'The Look Of Love Revealed'
Motéma Music, label for such acclaimed jazz artists as Rufus Reid, Lynne Arriale, Marc Cary and Roni Ben-Hur, just released When I Look In Your Eyes, the new CD from vocalist Amy London this past September.
London recruited a New York City jazz dream team led by producer Suzi Reynolds (Teri Thornton, Jerome Richardson, Rufus Reid and many others.) Also on board were veteran bassist Rufus Reid, the late, great pianist John Hicks (in what was one of his final studio projects,) as well as pianist Lee Musiker (Tony Bennett, Steve Tyrell, Mark Murphy,) drummer Leroy Williams (Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins,) percussionist Steve Kroon (Luther Vandross), saxophonist Chris Byars leading a burning horn section and also jazz guitar guru Roni Ben-Hur, who happens also to be Amy’s husband.
When I Look In Your Eyes features twelve tracks, by a diverse array of songwriters, ranging from Laura Nyro (“Lazy Susan”) to Cy Coleman “The Best Is Yet To Come” and “With Every Breath I Take”) to Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Passarim”) to Elmo Hope (London debuts her original lyrics to two of Hope’s classic be-bop compositions).
The song selection is indicative of Amy’s vast emotional and musical range, and – as WBGO radio personality Sheila Anderson points out in her liner notes - firmly places Amy in the same elite league of female stylists such as Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone and Shirley Horn, as she is an expert story-teller who is adept at using her voices as instrument ‘within’, as opposed to ‘on top of’ her ensemble.
In addition to her work performing and recording, Amy is also a mother and an avid jazz educator. As such, she teaches at New York’s New School Jazz Vocal Program (which she helped to found) and also travels to perform with, and conduct classes and workshops with her husband Roni Ben-Hur, a key music educator in his own right and author of the book ‘Talk Jazz Guitar.’
Taking it from the top and what were your musical influences growing up and how many still factor into your music today? Amy London - "In a nutshell, in the 60s I was influenced by The Beatles, Girl Groups, Motown, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66, the songs of Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach, as well as the legendary American musicals starring Julie Andrews and Ethel Merman. In the 70s I was influenced by the singer-songwriters of that decade, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor, but most importantly, Laura Nyro. I was introduced to Laura at age 12 by my sister Patty, and I was instantly struck by her soulfulness, her tunefullness, her poetry, her freedom and her swing feel. I used to sing along with her voice on every record she made, and I spent my teenage years at the piano, singing and playing her tunes. It was a great way to work through my teen angst!"
"I discovered jazz in my junior year of high school, when some friends took me to a George Benson concert in Cincinnati, my hometown, and also upon hearing our wonderful high school big band, which actually had a future jazz star in the piano chair, Fred Hersch, a dear friend, and fellow Cincinnatian. He was two years ahead of me in high school. By the time I got to college, I was way into Ella and Billie, Annie Ross and big bands, and whatever happened in the pop world after that didn't affect me at! all, I had turned my back on pop and dove headfirst into the wonderful world of jazz. What a discovery!"
For the Average Joe who may not have heard of you and was thinking of buying your new CD, how would you yourself describe your sound? "Jana Herzen, the president of Motema Music, the record label I'm on, summed it up pretty well by calling me a 'cross between Laura Nyro and Ella Fitzgerald'. To further describe myself, I would say that I love a beautiful melody and a moving lyric, and I have a great time exploring the many colors that one can create with the voice."
Your album title 'When I Look In Your Eyes' is an interesting choice, but perhaps it originates from a more personal standpoint for you? Is there a theme to it, perhaps? "When Jana and I were tossing around ideas for CD names, we perused the list of song titles from the CD, and settled upon 'When I Look In Your Eyes'. In my opinion, the most important thing any singer can accomplish is to communicate a story to the audience. 'When I Look In your Eyes' reflects the communication between two people, or one person and many people. As a voice teacher and jazz educator, it is my role to communicate my world of information and love for the music, and I so enjoy that communication, the passing back and forth of knowledge and joy. I'm not sure who has learned more from my years as a teacher, me or my students!"
"On a more personal note, I sang the song for my 88 year old mother Edith Liebschutz, who was the poster Mom for a parent who loved her children unconditionally. She would have done anything for ! us, she was so generous of her time and her spirit. She was one of the friendliest and funniest people I have ever known, she loved to talk to people, and made everybody feel comfortable. She has suffered a series of mini-strokes, and is now suffering from speech aphasia, a condition in which she tries to speak, but is physically incapable of pronouncing discernible words. It is so sad-this is a woman who lived to talk and communicate with people. However, she still looks at me with tremendous love, and manages to say the three most important words-I love you."
