Huffington Post – A Conversation with Denise Donatelli

Interview by Mike Ragogna

A Conversation with Denise Donatelli

Mike Ragogna: Denise, your latest release, Find A Heart, was released this past September and it has been nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal album. How was finding the heart of this project different than how you approached your last Grammy-nominated album, Soul Shadows?

Denise Donatelli: Soul Shadows just fell into place. Geoffrey Keezer, my pianist/arranger on both projects called me to tell me that he had a dream about doing that song as a Bossa. That song was written by Joe Sample with lyrics by Will Jennings. It was originally recorded by Bill Withers done with a bluesy, funky feel. The rest of the music just fell into place. With Find a Heart, I was on a mission. I wanted to pay homage to two of my friends who had passed away within months of each other in 2013. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dick LaPalm — but he was a record promoter, he promoted Nat King Cole and I think Tony Bennett back in the fifties. He became a really dear friend of mine. Every time I was getting ready to release an album, he would help me sequence the tracks. He would always tell me, “Denise, you really need to record a Steely Dan song.” The reason he wanted me to do that was because he ended up managing the Village Recorder in Santa Monica, where Steely Dan recorded many of their albums and Dick became good friends with the band. Another dear friend of mine, Don Gordon was a radio programmer in Hawaii.  Don was very close to Brenda Russell. He introduced us through email and hoped that I would record one of Brenda’s songs. So I started looking through Brenda’s and Steely Dan’s music first. I found Donald Fagan’s “Big Noise, New York” and Brenda’s ”Love and Paris Rain” written by Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets with Brenda’s lyrics. And that’s how the project began.

MR: You start the album with Donald Fagen’s rarity, “Big Noise, New York,” that sets the mood for the rest of the project. How did you discover that pretty obscure song? And what made you decide to cover Journey’s “Troubled Child”? And…and…

DD: [laughs] Dick was after me to record a Fagen tune, and I explored and explored and I said, “Dick, some of these lyrics are a little out there and I just wouldn’t feel comfortable singing them.”  When I was searching for a Steely Dan song for this album, I found a compilation disc which Fagen put together with all of his b-side recordings, I found “Big Noise…” and fell in love with it. I also found Jennifer Warnes YouTube video of “Big Noise…,” New York and her version is great … very much like Fagen’s. So I sent it to Geoffrey Keezer and he said, “Yeah, let’s do it … I can hear a really loud kind of McCoy Tyner vibe that I want to put to this.” Those were the first two songs that were selected, and then I picked up a David Crosby album, which was his first recording in something like 20 years and it’s killer! It’s called Croz, and the entire album has a jazz-esque feel. In fact, Wynton Marsalis plays on a track. “Find A Heart” is the last song on the album and when I heard it I was knocked out. We didn’t change up the arrangement much. The entire album is great!

MR: You also covered Beck. Wait, what?

DD: [laughs] I started thinking about all of the writers and artists who are still alive. I love The Great American Songbook, don’t get me wrong, I cut my teeth on that music, I grew up listening to it and singing it in the privacy of my bedroom. But once Nancy Wilson or Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae or Betty Carter sing their versions, I don’t know, how do you make those songs any better? I just thought I’d pay my respects to the artists who are out there currently putting out music, performing it, bearing their souls and nobody really covers their music. Well I shouldn’t say that, I’m sure others do, but I’m not aware that there are many covers of these songs. The Beck song for example, “Eyes That Say I Love You” is from his Song Reader project. Song Reader is a collection of sheet music written by Beck. I don’t think he has recorded any of the music himself however in 2013, he played several concerts with a variety of guests who performed some of the songs. Geoffrey and I went through every sheet of music and decided upon “Eyes That Say I Love You.” It was fun doing that since we hadn’t been influenced by other recordings.

MR: The Great American Songbook has been stagnant for so many years, stopping at Tin Pan Alley. My feeling is if you’re going to call anything a “Great American Songbook,” it has to be updated to include material by great writers such as Paul Simon, Smokey Robinson, Allen Toussaint, Bono & The Edge, Lennon & McCartney, Bob Dylan, etc.. It was nice that you expanded the concept.

