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Laurie Antonioli

Nothing heightens one’s sense of identity more than being far away from home. For Laurie Antonioli, one of jazz’s most adventurous vocalists, working outside the United States has long provided invaluable perspective and information. Her new album American Dreams is an emotional travelogue inspired not so much by the sights and sounds encountered while living abroad as by the feelings that arose while thinking of home during her long sojourn in Europe. Supple and sensuous, her voice infuses every well-chosen note with longing and desire’s simmering afterglow, a quality unnamed in English but known in Portuguese as saudade.

Whether interpreting American Songbook standards, reinventing traditional American songs, or introducing contemporary melodies made vivid with her original lyrics, Antonioli brings her incisive musical intelligence to bear on every tune. The result is a gorgeous tapestry woven from the raw materials of jazz, folk, and country music, a thematically unified program largely created during her years teaching vocal jazz in Austria.

“I like projects with a central theme and a cohesive sound,” says the San Francisco Bay Area singer. “In this case, many of the songs are about nature or about dreaming of people and places. If you open the CD cover you’ll see the Marin hills and the Bay. The flora and fauna of home would often drift into my thoughts while I was walking through the streets of Vienna. Yet, it was the beauty of the forest in Austria that inspired the lyrics to ‘Samba Nada Brahma,’ so I was also deeply touched by those surroundings as well.”

Antonioli’s treatment of “America the Beautiful” and the cowboy lament “Dreary Black Hills” display her gift for transforming unlikely songs into evocative jazz vehicles. But her most revelatory material flows from her collaboration with Fritz Pauer, best known to American jazz fans as the longtime accompanist of trumpet legend Art Farmer. Antonioli met him soon after moving to Austria in 2002, when she was hired to teach vocal jazz at KUG University in Graz, and where Pauer also worked. A gifted lyricist always on the lookout for interesting compositions, Antonioli formed a prolific partnership with Pauer that’s well represented on the album. She included five of their collaborations, including the surging “Samba Nada Brahma” and the elegant ballad “Vienna Blues.”

“Fritz would bring me four or five new songs every couple of weeks, and I would end up writing lyrics to one or two of them. This went on for years,” Antonioli says. “We created a huge body of work; the handful of songs in American Dreams is just part of it. ‘How Long’ is one that we collaborated on since I’ve been back in California-he continues sending me new songs and I continue to write lyrics. The stories are universal and I’m so happy that the music can now reach a broader audience.”

From the beginning of her career, when she spent months touring in Europe with the great, under-recorded bebop altoist Pony Poindexter, through her long association with the late tenor sax legend Joe Henderson and her ongoing collaboration with piano maestro Richie Beirach, Antonioli has always sought out inspired musicians. The American Dreams cast is no exception.

Featuring some of the most respected and versatile accompanists on the West Coast, the quintet includes hard-swinging pianist Matt Clark and the remarkably sensitive rhythm section tandem of bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis. Reed master Sheldon Brown has been a force on the Bay Area scene for more than 30 years, and guitarist Dave MacNab is a commanding musician whose heavyweight jazz chops have been overlooked in recent years due to his steady work in Broadway show pit orchestras.

“The band members love playing with each other, and I think you can hear that in the music,” Antonioli says. This deep affinity comes to the fore as Antonioli and the instrumentalists shape a distinctive sound palette for each tune, channeling individual virtuosity into a seamless collaboration. More than consummate accompanists, Antonioli’s bandmates are simpatico co-conspirators. MacNab contributed the wistful, blues-tinged arrangement of “America the Beautiful” (and some searing slide guitar work on Antonioli and Pauer’s rootsy “How Long”), while Shifflett provided the Western-flavored “Get Up and Go” which is hitched to “Dreary Black Hills.” And Clark’s beautifully textured arrangement of Antonioli and Pauer’s “Sweet Sound of Spring” is built around a deceptively simple, folk-like acoustic guitar part.

“I encourage the band to create layers and textures while also using a lot of space,” Antonioli explains. “The sound is definitely inspired by the Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden/Bill Frisell Americana style of jazz.”

A Bay Area native, Antonioli started playing guitar and writing songs as a teenager in the early 1970s, inspired by the era’s definitive singer/songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Neil Young. She caught the jazz bug listening to her grandmother’s 78s of Nellie Lutcher, the jazz pianist and vocalist whose sassy style resulted in numerous R&B hits in the mid-1940s (including several she penned herself). Antonioli’s jazz investigations led her to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, who inspired her to start singing standards and improvising.

