Roberta Gambarini was born in Torino, Italy, into a family where jazz was much loved and appreciated. She began listening to this music as a child and started taking clarinet lessons when she was twelve years old. By the time she was 17, she began singing and performing in jazz clubs around Northern Italy and at the age of 18, she decided to move to Milan to pursue a career as a jazz singer.
Soon after her move to Milan, still in her teens, Roberta took third place in a national jazz radio competition on TV, leading to performance opportunities at jazz festivals throughout Italy. She has performed in jazz broadcasts on the Italian radio and TV channels and has recorded since 1986 both under her own name and as a guest. In 1997, she worked with French Hammond organ player Emmanuel Bex, touring jazz clubs throughout Italy.
In 1998, she moved to the United States with a scholarship from the New England Conservatory in Boston. Two weeks later, Roberta stunned many in the jazz world with a third place finish in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition.
Since then, she has performed with Michael Brecker, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Slide Hampton, Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Heath, Hank Jones, Christian McBride, and Toots Thielemans, and Dave Brubeck, amongst many others, and has performed at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center, New York City’s Town Hall and Lincoln Center, Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, and jazz festivals around the world such as Barbados, London, Monterey, North Sea, Toronto, and Umbria.
A dynamic performer with virtuosic vocal chops, stunning musicality, and unwavering intonation, she draws rave reviews and enthusiastic fan support wherever she performs. And until her North American debut, Easy to Love (Groovin’ High/Kindred Rhythm), was released in 2006, she had done so with just word of mouth alone.
Easy to Love was nominated for a GRAMMY in 2007 in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category (along with albums by Diana Krall, Nancy Wilson, Karrin Allyson and Nancy King). Roberta’s “formidable talent” (DownBeat Magazine) has also garnered her wins as the 2007 Female Jazz Singer of the Year from the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA); the 2007 Talent Deserving Wider Recognition; and the 2008 Rising Star Female Vocalist of the Year, both from DownBeat Magazine’s Annual Critics Poll.
In 2008, Roberta made her major label debut with You Are There (Groovin’ High/Emarcy), a collection of 14 hauntingly beautiful melodies, with the legendary pianist, the late Hank Jones. The music was recorded in one afternoon; Roberta and Hank had no concept for the album – just 25 tunes they liked and thought would be interesting to record. “There were no isolation booths, no headphones, no overdubs,” Gambarini remembers, “just a microphone and a stool alongside the piano. The sound would be just what you would hear had you been in someone’s living room playing among friends.” That is the magic of Hank Jones.
The Boston Globe named Roberta as the “true successor to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae.” Roberta’s next album, So In Love was released in 2009, and is a stunning affirmation of her status as one of the most important vocal artists performing today.
Roberta didn’t set out to call the new album So In Love (Groovin’ High/Emarcy), but looking back at the song list after the recording, she realized that the “album is all about love: the love between a man and a woman, the love of song, children, and most of all, the love of life.” As Roberta explains, she rarely goes into the studio with a “concept for what the project should be. I try to let the songs come out of a balance between life experience and reflection, and I end up performing the music I feel in the moment. It goes without saying that to be allowed this freedom, the freedom of singing what you feel, you have to have exceptionally talented, sensitive, and sympathetic musicians with you.”
All great singers try to surround themselves with the world’s finest musicians and Roberta is no exception. On So In Love, recorded by Al Schmitt at Capitol Studios in the summer and fall of 2008, Roberta’s extraordinarily pliable vocal skills, unerring musicality, and improvisational inventiveness are backed by none other than James Moody, Roy Hargrove, Tamir Hendelman, Eric Gunnison, Gerald Clayton, Chuck Berghofer, Neil Swainson, George Mraz, Jake Hanna, Al Foster, Montez Coleman, and Jeff Hamilton. Unlike many other singers, though, she didn’t just hire the best musicians money can buy or have producers who put together a band for her.
Each and every musician on So In Love is now part of her American family, and represents Roberta’s American experience since she moved to the States from her native Italy in the summer of 1998. Some of the artists who play on So In Love are Roberta’s childhood idols, like legendary saxophonist James Moody, whom her jazz-loving parents took her to see at a concert in her home town of Torino, Italy, at age nine. “I owe most of what I do now,” she says, “to my parent’s love and understanding of music and to Moody’s example, encouragement, and tutoring.” Moody, by now one of her frequent musical companions, joins Roberta on the Cole Porter classic, “Get Out of Town;” “I See Your Face Before Me,” her favorite Frank Sinatra song that, as she explains, “screamed for a tenor saxophone solo”; and “This is Always,” where his melodic subtleties entwine sublimely with Roberta’s effortlessly beautiful vocals and Roy Hargrove’s warm balladry on the trumpet.
