. All you have to do is play exactly as you were doing it live. So all the surprises came from the music, and they're generally positive.
When you're either choosing a song to sing, or when you're actually performing live, do you have somebody else's voice in your head? To put it another way, what concept do you have in either choosing a piece to sing or actually singing a song? Or is it a combination of all sorts of people you've listened to?
The way I choose songs is more of a non-conscious procedure. I might choose a song because I hear a great version, not necessarily by a singer. Most commonly for me is, I choose a song because of the story the song tells, which is told mostly in the lyrics and the melody. It has to mean something to me. Some people send me new songs, but I generally prefer to know about a song rather than listening to an MP3 of the songs performed. I prefer looking at the lead sheet and playing it myself, so I can see where it comes from.
Occasionally I might have some great versions in mind of [a song] that I maybe haven't thought about for a long time, and then I decide to do the song. But it can be from several sources. Anything that hits my imagination, my almost visual imagination. For example, the song 'Easy to Love;' I knew it from a long time ago, and of course you have all the voices in your head, instrumental and vocal. But what really made me think about doing it again, was when I was alone in a cheap hotel on a small tour in Glendale, California. They were renting DVDs in the hotel. And there was this DVD of a Mel Brooks movie called Life Stinks. It's about a millionaire who, by turns of chance, loses all his belongings and becomes homeless. There's a scene where the main character and his love interest—who's a homeless woman—end up in a big, big hangar, where there are all kinds of old clothes, like a Salvation Army depot. And they start dancing among those clothes, and the music is 'Easy to Love.' There's this crazy scene with old clothes flying and two people dancing. So I had this visual stimulus about this image of vitality.
It's not always the same thing. It's not codified. Sometimes you're attracted to something and you don't even know why. It goes much deeper. But you find out later why.
Do you ever look much deeper to try to find out why you chose a particular song, or does it matter?
No, because that's an intellectual process and I try to not use my intellect too much. I try to deal with another sector of myself, which are things that are not emerged in the conscious. What often happens is, I find out later why I made a particular decision. For example, there's a song I sing that I really feel involved with in a visceral way, and then maybe years after, in a circumstance where I'm alone at the piano playing through it and singing it, I say to myself, 'Oh, oh yeah.' I don't want things to be too present to my rational part.
I have the impression watching you perform that a good part of your set is spontaneous in terms of choosing the songs. Is that correct?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure. With those musicians, they are so incredible. They know everything. You can do anything. For example, at one performance I forgot to put in a Porgy and Bess suite in the stack of music for the piano player. I don't know why. Maybe I was a little bit out of it because of a cold. I just forgot, so we did something else. When you have those types of musicians, you can do anything.
You seem to create a very relaxed atmosphere on the stage and you are very open to the audience. I've seen you in a couple of different circumstances now. The first time I heard you perform live was at the Blue Note with the Dizzy Gillespie big band, Slide Hampton conducting.
Yeah, we played there, both with the big band and the small group.
I have the impression you are a lot more comfortable with the small ensemble. It is a lot more flexible for you, as opposed to fronting a big band. Am I correct?
Well, no, it's different, 'cause with a big band, you have arrangements, so you're working in a fixed setting. You can't just go off and do something completely different. You have to stay within those arrangements, but I like them a lot because trombonist Slide Hampton and saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who are the head arrangers for the big band, they always write charts that leave a lot of space. There’s always some space for improvisation and for things to happen. But of course, you're in the setting of a big band. You have 16 people having to play, you know, a chart behind you, so you can’t change everything on the spot. It's a different animal.
How did you arrive at being so open and flexible and visceral in terms of your performance? Where does that come from? There are lots of instrumentalists in particular that have a very strict way of approaching the music, a very disciplined way of approaching the music. Everything is worked-out, bar-for-bar. There are a couple of singing groups I can think of that are like that. They're very good, and their performances are excellent, but you seem to take a very relaxed attitude to your performance. Did you start out that way? Have you always been that way, or how did it evolve?
I don't know. I thought that was jazz. That's my ideal jazz from what I saw. I saw Anita O’Day and I saw Ella Fitzgerald, and it seemed to me, since I was little, that that's what the beauty of jazz is. The difference from jazz and other music is exactly that—you can be open. You don't make things happen, you're just open because things happen. It's like a metaphor for life. Nothing in life necessarily goes the way you projected. You program it ahead, no? If you're open, then you deal with things one at a time. Some are good, some are bad, and you try to make some good out of the bad too, which, in music, would be the mistakes.
For example, [you can't] start trying to eliminate all possibilities for mistakes, [or] you don't have any life, anymore. That's a little bit of how I grew up with both singers and instrumentalists. That's the way they functioned, from what I observed. So that's how I modeled myself out of that philosophy of life and music. And yeah, it was very difficult, but I went through the whole process. And then later on, when I came to the United States and I had the immense honor of being befriended and mentored and to play with all these greats, I realized that's the way they function, too. And that's probably the way things function when you're a jazz player. It's not worked out. It cannot be all worked out.
I have to say one thing: It takes a lot of discipline to become free. That's the thing. It takes years and years of sometimes very tedious or hard, frustrating studies to get to the point where you can really do what you feel on stage. That's kind of the whole purpose of it.
This is like The Zen of Singing.
Yeah, yeah, it's true.
Like The Zen of Archery you have to forget about pulling the bow; you just have to let it happen.
Exactly. Absolutely. It takes a lot of discipline for that, but that all goes towards being free on stage, which doesn't mean doing anything that comes to your mind. It means something very different. It means you have gone beyond that phase where you need to program everything, and you can be open to what happens.
I think we’ll end on that philosophical note. Thank you Roberta Gambarini.