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Jazziz, January 1999

voices

essential eccentrics and buried treasures


About 20 years ago, the jazz magazine for which I was then writing sent me a stack of LPs by obscure female singers: "Would you review these en masse?"

I would. I did. (Who knew I'd be writing this column to these many years later?) I don't remember most of the singers, but there were two that I fell instantly in love with: Shirley Horn, an American with her first album for Europe's Steeplechase Records, and Meredith, a one-named singer making her own records in Boston.

Both women played piano, both sang in a soft, intimate style, both had been performing since the '50s, and both became instant favorites of mine. Nearly 20 years later both record regularly: Shirley Horn, of course, has been churning out an annual album for a decade: rescued from her early '80s obscurity, she's a jazz star. Meredith d'Ambrosio (she tacked here last name back on after that first album) has also been churning out an album every year or so, all of them (including her early homegrowns) available on Sunnyside Records. Yet Meredith d'Ambrosio has little of the name recognition of Shirley Horn; she's a connoisseur's favorite.

  "I was playing and singing around Boston so I could support my daughter," says d'Ambrosio, whose 13th album is the typically lovely Echo Of A Kiss (Sunnyside). "I began playing in Boston clubs when I was 17, and I didn't want to travel. I'm a nester. So when a friend suggested I record an album, I did it, but reluctantly."

  The album, which I reviewed back in the day, also caught the ear of Johnny Hartman when he and d'Ambrosio happened to end up at the same Boston radio station for interviews. He brought it to New York and slowly, quietly; d'Ambrosio's name got out there. The Palo Alto label made a couple of records with her (now on Sunnyside), and then the more or less annual Sunnyside string began.

  Echo Of A Kiss is a soft and gentle album, romantic and memorable, like an echo of a kiss. It's a mix of old standards, old not-standards, and new songs by d'Ambrosio (she's one of the few singers whose original material stands up next to the chestnuts). Opening with a lilting version of Benny Carter's "When Lights Are Low" - have the words "strains of a mellow cello" ever been sung more appealingly? - and ending with the most depressing Christmas song I've ever heard "Where Were You At Christmas?" (music by d'Ambrosio to a poem by Dan Davis). Echo Of A Kiss achieves a level of conspiratorial intimacy and bittersweet poignance reminiscent of Brazil's Bossa nova god, Joao Gilberto. Her dusky voice - somewhat rougher around the top ends of her range than on earlier albums - and dry-eyed approach to heartbreak also share something with great Joao, Mike Renzi leads the exceptional rhythm section (d'Ambrosio, who doesn't much like her own piano playing, rarely plays on her own albums anymore). The cover art, a lovely watercolor, is by her, as are all her album covers. She's a connoisseur's favorite as a painter, too.

  My mother was a great singer," she says. "For 38 years, she sang and played in cocktail lounges in Boston. Her name was Sherry Linden, and she was very well-known. She was kind of like a cross between Mabel Mercer and Lee Wiley with a little bit of Mildred Bailey. She was really good. She had this quality about her - you listened to her and you cried."

  D'Ambrosio, who claims she knows 3,000 songs, has that same quality. She says her mother wanted to be recognized but it never happened. D'Ambrosio has lived in New York and Oregon since that first album came out, and now divides her year between Cape Cod and Florida (with her husband, the exceptional pianist Eddie Higgins). She denies she's not well-known, pointing to France and Italy as places she's famous. Maybe. But if you don't know her, and you like singers who cozy up to you and nestle into your arms, Echo Of A Kiss is a fine place to get acquainted. (Available through Sunnyside: 348 West 38th Street, New York, NY 10018)
  - Lee Jeske
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