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Interview: Meredith D'Ambrosio (PT 4)

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Meredith D'Ambrosio Meredith d'Ambrosio's voice comes closest to Bill Evans' sound on the piano of any vocalists I know. Both artists' recorded works are deeply poetic and worship space. Unfortunately, Evans and Meredith never recorded together, though the union would have been a near-perfect marriage of styles. By the time Meredith was recording in earnest in the 1980s, Evans, of course, had already died. You can hear what I mean about the closeness of the approach in the Evans-favored songs that Meredith has recorded over the years. These include Blue in Green, Turn Out the Stars, Quiet Now, Young and Foolish, I Should Care and My Romance.

Up until now, the stark “Little Nell" story of Meredith's life has dominated my interview. This has been deliberate. Like many of Meredith's fans, I have always wondered about the origin of her extraordinary depth and tenderness. Clearly, Meredith has had more than her share of hard knocks and emotional stress, and draws on these experiences in the studio.

 In Part 4 of my interview series with Meredith, the legendary jazz singer tells why recording her first album occurred relatively late in her career, the role that singer Johnny Hartman played in making that recording happen, meeting Bill Evans in Boston, and what pianist Pat Smythe taught her about chord voicings:

JazzWax: Your first album, Lost in His Arms, was recorded in 1978, at age 37. That's pretty late for an artist with your talents.
Meredith d'Ambrosio: I didn't want to be out there on an album. But I was duped [laughs]. The piano tuner who worked at the Long View Farm Recording Studios near Boston had free reign of the studio one day. Just for fun--or so he said at the time--he wanted me to come out and sing and accompany myself on piano. So I did.

JW: What happened?
Md'A: I recorded 35 songs in a seven-hour period--mostly one take for each song. The guitarist, Norman Coles, sat in on two tunes. We chose 15 cuts to put on a tape for a possible album. The tuner would have become my manager, but he passed away soon after that. I think he was there to guide me for a moment.

JW: What happened to the tape?
Md'A: Ron Della Chiesa invited me to come on his WGBH-FM radio show, Music America, to play the tape. Johnny Hartman was also being interviewed by Ron that day. When the tape played, it sounded like an album. When Johnny heard it, he couldn't believe it wasn't. Johnny insisted on taking the tape to New York to play for a record producer he knew. Johnny thought it should be an album. I was surprised he was so kind to me. I was a fan of his.

JW: How did pianist Ray Santisi wind up on the album?
Md'A: Later, Ray, who is a great pianist from Boston, came to the recording studio and we recorded two songs. We added those extra tunes to the tape. It spiced up the album, since I never considered my playing to be anything but sparse. Wil Morton of Shiah Records bought the master. I recorded two albums with Shiah before receiving a call from Herb Wong at Palo Alto Records. He asked me to record my third album, Little Jazz Bird, for him, and I did.

JW: Your voice has been compared to Bill Evans' playing, particularly his sensitive, lyrical feel.
Md'A: I know. I guess there's a similarity in the quality of tone and voice. I first met Bill in the mid-1960s when he was in Boston Boston playing at the Jazz Workshop. I was sitting with Fred Taylor, the club's owner, whom I've known since I was a kid. Bill came over and sat with us. He was so shy. He hardly said anything, and I immediately identified with him because I'm the same way. I didn't want to be out there in the world playing and singing. I don't think Bill did either, deep down. But he had a natural talent that couldn't be hidden away.

JW: As a pianist and singer, did his sound affect you?
Md'A: I was in awe of his genius. Listening to him play, I hung on every note, every phrase, every chord. I knew  instantly that I was in the presence of someone from another planet. Our conversations, as I look back, seemed more telepathic than verbal. Something happened to me after talking with him and hearing him there that first night. I completely understood his concept of chords, and I changed musically in a noticeable way.

JW: What isn't well known about Evans?
Md'A: Probably that one of his sources of early inspiration was British pianist Pat Smythe. When I was living in New York in 1980 at [English composer] Richard Rodney Bennett's home, I became friends with Pat. He allowed me to pick his brain, but all I needed to do was watch his fingers.

JW: What did you learn?
Md'A:  Pat showed me chord voicings on the piano that were even more advanced than those used by Bill Evans. When I told Pat that the voicings sounded like Bill's, he said he used to sit with Bill in his London home and fool around on the piano when Bill first visited England in 1965. Pat said he showed Bill how he voiced chords, and Bill adapted some of that knowledge. He said that Bill learned from him that there was no limit to how many notes in a chord one could play if all 10 fingers were used at once.

JW: What did Smythe teach you?
Md'A: That nothing on the keyboard is impossible. The key is to use all of your fingers at once. I soon found myself using one finger on two notes, which helps make a fuller sounding chord. I'm not proficient at the piano, but Pat taught me enough so I could get a certain sound and contrast to my deep voice. A chord using five notes would sound mysterious and full because of the placement of the fingers on an altered tension chord voicing, for example. Pat helped me realize that there are no limits.

Tomorrow, in the final part of my interview, Meredith talks about what goes through her mind during the creative process, her struggle with shyness, what song Horace Silver requested when he first saw her perform, where Silver took her to help her overcome her grief after her mother's suicide, and reflections on Meredith's late husband pianist Eddie Higgins.

JazzWax tracks: In 1990, Meredith recorded Love Is Not a Game, her most beautiful and introspective album up until that point. It was recorded with her late husband Eddie Higgins on piano, Rufus Reid on bass and Keith Copeland on drums. Tracks like Heaven Sent and Get Used to It Baby say it all. There also are great standards here, like Young and Foolish and Indian Summer, as well as fabulous offbeat tunes. And if you want to hear Eddie's piano voicings, dig the chords on the title track. Wow.

A year later, in 1991, Meredith recorded her most tender album: Sleep Warm. Recorded at her home in Florida, the entire album consists of lullabies and touching originals written for her grandchildren. Listen to the beauty of Emmalyne, for example. Meredith sings and accompanies herself throughout on piano. The entire affair is like one tall glass of warm milk.

Shadowland (1992) put Meredith together again with husband and pianist Eddie Higgins. Also on the date was Blair Tindall (English horn and oboe), Ron Kozak (bass clarinet and flute), Johnny Frigo (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), Jay Leonhart (bass) and Ben Riley (drums). This is about as close as Meredith has come to recording with an orchestral backdrop. The instrumental configuration works best on songs like A Rainy Afternoon, Ces Jours Tranquilles and In My Uncertain World.

On Beware of Spring! (1994), Meredith returned to the trio format, with Eddie Higgins (piano) George Mraz (bass) Jeff Hirshfield (drums). Higgins' song introductions are so pretty. Take Dearly Beloved or Moon Dreams, for example. Piano accompaniment doesn't get any lovelier than Higgins and Meredith working together here.

For Silent Passion (1996), Meredith accompanied herself on piano and was joined only by guitarist Gene Bertoncini. Dig what she does with Johnny Mandel's The Shining Sea. Absolutely breathtaking and certainly a contender for top version. Or Spring Isn't Everything. A pure passion play.

And yes, all of the album cover art is by Meredith.

JazzWax clip: I wish I had more Meredith on YouTube to share with you. Instead, here's a clip of Autumn Leaves by her late husband, Eddie Higgins...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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