The late pianist Hank Jones, who was revered by many vocalists, called Roberta Gambarini “the best new jazz singer to come along in fifty years.” Many who have heard Ms Gambarini concur. She easily navigates a multi-octave range, shows considerable skill and imagination in scatting, and has a great sense of swing. She was born in Italy, and came to the United States in 1998,with a scholarship to the New England Conservatory. Once here, Gambarini immediately entered the Thelonious Monk competition and came in third that year. Since then, her career has steadily grown, with a grammy nomination for her 2006 American debut, Easy to Love, as well as a second Grammy nomination for her most recent album, So in Love, from 2009.
Gambarini recently performed at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in Minneapolis, where she continually surprised the audience. She started with an accapella version of “Stardust,” then did a dozen or so standards, including “Estate,” in its original Italian. She would often sing the verse of a song (accompanied by pianist Eric Gunison), and sometimes would sing with just the drummer (Willie Jones III) or bass player (Neil Swainson). She scatted the solos of Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt on “The Sunny Side of the Street,” from the album Sonny Side Up, played the mouth trombone on one number, caressed ballads, invigorated fast numbers, and used her supple voice to leap octaves without breaking a sweat. I interviewed Ms Gambarini in the lobby of her hotel on the day after her first performance at the Dakota.
LE: To start, I understand that your parents had a large record collection and liked jazz. Is that how you got into jazz?
LE: You chose to become a vocalist, though you started out playing clarinet as a young girl. What made you decide to become a vocalist?
RG: I was already singing, always singing. Since I was very little. I took music lessons when I was about 12. I really wanted to play the saxophone, the tenor saxophone, because it was my father’s instrument, because he had it around the house and would play and practice. But he thought it wasn’t an appropriate instrument suited for a little girl, so he said, “You can study, but you’ll have to study clarinet.”
LE: At what point did you say jazz singing is something I want to do as a career?
RG: I was about seventeen. I started to have my first opportunities to sing around jazz clubs.
LE: This was in Torino, where you lived?
RG: It was in Torino and my first opportunities were all over Northern Italy.
LE: Would your parents take you to these places?
RG: Yeah, yeah. Well, my parents would take me to these places for a long time when I was little, to hear jazz music. They were also on the board of volunteers for one of the jazz clubs.
LE: So you were surrounded by jazz.
RG: Oh yeah.
LE: You mentioned that you started singing very early on. What singers caught your ear?
RG: The first one was Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, of course. I’m talking about a very, very young age, like two, or even earlier.
LE: Then when did you start studying voice?
RG: Oh, studying voice. I used to sing naturally, and started to study around eighteen or nineteen years old, studying the vocal instrument.
LE: You have such command of your instrument. Was there any lesson that was particularly hard for you to learn about using your voice?
RG: Well, for me, and I don’t know how standard is this type of path, but I used to sing naturally when I was little, and used to enjoy going up and down, and had no problems. And then the first teacher I had was at the Conservatorium of Genoa. At the time, the teaching was pretty rigid and it was considered academically correct, and jazz was like a, I’m not sure how to say it, a game, or something on the side. You have to learn the important things first. Important in quotes. But that was a type of academic study. It’s not even the way you really study opera. But this teacher was applying that academic method. It became disruptive and I started losing my freedom, and it became a constriction, where I was losing that facility I had. And it took many years to go back to that state, and so, in trying to go back to that state of natural freedom I then worked in completely different ways to with my voice
LE: Was that after you had come to the United States?
RG: No, no, no, it was way before that.
LE: When you came to the United States you managed to meet some significant people who gave you ideas on your repertoire and things like that.
RG: Soon as I got to the States, I entered in this Thelonious Monk competition. I had been in the States maybe two weeks. At the competition I met several great musicians and great people. The first one was Jimmy Heath, who also became one of the people that I’m so fortunate to have worked with. So I started right away meeting people that were so wonderful to give me a lot of suggestions and tips. How to improve musically, and almost right away I started working in New York. It was 1998, and my gig in New York was with Jimmy Heath, and right after that I got to work a lot with Billy Higgins at the Jazz Standard which was then a new club but is now one of the main clubs in New York. I worked with Curtis Fuller, Ronnie Matthews, James Spalding, I remember Harold Land.
LE: A number of folks from what I’d call the classic era of the 50s and 60s who were still around at the time. Talking about your repertoire, at last nights show, you did two dozen songs seemingly without a set list. How many songs do you have in your repertoire?
RG: We have a lot of songs. With the band, and this rhythm section, Neil Swainson and Willie Jones, we’ve played together all over the world.
LE: How do you choose your repertoire? What do you look for in a song?
RG: It’s got to have a good story, and of course, a good lyric. The way the melody, the lyric and the harmony interact to make a great song.
LE: After coming here in ’98, and entering the Monk competition and meeting all these musicians, was there any particular lesson that you learned, say from James Moody, Hank Jones…
RG: Benny Carter
LE: Benny Carter. Have there been any lessons that have stuck with you?
RG: Absolutely. Benny Carter was one of my idols and he befriended me, honored me with his friendship. He was a great encounter for me, and so was Hank Jones, and so was James Moody, who recently left us. Moody was like my second father, not only a great musician but a great, great human being, as were all of the musicians I mentioned. Moody was really special to me. Well, each one them, in fact all of them, I’ll try to synthesize.
Moody, for example, would tell me anecdotes about his time with Dizzy Gillespie, who was also a natural teacher, as was moody. He told me that when he was young, back in the 50s, it wasn’t that he was self-taught, but he didn’t have a regular academic path because of his life vicissitudes. He was born in Savannah and moved to New York. He’d say to Dizzy “Oh Man, I wish I had more of the theoretical preparation behind me so I could better understand things, I should have studied earlier, and got more academic training.” And Dizzy’s answer was, “Moody, you ain’t dead yet.”
