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Interview: Meredith D'Ambrosio (PT 5)

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Meredith D'Ambrosio On her most recent album, Wishing on the Moon (Sunnyside), singer Meredith d'Ambrosio decided to record all originals-- words and music. Here, you get to experience the full effect of Meredith's poetic talents as a lyricist and writer of hip melodies. By the second song you realize how underrated she is as a composer and wordsmith. [Photo: Meredith and her late husband and pianist Eddie Higgins in 2001]

For example, here are the words to Have You Noticed:

Strange how the time goes racing by.
It seems to be willing us to fly
to our clandestine destiny.
Until then I can only
dream about your kiss. And lately
I feel your presence all around me.
Have you noticed the same sensation, too?

Dig how the words “clandestine" and “destiny" dovetail. Or on the recording how Meredith impulsively whisper-scats during trumpeter Don Sickler's outro. Or listen to the breathless phrasing she uses on the title track. Each of the album's 10 songs has this same level of mischievous whimsy and hammering sensitivity. Meredith clearly is the last in line of a generation of post-modern songwriters that include Blossom Dearie, Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough.

In Part 5 of my interview series with Meredith, the legendary jazz vocalist talks about the creative process, trying to overcome shyness, meeting Miles Davis, becoming friends with Horace Silver and how she met her husband Eddie Higgins:

JazzWax: What goes through your mind when you're recording?
Meredith d'Ambrosio: Trying to get everything right. I rarely do more than two takes. Sometimes I'll get stuck on one tune, and it will take a while. But I want the initial innocence or vulnerability or rawness that comes the first time around to be preserved.

JW: Do you think more about the words or the music?
Md'A: I'm thinking about what the words mean but I'm more of a music person. I get carried away by the music that I hear while I'm singing. That music is very important. Like when pianist Lee Musiker plays behind me. Or Don Sickler [pictured] and the rest of the group on my latest album. I'm not a traditional singer.

JW: Not a singer?
Md'A: I don't have the pipes. I only think from within. I'm not thinking about what I sound like. I'm already me. All I have to worry about is not breathing in the wrong places. If I breathe in the middle of a phrase, that's a no-no. So I'm always thinking about phrasing and how to break it up so it will flow.

JW: Which comes first when you write, melody or lyrics?
Md'A: When I first started to record, I realized I shouldn't be breaking up my phrases. So my words are wrapping around the music. When I write a song, the music comes first. Each melody note dictates what the word should be--the whole story of the song, the phrase, the poetry. I get lost in the melody and chord.

JW: You say you're shy but yet you spent years performing in front of audiences.
Md'A: There's shy and there's stage fear. I've overcome the latter. I had to. When I was very young, my mother used to make me stand next to her when she performed in Boston at the Hampshire House and sing Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart tunes. Little by little she taught me to be brave.

JW: What was the turning point in your career?
Md'A: I think Little Jazz Bird in 1982 with Phil Woods, Hank Jones and Manny Albam. It got airplay all over the world. When I toured in Paris, they treated me like a queen. The second time I went over, Miles Davis and I were on the same bill. Can you imagine? This was 1986 at the Paris Jazz Festival. Miles was in his rock-and-roll phase.

JW: Had you met Davis before?
Md'A: Yes, years earlier. Miles sat with me when he was working at the Jazz Workshop in Boston and I was playing the Inner Circle upstairs. Miles was very angry at the table when he sat with me on his break. I had come downstairs to hear him. But during the little time we spent together, he softened after learning that I was a jazz singer-pianist.

JW:
What was your biggest thrill?
Md'A: When Horace Silver dropped in to see me in 1967 at the Inner Circle. He saw my picture outside and came in. I had a four-night a week job there. Horace sat right in front of me while I was at the upright piano they had made to look like a grand piano for me [laughs]. I couldn't believe he was there. He asked from the audience if I could play Some Other Spring. It was his favorite song.

JW: Did you?
Md'A: Yes, and he loved it. I was so embarrassed because of my lack of chops. After that we became friends. My mom had just committed suicide and he was concerned about me.

