Rosanna Vitro Taps Legends for Parker Tribute

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Rosanna Vitro tapped legends like Sheila Jordan to join her in tribute to Charlie Parker.

(Photo: John Abbott)

Roseanna Vitro is a Grammy-nominated vocalist, a member of the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame, a jazz ambassador for the Kennedy Center and an all-around institution on the New York jazz scene. But her sense of awe and humility — particularly when faced with a Bird chart — remains intact.

“Have you ever tried singing a bridge to a Charlie Parker song? It just looks like the craziest thing in the world to me,” she said with a laugh.

Vitro, who’s been recording and performing in New York since 1978, is known for her immersive studies of artists like Bill Evans, Randy Newman and Clare Fischer, but she’s never recorded a full album of Charlie Parker’s music until now.

Last September, she released Sing A Song Of Bird, an expansive vocalese exploration of Parker’s songbook featuring three of Vitro’s mentors: the late Bob Dorough, as well as Sheila Jordan and Marion Cowings. The album is Vitro’s third release on husband Paul Wickliffe’s Skyline Records.

“It all started with Bob Dorough,” Vitro explained. “After it turned out he had cancer, he was chatting with me at the Deer Head Inn [in Delaware] about how he’d always meant to do a Charlie Parker project. He’d written this great vocalese he’d been working on for years to Charlie Parker’s ‘Bluebird.’ I thought, this record would be a great thing for me to do. I think this will be a legacy with my mentors recording with me.”

Sing A Song Of Bird also features Sheila Jordan, the influential talent who was once married to Parker’s pianist Duke Jordan, and has long shared stories with her audiences about the impact Bird had on her career.

“She is known by jazz singers around the world. It’s not just her incredible authenticity and work, it’s also her heart and her personality and the way she carries herself,” Vitro said.

Rounding out the mentors, Vitro brought in Marion Cowings, a New York native and formidable scat master, whom she met in 1978 at a vocal workshop he was teaching.

On Sing A Song Of Bird, the foursome tackles select songs from Parker’s repertoire — performing six tunes with pre-penned lyrics and six with original lyrics. Vitro kicks off the album with a dexterous vocalese rendition of Parker’s “Steeple Chase” that she calls “People Chase,” a commentary on the hustle of the modern world.

Meanwhile, Jordan tackles her original vocalese for “Bird’s Song,” an account of her first encounter with Parker’s music, and Cowings performs that cool rendition of “Parker’s Mood” that first drew Vitro in more than 40 years ago.

For his part, Dorough, who was 93 at the time of recording, shared his playful passion for ornithology through “Audubon’s New Bluebird,” the vocalese that first inspired Vitro to pursue Sing A Song Of Bird. Dorough, who appears on a handful of tracks, passed away in 2018 shortly after the recording session.

Though Vitro sees herself as the mentee on this record, she more than holds her own. As the mentors stick to more traditional arrangements to underpin their vocalese, Vitro ventures to write unique lyrics and refreshing arrangements — like “Yardbird Suite” as a 6/8 waltz — a testament to her belief that everyone’s unique approach is valid and moves jazz, as a music, forward.

“There is room for everyone [in jazz],” she said. “I think once you give singers the basics of their musicianship, and you turn them on to all of the different styles of jazz, like Charlie Parker, you let each singer decide what they feel like their voice is. You learn your basics and then you decide what touches your heart, what speaks to you. And then you become part of that.”

If that sounds like the voice of an educator speaking, it is. Vitro, after all, taught for 25 years at New Jersey City University in the vocal jazz program. So, while this record was motivated by her desire to honor her mentors, it’s also about being a mentor herself and making the lessons that Bird’s music can teach more accessible to the next generation.

“[This music’s] good for your ear, it’s good for your intonation,” Vitro said. “You’ve got to sing it in twos, you’ve got to breathe properly. Your tongue and jaw have to be very relaxed to be able to pull this off.

“I want to take these new songs to schools around the United States because, as far as I’m concerned, we’ve created a new book of wonderful lyrics and versions for kids to learn,” she said in conclusion.

“So, Sing A Song Of Bird is really a legacy-passing.” DB



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