Also, as Grammy award-winning vocalist Mark Murphy has asked the question, 'Amy London, where have you been hiding' I was wondering the very same thing! So, where HAVE you been 'hiding'?! "Honestly, I haven't been hiding at all. I've been right here, New York City, in the jazz mecca of the universe. I moved here in 1980, and have made a living as a singer ever since I got here, through a combination of singing and teaching gigs. I have done almost any type of gig you can imagine, other than country or punk rock. I've been in two Broadway shows, I've recorded with some of the top names in jazz, I've toured the US, Canada and England, I've done every kind of gig, from smokey jazz dives to singing with a symphony orchestra in a concert hall."
"This is a very difficult business, and there are many bumps on the road to success. You have to hang in there, and not give up, and continue working on your music, and constantly remind yourself why you chose music as a career. That's why I chose to record 'Wouldn't You', the song which Bob Dorough and Ray Passman put lyrics to Dizzy Gillespie's 'Woody N You'--it's all about perseverance. In the 1980s and 90s, I recorded with some wonderful musicians, such as Fred Hersch, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Darmon Meader of New York Voices, Bob Mintzer of the Yellowjackets, Jack! Wilkins , Harvie S., Victor Lewis, numerous other jazz greats. These recordings came close to being released, but weren't, and ended up on my closet shelf. I plan on releasing them soon!"
"I am featured on several recordings that are not under my name, such as the original Broadway cast recording of 'City of Angels', the Broadway six-time Tony Award winning hit that was I cast in and stayed with throughout it's 3 year run on the Great White Way. I am also featured on two recordings of my husband's, guitarist Roni Ben-Hur, 'Backyard' and 'Sofia's Butterfly', as well as 'Ancient Tower' with New York Voices, narrated by Meryl Streep, and several others. One really fun recording I did in the late 90s was the soundtrack for a children's video, 'Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa', produced by Scholastic, Inc, and narrated by Billy Dee Williams. I won the part of the voice of Ella, and scatted my way through the soundtrack. I was so honored to be invited to sing on such a wonderful tribute to one of my idols, Ella Fitzgerald."
As you are obviously an expert story teller couple with being an accomplished musician has there ever been a wondrous song in history that you've always wanted to cover, but have thus far never dared to for one reason or another? "The first day of rehearsals for 'City of Angels', the composer Cy Coleman sat at the piano and sang through every song in the show, as the playwright, Larry Gelbart, read through the script. The music was so beautiful, and all brand new, and the script so rioutously funny (Larry wrote the film 'Tootsie' as well) and I was so overcome with joy, that I wept at the thought of being part of such a fabulous creation. After the read through, I ran up to Cy at the piano, and begged him for a copy of the ballad, 'With Every Breath I Take'. It was sung by a a character other than me in the show, and for ! well ove r 1,000 performances, I had to watch somebody else sing it, as I was seated on the stage playing a patron in a jazz club, and every time, my inner mantra was 'Someday I am going to record that song!' Here it is, 18 years after the show opened on Broadway, and the cast album was released. I still adore it!"
"As far as a wonderful song that I haven't been brave enough to tackle yet, Billy Strayhorn's 'Lush Life' is a challenging melody, with a riveting lyric, both of which he wrote at the tender age of 18! It has been recorded by so many people, it would be a challenge to find something new to bring to it, but I would certainly love to attempt it someday, along with more of Billy's gorgeous tunes."
Indeed, how easy (or hard) is it to constantly create a new, vibrant, wanted-by-the-public sound that both builds on and surpasses the musical wonderment's/accomplishments that preceded it within the industry? "I have always enjoyed discovering songs that are slightly off the beaten path, in addition to singing many of the classics. I believe there are several ways to present new versions of the songbook. One is to write new arrangements for them and present them in new settings. Another is to compose songs based upon inspiration from the great lyricists and composers that laid the way for us. Personally, I enjoy writing lyrics to exisiting melodies that previously had no lyrics, such as the two tunes on my new CD, 'It Could Be So Nice' (instrumentally titled 'So Nice') and 'Such Eyes, So Beautiful' (instrumentally titled 'Eyes So Beautiful As Yours'), both composed by the late, brilliant composer/pianist Elmo Hope. Sometimes, you just fall in love with a melody, and a mere title can inspire you to create an entire story with the lyric. I am working on several more such pieces, and I also encourage my students to do so."
