ROBERTA DONNAY & THE PROHIBITION MOB BAND
'PARTY LIKE IT'S 1925!' ON NEW RELEASE:
A LITTLE SUGAR OUT NOV. 13
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No matter what type of music Roberta Donnay is performing, she sings with the spontaneity, honesty and the individuality of the best jazz vocalists. A colorful and passionate performer, she is a joy to see in concert and to hear on records.
In her multi-faceted musical career, Donnay has won numerous awards for her work as a singer/songwriter. However, her first musical love has always been jazz. After the critical success of her 2008 album of jazz standards, “What’s Your Story”, produced by NEA Jazz Master Orrin Keepnews, she is now focusing her attention on the music of the Prohibition Era, with her beguiling and entertaining new recording, A Little Sugar. This impeccably produced bit of confection is a hip tribute to Donnay’s favorite Prohibition Era women singers, and will mark her debut on the rising New York City based Motéma label on November 13, 2012.
The slight red head with the engaging smile has great passion behind her enthusiasm for this Prohibition proto-jazz. Donnay speaks with an infectious delight about what this project means to her. "Besides the music, one of my favorite things about this project is the message,” she relates.” The women who sang, and in some cases wrote, these songs are heroic. Their attitude and energy is strong, confident, courageous and vibrant. They’re no push-overs for any man. And the strong image of the women from this era made me want to study more about it.”
“For instance, I was a long-time Mae West fan, and used to listen to her lines from the movies, which she mostly wrote herself. There seemed to be no sexual boundaries with Mae. She knew how to put men in their place while flirting with them at the same time. But she never gave away her power!” Donnay explains. “This got me wondering, along with the lyrics to many of these songs, ‘What happened to women between the 1920s and the 1950s? What happened to the outspoken voice of the women in society?’ And so I started digging and found that I'm really closer to the attitudes of the women of that era than many of the women of today."
Donnay discovered her love of jazz early. “I grew up listening to Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ she remembers. “Louis Armstrong is one of the biggest influences on my life and music. A few years ago while I was doing research on jazz history and women performers, I ran across his version of the song ‘You’ve Been A Good Ole Wagon (But You Done Broke Down).’ That tune inspired me to explore more music from the 1920s. And when I performed that song and other early jazz and blues, I received a great response from the audience, so I started adding stories about early jazz to my show.”
“I was fascinated to find out how much mentoring was happening during this period of music. For instance, learning Billie Holiday songs led me to Bessie Smith, because I found out that Billie was studying Bessie. As I continued to follow the thread, it was Bessie who led me to listen to Ma Rainey. So, in this case, I don’t think I would have studied Ma Rainey if not for Billie. I’d never studied their style and influence, both as women and as artists. And as I looked at this lineage, here’s what else I discovered…by 1925 Bessie Smith was already a star. In 1925 Ella Fitzgerald was seven years old. Billie Holiday was ten. Marilyn Monroe was minus one year old. Sarah Vaughan was one. And Woody Allen was minus 10 years!”
When Donnay started adding stories about early jazz to her show, the Prohibition Mob band concept gradually evolved, and she eventually recorded A Little Sugar with top jazz talent in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her bassist Sam Bevan (David Grisman, Geoff Muldaur, Jim Kweskin, Mary Wilson) served as the CD’s co-producer and co-arranger. Donnay explains, “Besides his immense talent, Sam’s support has been invaluable. When I was down or confused, Sam encouraged me to continue to fight! ”. Donnay had shared the stage with trumpeter Rich Armstrong (Thomas Dolby, Boz Scaggs, ColdBlood, Michelle Shocked) as far back as 1994. Trombonist Wayne Wallace, a giant in the world of Latin jazz, produced her first CD in 1989. In addition to his playing, Wallace contributed two arrangements to A Little Sugar.
Sheldon Brown’s talents on tenor, baritone, and alto sax, as well as on flute and clarinet, are a major asset to the horn-heavy recording. John R. Burr (Maria Muldaur, Allison Brown, Paul McCandless) on piano is a longtime friend of Donnay’s. “John R. Burr is one of the greatest and most underrated jazz pianists in the world,” she says. “He has a deep sensitivity to this music and to singers in general.” Donnay met Los Angeles based drummer Michael Barsimanto (Jean-Luc Ponty, Freddie Hubbard, and Brian Auger) two years ago. “Michael’s energy & support behind me, Sam and John R. infused this project with so much heart!” says Donnay. “I’m deeply indebted to my great soulful rhythm section and horns.”
In addition, on two songs Ed Ivey joins in on tuba, adding color to the period atmosphere. In all but two instances, the vintage songs featured on A Little Sugar date from the 1920s and ‘30s – the years known as the Prohibition Era. Donnay’s interpretations, while not strictly adhering to their early style, certainly pay tribute to the jazz and blues pioneers who helped give birth to the music that came to be known as jazz.