JW: But you and your mother didn't get along.
Md'A: Yes, but despite all that my mother and I had been through, I sobbed about her for five years after her death. Years after meeting Horace, when I was still in Boston, he asked me to come to New York. So I took a train down, and Horace took me to see Reverend Beulah Brown up in Harlem. Reverend Brown was a minister Horace had known for years, but she was also a medium who claimed to communicate with the dead. I think that's where Horace got his church sound, through her funky feeling and way of talking.

JW: What did Reverend Brown tell you?
Md'A: She said, “You have to let your mother go. She has to get on to another life." She told me I was keeping my mother earthbound. So I let her go, and I stopped sobbing. It was amazing.

JW: Where did you meet your late husband, pianist Eddie Higgins?
Md'A: I met him 22 years ago. He had heard four tunes of mine that deejay Ron Della Chiesa played in a row on WGBH in Boston. They were four tracks from four different albums. After, Ron announced that I was playing at a place called the Asa Bearse House in Hyannis on Cape Cod. Eddie also had played there, so he knew where it was. I was working the room three days a week, and pianist Dave McKenna worked three days. One night Eddie [known to friends as Haydn] walked in and asked me to do a song.

JW: What did he want you to sing and play?
Md'A: Well, I thought he had asked me to play You Light Up My Life [the Debby Boone pop hit]. I told him I didn't do those kinds of songs [laughs].

JW: He was putting you on, no?
Md'A: No, no [laughs]. I hadn't understood what he had said. He had asked for a Brazilian tune called Someone to Light Up My Life. I didn't know much about Brazilian music at the time. So he tried another song, by Duke Ellington, called All Too Soon. I sang it, a bit puzzled about his taste after his first request.

JW: What happened next?
Md'A: That evening, I ended up standing during my last set singing while he accompanied me on piano. After that we became close friends. Six weeks later we kissed goodnight for the first time. We became engaged two weeks after that and married the following year in the woods on Cape Cod. It was July 28, 1988, the anniversary of our first meeting We were happily married the entire time right up until he died this past August. [Pictured: After Dawn, oil on canvas, 2007, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]

JW: So, are you going to record another album soon?
Md'A: I would love to, but only if I could have my choice of songs. I don't even know if a record label today would be interested in me.

JazzWax tracks: In 1997, Meredith recorded Echo of a Kiss with Mike Renzi (piano), Jay Leonhart (bass), and Terry Clarke (drums). There are two Bill Evans songs here--Time Remembered, with Paul Lewis' lyrics, and Blue in Green, with words by Meredith. The title tune, by pianist Denny Zeitlin, also features Meredith's lyrics. Renzi's piano takes on shades of both pianists. Another powerful track is Claude Thornhill's Snowfall. Meredith captures the sighing melody perfectly but with a hint of urgency, and Renzi's chords here are sensational.

Out of Nowhere was recorded the following year, in 1998. This time, Meredith was accompanied by Lee Musiker (piano), Jay Leonhart (bass), Terry Clarke (drums) and Michael Leonhart on trumpet on two tracks. Musiker's mood-setting intros and fills behind Meredith are exceptional, particularly on Easy Come Easy Go and All In Fun.

Love Is for the Birds (2002) was the first album of Meredith's own work. Among the highlights are Beloved (which is Daahoud set to words), Just a Dream and the touching Blame It All on Spring. Meredith was backed by Lee Musiker, (piano), Jay Leonhart, (bass) and Joe Ascione (drums), with Don Sickler (trumpet and flugelhorn), John Allred (trombone) and Bob Kindred (tenor sax and flute) added on tracks.

All are available as iTunes or Amazon downloads or on CD here, here and here. Wishing on the Moon (2006), also is available as a download or on CD here. And a book of Meredith's artwork is available here.

Art exhibit and performance: Starting next Thursday (September 24th) in Miami, radio station WDNA (88.9 FM) will be exhibiting 35 of Meredith's watercolors and oil paintings. Meredith also will be singing, accompanied by pianist Patti Wicks. For more information and ticket prices, go here.


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