I first encountered Meredith d'Ambrosio after I left Boston in 1979. The album was It's Your Dance (1985), and the song that grabbed me was Listen Little Girl. I was awestruck. How could a female singer sound innocent and knowing at the same time? And how could she play piano like that while singing so beautifully? As I read up on Meredith, I discovered she was from Boston and had performed there in the '70s while I was there. I could have kicked myself for not seeing her live while I was in college. That's when I began collecting her albums. I had a crush on that voice. [Photo of Meredith d'Ambrosio in 2006 by Nich Anderson]
Meredith's latest album, By Myself (Sunnyside), was released yesterday and pushes those same buttons for me. The CD features Meredith alone—accompanying herself on piano. The album is special for many reasons. For one, it almost didn't happen—Meredith had intended to hang up the playing-singing thing. For another, it's a CD of Arthur Schwartz songs, each perfectly suited to Meredith's voice and mood.
In Part 2 of my two-part conversation with Meredith about her new album, the singer-pianist talks about her thinking behind her song choices...
JazzWax: On your new album, you are singing and playing piano alone—and at the same time.
Meredith d’Ambrosio: [Laughs] Yes.
JW: No overdubbing—recording the piano part first and then singing while listening back?
Md’A: Oh no. Never. I never overdub. I used to sing and play live in Boston clubs in the ‘70s. My piano playing is very much like my voice. [Photo: Meredith d'Ambrosio in Boston in 1965]
JW: How so?
Md’A: I have a very quiet, romantic and deep understanding of songs, and I think my vocal interpretations reflect that. The same is true about my piano playing. I’m just fortunate that the two get along so well together. [Portrait of Meredith d'Ambrosio by Richard Merkin]
JW: Why is there so much feeling on your albums?
Md’A: What do you mean?
JW: The listener can really feel the words you’re singing, and your piano style feeds into your voice—as though you were working with an accompanist.
Md’A: I think that's because I embrace romance that has practically disappeared from this world. I remember telling my father when I was a child that I had to sing and play old songs because the music was disappearing. Even then I felt the music was slipping away and needed to be grabbed and played so others would hear it.
JW: Do you consciously think about pianist Bill Evans when you play?
Md’A: Not really, though Bill was and is a big influence on me. But there were other influences before him, like Horace Silver. He drove me crazy. I loved his funkiness. I'd sit at the piano trying to figure out those chords of his.
JW: How much time did you need to prepare for your new album?
Md'A: Six months. I worked day and night. I was that unprepared to play in front of anyone when I first spoke to Francois Zalacain of Sunnyside Records. I was afraid that I might have forgotten how to play.
JW: What did you do to prepare?
Md'A: Every song needed to be reharmonized. Arthur Schwartz wrote the songs in the 1930s and 1940s, and composers wrote differently back then. I had to put more jazz harmonies into the songs for my voice and feeling.
JW: How did you work at the piano?
Md'A: I took the sheet music for each song and worked with a pencil to reharmonize the chords. My friends [song consultant] Roger Crane and [lyricist] Roger Schore were a big help in selecting the songs. [Radio host] Jonathan Schwartz also gave me a lot of insight into his father’s music.
JW: How far from the originals are some of the songs’ voicings?
Md'A: In some cases they aren’t even the same chords. I felt some had to be changed. I know, I’m so audacious. But I just couldn’t have played those songs the way they were written. The fact is we don’t know what happened when Arthur Schwartz gave those songs to his publisher. They may have been tweaked. Bill Evans wasn’t playing when they were written. Perhaps if he had been, Arthur Schwartz might have been influenced and would have used different chords.
JW: Which Schwartz song was Jonathan’s favorite?
Md’A: High and Low, which was written with Howard Dietz for Jonathan’s mother. I kind of like All Through the Night, which was written with Johnny Mercer. I love the form of it and the chords—I didn’t do much changing there. It’s a very romantic song and probably about death or divorce. I couldn’t figure out which one.
JW: Which other songs suited you perfectly?
Md’A: I love I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan. I learned that song when I was 12 years old while playing from one of my mother’s piano books. I used to sit at the piano and practice the music, which had just chords above the words.
JW: The album is a lot like your paintings.
Md’A: How do you mean?
JW: In your paintings, the action is in the shadows and how light plays on surfaces. What touches me are those elements that technically don't have physical form—shadow and light.
Md’A: I like that. Well, balance is everything for me, the balance between shadow and space. In my paintings I use light to achieve this. In my music it’s space.
JW: What do you think your late husband [Eddie "Haydn" Higgins] would think of the album?
Md’A: I’m not sure what he’d think about my piano playing. I don’t really know. He had definite tastes.
JW: How did people in the studio react?
Md’A: Just before they gave me a copy of the disc, I noticed that some people there had been crying. So I guess it went over well [laughs].
JW: What did you think when you first heard the album?
Md’A: When I took the album home several days later, I discovered that my CD player was broken. When I finally found a machine that worked, I put on the disc and cried when I heard three of the songs—All Through the Night, Haunted Heart and If There is Someone Lovelier Than You. Each has meaning and brought back memories.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Meredith d'Ambrosio's By Myself at iTunes and Amazon here. (Tender liner notes by Doug Ramsey.) Meredith has recorded 17 albums, and all are available as downloads. These are among my favorites...
- Lost in His Arms (1978)
- Little Jazz Bird, with Phil Woods (1982)
- It's Your Dance (1985)
- The Cove, with Lee Konitz (1987)
- Love Is Not a Game (1990)
- Love Is for the Birds, with Don Sickler (2001)
And if you have young chidren who need to be put to bed—or work has you in a knot, try this one...
- Sleep Warm (1991), a solo album featuring Meredith playing and singing children's lullabies.
JazzWax pages: Meredith's artwork—watercolors, eggshell mosaics, oils and black pencil drawings—appear in a paperback collection here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Meredith singing and playing Dancing in the Dark from her new album By Myself...
Here's Meredith singing and playing Love Is a Simple Thing from Another Time (1981)...
Here's an interesting clip. It's a choral group singing Meredith's composition Chance With a Ghost, a "paraphrase song" that Meredith wrote with lyrics based on I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance and recorded on Echo of a Kiss (1997). Meredith composes paraphrase songs by writing new bop melody lines to standards—adding lyrics based on her new notes and the original chord changes.