New York City based Amy London has long been among the foremost first-call vocalists in New York City in a variety of settings – jazz club, studio, on stage with big bands and on Broadway. Now, her new Motéma release, When I Look In Your Eyes, portends an even larger career for her as a powerful voice and leader on the international jazz scene. Even before its release, this CD garnered rare kudos from top-talent peers: “It’s a delight, I would recommend it to anybody,” is the comment from vocalese pioneer Annie Ross. “Amy London, where have you been hiding? Don’t leave us so long without another CD,” remarks Grammy award-winning vocalist Mark Murphy about this project. And, from internationally renowned pianist Fred Hersch comes the praise: “Amy London is a world-class singer possessing a beautiful and expressive vocal instrument, and always musical.”
When I Look In Your Eyes was recorded at Bennett Studios with a New York City jazz dream team led by producer Suzi Reynolds, known for her productions with Teri Thornton, Jerome Richardson, Rufus Reid and many other top jazz artists. The CD’s line-up includes Rufus Reid, Roni Ben-Hur, Lee Musiker, Leroy Williams, Steve Kroon, Chris Byars (leading a burning horn section,) and the late-great pianist John Hicks, who shines here, on what sadly turned out to be one of his last studio projects. Liner notes by WBGO radio host and author, Sheila Anderson, tell the whole story; When I Look In Your Eyes reveals London to have a vast emotional and musical range. As Anderson comments in her liner notes, Amy is among the elite female stylists, such as Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone and Shirley Horn, who are not only great singers, but are also expert story tellers, accomplished pianists and composers. Amy also distinguishes herself by using her voice expertly as an instrument within, as opposed to on top of, a jazz ensemble.
Born into a culturally active, Ohio-based family filled with mirth and talent, performing was quite literally in Amy’s DNA. At the ripe old age of seven, she announced to her mother that she was going to be an entertainer. This career decision was spurred by seeing Fiddler on the Roof at Cincinnati’s Shubert Theater. Growing up as a suburban baby-boomer, Amy’s musical tastes also incorporated a diet of American ‘60s and ‘70s pop and folk music. “I consider Laura Nyro to have been my first vocal coach- I spent hours at the piano learning all of her songs.” (In fact, Nyro’s “Lazy Susan” is covered on this release.) “Laura, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor definitely got me through my years of teenage angst”, chuckles Amy with a usually present touch of self-deprecation. Jazz only began to officially enter her orbit when she began studying piano as a high-school senior, and then had an opportunity to take voice lessons with Milt Weiner, who had coached Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney. “Milt was the first one to bring my attention to the nuances of jazz phrasing and putting across the story, he was a huge influence,” says Amy, who has since gone on to become a premier vocal coach in her own right and was an initial founder of the vocal jazz department at the New School University BFA Jazz program in NYC.
Though Amy earned her B.A. degree from Syracuse University in opera, her true passion, and most of her college experience, was singing in big bands, small bands and in musicals. After graduation, she immediately took herself to New York City to “check out the career climate.” Auditioning for everything that she could, she soon landed a professional job singing in the choir of the historic Trinity Church on Wall Street. “Being a nice Jewish girl who had only been in a church one time, it felt odd at first, but it turned out to be a very fruitful engagement for me,” says Amy. The choir made several recordings in her three-year tenure, and led her to hook up with singers Judy Niemack and Alexandra Ivanoff, with whom she formed the vocal trio, Jazz Babies. Seven years with the Jazz Babies, along with experience gained in Vocal Jazz, Inc., a five-voice group that toured the New York City elementary schools, honed Amy’s jazz harmony chops to a high sheen that would eventually land her the lead vocal quartet part in the 1989 hit Broadway musical, City of Angels.
Once in NY, Amy quickly made inroads into the city’s vibrant jazz scene. Legendary for her cooking, and for the parties she would throw at her Upper West Side apartment, Amy came to know and gain the musical respect of many of Manhattan’s key players. In 1982 she auditioned for jazz trumpeter, Tom Browne, whose ‘Mo’ Jamaica Funk’ had gone double-gold that year. Leery that Amy could fit in with his band, Browne was at first reluctant to listen to her demo tape, but later relented and responded with surprise, “Wow, a white chick who sounds black!” He hired her on the spot, and in the year that followed Amy recorded and toured internationally with Browne and became friends with George Benson, Ronnie Cuber, Billy May and Dr. Lonnie Smith. After that, opportunities kept coming her way. A stint with Charles Aznavour exposed her to Akira Tana, Harvie S and Jack Wilkins, with whom she recorded, along with the aforementioned Smith, once their tour had ended.
A three year engagement in an Afro-Cuban band led by the NYC leader, Alfredito, gave Amy a chance to jam with such Latin jazz stars as Charlie Palmieri, Barry Rogers and Jimmy Sabatier while developing her “cool Latin vamp”, (evidenced on this disc with the song ‘Wouldn’t You?’), and led her to master a variety of percussion instruments. Work with the New York Singer’s Orchestra in the late ‘80s led to jobs singing for commercials and film, and to an opportunity to record with Darmon Meader, and the New York Voices as the fifth singer on their CD, ’Ancient Tower.’ That engagement then brought Amy to the attention of the legendary Broadway composer Cy Coleman, who hand picked her for a plum role as the lead singer in the Angel City 4, the vocalese group that was the musical engine of his Broadway show, City of Angels. As an original cast member of this six-time Tony winning, and Grammy-nominated hit, Amy had the time of her life. “It was such a thrill to be in a hit show with such a high caliber creative team – Cy Coleman, David Zippel, Billy Byers, Larry Gelbart and Michael Blakemore – but the biggest thrill of all was working eight shows a week, for three years, singing such gorgeous swinging music to packed houses,” says Amy. That job also allowed her and her recently-wed husband, jazz guitarist Roni Ben-Hur (a frequent musical partner and now also a Motéma artist), to finally buy their dream house which is now headquarters for both of their careers and where they jointly raise the two beautiful daughters that have come along in the ensuing years.
After City of Angels closed, Amy enjoyed a three-year stint at the Rainbow Room before taking time off to answer the call of motherhood and to further develop her teaching career. While pregnant with her first daughter, she helped establish the popular vocal jazz program at the New School, where she continues to enjoy working today, having now mastered the skill of juggling teaching, family and performing life.
Much of Amy’s story is told in the tracks of When I Look In Your Eyes, and is sure to resonate with many Americans. It is a ‘mid-westerner makes good in the big city story’ (reflected in the leading track as well as in the medley ‘Ohio/Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,’); it is a working mother and wife’s story, (check out the lyrics she penned on ‘It Could Be So Nice’); it is a baby boomer’s story that shows up in Amy’s pop infused phrasing and fresh song choices, (check out her renditions of Laura Nyro’s ‘Lazy Susan’ and the moving ballad When I Look In Your Eyes – pulled from the film Dr. Dolittle), and last, but very far from least, Amy’s story is a fabulous New York City music story full of hilarious anecdotes, big breaks and heartbreaking losses, all set to a glorious score of heartfelt, highly sophisticated, and deeply swinging music that is Amy London’s singular expression of jazz, the American melting pot’s very own, home grown music.
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