Roberta. A 1935 RKO musical starring Irene Dunne, but long since more famous as the third screen pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Rediscovered after languishing for decades in a studio vault, it becomes a favorite of a young couple in Torino, northern Italy. They love its classic Jerome Kern songs: “I Won’t Dance,” “Yesterdays” and especially “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” When their daughter is born in 1972, there’s no question as to what her name will be. Roberta. Roberta Gambarini.
Fast forward to 2006. Gambarini’s American debut, Easy to Love, has been released to unilateral raves, and will go on to earn her a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Among the all-star players who crowd its 14 tracks is her mentor and friend James Moody. “Remember this name,” Moody has said, “R-o-b-e-r-t-a G-a-m-b-a-r-i-n-i. She’ll be the best jazz singer around for quite awhile.” Revealing a multi-octave range, crystalline intonation and immaculate phrasing that elicit comparisons to Ella, Sarah and Carmen, she skims the cream of the Great American Songbook-Porter, Gershwin, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, Burton Lane-and also brilliantly recreates the landmark treatment of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” from 1957’s Sonny Side Up, vocally replicating its triad of solos from Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt. But the album’s most personal cut is a Kern medley, blending “All the Things You Are” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to shape a tender expression of gratitude to her ever-supportive mom and dad.
Four years later, Gambarini is still singing her parents’ praises. “They are the coolest imaginable,” she enthuses. It is the morning after her intimate but triumphant appearance at the 2010 TD Toronto Jazz Festival, where she performed with bassist Neil Swainson, drummer Montez Coleman and pianist Jonathan Batiste for a SRO crowd of 200. Though the diminutive singer’s recordings contain nary a hint of an accent, her rich speaking voice fully reveals her Italian roots as she traces her colorful journey from Torino to her place as, in the words of the late Hank Jones, “the best new jazz vocalist to come along in 50 years.”
Her love of jazz is hereditary; both parents are ardent fans, and her father played saxophone. “[He] used to gig around a bit, but just for fun,” she explains. As a family, they would attend as many concerts and jam sessions as they could. In those days, Torino played host to a JVC festival, where, Gambarini recalls, the family saw the likes of Count Basie, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Northern Italy was also home to a wide assortment of jazz clubs, and such stellar soloists as Dexter Gordon, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Art Farmer and Zoot Sims would regularly travel the circuit. Singers, too, were frequent visitors: As a youngster, Gambarini witnessed living legends Jimmy Witherspoon and Alberta Hunter. Later, when Carmen McRae had a weeklong stand at Umbria, Gambarini caught every performance. But the majority of her jazz indoctrination came from endless hours of listening to her parents’ jazz records. “That was the music in our house,” she says, “and my dad had friends who were serious record collectors. They would travel all over Europe to auctions and come home with rare Woody Herman recordings and things like that.”
At age 12, Gambarini took her first step toward a musical career with clarinet lessons. Later she also studied classical composition and piano, but had no formal jazz education because none was available. Records became her teachers. Her infatuation with the great singers began with Ella and Louis, and then progressed to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and McRae. “I am not the product of a school like Berklee,” she says. “I was never taught ‘how to.’ I grabbed everything from what I heard, and I always had the perception that, for me, that was the best way to learn.”
By the time she’d completed high school, Gambarini knew she wanted to pursue a career as a jazz vocalist. She’d scored a few gigs in and around Torino but didn’t know a soul in the music business. Still, she steeled her determination and set off for the nearest major jazz center, Milan. There she was afforded the opportunity to perform with several of Italy’s top jazzmen, but the circumstances for an inexperienced newcomer proved enormously difficult. “The music scene was very political,” she says. “Since I had absolutely no connections, I was like a lone dog trying to make it. The opportunities were not there. But even when things were roughest and I was calling my parents to say, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ they supported and encouraged me.”
Fed up with the dead ends she was continually encountering, in 1998 Gambarini made the bold decision to relocate to the U.S. “Rather than grabbing a minute in a dressing room and saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Gillespie, I really liked your playing,’ I longed to spend more time with the greats, to establish disciple relationships with them.” To do so would, she knew, require a transatlantic move. As luck would have it, an opportunity arose for Gambarini to compete for a two-year residency at the New England Conservatory. She entered and won. Three weeks after her Stateside arrival, she shocked the jazz cognoscenti by placing third in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. (Jane Monheit came in second.) “I met a lot of important people there,” she recalls, “and started getting invitations to play in New York.” Her first Manhattan dates were with Billy Higgins, Curtis Fuller and Ronnie Mathews. Word quickly spread. Soon after, Gambarini was introduced to Larry Clothier, McRae’s former manager, and he agreed to represent her.
Before long, Gambarini was building the sort of professional relationships she dreamed of with the giants of the music. “The first of the greats who offered me his support and friendship was Benny Carter,” she says. “It was one the greatest encounters of my life. He gave me lots of suggestions about repertoire and helped teach me how to navigate the business. Then there was James Moody. He is like a father to me. There are no words to describe how wonderful he’s been to me. He is a natural teacher who opened up my ears and changed my way of singing. I have only scratched the surface of all the things he showed me. I have enough to last at least five reincarnations!”
From Moody’s perspective, he and Gambarini are “musical soulmates. My wife, Linda, and I love her like a daughter. When she visits our home, we sit at the piano together and work on music. She has a very keen ear and picks up things from every musician she is around. She is always learning. She is completely at home singing in any style. I think the sky is the limit for her.”
But Carter and Moody are just two of many legendary figures Gambarini counts as mentors. “There are so many others who have given me so much,” she says. “Dave Brubeck, Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Michael Brecker and, of course, Hank Jones. They provided precisely the kind of education I was after. I think it was the greatest university I could possibly have attended.”
Gambarini’s kinship with Jones, who would serve as the lone accompanist on You Are There, her 2008 sophomore release, was fortuitously facilitated by Lionel Hampton. She was booked into the Jazz Gallery with Mathews, Walter Booker and Jimmy Cobb. Unbeknownst to any of them, Clothier had invited Hampton to attend one night. Hampton was impressed enough to invite her to participate in his annual festival at the University of Idaho. The event boasted its acclaimed mix of workshops, student groups and professional performances, and featured Hank Jones as pianist in the house band. After the two hit it off in Idaho, says Gambarini, “we did the North Sea Festival and then went on tour and ended up recording You Are There together. I was just talking about him with Joe Lovano, and he agreed how extremely lucky I was to have the chance to work so extensively with Hank.”
The rest of this article appears in the December 2010 issue of JazzTimes.