Unfamiliar with pianist-singer Meredith d'Ambrosio? Wow, are you in for a treat. Meredith is one of my all-time favorites, as those who read my interview with her back in 2009 know. Meredith is one of the few jazz singers who can accompany herself on piano—and we're not talking cabaret stuff. Her phrasing on the piano is of Bill Evans quality, and her voice is soft, honest and soothing—instantly taking control of your heart. [Photo of Meredith d'Ambrosio in 2006 by Nich Anderson]
Meredith's new album By Myself (Sunnyside) is out today, and it's excellent. The album was recorded in New York over two days last June—nearly two years following the death of her husband, pianist Eddie "Haydn" Higgins. Meredith wasn't sure she was ever going to record again, but thanks to the persuasiveness of François Zalacain of Sunnyside Records, fans now have yet another recording. This time Meredith is alone at the piano and in voice.
In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Meredith, 70, the painter-musician-singer talks about coping with her loss and moving forward with an album of Arthur Schwartz songs...
JazzWax: What have you been doing since Haydn’s passing?
Meredith d'Ambrosio: I’ve been trying to get my brain in order. My producer at Sunnyside, Francois Zalacain, called right after Haydn died and asked if I would record an album. He said that people in France were driving him crazy and were asking for a solo album from me.
JW: What did you think?
Md'A: He scared me, but I agreed to do it. But only after I finished a painting I was working on of my dog Gypsy. The painting appears inside the album cover.
JW: What did Francois want you to do?
Md'A: At first he suggested I record obscure songs, the way I did on my first and second albums. Those albums were first heard in France, Britain and parts of Japan before they were released here in the U.S. They were very popular abroad.
JW: What did you say?
Md'A: I said I’d think about it while I worked on my painting of Gypsy. When I was ready to turn my attention to the album around the end of 2010, I told Francois I wanted an album of Arthur Schwartz songs.
JW: How did you arrive at that decision?
Md’A: Schwartz [pictured] wrote so many wonderful songs. When I first heard Bill Evans play his Haunted Heart back in 1961, I tried to learn the song. It’s very difficult. When I turned to the song for this new album, I had problems with it in my mind.
MdA: I thought the interlude section should have been the verse. Stuff like that. But I made a commitment to learn the song as Schwartz had written it rather than change things.
JW: Do the Schwartz titles feed into how you felt after the death of Haydn?
Md'A: Yes. The entire album is a story that unfolds. Schwartz’s music is so sensitive—my kind of music. Very romantic and it fits me. The lyrics by his collaborators also suit me. When I told Francois what I wanted to do, he agreed.
JW: Did he realize what you had in mind, that it was going to be a pensive album?
Md'A: Oh yes. I warned Francois that it was going to be a terribly romantic album. He said good, that a romantic album is exactly what he wanted. The French love romantic artists. They were first to love me and my music and had taken me under their wing, so to speak.
JW: Is the album a tribute to your husband or is it a soul soother for you?
Md'A: Both. It was a release. Some songs are dedicated to Haydn and others are for other important things in my life, like my dog. One of the songs is dedicated to her—If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You. One of the reasons are the lines in the song by lyricist Howard Dietz: "My eyes have traveled everywhere; In hopes that I might find, a creature half so fair." Gypsy is very sensitive.
JW: When did you get Gypsy?
Md'A: Haydn and I had ordered her from a breeder in Iowa. We fell in love with the mother’s face on the Internet. Every time I look at her now she takes my breath away.
JW: How did you take possession of Gypsy?
Md'A: The owners wouldn’t fly her to us, so they drove for two days down to our home in Florida. But they arrived just after Haydn died. I felt that if he had just waited, Gypsy would have kept him alive longer.
JW: Why the name Gypsy?
Md'A: Gypsy was the name of my favorite horse at camp when I was 12 years old. It was a graceful Golden Palomino. I thought the horse’s name would be appropriate for a puppy.
JW: Do the songs on your new album appear in any specific order?
Md'A: Yes. If you look at the songs and the lyrics, you’ll see that they tell a story that unfolds. I dedicated Haunted Heart to Haydn. One of my favorite albums of his on Venus was named Haunted Heart. And Haydn played that song all the time. It was a special song for him. The lyrics do have something to do with his passing away. I put the song at the end because placing it first would be too obvious in terms of the connection. By Myself was obvious, too, but it's more appropriate and made for a good album title.
JW: Will you be touring?
Md'A: I wasn’t planning to tour. I just want to paint. But I’m rethinking that. Francois has said, “Your audience needs you.” I was kind of surprised that I had agreed to do a tribute concert to Jonathan Schwartz in New York last July just after I recorded the album in June. I wound up doing what I told all my friends I wouldn’t do [laughs].
JW: Were you nervous?
Md'A: Terribly. It was the first time I had played in front of an audience in a decade. The performance was in Rockefeller Park at the north end of Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, on the West Side. It was done outside, in an intimate setting. The performance went well. [Photo of Meredith d'Ambrosio in 2006 by Nich Anderson]
JW: So if the Village Vanguard called, you’d hang up?
Md'A: [Laughs] You think they would call?
JW: You never know.
Md'A: Well, if they did, I suppose I would have to consider it.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Meredith d'Ambrosio's By Myself at iTunes and Amazon here.
JazzWax note: All of Meredith's album covers feature images of her artworks... The liner notes to Meredith's new album By Myself were written by the ever-graceful Doug Ramsey, and they are superb... More on Meredith at her website.
JazzWax clip: Here's one of my favorite Meredith d'Ambrosio compositions and recordings—Love Is Not a Game (1990) and a perfect introduction to her playing and singing. Dig those piano voicings!...
And here's Meredith playing and singing her composition No One Knows (1994)...