Gabrielle Stravelli

MAC Award Winning Vocalist Gabrielle Stravelli Heads to Boston to Celebrate New Album Release

John Amodeo READ TIME: 9 MIN.

"Pat [O'Leary, bassist] and Michael [Kanan, pianist] and I had a gig in 2021 in New York at the West Bank Café. It was during COVID and we were inside the empty restaurant, singing to people dining outside on the sidewalk," says MAC Award winner Gabrielle Stravelli, on how musicians scraped together gigs any way they could during the pandemic. "That gave us a chance to play all these new tunes that we learned during lockdown."

Some 20 years ago my husband and I were sifting through bins of female vocalists in a CD store in Florence, Italy and the gay store manager came over to us with a recommendation. In his sexy Italian-accented English, he asked us, "Have you heard of Gabrielle Stravelli. She is my favorite female vocalist." That was when Stravelli flew into my radar and hasn't left since.

Stravelli may be classified by some as a jazz singer with a cabaret sensibility and others as a cabaret singer with a jazz sensibility. Either way, both the music and the lyrics get equal attention from Stravelli, who believes the song's message must be communicated, or there is no good reason to be singing it.

The cabaret world has recognized her for her meaningful interpretations of song. Among the many awards she has won from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) is the Award for Major Artist-Female in 2022, and this year, she won the Award for Celebrity Artist, elevating to that category in just 2 years.

Watch Gabrielle Stravelli sing "Happy Talk/Young Folks"

Steven Holden of the New York Times said of Stravelli, "Listening to the jazz singer Gabrielle Stravelli is like imbibing a potent cocktail whose flavor changes as you drain the glass. In the first couple of sips, the predominant taste is the sparkling wine that has drifted to the top, for Ms. Stravelli's bright, rippling voice exudes a natural effervescence. Before long, it darkens, and the heady liquor underneath kicks she dipped and swooped, twirling notes and phrases with a confidence and playfulness that recalled Ella Fitzgerald in her prime, Ms. Stravelli began interpreting lyrics with a ferocity that her vocal pyrotechnics accentuated..."

While she is a fixture numerous Manhattan clubs, including the famed Birdland, Stravelli makes a rare Boston appearance at Scullers Jazz Club on Saturday, May 11. Edge caught up with Stravelli to chat about the release of her new CD "Beautiful Moons Ago," unexpected influences and the end of an era when her favorite song scout passed away.

Gabrielle Stravelli

EDGE: Your pianist Michael Kanan and bassist Pat O'Leary are longtime collaborators with you, and you will be bringing them to Boston. How long have you worked with them, and what brought you together?

Gabrielle Stravelli: It's been about 12 years. Meeting Pat, he connected me with Michael, and they've worked together for twice that time. Michael is a Boston native but relocated to New York. The three of us are very much on the same page in terms of the music we love and the way we interpret songs. We love finding those tunes that aren't done as much. We are just a bunch of nerds.

EDGE: How did you discover such a chestnut like "With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair," that you included on your CD? That song dates back to 1930.

Gabrielle Stravelli: I credit Michael Kanan for that one. Pat also brought some of the tunes on the CD to the table. "I Walk a Little Faster" is a song someone requested on a gig of ours and we didn't know it, and I love Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh.

During the deep days of COVID, when I had a lot of time on my hands, there was a man, Roger Crane, who has since passed away, who went by the moniker "The Song Scout," who had a huge sheet music collection. He had an email list to whom he issued weekly newsletters about old standards he collected, and I saved them all, because they had "stuff in them." He would pass old sheet music through email, that included the verses, I love the verses, and that brought new tunes to my repertoire. I'm grateful to him for sharing that info and I miss those emails. I still have them. There are still songs he sent me I haven't gotten to.

EDGE: At Scullers, will you be singing primarily song from your new CD, or will you be mixing it up a bit?

Gabrielle Stravelli: We'll mix it up a bit. We're always fiends for new tunes. Since recording the record, we've continued to add new songs to our repertoire. The album is 12 songs, but we recorded 19 songs in 2 days. We will share some of the songs that we recorded that didn't make the album.

EDGE: Will you do any originals?

Gabrielle Stravelli: We do have one original on the album. A song that Michael wrote. "Messin' Around." That's Michael's melody with my lyrics, and we will definitely do that one.

