By Don Heckman
Roberta Gambarini didn’t waste any time establishing her impressive jazz credentials at Catalina Bar & Grill Thursday night. Relying on her perfect pitch and her brilliant interpretive skills, she strolled on stage, picked up a microphone and began to sing a stunning version of Cole Porter’s “So In Love” without a whisper of accompaniment from her stellar trio (pianist Eric Gunnison, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Willie Jones III). Nor was anything other than her mesmerizing voice required in an interpretation that thoroughly introduced Gambarini’s extraordinary talents.
And it was just the beginning of a night that – for the lucky folks who’d turned out for the show – thoroughly introduced her full range of vocal skills. Singing a capella, romping through swinging up tempos, scatting with the clarity and harmonic accuracy of an instrumentalist, finding the heart of ballads with her trio, dueting with her guest, Kenny Burrell, she gave a performance to remember.
The highlights came one after another: continuing with a high speed romp through “Nobody Else But Me,” followed by Gambarini’s take on the Dizzy Gillespie version of “Sunny Side of the Street”; a deeply moving blend of ”Porgy, I Is Your Woman” and “I Loves You Porgy” from Porgy and Bess.
The arrival of Burrell opened the way to more far-ranging selections of material, starting with a brisk “Just Squeeze Me,” followed by an exquisite Portuguese version of the classic bossa nova, “Chega De Saudade.” Shifting gears, Gambarini offered emotionally intimate renderings of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade,” called up memories of Billie Holliday with “Good Morning Heartache,” and followed with a steaming “Day In, Day Out,” delivered in another up-tempo display of her versatility.
Gambarini then gracefully turned the stage over to Burrell. And the veteran guitarist, always a pleasure to hear whenever he takes a break from his multitude of responsibilities running the U.C.L.A. Jazz program, used the opportunity to offer a colorful medley of Duke Ellington songs reaching from “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me” and “Prelude To A Kiss” to “A Sittin’ and a Rockin’.”
Appropriately, Gambarini returned to call up images of her native land with the lovely Italian song “Estate” (“Summer”). Finally, the musical banquet wrapped up with another hard-driving offering, this time the familiar blues of “Lester Leaps In.” Along the way, Gambarini used the microphone to create a convincing trumpet sound for a climactic improvised solo once again displaying her extraordinary musical inventiveness.
At a time when the jazz vocal world is overflowing with rapidly arriving young female talent, Gambarini stands well above the crowd. A third place finisher in 1998’s Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal competition, Grammy-nominated Gambarini still hasn’t begun to receive the recognition her remarkable talents fully deserve.
She performs at Catalina Bar and Grill again tonight (Saturday) with Burrell and her world class band. Don’t miss this too-rare opportunity to experience the pleasures of Roberta Gambarini’s music in full living color.
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Photos by Faith Frenz.