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Roberta Gambarini: Jazz as destiny

Jazz has been called America's greatest original art form, America's classical music, and the soundtrack of America. In fact, jazz is global music, heard and performed in all corners of the world.

One of today's finest interpreters of the great American songbook — those melodic, memorable tunes by Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins and others — was born in Turin, Italy, site of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Roberta Gambarini brings her pristine voice, impeccable diction and pitch, scatting smarts and personal charm to the Dakota for two nights starting Sunday, Oct. 12. If you already know who she is, you probably have tickets. If you don't, here's a short list of her mentors and admirers: the late Benny Carter, Jimmy Cobb (Miles Davis' drummer on "Kind of Blue"), James Moody, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Hank Jones.

Jones, who has worked with a lot of singers in his 90 years, proclaimed Gambarini "the best since Ella Fitzgerald." Critics have crowned her the successor to Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.


Arrived on music scholarship
Not bad for a singer who arrived in the United States 10 years ago with a scholarship to the New England Conservatory, little money and a burning desire to sing the songs she fell in love with as a child.

Her parents were jazz fans who took their daughter to see Ellington on his final tour of Europe. "I was very, very little, but I remember it well," she said by phone from her home in New York City.

Roberta Gambarini
Photo by Ben Huggler
Roberta Gambarini

She was already learning English and singing along with her parents' jazz records. "I loved Ella singing 'Cotton Tail.' My parents would tell me stories about a little bunny with a little fuzzy tail." She listened to Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford, Don Byas and the Duke. For tunes without lyrics, she sang along to the instrumental solos.

Gambarini began studying clarinet at age 12. "At the time, there was not really any jazz education to speak of in my country. … I came to jazz through the recorded and played sources, through my ears. I didn't have access to the rules, the books, things like that."

Sang first gig at 17
At 17, she sang her first gig at a jazz club, the Biella, in a small town north of Turin. "Since that very first time, I said to myself, I really want to do this thing. But I want to do it seriously. So I started taking music theory lessons, and right after I finished high school, I moved to Milan. It was like going to New York City. Completely insane." From there she performed at festivals and clubs around Italy.

Did her friends think she was crazy? "I was so driven, so determined, they thought I was possessed more than crazy." What about her parents? "Parents usually discourage acts of complete recklessness, but mine never did. They always supported me. … A lot of times parents say, 'When are you going to get a real job?' This never came out of my parents' mouths, even when goings were very hard in Italy and there was not much work. My dad would say, 'You're making progress.' "

In 1998, two weeks after arriving in Boston, the young singer from Italy no one knew finished third place in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition, right behind Jane Monheit.

To date, Monheit has released six CDs on five different labels. Gambarini has made just two CDs since coming to America, both on her own label, Groovin' High. The first, "Easy to Love" (2006), earned rave reviews and a Grammy nomination.

'You Are There' with Hank Jones
The second, "You Are There" (2007), is a remarkable piece of work for our high-tech times. Hank Jones and Gambarini, who first performed together at the 2001 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Idaho, met in a New York recording studio in September 2005. They sang what they wanted, how they wanted, with no rehearsal.

Gambarini sat on a stool beside Jones's piano. As she wrote in her liner notes, "There were no partitions, no isolation booths, no headphones, no overdubs. The sound would be just what you would hear had you been in someone's living room."

They started at 2 p.m. and finished at 7. Most of the 14 tracks on the CD — songs like "Stardust," "Just Squeeze Me," and Gambarini's favorite, "Lush Life" — are first takes.

Dee Dee Bridgewater says that Gambarini is "one to see live." I last saw her live at the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival, singing a killer role in a new work by Dave Brubeck. Her voice is an amazing instrument. It can leap tall buildings, as in Dizzy Gillespie's arrangement of "The Sunny Side of the Street." On ballads like Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" it's warm and velvety:

That she can make an album like "You Are There" in such a relaxed and easy way, and so quickly (recording for Guns N' Roses' upcoming studio album, "Chinese Democracy," began in 1994), attests to her professionalism, her commitment, her considerable gifts as a singer, and her familiarity with the material.

An Italian in an American idiom
American material, composed for the American idiom called jazz. Does Gambarini ever question her calling? How and where does she see herself fitting in?

"First of all, internally, I never, ever felt a dichotomy or a separation. … A lot of people brought this up to me and still do — 'Why are you not singing opera?' I love opera, but the world of opera is farther from my personal spiritual history than the world of jazz. I'm much more viscerally connected to jazz. I always felt at home with it. I worked with composers from Italy, I sang in Italian, but in the end I always got back to what felt natural for me. …

"It depends on the voice, not where you are from. To me, it depends more on what your destiny is." And then this jazz singer from the Italian Alps quoted Emily Dickinson: "Each life converges to some center/Expressed or still."

At the Dakota, expect songs from her first two albums and songs from a new CD due out next spring. She'll bring her own band: pianist Eric Gunnison, formerly with Carmen McRae; Neil Swainson, who was George Shearing's bass player; drummer Montez Coleman, last seen here with Hargrove in September. Each set will be different because "even if you're playing the same songs, they won't be the same."

What: Roberta Gambarini
Where: The Dakota
When: Sunday-Monday, Oct. 12-13, 7 and 9:30 p.m.
Tickets: $25/$18

Upcoming picks

Carole Martin: Nobody sings "Blame It on My Youth" like Carole Martin. See for yourself. Her infrequent performances are intimate and emotional, and she only gets better. The Artists' Quarter, 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Oct. 10-11 ($10).

Monk in Motian: Go to the New Standards' 9:30 set, then stick around for this late-night show. The idea behind Monk in Motian, a pianoless quintet, is to interpret the music of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk as interpreted by drummer Paul Motian and his Electric Bebop Band. Say what? Don't worry, just listen. I heard their debut in July and liked it very much. Hear several tracks from that show here. The Dakota, 11:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10 ($5).

Down by the Riverside: Dick Parker will have my head if I don't tell you that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is coming to town. The venerable New Orleans ensemble shares the stage with the soul-stirring, Grammy-winning Blind Boys of Alabama. Orchestra Hall, 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12 ($22-$48).

Find jazz calendars online at Jazz Police. Click on Twin Cities, MN in the black menu bar at the top.

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