Today’s jazz singers don’t limit themselves to the classic American Songbook. The singer/songwriter era ushered in by rock ’n’ roll produced a treasure trove of tunes ripe for reinvention, and Roseanna Vitro uncovers a mother lode with The Music of Randy Newman.
Working closely with veteran pianist and longtime collaborator Mark Soskin, Vitro infuses Newman’s songs with her soul-deep feel for blues and gospel. The results are revelatory, insistently raising the question of why no jazz singer has previously tackled a Randy Newman project. Vitro credits the concept to her husband, sound engineer and producer Paul Wickliffe, an idea planted by her yearning version of Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” on her 2006 album Live at the Kennedy Center (Challenge).
“That’s one of the ballads I only present when people are really listening,” Vitro says. “What I love about Randy Newman is his ability to tell a story, and the fact that his music is Southern-flavored with a real taste of New Orleans. I’m from the South, and whether I’m singing swing, Ray Charles, or Bill Evans, I have an undercurrent of blues, country, and gospel that informs whatever I’m doing.”
The project is very much a collaboration with a brilliant cast of musicians, including Mark Soskin, whose long history with Sonny Rollins and his band goes back to the 1970s and who currently teaches at the Manhattan School of Music; rising violin star Sara Caswell, heard recently with Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society and Mark O’Connor’s American String Celebration; percussion ace Jamey Haddad, currently with Paul Simon’s band; guitarist Steve Cardenas, now touring with Ben Allison and Jenny Scheinman; and Vitro’s working rhythm section of bassist Dean Johnson and drummer Tim Horner, both featured on Live at the Kennedy Center with Roseanna. While The Music of Randy Newman might not register immediately as a jazz session, it’s an album that could have only been conceived and realized by artists powerfully connected to the jazz tradition.
Immersing herself in Newman’s vast catalog, Vitro used the same rigorous process in selecting material as on 1997’s Catchin’ Some Rays (Telarc) and 2001’s Conviction: Thoughts of Bill Evans (A Records), her acclaimed albums exploring the music of Charles and Evans, respectively. Whether interpreting Newman’s early hits or latter-day gems, Vitro and Soskin developed arrangements that flow from the contours of his incisive lyrics and the implied orchestrations of his piano playing. From the opening track, which infuses the almost psychedelic “Last Night I Had a Dream” with a propulsive Latin groove, to the closer, a wrenching “Losing You,” Vitro imbues each song with her highly personal narrative arc.
An artist who has never shied away from politics, Vitro is clearly drawn to Newman’s warts-and-all portraits of America. The Americana fiddle theme on “Sail Away,” which explores the tragedy of slavery, subtly comments on the nation’s founding sin, while the imploring strings on “Baltimore” heightens Newman’s tale of urban despair. Which isn’t to say that Vitro is only interested in Newman’s biting wit and caustic commentary. “If I Didn’t Have You,” the Academy Award–winning theme from the 2002 hit Monsters, Inc., ranks among the sweetest of buddy songs, a mood that Soskin captures by recasting it as an insinuating bossa nova. “I Will Go Sailing No More” from Toy Story is another highlight, a rueful ballad about aging gracefully and on one’s own terms.
In a career marked by one sensational creative swoop after another, Vitro is still soaring into new musical realms. In many ways, The Music of Randy Newman flows from her last album, Delirium Blues Project: Serve or Suffer (Half Note), a fascinating sojourn into vintage blues, jazz, funk, and rock ’n’ roll. Working closely with pianist Kenny Werner, a longtime creative partner, and a world-class cast of players, including saxophone master James Carter, trumpet great Randy Brecker, and bass virtuoso John Patitucci, Vitro turns into a power belter on numbers like the Esther Phillips vehicle “Cheater Man,” Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy,” and Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip?”
With its amalgam of musical influences, Delirium Blues Project gave her a chance to live out an early musical ambition. Growing up in Arkansas, Vitro was weaned on music. Her Italian-born father owned a nightclub in Hot Springs and loved opera, and her mother’s family sang gospel. (“You know Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? That’s my family’s music,” Vitro says.) She fell in love with singing as a child, and by the time she reached her teens in the mid-1960s she was determined to become a rock singer. Fleeing Texarkana for Houston, Tex., she started meeting musicians around the Gulf Coast scene through classified ads placed by rock combos seeking a singer.
On one of her early rock gigs, a bassist informed her that she seemed to have the makings of a jazz singer, and she started checking out Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nancy Wilson. Veteran crooner Ray Sullenger, who had performed with Paul Whiteman, took her under his wing, giving her career pointers and organizing a “coming out” party to introduce her to the Houston jazz community. The great Texas tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb attended the event, and became another important mentor.
