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Roberta Gambarini

Spa Little Theatre
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, NY
May 31st, 2007

by Tom Pierce

The Thursday May 31, 2007 concert at the Little Theatre of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center by acclaimed vocalist Roberta Gambarini with a truly superior trio (Mulgrew Miller on piano, George Mraz on bass & Victor Lewis, drums) turned out to be a case of high expectations being not only matched, but well exceeded.

Her Grammy nominated CD, Easy to Love, which I included in my Top 5 CD's of 2006 on this site, was a strong affirmation of the rave notices from veteran Jazz instrumentalists like James Moody and Hank Jones. This positive reaction was reinforced seeing her guest appearance with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Orchestra in the Sept 2006 Tanglewood Jazz Festival. She performed there with even more of those legendary instrumentalists (eg Slide Hampton, Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Heath, etc) who had been praising her, since she placed third in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal competition, only a few months after relocating here from Italy and initially attending the New England Conservatory.

However, this engagement at the SPAC Little Theater presented her in a more intimate setting (physically & musically) than the Tanglewood big band guest appearance, and was clearly built around her. She sang very comfortably and energetically from a swivel stool centered in the middle of the band and was very much in control. This focusing on her was also evident in the choice of songs (see below), which she introduced with just the right amount of explanation of why they were especially meaningful to her. Almost without exception, they were compositions by, or noted performance opportunities for, the major musical heroes who inspired and shaped her development: Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.

There was no surprise in hearing the amazing technical skills she displayed, which are virtually unmatched among living Jazz vocalists - only a limited number of truly special vocalists, all substantially more experienced than she, consistently sing with this type prodigious technique. However, one can never get used to or take for granted, her elegant purity of tone, flawless intonation, outstanding breath control, lilting sense of swing and dynamic scatting ability to effectively recreate stimulating solos by instrumental masters. This is simply a Jazz voice for the ages, in my opinion. Although she's been clearly and deeply influenced by and immersed in, Carmen McRae (first and foremost, to my ears), Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan (all so much so, to erase all traces of an accent in her singing voice), Gambarini deserves to be listened to and evaluated as a vibrantly unique artist.

However, all of these impressive characteristics could leave one cold, if her interpretation did not have the natural warmth, credible drama and passion she imbued these songs with. The touching ballads included “Something to Live For”, “Poor Butterfly”, “Lush Life”, “Come Sunday”, a “Porgy & Bess” medley and “The Very Thought of You”. On these, her disciplined avoidance of overly dramatic endings demonstrated the taste and maturity in her performance - a fact that is particularly praiseworthy, given the ease with which she could have over-embellished them with her powerful chops.

The medium and up tempo songs, such as “When Lights are Low”, “Squeeze Me”, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “That Old Black Magic” and “Easy to Love” gave the attendees even more of an opportunity to appreciate the excellent trio. For over 30 years, Mulgrew Miller's richly diverse piano has been a source of delight for fans and enormous respect from major players, who have hired him, such as Art Blakey, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon and the Duke Ellington orchestra. I kept trying to anticipate (unsuccessfully) how he might resolve the exciting tension his captivating solos built, but the stimulating climax each time was uniquely constructed.

Since emigrating in 1968 from Czechoslovakia at 24 to attend Berklee, George Mraz has been a first call bassist for those bandleaders who had had their choice of anyone, including initially Oscar Peterson, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Stan Getz, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, etc. I found his dark, but clear sound to have that compelling, lasting quality of the rich notes seeming to hang suspended in one's mind's ear, while expanding to fill the concert hall. Victor Lewis, who like his partners has also been heavily in demand by top tier musicians (eg Kenny Barron, Carla Bley and Woody Shaw) for over three decades, did not take any solos. However, he not only kept great time, but his accents, colors and fills effectively complemented the lead work of Gambarini & Miller, while blending smoothly within framework of the rhythm section.

The absence of an intermission in the single 90 minute set that moved very quickly, allowed for maximum continuity and flow, in a groove enjoyed by both the artists and the audience. The more than 200 attendees reacted in the two ways performers appreciate most: attentiveness and heartfelt, prolonged applause, ending with a standing ovation by everyone present.

Tom Pierce has had a burning passion for Jazz for over 45 years, initiated and fueled by seeing live in New York City, starting in the early 1960's, virtually every major artist still performing. He's been very happily living in Guilderland the last 5 years, as an active retiree sharing his love of music by writing online reviews for a number of web sites, preparing DVD presentations to various groups, co-Hosting Radio programs showcasing his favorite artists and busily supporting A Place for Jazz and the SwingTime Society in a variety of ways.