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Amy Cervini: swinging in her own way with Blossom Dearie

AmyCervini (photo by Melanie Einzig, used by permission  of the artist)

The way iconoclastic jazz vocalist Blossom Dearie influenced Amy Cervini was far more subtle than a sound or a vocal delivery: it was her entire approach to choosing music.

When Cervini steps onto the NAC Fourth Stage on Tuesday – or in her just-released tribute album to Dearie, Digging Me, Digging You – she will be channeling Dearie through her repertoire and her approach to music, but not her voice.

“I'm not doing a Vegas show where I'm impersonating Blossom Dearie. I'm doing a tribute to her as a musician and as a bandleader.”

Cervini is a Canadian-born, now-New-York-City-based, vocalist who has released two previous albums which combined standards with jazz interpretations of popular music. Digging Me, Digging You is her first album containing only jazz classics, and her first tribute album, but her affection for Dearie and her music goes much farther back.

It was the early 1990s, and she was 13 years old and competing in MusicFest in Toronto in both the saxophone and vocal categories. “And the judge said: 'Well, you sound like Paul Desmond when you play the saxophone, and Blossom Dearie when you sing.' I had not heard of either one of them.

“At thirteen, you know, you know Ella and you know Coltrane or maybe Cannonball Adderley but Paul Desmond and Blossom are 'digging' level and at thirteen I hadn't gotten there yet. So it forced me to go home and check it out. And I fell in love immediately.”

“Blossom just swings so hard. And it's a simple delivery with excellent enunciation. You understand everything that she sang, and it's not fogged up by vocal gymnastics. And there was something about that that really appealed to me.”

A role model as a musician-singer

As an instrumentalist herself, Cervini also appreciated Dearie's dual roles as a pianist as well as a singer. “And I found that she could be a role model for me as someone who could do both things, and who was a musician-singer. Because singers get such a bad rap, and honestly sometimes rightfully so. It's gotten much better because of the education system, but they're just not held up to the same standards as instrumentalists, and it doesn't make sense. They should be.”

Over the next few decades, including her time studying jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music, Cervini kept searching for Dearie's albums. “I lived in Boston and that's the home of used record and bookstores because it's such a college town – so I would go into every one and see if there were any Blossom records there. And that's how I ended up getting a lot of what I know from Blossom Dearie.”

And she eventually did get to see Dearie live. “When I moved to New York, I was lucky enough to get to see her at Danny's [Skylight Room], which was her regular gig every weekend, which was pretty amazing.”

Unexpected choices in repertoire

But the strongest influence Dearie had on her was in choice of repertoire.

I found myself drawn to singers who were doing interesting different repertoire. Even as a kid, I loved Holly Cole. And part of why I loved Holly Cole was that she did all these cool tunes that not everyone else was doing, and I heard them for the first time and they were so interesting and different. And there was also a sense of humour in both [Dearie and Cole], that I was really attracted to. I feel like that's part of the entertainment value of what I do. I'm telling stories: some of them are sad, but some of them are funny, and that's OK and that's important. I love when I can make an audience laugh with the lyrics of the song; it's such a treat! But you have to choose your material accordingly if you want that to happen. You can't sing them 'Honeysuckle Rose' and make them laugh. I don't know how you would do that: you'd have to … it would be interesting... I'll try it tonight; I'm singing that tonight [laughing] ...”

And Blossom's unexpected choices in repertoire – not just show tunes or standards, but instead Joni Mitchell, Leonard Bernstein, Dave Frishberg's satires, and even tributes to Dusty Springfield and John Lennon – also had a more subtle influence.

“Just knowing about her gave me, whether I knew it consciously or unconsciously, the freedom to look outside of the box for material. Because someone else had done it before, so I wasn't even questioning myself. Of course I will look somewhere else for material, because that's what Blossom did, and that's what Holly Cole did. So I felt like she took limits off for me. I didn't feel like I needed to just do standards. Because she showed me that I didn't need to and it was OK.”

"Let's make it different and make it our own"

One aspect of Dearie which Cervini has not copied was her famous control over every aspect of her performance. “I wouldn't have expected this from her – but she really wanted things done a certain way and they had to be done the same way every time. And it really shocked me because I thought she would have been a little more loose, but she had an intro that happened the same way every night and the same solos. That's how she was more of a cabaret artist sometimes.”

Whereas Cervini likes the more modern style of letting musicians be more open. “When we did the live show in New York last week, 'My Attorney Bernie' and 'The Physician' just went to some wild places, just completely insane. Fun, spontaneous, and I think that's the contemporary [style] ... Cole Porter with Matt Wilson playing drums and taking it out. It was really something special.”

The process of recording Digging Me, Digging You (the title comes from Dearie's tribute to John Lennon) was “a tribute to an old-school way of making records. So we went in and did it all in one day. I did everything live.” That allowed Cervini to “bump up” the process from “OK, I'm just singing standards”, she said, and challenge herself.

“I think I had to redo an entire take on a song because it sounded too exciting the first time. I sounded breathless. But the band track was so great I was like I'm just going to go in and overdo the whole vocal. And Oded [Lev-Ari, the producer] created these great arrangements that made me feel like I was singing something new.”

