Fiona Ross Interviews… Carmela Rappazzo
Carmela Rappazzo is an inspiration. I first met her at the London Jazz Platform event, organized by the wonder that is Sammy Stein and immediately sensed the strong, confident and beautiful talent that she is. Her latest release ‘Howlin’ At The Moon’ was recorded in New Orleans, where she lives and performs and was selected as an Album of the Week, here on the Jazz UK.
FR: You started your career working in theatre in New York and then working with some significant film directors. Can you talk us through your background and what brought you to the place you are at now?
CR: I grew up in a household where Broadway musicals were loved. My sister and I would memorize the cast recording albums. When I was in my very early twenties I was in NYC, which was a crazy and creative place to be at the time, and I had a great love of the theater. I was lucky to receive a scholarship to an acting school, but didn’t last long there. When I began singing I would sit in with great jazz players and do these showcase shows and open mics. It was over time that I developed the confidence to join bands and have my own.
Later when I moved to Los Angeles, the movie industry is what the whole town is about and I honestly saw it as a secondary career (it requires a different personality than I possess…) and was fortunate to land some small parts in movies by big directors. The Jazz scene there was rich with great players and I learned a great deal from them all and again formed my own trio(s). I got to record with players who had played with some serious names in music, again, lucky. The club scene there wasn’t great though, very few places to play when I lived there. When my husband I left, we were wanting to either move to New Orleans or Paris. Couldn’t afford Paris…and that was August of 2005, when hurricane Katrina hit, so we ended up in New Mexico. There are great players there, but no ‘scene’ what so ever. We had a farm in the middle of nowhere and although I had written a bit there’s nothing like complete isolation and extreme weather to make one write a whole lot more. Since that time, I’ve been hooked on the writing. Plus, although I still look for lesser known standards to cover it’s a real kick to have your own tunes to play. We decided to move back to NYC, especially when going back and forth to play there got to be a bit much. The scene has really changed there over the years and it no longer felt like home, but I got to once again work with some great musicians and wrote an album where the originals outnumbered the standards. Also, got to record on other people’s records. New Orleans has been singing her siren song for a long time, and I finally listened. This is a city rich in culture and the music was born here. It’s everywhere. The players here are amazing, generous and inclusive like no other place I’ve ever been. Have loved every minute of being here. The new record was born here.
FR: You have just released your new album ‘Howlin’ At The Moon’ which was an album of the week here on The Jazz UK. Can you tell us about the album and what it means to you?
CR: A year and a half ago or so my best pal Margaret Whitton was diagnosed with cancer. (If you smoke, please stop.) She was instrumental in my last record, Myths and Legends being made. She pushed me and my writing. She had been a movie and TV star, quit that aspect of the biz and became a director, producer and humanitarian. She listened to my roughs of the new tunes and made me promise to record them (had no plan to ever make another record). While she was dying, I put a lot on hold to help take care of her. Some of the tunes on this record are about her or were at least inspired by her. This was a tough record to make for those reasons, but also an amazing experience. The players are mostly very young and in my opinion really sophisticated with regard to jazz. All are highly educated and in great demand. We recorded at The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music here in New Orleans all in the room at the same time. They were so generous with me and I am so grateful for them, especially Oscar Rossignoli, a piano player to watch. So, this record means a great deal to me. Plus, New Orleans has for certain, influenced every aspect of it.
FR: I first met you (and glorious it was!) at the London Jazz Platform event organized by the wonder that is Sammy Stein. Sammy is a great supporter of us Jazz musicians – how important do you feel ‘community’ is in this crazy industry?
CR: Without community, I don’t think we’d survive. The music industry is very tough and especially for jazz artists. Without a little help through the doors they don’t open easily, if at all. Thank goodness for people like Sammy who are willing to take the risk to start something and not only keep the music alive but also make a place to perform available. Also, how lovely it was to get to meet all the wonderful people (like yourself!) that I’d only known ‘on line’.
FR: What are your thoughts on how social media has becoming the main way to market and promote musicians? Any challenges?
CR: A blessing and a curse. Sometimes I think my eyeballs are going to fall out from having to stare at a screen and promote everything that I’m doing. I would certainly rather be writing music than posting constantly. So that’s the bad part. The good part, it’s made the world much smaller. I’ve met lovely and fabulous musicians and fans from all over the world.
FR: It is well known that the Jazz Industry is male dominated although things do seem to be changing. What has your experience been?
CR: When I was much much younger I sang in a big band and it was ‘old school’. The singer got called up to the bandstand by the conductor and sang a song and then sat back down. The small combo bands were all men. Later, in my career I was in a big band again, it was the same “old school” school. The combo bands were still mostly male, but there were some women in the rhythm section. Now and especially here in New Orleans I can have an entire rhythm section made up of women. So, there is an evolution of sorts going on, however, the music industry is still male dominated. I like to think it would be a better industry with more women running it.
FR: What is your practice routine?
CR: Every day, without fail, vocal exercises. Arnold McCuller’s Vocal Ease app is my go to. I am way behind in piano lessons, which means I’ll never be playing piano in front of anyone soon. I do something physical, yoga, gardening, something to get the blood flowing. I meditate at some point in the day. I get some writing in.
FR: Do you have any pre-gig rituals? Or any dos and don’ts before performing?
CR: Make a set list or gig books depending on who’s on the gig. I warm up my voice. I eat protein to keep my energy up. Don’t strain the voice, so get off the phone. Relax, it’ll all be great. Remember to breathe. You’re sharing your gifts with people, be generous.
FR: Who/what are your biggest inspirations and why?
CR: Ella. Come on, it’s ELLA! Sarah, Billy, Dinah, Anita, Carmen, Betty, the list goes on… Anything Duke, Strayhorn, Monk, Miles, Byrd, Coltrane, Chet, Clifford et al… There’s nothing like excellence to inspire you. These days the whole Marsalis family, amazing musicians all and working to keep the music alive. Andy Bey, what a voice, crazy brill arrangements. The ‘kids’ that I play with, all 30 and under and they blow my mind with how sophisticated their playing is. I listen to a lot of music, so my list is extensive. All periods and styles of jazz. They all get me going and want to get better at what I’m doing. That’s a bit what it’s about, how can I get better at this?
FR: Most memorable gig?
CR: That’s tough. I’ve had a few. Here’s a funny one though, I was in a big band (yes, jazz) that played the Viper Room in L.A. (a PUNK CLUB) opening for John Doe of X. That was crazy enough as it was. The band leader called My Funny Valentine (How many chick singers does it take to sing My Funny Valentine? Apparently, all of them…) After the gig, we were waiting to get paid and two sweet little punk girls came running up to us and said to me ‘We loved that song you sang, did you write that?’ I replied (pointing to the guitar player) ‘No, he did”. That might be a ‘you had to be there” thing…
FR: Living and working as a musician, can be hard. What drives you to do what you do?
CR: I guess I must be crazy…