Meredith d’Ambrosio in JazzTimes (March 1996) by Fred Bouchard ©
Do singers have their seasons? Does Ella Fitzgerald’s brightness go with April’s buds? Sheila Jordan’s mystery with winter’s chills? Sarah Vaughans’s brilliance with the summer sun?
Fall’s a time that likes Meredith d’Ambrosio. She sounds right for a country walk, kickin’ up leaves, catchin’ whiffs of sweet maple smoke. Her songs shed autumn’s softer light, pastels and russets, tugging breezes, bracing airs. Above all, there’s a crepuscular touch of sadness, wrought by lost love, and sublimated into beauty.
You’ve heard of singers’ singers. Meredith is a song’s singer. For this true griot with true grit, songs tell stories. She tells them with little embellishment, if great attention to detail. You get many for your money: no fewer than a dozen (on Little Jazz Bird, with its fabulous lineup), an amazing 21 (on Sleep Warm, a solo album of — heavens! — lullabies).
And the odds are better than good that even song mavens will learn at least one great, neglected tune per album. They are by overlooked composers (Alec Wilder, Jerome Kern), un-done ones by famous composers, or increasingly, her own. She’s written lyrics to tunes by pianists Dave McKenna and Kevin Gibbs, hornmen Al Cohn and Freddie Hubbard.
“My songs tell stories of love,” admits Meredith. “Love lost or happening, unrequited, misbegotten. Love is the epitome of nature.” Let’s hear it for the whole song, says purist Meredith, who seeks, relishes, treasures opening verses. “Sometimes the verses are better than the songs! ‘The End Of A Love Affair’ has a verse that’s a whole separate song: she’s writing to Dorothy Dix and Emily Post and the key keeps changing! I used to sing it every night. Then there’s ‘Charm’ by William Roy, one that Mabel Mercer used to sing. And “Ship Without A Sail”.”
Yet Meredith avers that it is not the lyric, but the melody that is most important to her. “I would never sing a song if it didn’t have a different, interesting melody. What I love about standards is their different sounds, forms. In jazz they get even more interesting when you reharmonize them. Each performer should make a song his own, but not change it around to insult the composer!”
Beyond music, she fills her days with solitary arts: calligraphy and painting. Her exquisite watercolors and print illuminate her ten album covers, as well as the music within. Her introspective life induces creativity of a high order.
Just as she once invented a new art medium — the eggshell mosaic — Meredith has created a new genre of song in recasting and extending standards. Singer Bob Dorough alertly named them “paraphrase songs”. “I can scat pretty well, but it’s inelegant. It’s not me. The paraphrase songs are not vocalese. They’re jazz poetry on my initially improvised bop line on a tune. They are meant to be funny: they reflect my slightly silly character. They’re based both on the melody and the song’s story. The [improvisation] is spur of the moment when I first do it, but then I write it down.” Since 1990, she’s recorded her whimsical spins on tunes like Cole Poeter’s “I Love You”, Bloom & Mercer’s “Fools Rush In”, “Get Out Of Town”, and “I Should Care”.
Soft-spoken Meredith is no big city gal. More suited to a contemplative, country lifestyle, she lives a Piscean existence with her husband and frequent collaborator Eddie Higgins and their chocolate Labrador, Clifford Brown: winters in Florida, summers on Cape Cod. “I see nature in my art and my songs. I’d rather communicate with nature than with people. Isn’t that awful? I like to hide out and paint or write songs. Trees are most important to me: nothing’s more beautiful. Each is unique. I hope the songs I write and choose are unique, like trees. My paintings are also fleeting impressions, not realism, capturing a moment. You can feel the nature.”
Meredith, like Blossom Dearie, may sound delicate, but she’s no hothouse flower: she loves to work with great beboppers. The cast on her albums is awesome: Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Ben Riley. “I love bass players! George Mraz! Michael Moore! They add such oomph. Easy to work with, knowledgeable, they’re hip, they swing, they’re sensitive, soulful. That’s what I look for.” As a pianist, she digs piano: Hank Jones, Harold Danko, Ray Santisi, Fred Hersch, and, since 1988, Higgins. He has helped her cure mic-shyness and swing more. She’d like to record with Mike Renzi, Lee Musiker, Monty Alexander, Makoto Ozone.
Meredith reckons among her favorite singers Maxine Sullivan, Irene Kral, and Mildred Bailey, “none of whom I’d heard until after I started [recording]. Tony Bennett makes me cry; he’s very vulnerable, with such feeling and spirituality.” Her huge repertoire, ironically, makes set selection hard. “Things grow and change: I knew over 2,000 songs when I stopped to count in 1963. Today it’s about 2500, but that’s just a number. The real deal is keeping the good ones in rotation so I don’t get bored or bore the audience. When I used to hide behind the piano, I could use my little notebooks [filled with chord changes and lyrics]. I’ve forced myself to memorize everything now.”
On the road, bringing her music to devoted Japanese, intense French (Paris loves her), romantic Italians (just back from Torino) and sunblown Cape Codders, Meredith prefers concerts to clubs. “There’s no smoke, no sound. It makes me feel like singing, relaxing, and fooling around. But I don’t like stages. I feel more warmth from an audience when I’m down on their level.” Her ideal is the intimate concert club, like Boston’s Scullers Lounge and Pine Manor Junior College. Meredith’s timbre has mellowed, comparing solo dates from 1980 and 1991: her warm quivering viola has broadened and deepened into cello. Soon on her exclusive label, Sunnyside, Meredith will duet with graceful acoustic guitarist Gene Bertoncini. “They want me to play piano: I don’t know why. [I play composer’s piano.] Gene and I will mix it up. It’s called Silent Passion. The title song for a screenplay I wrote.”
Meredith’s natural enthusiasm for all her art is infectious. One minute she enthuses about a watercolor of poplar trees in Avers: “My heart goes crazy!” The next, she’s talking about songs. “They’re life, they’re my life. I write a song and then the lyric. Never the lyric first. ‘Silent Passion’ was amazing to me: I atually had the lyric and tune come to me at the same moment. It just happened – first time ever!”
Meredith’s gear: Meredith’s favorite piano: The Grotrian piano. “I played it on Another Time: it has such resonance and mystery. It’s mellow and bright at the same time. I’ve never heard a piano like it. I played 35 songs and it’s like I never played them at all. It had a perfect touch. It was magic! [WBUR-FM talk show host of “The Connection”] Chris Lydon had it imported from Berlin — only one of three in in the U.S. back in 1980.” Her home piano, on which she recorded Sleep Warm: Yamaha 9′ concert grand. “It’s wonderful! It has a great touch. The bass is deep and clear as a bell! The lowest A is the bottom: it’s not muddy! It’s too full for my voice, really.”