DD: I agree. There is a plethora of great music by contemporary artists that is sadly overlooked. In fact, the list of music that I’d like to record is endless.  To put a jazz spin on these songs is the fun part and the challenge .. i.e. the whole McCoy Tyner vibe on “Big Noise…” is a classic example of that. Geoffrey Keezer is a master at arranging … he’ll take music from the seventies and eighties and you’d think you were listening to a jazz standard. And the band also participated. Everybody brought their ideas to the table. It was really a collaborative effort.

MR: Speaking of collaborations you have Chris Botti on your cover of Sting’s “Practical Arrangement.” You mentioned before how Donald Fagen has masculine lyrics. Sting tends to write heavily from that perspective as well, though you took on the first person persona of the song. How did that song and approach come to you?

DD: I’ll give the credit to a girlfriend of mine. We were having dinner at her house and she was playing Sting’s latest album, The Last Ship. It’s all about Sting’s childhood experiences growing up in an English seafaring town. The story line and the music eventually ended up on Broadway. As soon as I heard “Practical Arrangement,” I knew I wanted to record it. The lyric is so poignant … about an older man and a younger woman with a child. I had to change the lyric around so it came across from the point of view of an older woman with a younger man, which I don’t have, by the way. [laughs]

MR: [laughs] I imagine you and Chris recorded your parts separately, but when you listen back to the recording now, how does that musical conversation hit you?

DD: Chris recorded his part after I recorded my vocals. He played beautiful, soulful fills that complemented and answered my vocals. Chris was so gracious and I’m thrilled that he agreed to be a part of our project.

MR: What was your musical education in jazz? Who influenced you and was there any Manhattan Transfer in the mix? Do I hear a little Janis Siegel?

DD: Oh, my goodness. First, let me tell you I grew up in the country on the outskirts of Allentown, Pennsylvania. I took a bus into town to go to Catholic school and then back home to do homework and practice the piano. I started taking piano lessons at the age of three after my mother heard me plunking out melodies. I have two older sisters and my oldest sister who also played the piano was a huge influence on my musical taste. She loved jazz and subscribed to the Columbia and Capital Record Clubs so we received all of this great jazz music in the mail and in my spare time, I listened to all of it. I listened to Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, Carmen McRae; Ella Fitzgerald, I listened to big bands; I listened to Ahmad Jamal; Oscar Peterson, you name it. But mostly, I would say Frank Sinatra influenced me primarily since my mother had all of his albums and played them over and over. He was the master at phrasing and story telling and I would sing the songs along with him. Very seldom did we watch TV—maybe a variety show here and there. But other than that, it was always music. I did listen to the Manhattan Transfer and I enjoy their music a lot, but I don’t know if they influenced me as much as Lambert Hendricks and Ross. I actually memorized “Cloud Burst” and “Gimme That Wine” when I was eight years old. [laughs]

MR: The fun with jazz with all its signature and key changes and improvisation is that a vocalist or musician learns how to approach music from unusual angles, mostly the roads not taken. From that perspective, through yours and your band’s musical explorations, you can see why your albums keep getting nominated for Grammys. Plus you have some really great musicians accompanying you beyond Chris Botti. To you, which other musicians added particularly special parts?

DD: I would say all of them. I can’t say enough about the musicians on this album. They were amazing in the studio. They played their hearts out and had so much fun doing it from producer/arranger, pianist Geoffrey Keezer to Brazilian guitarist, Leonardo Amuedo, to bassist, Carlitos del Puerto to drummer, “Smitty” [Marvin “Smitty” Smith]. He just tore it up on “Big Noise…” and “Find A Heart.” He was all over it and having fun. When he plays, there is so much joy on his face. He’s always smiling.

MR: You were in the studio when the rhythm section was putting the tracks down. What were the vibe and the experience like? How involved with the arrangements were you and did you give direction?

DD: Geoffrey was pretty much in control since he knew the feel and the sound he was after but he was also open to suggestions and we all contributed. They had so much fun playing this music and I think it shows. We ended up having to cut out some great solos for the sake of time.

