Denise Donatelli is a breath of fresh, jazzy air
Written by John J. Moser
Parkland grad Denise Donatelli has earned Grammy nominations for singing pop songs in a jazz style. Now based in Los Angeles, she returns home this week for rare performances
Since her days growing up in a rural area of South Whitehall Township, losing herself in records her sister bought through a mail-order club, Denise Donatelli’s love has been jazz.That was even more true as Donatelli entered the world of jazz singing and recording, leaving a position as marketing manager for Turner Broadcasting Network’s TBS in Atlanta to follow her musical muse.
But that’s not the case with Donatelli’s pianist, arranger and accompanist Geoffrey Keezer, who has toured with musical luminaries such as David Sanborn, Chris Botti and Christian McBride.
“I usually just listen to jazz and R&B, and very little rock,” Donatelli says in a telephone call from Los Angeles, where she now lives. “But his musical knowledge and musical tastes range from Rush to rock to classical to just about everything. He’s got a very broad range of musical knowledge. He’s just creative and imaginative, and he’s not stuck in one genre of music — he’s not just stuck in jazz.”And so for Donatelli’s 2010 album “When Lights Are Low,” and especially for her most recent disc, 2012’s “Soul Shadows,” Keezer took songs “not born out of the jazz genre” and gave them jazz treatments and instrumentation for her to sing, Donatelli says.
“He’s taking these pop songs and just turning them into beautiful jazz arrangements,” she says. “He does wonders with them — he completely re-harmonizes and just makes great jazz music out of them. So I’m blessed to have been working him.”
The results bear that out. Both those discs got Grammy Award nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and the first got Keezer a nomination for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist.
Donatelli and Keezer will display the fruits of their collaboration in rare area appearances: Thursday at a master class in Kutztown University’s Schaeffer Auditorium and Friday in two performances at Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center.
“When Lights are Low” was on The Jazz Week Radio Chart for 23 weeks, peaking at No. 2, then six months later returned to the chart for seven more weeks.
Donatelli, whose voice has been described as “a honey and cognac sound,” says she is “stunned, frankly — completely stunned and shocked” by her two Grammy nominations.
She says the ballots in the years she was included offered well over 100 names, and she was among just five nominees — “great, great vocalists and albums in general. People who I had been fans of for many, many years. So I was so completely stunned that my albums cut through, and very grateful.”
She’s also surprised that the jazz community has embraced “Soul Shadows.”
“I was so completely stunned and surprised that it was nominated,” she says. “‘Soul Shadows’ didn’t quite fit into the genre of jazz. I mean, there we had some great jazz players; there were lots of jazz solos — great jazz solos. But for the most part, we took a lot of music that no one from the jazz world was completely familiar with.”
For example, the song “No Better” was written by New York folk-rock singer Jonatha Brooke, to whose music Keezer introduced Donatelli. “That’s something that Geoffrey is just brilliant at doing.”Donatelli says she wasn’t concerned about making unconventional music.
“We just want to put out great music,” she says. “Whatever you do, we just do what we like and just try to put out some great music. And some of it will be accepted and some won’t, you know? You can’t base your contributions that way. So we just have to do what we think is great, and what we love. And just keep our fingers crossed.”
Donatelli is familiar with doing things the unconventional way. She returned to the Lehigh Valley after college and had two sons, then followed her husband to Atlanta, where she began a career at Turner. The city’s vibrant jazz scene reinvigorated her love for the music.
She moved to Los Angeles, where the jazz scene has enthusiastically embraced her: In 2012, she was chosen the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Female Vocalist of the Year. Voting advisers included Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones.
“I just feel blessed, that’s all I can say,” Donatelli says. “The L.A. Jazz Society is a great organization.”
She says she recently attended a function honoring the well-known musical Escovedo family and jazz flutist and saxophonist Hubert Laws. Looking through the program, she found herself “among the very elite, starting with Carmen McRae and Tierney Sutton and Barbara Morrison — all these great vocalists.”
In addition to her recording and performing, Donatelli has done spots singing for episodes of “The Simpsons,” “Frasier” and Turner Classic Movies, and in commercials for CNN, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and others.
On Nov. 10, her voice was heard on an episode of “The Simpsons,” singing the Nancy Sinatra hit “You Only Live Twice,” the title song from the 1967 James Bond film.
Donatelli says she and Keezer are working on a new album, but won’t reveal much about it.