Moody would always tell me that, because I’m self-taught too, in a way. Sometimes I would express some doubts, and he would tell me this episode. Moody was always concentrating on playing better than he was, if that was possible, since he was at the top, but… he was always striving and struggling to play better and know more and learn more from everybody. From young people for example, and that’s a great lesson. He’d go around and listen to some youngster play something that he would find interesting, and that he would incorporate in his own work. He wouldn’t hesitate to ask a young player “Can you hip me to what you just did?” Most of the time the younger player would say, “Moody, I got that from you!”
Hank Jones – the great lesson about Hank Jones was the way he operated and worked. The essential thing is to take a song and peel off layer after layer of unnecessary things. He would say, “Peel off all those things that are not necessary to express the emotional core of the song. “ That’s a very important thing, because we always do too much, even unconsciously. But he would say, “Do this conscious surgical work, until it becomes the emotional core, which is the reason why you want to do this song.”
Benny Carter taught me so many things about repertoire and also how to move about in the business, which is very difficult. How to be true to your self, and never compromise, try to never compromise. Which was true about him, because he is a synonym, another word for excellence. He would say to always associate yourself and keep yourself on a level as high as possible, and to never compromise for the sake of, I don’t know, success or money.
LE: Those are good lessons. Whenever I talk with older musicians or read about older musicians, they’re often saying they’re still trying to learn new things every day, and that’s what keeps them going. I think that’s what keeps them young.
RG: Right, that’s true. Certainly all of them said that, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess,
LE: You do a wonderful job of scatting, and I have to admit I’ve not heard many singers scat on slower songs. Did you teach yourself how to scat?
RG: Yes, but I taught myself how to scat by letting the records teach me. Then, Moody was a great help in that, because Moody was one of those who wrote the book about scatting, so just standing next to him was great. Listening to instrumentalists, listening to records
LE: From a distance, at least, it seems you have led somewhat of a charmed life, even before you got to New York, in terms of your ability to absorb different kinds of music and to meet all of these wonderful musicians, and becoming a wonderful musician yourself. What kinds of things have slowed you down, or worried you, and so Moody said, “You’re not dead yet.”
RG: Well, everything, because in spite of what it might look like, it wasn’t a charmed life. As a matter of fact it was a very difficult condition… (pauses) I don’t talk too often about these things, but maybe now’s the time, because it’s not a fairy tale. The years in Italy, the years of my apprenticeship, so to speak, were done in Italy, and the situation is very difficult. It used to be difficult, it’s even more difficult now.
In Italy, there is a system… At the time there was no jazz education in place… There is a system, as we can see in the recent political developments, and I won’t comment on that, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Ed Note: there is a scandal involving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi). There’s a system in place that does not reward merit. It’s an anti-meritocracy. It’s a system that pushes people down, to thinking that they will never, ever succeed. I was told that when I was nineteen. I was told by a music journalist, “You’re very talented, but not even if you would be as good as Sarah Vaughn, you won’t go anywhere here.” This is because the system that places personal relationships over talent and hard work. We saw that exactly… (pauses)
It’s a hard thing to talk about, especially to Americans because everything is based on meritocracy and there’s so much respect for talent here, it’s hard to believe. Now that you see current events, you see that in every level of political and artistic life it’s a matter of exchange of favors. Merit, talent, or being able to make money or stir up things, has no influence. So in that situation it’s very easy to get discouraged or be depressed. I was strong enough to always stay on my path, but it was very difficult.
When I came here I didn’t have the background that kids have here, where everything is positive and you’re given props and respect. I had that from my parents, which is the greatest thing. Without them I wouldn’t be doing this, but nothing from the outside world, and that slows you down in the end. A lot. A lot. It makes you more vulnerable. I think that maybe some of these greats, who had a certain age saw something in me or perceived that there was a certain type of struggle, and they wanted to help. It’s mostly mental.
LE: No wonder you jumped at a chance to come to the United States.
RG: Absolutely. In a way, I wish I could have done it before, but it was not possible, financially and everything, but I’m glad I did it anyway.
LE: We all are happy you came here.
RG: This is the greatest country in the world. I’m telling you.
LE: You’re continuing to grow, continuing to gain respect. You’ve had a couple of Grammy nominations already. You’ve released three albums in the U.S. and have had two nominations. You’re doing really well. What is it you hope to do now, as you move forward.
RG: I want to do more writing, arranging, and conducting. I know they seem like big things. Back in Italy I studied composition, classical composition, and I always loved arranging. I would like to get the opportunity to play with a larger ensemble, and do some writing. That, and I’d like also to work on the next recording with a big orchestral ensemble, and with a great arranger.
LE: In each of your sets last night you did an Italian song. It was a little hard for me to tell, but it seemed you didn’t do too much embellishment of the melody.
RG: There are many many great songs, and I hope I can introduce them, little by little, to American audiences.
LE: You have a website?
RG: I do have a Myspace page and I’m active on Facebook. I’m going to be setting up a new website pretty soon. But for now it’s Myspace.
LE: Is that where people can find out about your tour schedule?
LE: And on this particular tour are you heading back to the snow of New York?
RG: I’m heading back to the snow for about a week, and then going to Europe to work with a larger ensemble, the Metropole Orchestra, and I’m really looking forward to that. Then I’ll go to Spain and then to Indonesia. Then back to Europe and back to the US.
LE: Well, thank you so much for your time.
RG: Thank you so very much.