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Letizia Gambi: Italian Songstress Blends Neapolitan Songbook and Jazz on Auspicious Debut

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Letizia Gambi Her gorgeous voice on the opening refrain to “Secret Tears" ("Una Furtiva Lagrima," an aria from the Italian opera L'elisir d'amore by Gaetano Donizetti), the leadoff track from Introducing Letizia Gambi, heralds the arrival of a poised and polished young songstress from Naples making her stateside splash. With visionary drummer-producer Lenny White at the helm, Gambi is surrounded by American jazz heavyweights Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
, Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
, Gato Barbieri
Gato Barbieri
Gato Barbieri
b.1934
saxophone
, Wallace Roney
Wallace Roney
Wallace Roney
b.1960
trumpet
, Gil Goldstein and Patrice Rushen
Patrice Rushen
Patrice Rushen
b.1954
keyboard
on her auspicious debut.

“It is her first record but she's been around and doing things in Italy," says White, whose track record as a producer has been prolific since his heyday with Return To Forever in the '70s. “She's been in musical theater, she's done West Side Story, she was a dancer and she's done some tv shows as an actress. She was also part of swing orchestra in Italy. So she's certainly done things, but this is her first effort as a solo recording artist."

Letizia Gambi & Lenny White

On Introducing Letizia Gambi, the classy Italian songstress artfully blends her own Neapolitan roots with White's penchant for injecting a swing factor into any proceedings. “The challenge for me, because I had never approached doing any Neopolitan music at all, was to try and take her music and her culture and get it exposed to a wider audience through a different kind of music. And so that's where we got this cultural hybrid of Neopolitan and Italian music through my culture, which is jazz music. So ultimately it was like Norah Jones meets Sade for the Michael Buble crowd."

Gambi's Neopolitan side manifests in her Italian lyrics on Pino Danielle's “Appocundria," Bruno Canfora's breezy “Soli" and the dramatic “Passione," which opens with a home recording of her uncle Gennaro Sica, a professional opera singer, at a casual Sunday afternoon family gathering. “My Town" is a nostalgic piece arranged by White and with string orchestrations from Carlos Franzetti that focuses on Gambi's beloved Napoli. Elsewhere on Introducing Letizia Gambi, White arranges a tango-flavored rendition of Prince's “The Question of U," featuring a passionate tenor sax solo from Argentine jazz icon Gato Barbieri (who briefly quotes his own “Theme from Last Tango in Paris") and also reinvents Bjork's “Bachelorette," rendered here as an alluring ballad with Hector del Curto on bandoneon (with a subtle reference to Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the tag).

Patrice Rushen, Letizia Gambi, Lenny White & Ron Carter “I wanted to try some different things," says White of this first recording by Ms. Gambi. “When I'm given a free reign, I have no boundaries. Usually what happens is record companies put boundaries on artists because they want to market them a certain way. I understand that. But this is the 21st century and how people listen to music has changed. Now people listen to all kinds of music in different ways for different reasons, and I really wanted this record to appeal to those people."

One clever mashup on Introducing Letizia Gambi is her juxtaposition of the nostalgic ode to Naples, “Munasterio 'e Santachiara," with the Duke Ellington staple “In a Sentimental Mood."  “That was strictly her idea," says White of his talented young colleague deserving of wider recognition. “She had done that before when she was in jazz school. And listening to some Italian musicians I had met over the years, they all talked about the symmetry or similarity between those tunes. The composer of 'Munasterio' either was influenced by 'In a Sentimental Mood,' or just the opposite. There's still some debate about that in Italian circles to this day."

Letizia Gambi, Gato Barbieri, & Lenny White

The album also marks the first-ever recording of “You Are So Special" ("Tu Si 'Na Cosa Grande") sung in English along with three new tunes co-written by White and Gambi - “A Time," “The Love of Your Life" and the dramatic, tangofied closer, “Yo Soy El Sur." And no collection of Neopolitan music would be complete without a rendition of the classic “'O Sole Mio." As White explains, “That is easily the most famous Neapolitan song but Letizia was hesitant to do it because she said, “No Italian would do that song. That's like you American guys doing a recording of your national anthem.' But I came up with an arrangement for her that, to me, went back to old doo-wop love songs from the '50s. And I wanted it to be really stark at the beginning with just bass and her, just Ron Carter and her. Then it goes into that waltz section and at the end I went to another key where there's some improvisation. So this is all part of this true cultural fusion that we hit on with this album." As liner note writer Ashley Kahn states of the organic cross-fertilization heard on Introducing Letizia Gambi: “It's a novel idea...It speaks to the triumph of the marriage of eras and styles that defines this album and promises much more to come."
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