MR: Ah, the jam. That’s what you get with jazz!

DD: Oh my gosh, yes.

MR: Actually you get big jams with other music as well, but jazz tends to really dig in. Was it tempting to let them just go and then pick and choose sections from the full work?

DD: Well, a perfect example of that is “Practical Arrangement.” Leo [Leonardo Amuedo] played a beautiful solo, but during the editing process we were thinking that the song would lend itself to contemporary radio play, so we did edit it quite a bit. In fact, the way it was recorded originally, I had two choruses up front and Leo played a full chorus then I sang another full chorus to take it out, so it was a lot longer.

MR: So now it’s that time in the interview when we do a recap of your catalog and all those Grammy nominations.

DD: [laughs] Well, let’s see. I’ve done four albums with Geoffrey Keezer. The first one, What Lies Within, didn’t get a nomination although it’s one of my favorites. That was my first Savant Records release. When Lights Are Low garnered my first Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. That album actually got two nominations … one went to Geoffrey Keezer for his arrangement of Don’t Explain.Then I received a second nomination for Soul Shadows and now my latest recording, Find a Heart just received a nomination. The first album I recorded In the Company of Friends was released in 2005 on the Jazzed Media label and it consists of jazz standards.

MR: Lately, it’s like every time you release an album, you get a Grammy nomination. What do you think it is about Denise Donatelli that the Academy—and fans, of course—admire most?

DD: That’s hard to say. I’m still scratching my head over the nominations. Maybe it’s that my records sound different than anything out there currently. I’m not talking sonically, it could be Geoffrey’s arrangements and the choice of songs.Find a Heart truly was a labor of love. I selected songs that meant something to me from the melodies to the lyrics. The lyrics tell grown up stories. Geoffrey brought “Troubled Child” to me. I hadn’t heard that song before and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do that one. I had been thinking about recording “Send Her My Love” but Geoffrey had something else in mind for “Troubled Child.”

MR: Ah, yes, the aforementioned somewhat obscure Journey song from Frontiers.

DD: That’s it! Geoffrey’s arrangement is incredible. In fact, Journey drummer, Steve Smith has been tweeting about it.

MR: And your vocal arrangement … you at the end was pretty inventive. In fact, the whole album weaves these nicely complicated parts throughout. Maybe it’s going those few steps further with arrangements that is making people take notice.

DD: That could be, but today we have the luxury to live with the recordings before they’re released. We have the time to get creative and add vocal parts, string parts, horn parts, etc. The creative process is so much fun. Yet it still amazes me that people are noticing. I feel as though I’ve been under the radar.

MR: I don’t know about that. You may feel like you are, yet you have three consecutive, Grammy-nominated albums and a level of quality that is beyond the norm. Oh, and how could you be so under the radar after you sing on The Simpsons, a little something else you’ve done!

DD: [laughs] Oh, yeah. Alf Clausen, the musical director of The Simpsons sent me an email out of the blue in 2006 after I released my first album, In The Company Of Friends and we became email buddies. A few months after my younger son passed away in ’08, Alf called and said, “I know The Simpsons is one of your son’s favorite shows. I have a part for you to sing if you want to do it. I hope it will help you feel a little bit better.” It was a four part choral arrangement of “O Tannenbaum” for their Christmas episode. After that, it opened the door for more sessions.  The best call I got was from Alf asking me “Do you think you could sound like Nancy Sinatra?” I said, “Absolutely! even though I wasn’t sure I could.” He said, “Okay, are you familiar with ‘You Only Live Twice’ from the James Bond movie?” I got the track ahead of time and memorized the lyrics, practiced her sound, her pronunciation, her phrasing. I was ready. I get to the studio and I’m handed a sheet of music and the lyrics are totally changed and Simpsonized to YOLO, “You Only Live Once. [laughs] ” I should’ve known, after all it was The Simpsons!! Alf and I remain great friends and it’s a pleasure to be able to associate with such a legendary composer and musician.

