Live Jazz: Roberta Gambarini at Catalina Bar & Grill

By Don Heckman

Anyone with a more than passing interest in world class jazz singing should make a reservation for tonight or tomorrow night at Catalina Bar & Grill.

Why? To hear Roberta Gambarini offer a set that is an entertaining display of jazz singing at its finest.  Add to that the virtual seminar in the techniques of jazz vocalizing that her performances offer.

Roberta Gambarini

Gambarini may have been born in Italy, but she grew up surrounded by jazz recordings.  Gifted with a magnificent sounding voice, a 3 to 4 octave range and perfect pitch, her natural skills could easily have led her into an operatic career.  But, to the benefit of jazz fans, she chose the improvisational art, and mastered it, on all counts – from inventive scatting, expressive storytelling and the phrasing of a jazz instrumentalist to an irresistible sense of swing.

And all of it was on stunning display at Catalina’s last night – Friday – the opening of a three night run.

Backed by pianist Mike Wofford, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Harvey Mason, Gambarini sang a program of surprisingly diverse songs, at a variety of tempos, in English, Italian, French and Spanish.

Looking gorgeous in a shimmering white beaded dress, she started her program with an immediate announcement of the scope of her abilities by singing a completely solo, a cappella version of the hit song from the musical Oliver, “Where Is Love?”  Then, spreading her creative net wide, she signaled Mason to kick off a drum intro, and dug into a high speed romp through Jerome Kern’s “Nobody Else But Me.”

A deeply grooving rendering of “No More Blues,” the English language version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega De Saudade,” came next.  Followed by her vocally brilliant version of a recording of Jimmy McHugh’s “Sunny Side of the Street,” including Gambarini’s vocalese versions of solos by Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins.

And that was just the beginning. The balance of the evening was a sumptuous banquet of music.  To mention just a few: a lovely version of a song by Astor Piazzolla, sung in French; a tender interpretation of Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low”; her intriguing take on Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade”; a thoroughly authentic Italian reading of “Estate.”

Add to that one of the program’s high points – a dramatically rendered pair of songs from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess: “Porgy You Are My Man” and “I Loves You Porgy.”  Listening to the way she brought the Gershwin tunes to life, I couldn’t help but hope to hear Gambarini invest her inner jazz sensibilities into more musical theatre pieces in the future.

The backing provided by Wofford, Berghofer and Mason was first rate.  And without a rehearsal.  It’s true, no rehearsal.  World class veterans all, they made the most of Gambarini’s charts and her occasional gestures of guidance.  They watched her approvingly in her ballad work, and responded with occasional glances of astonishment when she took off on one of her high flying vocal excursions.

As I said earlier, “jazz singing at its finest.”  And that’s rare.  Very simply, Roberta Gambarini – true jazz artist that she is, should be heard at every opportunity – by fans and students, as well as her colleagues in the jazz vocal art.

Photo by Faith Frenz.

Roberta Gambarini appears tonight, Sept. 7 and tomorrow night, Sept. 8, at Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.


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