EDGE: Were you raised in a musical family, and did your family encourage and/or support your musical interests?

Gabrielle Stravelli: My parents were true music lovers but not musicians. I'm so grateful to them for exposing my siblings and me to so many different kinds of music. They had a wide range of tastes. Music played a big role in our house. There was always music playing. They always drove me to piano and French horn lessons and took us to shows. I was very much encouraged.

EDGE: You've often been compared with Ella Fitzgerald. Was she one of your influences growing up and in your early years, and if so, why?

Gabrielle Stravelli: She was the voice I heard the most in the house. My parents played all her songbook records. She was my first teacher in so many ways. When I was a kid, I have a vivid memory of her recording of "Midnight Sun" and sing along with the Lionel Hampton vibe solo. That's an instrumental solo, and I sang along with that. I didn't realize I was learning the language of that music at that time. That's a big thing in the jazz world. What makes it jazz, or pop or cabaret? In jazz, there is a sort of language, and listening to. learning or singing along with instrumental solos is a big way of incorporating that language into one's singing. When I teach, I encourage people to do that.

EDGE: I actually hear traces of Carmen McRae in much of your phrasing and vocal texture. Was she one of your influences?

Gabrielle Stravelli: You're on to me, John! Yes! She is another big piece of the puzzle in my development as a jazz singer. In my 20s, a guitar player who I worked with for many years introduced me to Carmen McRae with her album, a live album "The Great American Songbook." Her phrasing is just so brilliant, and she has had a big influence on me. She is also into the stories of the song, so personal. I love that she and Ella were friends and admirers of each other. They are two pieces of the same puzzle in very different ways. Ella is the sun and Carmen is the moon. Ella is light and joyful, and Carmen is deeper and darker in her tone and manner. The two together give you everything.

Gabrielle Stravelli

EDGE: Who were some of your other musical influences?

Gabrielle Stravelli: Lately, I've gotten more into Peggy Lee. My sister told me that I have a big voice, and that I need to learn to leave space and use an economy of voice, and that's what Peggy Lee does. I love Ernestine Anderson and Etta Jones (not to be confused with Etta James). I've also gotten into the trombone player David Johnson. My husband is a trombonist and he's brought so many artists to my attention.

EDGE: You've done a Mel and Ella show, both of whom were masters at scatting. You scat with incredible dexterity but also with admirable restraint. For instance, you waited until cut #9 [we both laugh] to scat on your new CD. When you scat, you still honor the song. Did Mel and/or Ella provide a model for you in that regard?

Gabrielle Stravelli: Mel Tormé was so insanely talented on so many fronts. He was good drummer and pianist, and a great writer, a complete musician. I listened and sung along to his scat solos and learned by heart a number of Ella's scatting solos. We all know the "How High the Moon" solo, which is genius level vocal fireworks, with brilliant ideas. But a lot of her solos are actually simple, it's not her going nuts. They are beautiful melodic solos. Scatting is one of the flavors I want to throw in a set. If it's done too much in a set, it becomes tiresome for the listeners, and loses its effectiveness.

EDGE: Marilyn Maye has been identified as one of your mentors, who has also directed some of your shows. What are some of the most important things you've learned from Marilyn Maye.

Gabrielle Stravelli: I feel like she taught me how to take the space, be in my full power when I'm on stage. What greater gift is there to give someone. To show up on stage in service of the music. That's the foundation of what I try to do when I am performing. She believes don't be a self-serving singer to show them all the special things you can do. That may impress some people, but it won't make people feel anything. She helped me come into my own as a performer.

EDGE: In your singing, you tread a very delicate line between making a song your own, yet being true to the melody, so the song is never lost in your own interpretation. Is that a conscious choice?

Gabrielle Stravelli: Yes, it's a conscious choice. It relates to what Marilyn taught me, and to be in service of the song. For me, you should never be up there for the sake of going up, or just singing arbitrarily or showcasing what can do with your instrument. It should remain connected to the story of the song. That still gives a singer leeway to do something personal with a song and take chances with new ways of phrasing and with the melody but still connected to the writers and to the song.

Gabrielle Stravelli will perform "Beautiful Moons Ago" on Saturday, May 11, 7 PM at Scullers Jazz Club, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston, MA 02134. Tickets: $25-$95. For reservations, follow this link.

by John Amodeo

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.

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