It’s taken me seven years to be able to talk publicly about my son’s death. He was very private and I thought if I spoke out about him, he wouldn’t be pleased. The fact is my son’s health was compromised in so many ways. He had an enlarged heart that was never diagnosed. That’s the reason I’ve aligned with the American Heart Association. With my new album Find a Heart the timing was right. In sharing my story I hope I can bring attention to heart disease and help others through the American Heart Association.

MR: I’m sorry for your loss, Denise. You know, what? You need to dedicate a year or two to being on the road. That’s my prescription.

DD: Thanks, Mike. Performing does help and it’s so great to make the connection with the audience.

MR: When you look at jazz these days, what do you think is going on? And do you think it’s future depends on the kids?

DD: It absolutely depends on the kids. We’re all getting older and our jazz audiences are getting smaller. I’ve performed with many university bands and there are some great players in the schools. It’s really encouraging to hear them play.

MR: It seems like the musics of elegance—which would be classical and jazz in our culture—take a backseat to pop music because that’s the financial engine for the remaining record companies. And, quite frankly, its sing-song-y approach is easy to learn and regurgitate unlike jazz or much of classical.

DD: You nailed it.  There are proven studies that the IQ’s of jazz and classical audiences are higher than average. I’m very much concerned about the dumbing down of musical tastes. 

MR: Imagine that! [laughs] Realistically, no matter what happens to jazz, it really doesn’t matter to singers like yourself. It’s what you do and it’s really not your job to save jazz music. But it would be nice! What do you say?

DD: [laughs] Yes it would be nice but you’re right, as a vocalist I’m not limited to just singing in the jazz genre. Here in L.A. there are very few jazz venues where you can hear live music but we’re ever hopeful and new venues keep popping up. The clubs are closing because of financial reasons. They make their money on alcohol sales and no one wants to drink and drive. It’s different in New York. It’s much easier to get around. You can go to several clubs a night, have a couple of drinks and take a cab home and I believe the audiences are younger as well.

MR: I think they are. With traditional venues such as The Blue Note and Rainbow Room, you have generations of parents who brought their kids to see jazz firsthand, so in New York—and I know elsewhere—kids have been indoctrinated over the years. And, of course, the younger jazz musicians in Brooklyn are crazy talented. So I think it has a shot of hanging around a while, maybe it being the basis of music we can’t even think of yet. Still partial to The Blue Note…

DD: Exactly. The tourists will go whether they’re really into jazz or not. For those who aren’t, it’s the experience of being in a landmark jazz club but they are being exposed to the  music and that’s always a good thing.

MR: Okay then. Time for the traditional question and timed perfectly since we were just talking about the kids. What advice do you have for new artists?

DD:  When I perform at universities, I’ll be asked to give a workshop. I typically work with vocalists but on one occasion I was asked to speak to musicians. I spoke about what I look for when I’m hiring a musician.  It’s all common sense but being a mother, I know that kids tend to lack in certain sensibilities. I tell students to listen to and learn all genres of music. As for jazz, first start with the standards and memorize the tunes and the changes, then learn to play them in every key. Learn the lyrics. It will help with phrasing. Jam with your friends as much as possible.  When called for a gig, show up early, be respectful, ask the leader what to wear and show up showered and presentable, learn the music the leader sends ahead of time. Have a great attitude.  There are lots of good players that aren’t called upon because of their attitude.  Again, all of this is just common sense.

MR: It is! And you pointed to something earlier, about listening to music beyond pop.

DD: Exactly. I tell them to listen to and learn from the great players.  The same for vocalists. If they’re aspiring to be a vocalist, I suggest learning to play an instrument, learn to read music, but also listen to the great jazz vocalists that came before us. After awhile they will find their own voices.  It’s really interesting, in a review of my latest album, the writer said, “I can’t think of anyone she sounds like” but YOU compared me to the Manhattan Transfer! [laughs]

MR: Eh, tomato, tomahtoe. To me, a comparison only means “kinship” not “rip-off.”

DD: I get it and I’m thrilled and extremely honored for that comparison. It’s all great!

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne