Meredith d’Ambrosio, the innocent radical

    An argument for the Boston-born singer of whom Fred Hersch said 'most singers aren’t musicians . . . Meredith is a musician who just happens to sing'

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    Meredith d’Ambrosio should be far better known. Pianist, singer, composer, lyricist, teacher, calligrapher and artist she is a true renaissance woman who was frequently voted “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” in Downbeat between 1982 and 1991. Despite her huge talent she has continued to fly under the radar even though her albums – 17 so far – have all been critically acclaimed.

    I first heard her about 20 years ago when her recording of How Is Your Wife was played almost daily on London’s Jazz FM. Written by Deborah Henson-Conant it tells the bitter-sweet tale in just under four minutes of an affair with a married man, saying “Thursday night you swear you’re mine – break the bread and pour the wine. You think you’re here, I know you’re there”. She performs it with just the right amount of world-weary cynicism, her own subtle piano accompaniment fitting the introspective mood of sad disillusionment.

    She was born on 20 March 1941 in Boston into a musical family. Her father was a semi-classical singer and her mother worked as a pianist-singer in cocktail lounges for over 40 years. Her mother’s professional name was Sherry Linden and Meredith said she was “The last of the red-hot Mommas”, with a voice that was a cross between Mabel Mercer and Lee Wiley. She obviously took her piano playing very seriously because she had lessons with the celebrated Madame Chaloff (Serge’s mother). Meredith, though, did not study with Ms Chaloff, who apparently could be “a pretty tough customer and a bit of a tyrant”.

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    She studied classical piano and art until the age of 11 before enrolling at what later became the Berklee College of Music. These were years when she was listening to Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Red Garland and Horace Silver. The latter’s 1952 trio recordings, which produced Quicksilver (based on Lover Come Back) and Ecaroh (Horace spelt backwards) among others, were particularly influential. Singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Dick Haymes, Ethel Waters, Jeri Southern, Maxine Sullivan, Mildred Bailey and Anita O’Day were also personal favourites.

    When she was 17 she was awarded a scholarship at Boston’s Museum School and while there performed in local clubs. Around this time she met Roger Kellaway who was playing with Gunther Schuller’s group at the New England Conservatory of Music. She asked him to play Joy Spring while she scat-sang an accompanying line. That led to a brief professional relationship where they performed Jackie Cain and Roy Kral styled routines. Their arrangement of Why Do I Love You called for nine key changes which obviously kept everyone on their toes. Meredith told me: “Roger was an incredible jazz singer. The quality of his tone was similar to Chet Baker but for some reason he stopped singing.” On one occasion, encouraged by Kellaway, she sat in with Maynard Ferguson’s big band at the Crystal club in Milford for a well-received I Got It Bad and I Cover The Waterfront.

    With family responsibilities she remained close to home for the next 20 years or so, combining club dates at the Camelot Lounge, Charter House, the Plaza Bar and the Keyboard Lounge with regular artistic commissions. Her painting and calligraphy skills were “ways of making money to support my music”. Her artwork is an attractive combination of realism and impressionism and evocative examples are to be found on her CD booklets.

    In 1965 she heard John Coltrane with his quartet at Boston’s Jazz Workshop and sitting with him after the engagement he asked her to sing something for him. Thoroughly impressed he invited her to join him on his forthcoming tour of Japan but having just divorced her husband and with a young daughter to care for she had to turn him down. On another evening at the Workshop she met Bill Evans. She told Marc Myers she was “in awe of his genius . . . I knew instantly that I was in the presence of someone from another planet”. In 1967 Horace Silver came to hear her at Boston’s Inner Circle and requested Some Other Spring as it was his favourite song. They remained close through the years.

    With her perfect intonation, superb breath control and crystal-clear diction it was clear that a new star had arrived with a fresh approach, charming in its innocence

    In 1978 she released Lost In His Arms and the wistful charm of the title song together with others of a similar vintage like Spring Is Here, Alone Together and I Get Along Without You Very Well are perfect vehicles for her. She also added a lyric to Freddie Hubbard’s Up Jumped Spring which the composer had first recorded with the Jazz Messengers in 1962. With her perfect intonation, superb breath control and crystal-clear diction it was clear that a new star had arrived with a fresh approach, charming in its innocence. Talking to Marc Myers she acknowledged Johnny Hartman’s help in getting the album released commercially.

    It was Meredith’s idea to invite Phil Woods and Hank Jones to appear on her next album (Little Jazz Bird) in 1982 and Woods’ passionate alto and delicate clarinet really add to the success of the album. Manny Albam, who had first seen her in a tribute to Alec Wilder in New York the year before, provided the arrangements for the date, which included a string quartet. Once again her choice of material could not be bettered – The Wine Of May, There’s A Lull In My Life, I’ll Only Miss Him When I Think Of Him, How Is Your Wife and Our Love Rolls On etc. The latter is by the witty Dave Frishberg; in a recent correspondence she told me that she often performed some of his other unique originals on live dates: “I played and sang Van Lingle Mungo for many years . . . how I enjoyed performing that crazy song! Dodger Blue knocked me out and I get a kick out of My Attorney Bernie.” Willis Conover, who became a big fan, interviewed her twice for Voice Of America. He was also intrigued by Meredith’s picture of a red-wing blackbird that graced the cover and asked if he could have the original water colour. The artist was pleased to indulge him.

    Because Little Jazz Bird was so fresh and new it became very popular, especially in France, where she was “treated like a queen” when touring there. She was invited to appear at the 1986 Paris Jazz Fair on the same bill as Miles Davis, a combination which must have intrigued some in the audience. In 1987 and again in 1991 she worked at Les Alligators jazz club in Montparnasse with Eddie Higgins and Patrice Caratini; tapes of these performances have been exchanged among collectors for years.

