She came to the States in 1998 to study at the prestigious New England Conservatory, and soon thereafter she entered the singers category of the Thelonious Monk Competition, placing third to winner Teri Thornton and runner-up Jane Monheit. Buoyed by this recognition, she hit New York City and scuffled for a few years; nonetheless, word got out, and on the strength of her impressive and aptly named 2006 debut, 'Easy to Love,' it seemed that she'd arrived. The self-released album garnered a Grammy nomination in the Best Jazz Vocal category, but perhaps what is even more impressive is that legendary pianist Hank Jones calls her the best vocalist to come along in 60 years."
Recently speaking with Gambarini in between West Coast dates in Seattle and Santa Cruz, she seems to be her own toughest critic, but that doesn't mean she's a perfectionist. I have no use for perfection," she points out. I believe in good singing – there is a funny thing in pop culture lately where good singing is identified with perfection, and good singing is not perfect singing. Trying to sing truthfully and sing the next note better than the last is not perfection, it's looking for something because you know you are never going to be perfect. That's not the purpose; the purpose is the process."
Gambarini made her major label debut with Jones at the piano in 2007 with 'You Are There' on Emarcy. While the age difference is measured in several decades, there is a kinship between them that makes their chemistry special, and it goes a long way toward explaining the pianist's high praise for the singer. Gambarini now returns with her second album for Emarcy, 'So in Love.' Here she's joined by a mix of jazz elders including James Moody and Jake Hanna as well as young guns such as Gerald Clayton and Roy Hargrove.
Singers, like other jazz musicians, are often compared to the iconic forerunners on their chosen instrument. I'm guilty of it with the aforementioned Fitzgerald reference, but in my mind what makes Gambarini stand out from the pack is the quality of her chops. With fluid unwavering intonation, she tackles the standards, making the songs sound like they are being done for the first time. Her scatting is strong as well, proving herself to be an archetypal jazz singer.
Gambarini is typically backed on the new one by a mixed bag of small groups with a couple of piano-only duets bookending the album. It was made in a few afternoons," Gambarini says. Over the years, I've collected a pool of musicians and friends who have played with me in several different combinations, so it was more of who was around, but they were all people who I knew and loved."
She did most of the arrangements herself, and there is a sense that she let the guys in the band blow, sometimes behind her as she sings: James Moody does this to fine effect on 'I See Your Face Before Me' and 'Get Out of Town.' We don't have really tight arrangements; a lot of stuff was not written," Gambarini says of the music. That's so the players have room for the unexpected. That's the best way for me to convey the song, which is what really matters." Instead of just volleying with the horn player or pianist (as singers often do), she lets the rhythm section get into the act as well: Bassist George Mraz (on 'You Must Believe In Spring') and drummer Jake Hanna (on 'Day In Day Out') step in to share the spotlight with her. No wonder the players like her.
Highlights of the standards are the aforementioned tunes with Moody and her peppy version of 'Day In Day Out.' Just to prove she has a sense of humor, she does a version of Johnny Griffin's bluesy 'You Ain't Nothin' but a JAMF' ("JAMF" is an acronym for jive-ass ..." -- well, you can guess the rest) where she scats and recounts of a tale about a badly behaving man whom she gives the boot.
Of the non-jazz material she draws upon, the Italian songs ('Estate' and theme from the film 'Cinema Paradiso') makes perfect sense and is wonderfully rendered, and the Patsy Cline hit 'Crazy' works as well. The Beatles medley of 'Golden Slumbers'/'Here, There, and Everywhere' doesn't seem to jibe with her well-trained voice, but the fact is she tried it, and that is the important thing.
They say that love is about learning to embrace another's imperfection. Not perfect but awfully good, 'So in Love' is a love letter by Roberta Gambarini. The singer tends not to think too far into the future, but it's a sure bet that her relationship with the music will continue to grow with time.
New This Week at All About Jazz
This week, AAJ delves into the Fab Four's influence on jazz. There is also a contest for a Beatles boxed set and streams of jazz versions of the Beatles' songs. Check it out here.