“He was such a great example of a blues-steeped player who swung so powerfully,” Vitro says. “I would go to the Third Ward and sit in and jam with Arnett all the time. He’d put on summer jazz workshops for kids, and I’d go trying to learn theory. Bob Morgan, who’s done such amazing work mentoring musicians like Jason Moran and Eric Harland at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, was my teacher at those summer jazz workshops.”
By the mid-1970s Vitro had become a mainstay on the Houston scene, leading a group called Roseanna with Strings and Things. A two-year engagement at the famed Green Room led to a weekly radio show (on KUHF-FM) and jams with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Eddie Gomez, Tommy Flanagan, and others. Soon she felt New York’s inexorable gravitational pull. She set off with her guitarist Scott Hardy and made the move to Manhattan, where Cobb regularly invited her to sit in when he played the Village Vanguard. He also appeared as a guest on her first disc, 1985’s Listen Here (Texas Rose), an auspicious debut with Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, and Ben Riley that’s yet to be reissued on CD.
Always looking to extend her skills and craft, Vitro studied bel canto with Gabore Carelli at the Manhattan School of Music, jazz singing with Ann Marie Moss, and later Hindustani classical music with Dhanashree Pandit Rae, Purvi Parikh, and Uday Bhawalker. She studied piano with Sid Bernstein and theory and concept with Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch, who both became Vitro’s key creative collaborators.
Hersch accompanied her on 1987’s A Quiet Place (Skyline), 1994’s Softly (Concord Jazz), and Conviction, all sessions displaying her expansive repertoire. Werner has played an essential role just about every other Vitro album, including 1991’s Reaching for the Moon (Chase Music Group), and her major label breakthrough with Telarc, 1996’s Passion Dance, which features the pianist’s lush arrangements and superlative improvisers such as Elvin Jones, Gary Bartz, Christian McBride, and Romero Lubambo. He also backs her on Catchin’ Some Rays, 2004’s Brazilian escape Tropical Postcards (A Records), and Live at the Kennedy Center. All of Vitro’s recordings are distinguished by her canny choice of songs. Rather than delivering the standards defined by Ella, Sarah, Carmen, and Billie, she’s honed a body of songs that are truly Roseanna.
That’s not to say she’s the first singer to explore Randy Newman’s music. His gimlet-eyed character studies bring to life a vast menagerie of American characters, and a spectrum of artists from Ray Charles and Etta James to Dusty Springfield and Peggy Lee has recorded his music. (As Vitro reveals in her liner notes, Newman wrote the orchestration for Lee’s 1969 hit “Is That All There Is?”). His knack for storytelling has made him Hollywood’s favorite tunesmith, a two-time Oscar winner whose music has played an essential role in more than a dozen hit films including The Natural, Meet the Parents, and the Toy Story trilogy.
The fact that Newman’s music is so well suited for movies should come as no surprise. Three of his uncles—nine-time Oscar winners Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman, and Emil Newman—were esteemed Hollywood composers, and today his nephew Joey Newman and cousins Thomas Montgomery Newman and David Newman are successful film and television composers. Spending his early years in New Orleans, he absorbed the city’s rhythms and cadences. It’s no coincidence that his song “Louisiana, 1927,” from his landmark 1974 album Good Old Boys, became an anthem for New Orleans in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. For Vitro, the combination of wit, sentiment, bruised cynicism, and open-hearted vulnerability made Newman’s songbook an irresistible draw.
“I felt so at home singing Newman’s songs,” Vitro says. “I could make three albums of his music. If you look at the American Songbook, most of that work was created for film and theater. He’s actually expanding the definition of the American Songbook. Some of the greatness has gone under the radar, because it’s being sung by a big wooly animal or created for an animated film.”
If Vitro is turning on the jazz world to a body of work it’s been overlooking, her efforts include her vaunted skills as an educator. A respected professor and symposium director since the mid-1990s, Vitro is the director of vocal jazz studies at New Jersey City University, a program that she founded in 1998. As a mentor to some of the most creative young singers on the scene, she developed a four-year curriculum spanning the history of jazz vocalists, from Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith to the greatest contemporary stylists, most of whom she interviewed about their approach and creative concepts. In 2009 she created the social networking site JVOICE (Jazz Vocalists Offering Instructional Curriculum for Education) for jazz singers, teachers, students, and others interested in technique and issues around jazz education.
“I love what I’ve learned in this business,” Vitro says. “I want to be a great teacher, work on my improvisation, and write substantial music. I love to interview other singers. I still love to perform, but I also love to teach. I want to spread jazz everywhere and fulfill the role I was put here for.” •
(Reverbnation page featuring the Randy Newman Project)
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