Donnay’s opening selection of “Oh Papa” was originally recorded by Ma Rainey and later by Bessie Smith as “Oh Daddy.” Donnay says it’s one of her very favorite songs on the CD. “I wanted to honor Ma Rainey since she was the ‘Mother of the Blues,’ she explains. “Bessie Smith was in one of her troupes and learned ‘everything about show business’ from her. The lyrics are also a strong message where Ma Rainey tells what happens to her man if he doesn't treat her right!” “You Got to Swing and Sway” is a little-known song written by blues singer Ida Cox in the late 1930s when she was making a comeback. This high-energy performance, which features some particularly spirited singing, strongly evokes the feel of the swing era. “Mama’s Gone Goodbye,” which was associated with Sippie Wallace, was first recorded in 1923 and here is given a strong Dixieland feel courtesy of the horn section. In contrast is “Say It Isn’t So,” a Depression era torch song written by Irving Berlin. “The lyrics to this song, which are about suddenly being all alone, are so sad. It sounds like a contemporary ballad to me.” she says. Donnay’s quietly emotional singing, accompanied by piano, bass and drums, very effectively reflect the melancholy of Berlin’s lyrics. Fats Waller’s “I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling” changes the mood completely to a joyful romp, featuring some fine solos by Wayne Wallace and John R. Burr.
While the humorous “One Monkey Don't Stop No Show” sounds as if it could have originated in 1920s vaudeville, it was actually written in the early 1950s. It had been a staple at her shows for nearly a decade. Donnay felt it was a natural to include in this set, regardless of the decade of its origin. “Rocking Chair,” introduced to Donnay by Dan Hicks (with whom Roberta has toured as a Lickette for 7 years), is interpreted here as a touching jazz waltz, bolstered by Donnay’s expressive vocals and the support of a sympathetic rhythm section. “(Tropical) Heat Wave,” originally introduced by Ethel Waters and sung two decades later by Marilyn Monroe, is transformed by an inventive Wayne Wallace arrangement and Donnay’s swinging singing. The sophisticated ballad “You Go To My Head” is also given a fresh treatment, from the bridge, which gives this rendition its different slant to the reworking of the lyrics. Donnay’s interpretation of the joyous “Sugar Blues” (1920) was inspired by Ella Fitzgerald’s later version of the tune. Donnay and Bevan made some small adjustments, including a key change after the intro section, and deliver a snappier version from its predecessors.
“You've Been A Good Ole Wagon,” ignited the spark that led to the birth of A Little Sugar, and Donnay and The Prohibition Mob Band capture the spirit of this classic number. “That song knocked me out the first time I heard it. It was written in the 1890s and re-recorded in the 1920s. The lyric is funny, plus the visual aspects, which I love so much!” Donnay says. The CD’s take on “(I Want A Little) Sugar in My Bowl” is reminiscent of both Bessie Smith’s and Nina Simone’s versions. A Little Sugar concludes with “Empty Bed Blues.” Although Bessie Smith coincidentally recorded a tune by the same name, this song is a memorable original written by Donnay and Joel Evans that perfectly wraps up Donnay’s trip back in time, to an incredibly significant era in the history of jazz and blues.
Donnay’s early life destined her to sing this music. “I started singing jazz when I was five years old.” she explains. Raised in Washington D.C., she taught herself to sing by listening to the radio and, by the time she entered grade school, she already knew over 200 songs. Over time, her own talents as a highly individual songwriter emerged. In D.C. she sang and played guitar in clubs as half of an acoustic folk music duo. After relocating to San Francisco, Donnay sang Dixieland and traditional jazz with Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band, performed with Tom Keats and his Tom Kats, along with other various bands. All the while Donnay was becoming a bandleader, using her original songs as the key ingredient to reach her audiences.
Donnay’s affinity for this music runs deep. “It was the music I most related to. And so, I found this very personal connection to the music, to the women, and to my musical mentors. This actually makes me feel much happier about my life in general. All those years of listening to these records makes sense now! And it proved to me the innate value of having mentors in life and in art.” And speaking of mentors, after Donnay met the legendary jazz producer Orrin Keepnews, they worked together on the jazz standards CD What’s Your Story, which included “Stop This Train!” one of her bluesy originals.
A devout Buddhist, Donnay uses this philosophy in her everyday life. “I used to have absolutely no life off the stage.” Donnay says. “Herbie Hancock once encouraged us to expand our lives, as he said this life force fuels our art. I find that when I’m consumed with music and at the same time practicing my humanity, I become grounded and happy. I’m really a lost soul out there in the world, otherwise.”
While her stylings on A Little Sugar might be in the tradition of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday and Maria Muldaur, the CD also bears Donnay’s own very 21st century stamp. Roberta Donnay has managed to imbue the classic songs on A Little Sugar with a contemporary verve while still paying tribute to the spirit of her musical predecessors. A Little Sugar, Donnay’s 7th disc, takes listeners on a journey to the past, while it marks a significant step forward in her colorful and very productive career. In addition to her solo career as a singer-songwriter with multiple movie song placements, she has served as a journalist, music supervisor for movies and producer. Her song “One World,’ an ASCAP Composer award winner, was selected as a world-peace anthem for the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations and was the theme for World Aids Day in South Africa. Donnay has been a member of the iconic band Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks (as a Lickette) since 2005. “Dan’s music has been a constant inspiration and education for me. I’m constantly learning more about the history of jazz. My wish is that through my music, I can enlighten people about the history and the significance of jazz in our culture.”