    Meredith said that she had memorised the whole Birth Of The Cool album over the years – note-for-note. She wrote the lyric for Coltrane’s magnum opus Giant Steps

    Three years after Little Jazz Bird she recorded It’s Your Dance, thriving in the intimate setting provided by Harold Danko and Kevin Eubanks. It’s Your Dance is an Israel contrafact with a new lyric provided by Ray Passman; composer John Carisi was in the studio at the time of the recording. In a 2004 interview for Jazz Improv magazine Meredith said that she had memorised the whole Birth Of The Cool album over the years – note-for-note. She wrote the lyric for Coltrane’s magnum opus Giant Steps, and Al Cohn’s Ah, Moore became The Underdog here after Frishberg turned it into a gambler’s lament. Devil May Care is one of Bob Dorough’s finest. The cynical Miss Harper Goes Bizarre has Meredith’s music with Passman’s lyric; Passman had Brooke Shields in mind at the time of writing.

    Her 1987 album The Cove features Lee Konitz, Fred Hersch, Michael Formanek and Keith Copeland. It is worth quoting what Hersch once said about her: “Most singers aren’t musicians (but) Meredith is a musician who just happens to sing.” The contrast between Lee’s austere alto and Meredith’s delicate impressionism is a stimulating one and the repertoire features a number of deeply felt, emotional ballads such as It Might As Well Be Spring, Lotus Blossom (with a new lyric by Roger Schore), Time To Say Goodbye and Turn Out The Stars. The album concludes with Steve Allen’s Everybody Knows, which cleverly name-checks no less than 10 standards in a little under three minutes.

    In 1989, a few months after they had married, Meredith and pianist Eddie Higgins made their first album together – South To A Warmer Place. Meredith added lyrics to Al Cohn’s ’T Ain’t No Use and Bob Haggart’s You’re My Inspiration and as usual she performs standards you don’t hear every day like I Can Dream Can’t I and He Was Too Good To Me. Her version of Cole Porter’s lovely but sadly neglected Dream Dancing is a stand-out as is her Latin-tinged Morning, written by Clare Fischer.

    On her 1990 recording Love Is Not A Game she introduces a totally new art-form, not only writing her own ultra-hip lyrics but providing bebop-like contrafacts

    Space precludes a discussion of all her albums but there are four more that should be highlighted. On her 1990 recording Love Is Not A Game she introduces a totally new art-form, similar to vocalese but with one important difference. Masters of the craft such as Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks added lyrics to famous solos but on this and subsequent albums she not only wrote her own ultra-hip lyrics but provided bebop-like contrafacts. I know of no other artist who has attempted this. What you hear on You I Love and But Now Look At Me are her own lyrics and melodies based on I Love You and Oh Look At Me Now, creating a vocalese-like effect although Meredith has written everything. Bob Dorough refers to this concept as a “paraphrase”.

    Her 1992 CD Shadowland has more of this musical transformation. I Should Care, You’ve Changed, You Leave Me Breathless and Fools Rush In become in her hands The Sheepcounter’s Lament, You’ve Altered Your Attitude, A Breath Of Spring and This Rushin’ Fool. Beware Of Spring! has I Fall In Love Too Easily, Get Out Of Town, Dearly Beloved and I Had The Craziest Dream dressed up as Cauliflower Soul, Get Lost, Clearly Beloved and I Can’t Wait To Tell You. Finally, her 1997 Echo Of A Kiss has similar routines on Beautiful Love and I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You which become Gorgeous Creature and Chance With A Ghost. In the book Meredith d’Ambrosio’s Paraphrase Songs For The Jazz Singer, she has recently published 14 of these pieces; they would make an ideal study for an aspiring solo performer.

    As a postscript to this appreciation I recently asked her to name a few more of her favourites and she mentioned Jimmy Rowles, Harold Land, Hank Mobley, Roy Haynes, Dave Frishberg and Clifford Brown. The trumpeter was so important to Meredith and Eddie Higgins that they named their pet Labrador “Clifford Brown” in his honour.

    Meredith d’Ambrosio’s smoky tenor has an introspective almost conspiratorial quality, inviting the attentive listener to share a secret that only she seems to know. (She told this writer: “Different reviewers have tried to guess my vocal range. My lowest comfortable note is Ab below low C. Through the years my range has moved lower.”)

    She tends to avoid well-known classics from the songbook repertoire like All The Things You Are and My Funny Valentine because they have been overdone. In her early days in Boston she had to perform Valentine twice a night, five nights a week which is why she has never recorded it. She prefers to concentrate on her own sophisticated material together with originals by Dave Frishberg, Bob Dorough and Fran Landesman. She really is a treat that should not be missed. Luckily most of her CDs are readily available.

    Selected discography
    Little Jazz Bird. New Jersey, 1982 (Sunnyside SSC 1040 CD)
    It’s Your Dance. New York, 1985 (Sunnyside SSC 1011 CD)
    The Cove. New York, 1987 (Sunnyside SSC 1028 CD)
    South To A Warmer Place. Florida, 1989 (Sunnyside SSC 1039 CD)
    Love Is Not A Game. New York, 1990 (Sunnyside SSC 1051 CD)
    Shadowland. New York, 1992 (Sunnyside SSC 1060 CD)
    Beware Of Spring! New York, 1994 (Sunnyside SSC 1069 CD)
    Echo Of A Kiss. New York, 1997 (Sunnyside SSC 1078 CD)

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