Hargrove returns on “Crazy,” the Patsy Cline hit penned by Willie Nelson, punctuating Roberta’s sinuous lament with the mournful sound of his fluegelhorn. Roberta’s brilliant arrangement infuses the song with the perfect amount of bemusement and humor, ably assisted by her musical “accomplice,” Jake Hanna, whose name she first read off of her father’s vinyl collection as a child.
Roberta’s parents instilled in her a love of jazz, but her musical language is vast, including opera, pop, Classical, country and blues. She offers fresh and imaginative take on the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers,” from Abbey Road, but here, her medley leads to “Here, There and Everywhere,” from Revolver. Her honey and bourbon sound is wrapped in the velvet harmonies of Tamir Hendelman’s solo piano accompaniment on the classic tune, “Over the Rainbow.” Roberta’s singing is spectacular in any language, but the gorgeous Italian song, “Estate,” which Roberta learned from its composer, Bruno Martino, while living in Milan, is sung with achingly beautiful lyricism that brings the words to life, even for the non-Italian speakers. Backing Gambarini, the rising young jazz piano star Gerald Clayton blends his surprisingly mature playing with the confident work of veterans Chuck Berghofer and Jake Hanna.
Bassist Neil Swainson (long-time musical cohort of George Shearing) and Roberta share more than just their love of music – they also share the love of good food and travelers’ curiosity and knowledge of world cuisine. Their adventurous spirit is matched by pianist Eric Gunnison, who toured with Carmen McRae for the last seven years of her life, and drummer Montez Coleman on the swinging “That Old Black Magic” and “From This Moment On.” They let loose behind soulful and sassy Roberta on a blues “You Ain’t Nothing But A J.A.M.F.,” on which she penned the words to late saxophone giant Johnny Griffin’s original instrumental version, “The JAMFs Are Coming.” Griff, as he was known, always took great delight in explaining to the audience what JAMF meant (the J stands for Jive, A**, M for Mother, but it’s only HALF A WORD).
Two additional tracks – “You Must Believe In Spring” and a medley of songs from the Italian film, Cinema Paradiso – date back to September, 2001. Scheduled to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival, just days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Gambarini – who lives in New York City – felt, at first, uncertain about what to do. She remembers that fateful morning of the 11th, “a whirlwind of attempted phone calls, anxious hours watching the TV screen…in many ways I became an American that morning. In the midst of that confusion and heartbreak, I felt that I had finally found my home, I felt one with The City and its people. New York is my home, the place I go to after long tiring travels, my haven for cooking and recharging.” She felt that it would be worse to stop, to cancel, to avoid living her life and doing the things that she was called to do, so she “boarded that plane on the morning of September 15th, in a semi-deserted Newark, NJ airport, where one of the ill fated planes had departed from, and went to California to play and record.”
She chose “You Must Believe in Spring” – a contemporary classic by Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman – because a line from the song had been circling in her mind since September 11: “When lonely feelings chill the meadows of your mind, just think if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Al Foster’s masterful drumming, Eric Gunnison’s rich harmonies, and George Mraz’s stunning soloing made her feel that the “world was still full of beauty and hope.” The second tune they recorded was a pair of atmospheric selections from the score of Giuseppe Tornatore’s picture, Cinema Paradiso, composed by Ennio and Andrea Morricone. “It’s a film,” she says, “that is very important to me and, as I found out, to nearly anybody who had to leave his or her country to find a better life far away.”
For So In Love, Roberta arranged all but three of the 14 tracks on the album; two of the tracks, “This is Always” and “I See Your Face Before Me” were co-arranged with Tamir Hendelman, who also arranged “Get Out of Town.” Their musical affinity is evident on the title track, “So In Love,” a heart-wrenching and intimate duet with just Tamir on the piano, and, as Roberta recounts, from their memorable way of working together – “brainstorming about lyric interpretation on a bullet train in Japan en route to a gig, all the while eating chocolates.”