Carmela Rappazzo, jazz vocalist: Something Else! Interview

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Carmela Rappazzo has one of those voices you want to listen to for ages — soft, gentle, swinging from sublime to downright sleazy at the drop of a hat (or a major third more likely). Her voice has that essential “can’t quite put my finger on it but I want to hear more” quality. She also has near perfect intonation, which is more than useful.

What I knew before Carmela, and I really made contact, was that she would tweet me now and then with some interesting snippet, that she had an eclectic taste in music and was American. Then I listened to some of her material and found in her voice a quality and development which was engaging and emotive. “So,” I wondered, “what’s a nice girl like Carmela doing in a place like jazz?”

I decided to find out.

Carmela has lived in New York, Los Angeles and New Mexico. In New York, she became involved in off-off Broadway theatre and appeared in a few independent films. She trained with Eric Morris. In Los Angeles, she worked for film directors including Rob Reiner, Wolfgang Petersen, Jonathan Lynn and Ken Kwapis and also performed in the L.A. jazz scene with the Jon Mayer trio.

With the trio, Carmela recorded a straight standards record, Black and White, and also worked in small clubs. Her second album Regarding Frank was recorded with Paul Smith, Jim DeJulio and Joe LaBarbera and was a tribute to Sinatra and his Capitol years in the 1950s. Her next project The Girl Who Dreams Out Loud was conceived and released on CD Baby in 2005. This included exploration of original materials by musicians including Hirth Martinez, Donald Fagen, Mike Melvoin and Carmela.

Her fourth album Joseph City, released on Studiola in 2007, combined covers and some original numbers. Carmela fronts a group comprising guitarist Pete Snell (has played on many sound tracks), bass player Armando Compean (he has played on several films), and drummer Lee Spathe (who has played with Randy Crawford and Buddy Bryant among many others). For a while, Carmela lived in New Mexico and she was nominated for a New Mexico Music Award for best original jazz song, appeared in local theatre and worked on the feature film A Bird of the Air and as Lilith Bengalis in the web series Cyphers.

Her new album release Myths and Legends (also on CD Baby) is a collection of original songs penned by Carmela and the music centers around the stories of women with a past. Apart from Duke Ellington’s “Azure” and Al Anderson’s “Love Make a Fool of Me,” all the tracks are original.

Carmela now lives in New York City and has appeared in New York’s Metropolitan Room and Joe’s Pub. She grew up in Albany, upstate New York in a rather large and crazy Sicilian-American family. She says, “My father and 5 of his siblings were swing musicians. Music was always a part of our life, especially the Great American Songbooks. We went to a lot of Broadway shows when I was a kid and had the soundtrack albums. I loved Ella Fitzgerald and wore her records out. My older sister gave me the Stan Getz/Jobim Their Greatest Hits album when I was a kid, and I secretly — it wasn’t cool around my friends — had a lot of Miles Davis albums. I was a sing-a-long kid. I didn’t know I could sing, I just loved to sing.”

Carmela first performed in showcases around New York City, and was lucky enough to have opportunities to sit in with musicians. She comments, “When I was very young — in my early 20s — I did a lot of sitting in with famous musicians that I didn’t know at the time were famous, or I would never had the nerve to get up and sing with them.”

Carmela was not simply joining in though; she had her own gifts to offer to the music. She goes on, “I moved to Los Angeles for a while, and while there got to work with some great musicians. I was in Buddy Arnold’s big band, I recorded and played with the Jon Mayer trio, Paul Smith, and many others. I was part of two trio bands, as well. When I came home to New York City, I started playing in clubs here with a lot of local musicians.” Carmela’s list of musicians she has played with is long.

As to how she feels when performing, Carmela says she relates strongly to her training as an actor and her theater, film and TV work.

She comments, “I have training as an actor, and when I perform I like to lose myself in the music. The lyric is the story that you are telling, sharing with your audience. If you are telling the story effectively, the audience comes on the journey with you. They are engaged. They laugh with you; they cry with you. They see and feel what you are seeing and feeling. I love and am inspired by the people I’m playing with. I am a part of the band. We are sharing ideas and communicating through the music. I have been a part of bands where the intuitive connection is so ‘there’ that I know what’s coming next even when it hasn’t been rehearsed. I love that the most. When band members solo and engage the audience by what they are playing it creates an atmosphere that has no words. It’s exhilarating.”

Regarding her personal tastes and what she listens to, Carmela says, “I listen to music constantly. I have an Mp3 player on shuffle on the subway and while I roam New York City. I listen to a lot of straight-ahead jazz, a lot of the classic singers — Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Anita O’Day, and on and on — but I also listen to a lot of horn and reed players. I’m inspired by Duke Ellington, the chromatic arrangements slay me. I listen to a lot of contemporary singers, I love Andy Bey and his deconstructed arrangements, the genius of Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, the new voices of jazz, so many! Oh and I love Louis Armstrong. I go to Jazz at Lincoln Center and live performances every chance I get.”

Carmela has a simple philosophy and it is this: “Life has a lot of ups and downs, music gets you through.”

Asked what inspires her — apart from any number of fellow musicians — Carmela says, “I go through a lot of phases. I write my own tunes and get inspired by things I hear as well as art I see in museums. Walks through Central Park, people I overhear the conversations of, street performers. I could not classify my music, and I have no idea about that. I hope it’s always growing and improving. Audiences vary and some of the most appreciative audiences have been, in private concerts that I do or when I do a gig in a club and people are actually coming to see me as opposed to a club where you are background music.”

As to the future, Carmela has a lot of projects. She says, “I’m in the process of forming a new trio right now. I’m writing lyrics for another musician, and continue to write my own music and lyrics. I’m a story teller. I still want to put the last project Myths and Legends I did out in the world. It’s a lot of my own tunes. I’m performing in clubs here in America and have house concerts coming up.”

Music is the core of Carmela’s life, but she does have other interests. “I have a weakness for flea markets. I collect art pottery and all kinds of other odd things. I read a lot. I’m very interested in the work of Carl Jung. I meditate. I owned an organic farm in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico for a while. I was heavily involved with the Musicians Assistance Program, which helps musicians get back on track as well as fund raising for music education and the homeless. I plan to continue finding ways to ‘give back’ to the community. I have my eye on the park across the street from my flat where they have kid’s programs and I’m looking for a way to help. I’m a sucker for critters as well.”

Albums have been the gateway into Carmel’s music for many. She says, “I have been loving the reception I’ve been getting from the UK for my last album. There is one tune in particular ‘Ursula’ that continues to get a lot of attention. I guess people in the UK understand my tunes about ‘difficult’ women. It has resulted in people investigating my other albums that I’ve done in the past, so yes, I love the reception from across the pond. I’d love to come and play there. I think it’s important to grow creatively and spiritually, through all of life’s challenges. I think it’s unfair to be critical of other people’s creative process. It’s really not easy to get anything made and out there. I think you have to find your path and go all in. Give it your all everyday, not in order to get somewhere or prove something. For the sake of your own soul, be unselfish and share what you discover with as many people as possible.”

Carmela has a lot to give — and many people are more than willing to receive it.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein

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