“Remember this name, R-O-B-E-R-T-A G-A-M-B-A-R-I-N-I. She is the best singer around for quite awhile,” said Telluride Jazz veteran, tenor saxophonist James Moody.
Roberta Gambarini is the featured diva at the 36st annual Telluride Jazz Celebration, Friday, August 3 – Sunday, August 5. Specifically, she performs with Convergence on Saturday, August 4, 4:30 – 5:30 p.m. on the Roy Hargrove Stage in Town Park and again in the evening at the historic Sheridan Opera House for Jazz After Dark.
Gambarini describes jazz as the “language of freedom.”
“Jazz is a musical language with a history in the brothels of New Orleans, a vocabulary and a tradition. It is the sound of the cyber village, because jazz allows a singer like me to perform with people not of my own culture, people I don’t know at all. It all turns on the element of improvisation. By creating in the moment, you connect with other like-minded performers and your audience. Improv does not require a set list or a particular melody: all you need is your physical and spiritual presence to liberate your soul and sound.”
For her range and timing, Gambarini is widely compared to divas of another era: Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. Gambarini has a multi-octave range, a nuanced tonal palette, a warm timbre, impeccable timing and intonation, distinctive improvisation and scatting skills. Her trumpet-like scatting comes from listening to recordings by the Mills Brothers. As she emulates the horn vocally, she claims to be thinking of the trumpet playing of Miles Davis, Art Farmer, Chet Baker, and Freddie Hubbard.
In performance, Gambarini is likely to put her own spin on jazz chestnuts, works from the “Great American Songbook.” To want to make a song her own, however, the chanteuse first has to identify with the lyrics in some way. The beauty of the melody is also critical. Listening to Gambarini is a walk down Memory Lane, with only the good stops along the way.
Roberta Gambarini was born in Salsomaggiore Terme, a small spa town near Parma.
“We were peasants and street musicians, adventurers. My grandfather used to say we were a ‘wicked race,’ who therefore could not stay in one place too long. Half my family now lives in Brazil.”
Gambarini began listening to jazz as a child. By 12, she started taking clarinet lessons.
“My parents, especially my mother and her sisters were all jazz fans. I saw Duke Ellington for the first time when I was seven. Over the years, my relatives took me along to jazz clubs, where I was exposed to musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Al Cohn, Kenny Drew, Oscar Peterson, and Art Farmer. At 16, thanks to family friends, I was given the opportunity to sing in public for the first time.”
By 17, Gambarini was performing in jazz clubs in Northern Italy she had frequented as a girl.
At 18, following a move to Milan, Gambarini took third place in a televised national jazz radio competition. That victory led to performance opportunities at jazz festivals throughout her country and beyond.
In 1998, Gambarini moved to the U.S. with a scholarship from the New England Conservatory in Boston. Two weeks later, she stunned the jazz world with a third-place finish after Teri Thornton and Jane Monheit in the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition. The 30-something who had cut her teeth on Europe’s jazz scene for more than a dozen years before her move to the States, became an overnight fixture in America.
Since then, the New York-based artist has performed in prestigious venues such as the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall with jazz greats such as Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones, Christian McBride, and Roy Hargrove, another Telluride Jazz Celebration guest artist and the Guest of Honor this coming weekend.
Gambarini remains a regular at other jazz festivals from Monterey to London and she owns her own record label, Groovin High, with manager Larry Clothier. The label’s first recording, Easy to Love, (2005) received raves and earned the singer a Grammy nomination.
In 2008, Gambarini made her major label debut with You Are There, a superb duet with the legendary pianist Hank Jones. Jones – who accompanied most of the celebrated vocalists of the 2oth century such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, and Billy Eckstine – declared Gambarini as “the best singer to emerge in over 60 years.”