Interview: Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Roseanna Vitro talks recent album
Roseanna Vitro

“I'd recommend listening to all styles of jazz - vocal, Brazilian, instrumental, and free. The bad times aren't so bad when you're surrounded by creative music,” Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Roseanna Vitro advises. Her latest album, Tell Me the Truth, was released this fall and is currently being accompanied by a handful of release shows. “I give everything I've got to my music,” Vitro told AXS during a recent Q&A. “I go for your heart first, then your mind.”

AXS: Your recent body of work, Tell Me the Truth, is a story of classic songs reimagined in today’s world. Tell me why you chose those particular tracks for this album?

Roseanna Vitro: The songs I chose on my new album trace my life's journey as a free spirit, born in the Deep South to a family of gospel singers who insisted “all things are possible.” The songs were written or popularized by my mentors and each piece speaks of who I am and what I believe. These are stories of love, loss, passion, respect, and truth. "Tell Me the Truth" was composed by the late, great bebop poet, Jon Hendricks. His message: the truth is not an opinion. Mose Allison's tale, "Your Mind Is on Vacation," applies to many. Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight" paints shadows of "One for My Baby" as she searches for her lover. New Orleans pianist, Allen Toussaint, inspired me with his poignant tune, "On Your Way Down." This is the golden rule, set to a dope "Sidewinder" groove. Mavis Staples’ hit tune, "Respect Yourself" captures one of my strongest beliefs: fair treatment for every person. A surprise track was John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son." I wrote two of my own verses, plus the opening rap. Boz Scaggs composed the haunting "I'll Be Long Gone," declaring, "I'm gonna… make my life shine." The Everly Brothers hit, "When Will I Be Loved," is the eternal cry for love felt by many lonely people lost in a digital fog. Two of my favorite tunes, "A Healing Song" by Eli Yamin and "Foolin' Myself," a classic standard, reflect Donald Fagen's sonic colors and honor the blues as a healing embrace. I close my set with an elegant rendition of the folk classic, "I'll Fly Away," with Grammy-nominated violinist Sara Caswell, plus the angelic voices of Kate McGarry and Cindy Scott. I recorded this elegant arrangement for my mum, sweet, Ruby Mae.

AXS: Tell me more about the other musicians you worked with on your latest album?

RV: My partner of the last three albums is pianist/arranger, Mark Soskin. We work very closely together, choosing songs, writing arrangements and discussing the colors of the instruments to paint the pictures and tell the story of each song. Mark possesses a bright spirit and deep groove. He's played piano for the great tenor saxophonist, Sonny Rollins, for 17 years and taught jazz piano at Manhattan School of Music for 20 years. I love the hip horn lines he’s written on the new album. On our previous albums, The Music of Clare Fischer and The Music of Randy Newman, Mark created fresh arrangements featuring the violin, piano, upright bass, and drums.

Tell Me the Truth was a different journey featuring Tim Ries; a magnificent tenor saxophone player. I first heard Tim with Maria Schneider's big band in 1993. He played on my debut Concord recording with Fred Hersch [Softly]. His playing is exquisite, with depth and sensitivity, but he's also a solid rocker. He's been performing with Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones for years. My next call was for a Texas-style guitarist who could paint colors and jazz harmonies. Mitch Stein was the perfect call. I first met him on my tribute to Ray Charles, Catchin' Some Rays on Telarc in the late ‘90s. Mitch is the real deal. Rudy Royston is a drummer in high demand with total command of the drums. The heartbeat of the band is Dean Johnson; he plays with heart, a deep beat, and he's a brilliant soloist. 

My special guests were the great Philly soul singer, Al Chestnut, on “Respect Yourself.” Ms. Sara Caswell; her violin and my voice hum together, as exampled on our 2011 Grammy-nominated album, The Music of Randy Newman. Vocalists Kate McGarry and Cindy Scott have the perfect timbre and soul for "I'll Fly Away." A tip of the hat goes to engineer, Paul Wickliffe. He's hubby, producer, recording and mixing engineer, and he mastered the album. I couldn't do it without him.

AXS: Do you remember the first song you fell in love with that made you want to become an artist?

RV: I've been singing since the age of four. I loved “As Long as He Needs Me” from “Oliver!” and Tracy Nelson's "Down So Low." In recent years, "You Are There" by Johnny Mandel and Dave Frishberg, as well as Randy Newman's "I Think it's Going to Rain Today," all are part of my essence.

AXS: As a Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist, you are at the forefront of your genre. What do you think every up-and-coming musician, regardless of genre, should know about when it comes to jazz music?

RV: First, jazz is America's music. Musicians, of all styles and cultures around the world, love jazz. It is a small but mighty family and our universal language. There are several different styles of jazz and the music is as creative as the musicians who are playing it. Listen to Louis Armstrong and his down-home New Orleans style. Jazz is the heart of American music: gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, pop, country, soul and even hip-hop; it's all in there. The only difference is they have structure, chord changes and form, as opposed to freestyle rap. But the point is to tell the story. Check out Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and new vocalists such as Cyrille Aimée, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Dianne Reeves. Some singers scat on everything, others sing a tune and improvise with lyrics. It's all jazz.

AXS: I know right now you’re in the midst of a few album release shows. Tell me how that’s going?

RV: I'm having a great time. Our debut release party in New York's Birdland Theater was fantastic. I enjoyed very good audiences. Mark Soskin and I recently completed 10 days on the road performing in Denver, Minneapolis, and L.A. We reached No. 26 on the Jazz Weekly Charts and made the top 10 rotation on KUVO radio in Denver. In Los Angeles, we played the blue whale. It was a great night. I'm off to Nashville on Nov. 9 to Rudy's Jazz Room and Scullers in Boston on Nov. 15. I'm super excited to bring Tell me the Truth to these clubs.

AXS: What’s next for you? Do you have plans for another project?

RV: I have two more projects on the way. One is Sing a Song of Bird [the Music of Charlie Parker], featuring Ms. Sheila Jordan. Sheila sang with "Bird" and is the recipient of a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award. The late pianist/composer Mr. Bob Dorough is also on this project. Bob created, Schoolhouse Rock! He recorded a tour de force vocalese titled, "Audubon, The New Blue Bird" on the project. Singing bebop with good lyrics was my goal.

Dec. 14 and 15, I sing with pianist, Kenny Werner, at the Kitano Jazz club. KW and I have recorded six albums through the years. This one will be, Classics in Jazz, with master saxophonist Harry Allen, Dean Johnson on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums. The album will be swinging, creative, and sensuous.

For more on Roseanna Vitro, you can visit her website.