During a brief stint in Portland to study at Mt. Hood Community College’s pioneering jazz vocal program, she started absorbing the seminal recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Lee Morgan while soaking up musical wisdom in person listening to the brilliant vocalist Nancy King. Back in the Bay Area, she had a chance to put her rapidly maturing scat chops to work at 21, when Mark Murphy started inviting her to sit in at his weekly gig at The Dock, a music spot in Tiburon.

“Nancy’s scatting was amazing and she also is a great interpretive ballad singer. The same with Mark,” Antonioli says. “I saw that you could improvise like an instrument, yet also touch people deeply with a lyric. Mark was very generous with young vocalists on the bandstand, and invited me to sing regularly. At that time I was doing mostly bebop, and that was what led me to Pony Poindexter.”

Poindexter, a marvelous musician, deft vocalist, and dedicated entertainer, provided Antonioli with invaluable bandstand training and insight into the jazz life. The New Orleans-born saxophonist had cultivated an avid following in Europe, where he had lived for much of the 1960s and ’70s. He recruited the 22-year-old Antonioli for an extensive European tour that turned into an eight-month sojourn in 1980.

“Pony taught me in the oral tradition, taking me through all these Bird and Diz tunes note for note, scat syllable for scat syllable,” Antonioli says. “We’d do two sets and most of it was the two of us scatting in tandem. I had one song in each set where I sang with lyrics and I’d usually pick a ballad.”

Antonioli recorded her debut album for Catero Records, 1985’s Soul Eyes, a ravishing duo session with piano great George Cables (the title track features Mal Waldron’s lyrics for his oft-played standard, which he gave her after hearing her sing in Munich). Throughout the decade, she was one of the region’s most visible singers, booked at leading venues and festivals with her own band, performing regularly with Bobby McFerrin, and sitting in with luminaries like Tete Montoliu, Jon Hendricks, and Cedar Walton at Keystone Korner. She forged particularly close ties with Joe Henderson, a creative relationship that lasted some two decades until his death in 2001.

“I’m so grateful I got in at the tail end of that scene with all those fantastic cats,” Antonioli says. “That’s where I learned. Teaching as much as I do, I’m always trying to make sense of things I learned through osmosis, figuring out ways to pass on that information to students.”

Antonioli’s work as an educator has kept her off the U.S. scene for a significant part of the past decade. At the recommendation of her old mentor Mark Murphy, KUG University hired her as a professor for the vocal jazz department in 2002. Founded by Sheila Jordan, the prestigious program has featured a succession of vocal masters, including Jordan, Mark Murphy, Andy Bey, and Jay Clayton. In the summer of 2006, she returned to the Bay Area to run the Vocal Jazz Studies program at the Jazzschool in Berkeley. She works closely with Susan Muscarella and has developed an innovative curriculum for a four-year Bachelor of Music degree program for the Jazzschool Institute. The inaugural class started in Fall of 2009. Antonioli’s freshman Vocal Performance class performed the entire Kind of Blue album at Yoshi’s Oakland in May 2010.

Laurie is an artist with a singular sound and vision. Her second album, 2004’s Foreign Affair, is a bracing blend of post-bop jazz and Balkan music created with players from Serbia, Albania, Germany, and the U.S. A collaboration with bassist and composer Nenad Vasilic, the project resulted from the Eastern European music she grew up hearing in her own Serbo-Croatian family as well as through the relationships she made with the Eastern European musicians who were also living in Austria. In 2005, her long-running partnership with Richie Beirach culminated in the release of The Duo Session on Nabel Records, a critically acclaimed album featuring Miles Davis jazz standards and Antonioli’s lyrics set to the pianist’s compositions. “The quality of this record is almost unrivaled,” Concerto magazine wrote. “And if we were to hear something better we’d have heard the new Ella.” A second duo album with Beirach, featuring his originals with lyrics by Antonioli, as well as spontaneous duets, is scheduled for release next year.

As her first new recording released since returning home, American Dreams should remind jazz fans that Antonioli is a major talent, an artist with a global vision rooted in verdant American soil. A generous educator, incisive lyricist, scat virtuoso, and master balladeer, Antonioli can turn even the most familiar standard into an utterly personal statement. But she also insists on finding new vehicles for self-expression.