Roseanna Vitro: singing Randy Newman's songbook at the Jazzschool

The idea seems so obvious it’s hard to explain why no one beat Roseanna Vitro to the project, but her recent album “Sail Away” is the first featuring a jazz singer applying her acute interpretive skills to Randy Newman’s vast and vivid songbook.

A veteran improviser who’s often explored material outside the standard repertoire, the New York City-based Vitro makes a rare Bay Area appearance Sunday afternoon at the Jazzschool accompanied by an enviable rhythm section with pianist Matt Clark, bassist Dan Fieszli, and drummer Akira Tana.

An artist who has never shied away from politics, Vitro is clearly drawn to Newman’s warts-and-all portraits of America, like the title track’s meditation upon the legacy of slavery, and the urban despair of “Baltimore.” Which isn’t to say that Vitro is only interested in Newman’s biting wit and caustic commentary. She interprets “If I Didn’t Have You,” the Academy Award-winning theme from the 2002 hit “Monsters, Inc.” as an insinuating bossa nova.

“I felt so at home singing Newman’s songs,” Vitro says. “If you look at the American Songbook, most of that work was created for film and theater. He’s actually expanding the American Songbook. Some of the greatness has gone under the radar, because it’s being sung by a big wooly animal or created for an animated film.”

For the New Orleans-raised Newman, writing for film was like opening up a franchise in the family business. Three of his uncles, nine-time Oscar winner Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman and Emil Newman, were esteemed Hollywood composers, and today his nephew Joey Newman and cousins Thomas Montgomery Newman and David Newman are successful film and television composers. For Vitro, the combination of wit, sentiment, bruised cynicism and openhearted vulnerability made Newman’s songbook an irresistible target.

“What I love about Randy Newman is his ability to tell a story, and the fact that his music is Southern flavored with a real taste of New Orleans,” she says. “I’m from the South, and whether I’m singing swing, Ray Charles or Bill Evans, I have an undercurrent of blues, country and gospel that informs whatever I’m doing.”

Growing up in Arkansas, Vitro was weaned on music. Her Italian-born father was a professional gambler who loved opera, and her mother’s family sang gospel (“You know all that music from ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ That’s my family’s music,” Vitro says). She fell in love with singing as a child, and by the time she reached her teens in the mid 1960s she was determined to join a rock band. Fleeing Texarkana for Houston, Tex., she started meeting musicians around the Gulf Coast scene through classified adds placed by rock combos seeking a singer.

On one of her early rock gigs, a bassist informed her that she seemed to have the makings of a jazz singer, and she started checking out Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson. Veteran crooner Ray Sullenger, who had performed with Paul Whiteman, heard her and realized she had a gift. He decided to take her under his wing, giving her career pointers and organizing a “coming out” party to introduce her to the Houston jazz community. The great Texas tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb attended the event, and became another important mentor.

When she made the move to Manhattan in the mid-1970s, Cobb regularly invited her to sit in when he played the Village Vanguard. Under Cobb’s auspices, she performed with a parade of jazz greats, including Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Buddy Rich, Mulgrew Miller, and Randy Brecker.

“Arnett was so generous with everything he did,” Vitro says. “All he wanted for playing on the album was a glass of vodka and burger and a pickle. He’d always say, Roseanna you’ve gotta calm down. You don’t have to sing everything. It’s taken me 35 years to figure that out. I was so into being on fire. I didn’t have a boring life.”

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....