Jazz, part 3: Fresh air in the jazz scene

Simona De Rosa / Photo by Mark Bergin

Simona De Rosa / Photo by Mark Bergin

One of my recent Enchanté columns

By Mark Bergin

Keep your eyes (and ears) on a couple of jazz singers who are making musical waves. Simona De Rosa and Madeleine Peyroux are unique and powerful musicians in the current world of jazz.

What is probably one of the stranger backstories in a jazz musician’s life comes from Simona De Rosa.

She’s always been a singer, but, like many, the De Rosa parents didn’t think music was a possible career choice.

“I was singing more and more, and in the meantime I was taking a degree in geology,” says De Rosa. “The day after I got my degree I announced that I was saving to come to New York to sing.”

She wasn’t just studying geology; she worked in the field during her undergrad studies. In an odd juxtaposition, on her Facebook page there’s a photo album called When I Was A Geologist. The urban, sophisticated look is gone. De Rosa is in Indiana Jones environments and clothing.

At the moment, she’s working on a Master’s Degree in Jazz Performance at Queen’s College of City University of New York. You’re going to hear a lot from her in the future.

I first heard Simona De Rosa at The Garage jazz club in Greenwich Village. Simona was the lovely woman sitting at the bar beside me. Part way through the band’s set, the leader called her up to join them.

With no vocal warm up, she jumped right into some riffs, including scat, a difficult vocal technique that involves singing improv melodies and rhythms. Ella Fitzgerald was a master of scat. A highlight of De Rosa’s impromptu performance was Blackbird, which had everyone in the restaurant putting forks, knives, spoons and wine glasses down to stare and listen, followed by thunderous applause. Basically, where did this woman come from? I had to shake my head to make sure I was awake.

A few months later, in the Algonquin Hotel’s lounge, an appropriate setting for this sophisticated yet down-to-earth singer, De Rosa explained how she got up from her bar stool and launched into high-caliber jazz.

“I never warm up,” she says. She believes that she has to be ready to go on stage and impress at any time. “Otherwise I may as well stay at home and sing in the shower.”

She can’t remember ever not singing.

“I started singing along with cartoons,” she says. She began voice lessons at the age of 15. A year later, she won a singing competition in Italy. She sang New York, New York, a harbinger for her career. From there it was pop bands and then big band jazz.

“I’ve always liked jazz music,” she says.

These days, she’s spending more and more time performing at important jazz gigs.

“A lot has happened since I moved here (New York),” she says. “A lot of other doors are opening as an Italian who also sings Neapolitan music.”

Two weeks after our New York City interview she was heading back to Italy to perform at two major jazz festivals.

She says she wants to take what’s she’s learned in the New York jazz scene to Naples.

“There is a big focus on jazz in Italy,” she says. “It is more interesting for people to go to jazz festivals, especially traditional jazz. Here (in North America) you will find more funk and fusion. In Italy, we are kind of old style. But in Italy, it still seems like you have to go somewhere else and be successful and then come back.”

Her longer term goal is to live and succeed in New York. She has her eyes set on performing at Lincoln Center one day.
What the singer doesn’t mention is that when she first arrived in New York City for three months in 2011, she did not speak English. In January 2013, she moved to New York. She was featured in the June 2014 edition of Fra Noi, an Italian-American magazine. In the past year, she received two awards from the Association of Italian America Educators recognizing her “spirited leadership, dedication and her outstanding cultural contribution to the Italian community in America.”

Her advice to younger musicians is to be well prepared, well educated and persistent.

“Train, train, train and study, study, study,” she says. “And knock on every door you can. Don’t be shy. That’s the beauty of New York. If you keep knocking, people will open the door for you, but then you have to prove what you can do. You have to be hungry for it. New York has so much to give and I have to bite everything of the big apple.”

Although she has musical mentors like Aretha Franklin, Liza Minnelli and Ella Fitzgerald, De Rosa says her parents are her real idols.

“My parents gave me an education,” she says. “They pushed me all the time to be a better person. They helped open my mind and gave me a chance to travel. Also, my mentor is street life. What you can learn on the street meeting people is the best.”

Not far from The Garage jazz bar, you’ll find The Blue Note. A few years back I wandered in for the evening to hear someone who had been described to me as the new jazz phenom, Madeleine Peyroux. Like Simona De Rosa, Peyroux owns an odd back-story, although hers is in music.

After hearing Madeleine Peyroux at The Blue Note, I felt like I’d just experienced a soothing emotional massage. Her music can be quite edgy, but the beautifully smoky vocals make the lyrical grit mysterious. Close your eyes and you might think she’s Billie Holiday, even though I find Peyroux’s style uniquely her own. Driving with a friend recently, when Madeleine Peyroux came on the sound system, my friend said, “I love Billy Holiday.” She looked at me in disbelief when I told her it was Madeleine Peyroux.

There’s a folksy sense to her music, but it remains steadfastly jazz oriented. Songs like La Vie en Rose, made famous by Edith Piaf, should usually be left to the original masters who recorded them. I’ve heard too many classics massacred. But Madeleine Peyroux makes it her own, while maintaining its original sensuousness. It helps that she speaks French.

Peyroux, American born and of French descent, spent her childhood in California and New York City, but when her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Paris at the age of 13. In Paris, she discovered the Latin Quarter’s street musicians. By the age of 16, she was in a jazz and blues band touring Europe. She eventually moved back to New York and was signed by Atlantic Records. Her first album, Dreamland, was released in 1996. She was instantly called the 21st century Billie Holiday. In 1997, she appeared at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Then she disappeared, returning to the streets of Paris where she spent several years busking and remaining low key, although she did perform and record in support of other musicians.

She was signed by a new label, Rounder, and recorded with producer Larry Klein. Her 2004 album Careless Love was a critical success and had massive sales. She was no longer an unknown artist. There’s a multicultural appeal to her work; she’s just as comfortable singing in French as English. In 2007, she was awarded recognition as Best International Jazz Artist at the BBC Jazz Awards. Her fourth solo album, Bare Bones, released in 2009, featured all original tracks.

Peyroux is not your typical publicity hungry monster. With no lifestyle scandals and no stints in rehab, she simply “disappears” or at least drops out of sight for lengthy periods. It’s hard to imagine the likes of some of today’s egomaniacs giving up the limelight, but that’s part of what creates the mystery of Madeleine Peyroux. There’s so much of her musical territory still to explore.

For more information about these jazz musicians, visit simonaderosa.net, madeleinepeyroux.com

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About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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