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Maria Pia De Vito at the Blue Note

A Joni Mitchell state of mind set in on New York City on Feb. 1, 2008-or at least on that significant piece of New York contained within 131 West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village. At the Blue Note, which bills itself (hyperbolically but forgivably) as the “world’s finest jazz club,” Maria Pia De Vito performed material from So Right, her album of Joni Mitchell songs. “Performed” is an imprecise verb in this instance. De Vito transformed pieces like “Amelia” and “River” into Passion plays.

De Vito’s U.S. debut as a leader was part of the three-night festival Italian Women in Jazz. She is widely regarded as the best jazz vocalist in Italy, and the full house at the Blue Note (on a cold, rainy night) contained several singers (e.g., Sheila Jordan, Jay Clayton).

It is not unusual for jazz musicians to have Joni Mitchell on their minds. Keith Jarrett recorded one of her tunes in 1971 and jazz utilizations of the Mitchell resource have continued to the present day. Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters was one of the most praised recordings of 2007. (JazzTimes critics voted it the fourth best album of the year and it miraculously just won the Album of the Year Grammy.) De Vito’s tribute to Mitchell predates Hancock’s. So Right came out in Europe on the CamJazz label in 2005. Its U.S. release coincided with De Vito’s Blue Note appearance.

She is not an obvious choice as a Joni Mitchell interpreter. During her diverse 30-year career in Europe, she has ventured into ethnic music of the Mediterranean and Balkans, classical/jazz crossover experiments and free improvisation with and without electronics. Her collaborators have most often come from that niche of the music world where jazz overlaps with “art music”: Paolo Fresu, British composer/orchestra leader Colin Towns, cellist Ernst Reijseger, vocalist Norma Winstone.

But De Vito said at the Blue Note, “At a certain moment Joni Mitchell came out with a record that changed my life, and the lives of many singers.” It was Mingus, and it introduced De Vito to Mitchell’s concept of “audio painting.” While Mitchell is best known for the indelible poetry and elliptical imagery of her lyrics, De Vito (like many other jazz improvisers) was probably first attracted to Mitchell’s musical textures: her piercing melodies and open harmonies and unusual run-on song forms. At the Blue Note, on every song, De Vito soloed wordlessly on her imposing vocal instrument. Her scatting chops were most conspicuous on hard, fast tunes like “God Must Be a Boogie Man” and “Harlem in Havana,” and those where she used an Echoplex to multiply herself into a soaring choir, like “Woodstock.” When De Vito cut loose with startling intervallic leaps, complex internal overtones and keening, swooping, racing runs, it was a rush. She blew wild and free across Mitchell’s already counter-intuitive bar lines.

But also on every song, before her solo flights, De Vito did full justice to Mitchell’s lyrics. Working in a language other than her own, like an accomplished actress, she brought Mitchell’s words to life with altered, personalized meanings. The night’s most memorable moments came on the ballads. She took “A Case of You” dead slow. When she sang lines like Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter and so sweet/Oh I could drink a case of you darling/Still I’d be on my feet, it was as if she were just discovering them in her own experience. De Vito looks a little like Anna Magnani, prettier and more petite but with a similar fire in her eyes, and she made “A Case of You” a burning testament.

For most of the night, the rhythm section of Ed Simon, Scott Colley and Clarence Penn put a dark pulsing undercurrent all through the music. But on “A Case of You” they held back, suspended, Simon offering an ethereal piano interlude and then whispering occasional chords beneath Colley’s fervent bass solo. “Amelia” was another rapt ballad, but the best was “River.” De Vito’s exceptional vocal range enabled her to create a chilling version, a direct expression of yearning and need, devoid of self-protection.

The second night of the festival presented Roberta Gambarini. As a native of Torino, she certainly qualifies as one of the “Italian Women in Jazz,” but she moved to the United States 10 years ago and is now firmly established on the U.S. jazz scene. She sold out the Blue Note for both sets, with many turned away at the door.

Under the circumstances, the most impressive crowds were those on the third night, which featured the Big “O” Orchestra, an “all female Italian-American big band.” They had to compete with the New York Giants in the process of winning Super Bowl XLII, yet for both sets there were very few empty chairs. The ensemble, under the direction of conductor/arranger Tommaso Vittorini, contained fine players and composers like trumpeter Laura Kahle. “For Alice,” written when Kahle first learned of the passing of Alice Coltrane, was an ever-evolving motif of sadness and praise.

The 2008 edition of the festival was the third. Given its artistic and popular success, the event’s producer, Enzo Capua, is likely already planning a fourth.

Originally Published