Before the session, she said, she had to avoid listening to Dearie's versions of the songs for a little while “because I was really worried that I would just end up singing Blossom's phrasing, because I knew her versions of some of these songs anyway so well. So I needed to distance myself from that and try to make it my own.”

On the other hand, while there is a “throwback sound” in material arranged for five horns, the album has a more contemporary sensibility: “We left everything a little bit more open and if you listen to 'My Attorney Bernie', the band goes off a little bit and takes it a little bit to a place where it's not so standard anymore. And the reason they did that was because I said, 'Guys, let's take this somewhere. Let's make it different and make it our own.' So I gave them and Oded gave them the freedom to be themselves – and that in itself is a contemporary sound, because they weren't now trying to be session players from the 60s or 50s. They were bringing in their own sounds.”

The album features New York jazz heavyweights including clarinetist Anat Cohen, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, and Matt Wilson. “I could listen to Matt swing just all day long. He is such an incredible drummer going straight down the middle. He's so playful and so imaginative and so in the moment and that's exactly what I wanted on this project.”

Why in the world would you expect me to sound like Blossom?

This album was a rite of passage for Cervini: “It was such a different experience from any of the other records I did. I can't even put it in the same category as my other records.” The differences weren't just in material, she said, but also in having “someone on board to do arrangements where my other two records are all band arrangements”. That allowed her to concentrate on picking the tunes and on the vocals.

“I'm happy I did it in this order because I think had I done this record first it would have sounded much different and it probably would not been half as successful.”

And, while for jazz instrumentalists – at any stage in their careers – it's quite normal to do a tribute album about another instrumentalist, it's harder for singers, she said. Cervini was told by her radio promoter that one person actually criticized the album because Cervini didn't sound like Dearie.

“And I thought, 'Are you kidding me? Why in the world would you expect me to sound like Blossom? … It's funny the lack of imagination sometimes people have in this business. If I did a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, I think people would be very upset because I don't sound anything like Ella. I think that's probably one of the reasons that singers shy away [from tribute albums].”

Adding two Ottawa vocalists: Kellylee Evans and Renée Yoxon

Cervini's band for this tour, including Tuesday's Ottawa concert, will feature her Canadian roots, including her brother, Ernesto, on drums, Ernesto's long-time pianist-collaborator, Adrean Farrugia, and Ross MacIntyre on bass, whom she last played with in high school. Cervini's last appearance in Ottawa was at Café Paradiso in 2009.

She's also adding different special guests for each stop, including saxophonist Kelly Jefferson and trumpeter Kevin Turcotte in Toronto. But in Ottawa, she said, she didn't know any horn players, but she had met two local vocalists: Kellylee Evans and Renée Yoxon.

Cervini had had coffee with Yoxon the first time Yoxon visited New York City, and had sung with Evans at a Canada Day show at Joe's Pub in New York, and had been in touch with each of them ever since. “People like to imagine that we're all competitive with each other, but I just don't think it's true and I don't believe it has to be true.”

She will be performing a duet with each of them. “I love doing vocal duets: I've got to sing with Janice Siegel and all these great singers, and it's just a blast! I think people forget the power of more. One voice is very powerful, but more than one voice is really a powerful thing.”

"She's not on the cover of the record making goo-goo eyes at the camera"

Dearie is still a harder sell than many of her contemporaries, Cervini said. “[Blossom is] someone who doesn't get tribute records made very often (I think there's one other one out there), and someone who people don't really know.”

“I think she had a notoriously 'pointed' personality, I'll say. And I think that may be part of why she didn't have the great success that some of the other singers of her era had. She also sat at the piano, and I think that was not appealing to some people. [Having] a singer up front who wears a pretty dress and she sings to you – that's what people wanted. And she, Blossom, would sit in her unassuming way in her unassuming clothes and play the piano and sing and swing like crazy. And was sort of quirky and had this quirky little voice. And I think that's part of why she never had the mass appeal that some of these others like Ella.”

What about comparing her to Peggy Lee? “I think that Peggy Lee was willing to sell sex in a way that I don't think Blossom cared to. It's funny because when you really listen to [Blossom's] songs they are quite sexual but in a way that's subtle, and they don't seem sexual because she's not on the cover of the record making goo-goo eyes at the camera. She's playing, or singing. There's only one record cover that I know where she's in a mink coat … and I think that was as far as she was willing to go.”

(The cover of Digging Me, Digging You has a simple, non-sexualized picture of Cervini, along with bunches of flower blossoms.)

Dearie was a trail-blazer in many ways, Cervini said: for example, she started her own record label decades before anyone else. “She was really just making her own path. And you know what happens when you make your own path? Sometimes not as many people come with you.”

On the other hand, in 2010 three Ottawa singers (Karen Oxorn, Caroline Gibson, and Marcie Campbell) also performed a one-time tribute to Blossom Dearie, also at the NAC Fourth Stage. And it attracted an almost-full house – which may indicate that Ottawa audiences are willing to make the effort to appreciate Blossom Dearie and her music.

    – Alayne McGregor

Amy Cervini brings her tribute to Blossom Dearie to the NAC Fourth Stage in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 20, 2012; to Hugh's Room in Toronto, on Sunday, March 25, 2012; to the Cellar in Vancouver on Thursday, April 19, 2012; and to the Yardbird Suite in Edmonton on Friday, April 20, 2012.