Please tell us more about your musical 'affiliation with Laura Nyro "Though I only met Laura once, when I was well into my 20s, I consider her to be my first voice teacher, beginning when I was 12. My vocal range and texture are very similar to hers, we are both mezzo sopranos. There was something in Laura's music that particularly appealed to me as an adolescent. Her voice was so beautiful, so strong, so expressive. When she sang, it really felt like it was coming from deep within her soul, and when I sang along with her, I felt like I was making an emotional connection that could not be achieved through talking. Her lyrics were also representative of so many attributes that I admired as a teen, compassion, beauty, love and strength, and a sense of humor. Do you know how you always recall the music of your teen years with special tenderness, how you always feel that music in your heart whenever you hear it, how it represents that incredible time of your life, and you feel that you can re-live that time when you sing that music? That's how I feel about Laura Nyro."
After completing a three year engagement in an Afro-Cuban band led by the NYC leader, Alfredito, what did you realize had been the most important thing you had learnt from that wonderful experience? "I began singing with Alfredito's band rather early in my career in New York. Up until that time, I had never heard Latino music. I was a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs of Ohio, brought up on American mass culture of the 60s and 70s, and in my neck of the woods, the closest I came to that music was Sergio Mendes, and the score to West Side Story. I had no clue. After the first gig, I was absolutely astounded by the beauty and the swing of Latino music, and I fell head over heels in! love wi th it. The band worked often, at least one gig a week, so after a few weeks, I started bringing along my shaker, and playing it as often as I could with the band. The drummer, Johnny Almendara, noticed that I had a good time feel, but that I was in sore need of some instruction! He recommended that I take his percussion class at the Boys' Harbor, a wonderful school for Latino music that is now going stronger than ever, on 103rd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan. With Johnny's astute and clever teaching, I learned how to play the shaker, the guiro, the claves, samba bells, maracas, and even some timbales. I was soon playing these instruments not only on Alfredito's gigs, but on my own jazz gigs as well."
"Aside from the very joyous lesson of learning to play these instruments, I think the best thing I learned from that experience was the importance of dancing along to your music, and feeling the dance in your gut. From that first Alfredito gig, I watched all of the people dancing, the grandmas, the young couples, the little children, and they all knew how to dance to the music. I imitated them, and learned how to do the basic salsa step, and I was soon dancing and playing percussion simultaneously, which is the ultimate fun!"
"I also learned the importance of dancing to whatever I'm singing, no matter the style. Each singer has their own time feel, as I always tell my students, make sure you can dance to the tune before you count off the tempo for the band. Go into your bedroom, lock the door, pull down the shades, and sing and dance to your favorite tunes to your heart's content, a capella, no recording, no accompaniment. It's the greatest way to discover your deepest and most satisfying musical expression. Consider it song and dance therapy!"
On a lighter note and your husband's last name is really Ben-Hur?! You've GOT to be kidding me?! "My husband, jazz guitarist Roni Ben-Hur, was born in Israel, the youngest of seven children. His eldest five siblings were born in Tunisia, where generations of his family had lived before. Their native tongue was Arabic, they were also fluent in French, and all became fluent on Hebrew upon emigrating to Israel. In the mid 1950's, there was a lot of discrimination towards Sephardic Jews, so Roni's eldest brothers chose to change the family name from the original Tunisian name, Bookhobza, to a more generic Israeli name, Ben-Hur. If you were to look in a phone book in Israel, you would find quite a few names with Ben- as a prefix, such as Ben-David, Ben Isaac, Ben-Gurion, etc. (as in David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel.) 'Ben' mean son of, same as 'Bin' in Arabic. His brothers liked the movie Ben-Hur, with Charlton Heston, it must have been that super hero guy thing!"
At school and growing up did you ever have a nickname you can - or cannot - share with us, perhaps? "A few I'd rather not repeat, but having been brought up with Yiddish speaking grandparents, my best friend called me 'Amela', and I called her 'Suzela' (her name is Susie.) We still call each other that to this day. I also went through a Laura Ingalls Wilder 'Little House on the Prairie' mania phase when I was in elementary school, I adored all of her books, and fancied myself as a fellow prairie girl named 'Emily'."
What '80s (and possibly cheesy!) pop/rock song would you love to cover today if asked ... and why?! "You know, I can't really think of one!! I honestly didn't listen to pop and rock in those days, I have truly been a jazz snob since college. Got any suggestions?"
Sorry, we can't go putting words in your mouth! Lastly, Exclusive Magazine love Penguins ... do you?! "Of course, how can anybody not love Penguins? My kids and my husband got a big kick out of that movie last year, 'The March of the Penguins'."
Thanx again for doing this for us today, and we wish you all the best for the future "Thank you for your well wishes. It really was my pleasure, glad to do it. Best regards, Amy London."
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
'When I Look In Your Eyes' CD Purchase Link
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