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A native Italian, Gambarini has been turning heads since her 1998 move to Boston and concurrent third-place finish in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition. A vocal virtuosa, she has incredible technique and a warm tone, owing to her instrumental approach. Her first U.S. release, Easy to Love, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2006.
At age twelve, Gambarini took her first step toward a musical career with clarinet lessons. Later, she also studied classical composition and piano but had no formal jazz education because none was available. Records became her teachers. Her infatuation with the great singers began with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and then progressed to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae. “I am not the product of a school like Berklee,” she says. “I was never taught ‘how to.’ I grabbed everything from what I heard, and I always had the perception that, for me, that was the best way to learn.”
By the time she had completed high school, Gambarini knew she wanted to pursue a career as a jazz vocalist. She had scored a few gigs in and around Torino, Italy, but did not know a soul in the music business. Still, she steeled her determination and set off for the nearest major jazz center, Milan. There, she was afforded the opportunity to perform with several of Italy’s top jazzmen, but the circumstances for an inexperienced newcomer proved enormously difficult. “The music scene was very political,” she says. “Since I had absolutely no connections, I was like a lone dog trying to make it. The opportunities were not there. But even when things were roughest and I was calling my parents to say, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ they supported and encouraged me.”
Fed up with the dead ends she was continually encountering, in 1998 Gambarini made the bold decision to relocate to the United States. “Rather than grabbing a minute in a dressing room and saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Gillespie, I really liked your playing,’ I longed to spend more time with the greats, to establish disciple relationships with them.” To do so would, she knew, require a transatlantic move. As luck would have it, an opportunity arose for Gambarini to compete for a two-year residency at the New England Conservatory. She entered and won. Three weeks after her stateside arrival, she shocked the jazz cognoscenti by placing third in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition. “I met a lot of important people there,” she recalls, “and started getting invitations to play in New York.” Her first Manhattan dates were with Billy Higgins, Curtis Fuller, and Ronnie Mathews. Word quickly spread.
Roberta Gambarini is a spectacularly talented jazz singer who is regularly compared favorably with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae.
Gambarini is a true successor to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.
Sounding like an update of past jazz divas—particularly the regal Carmen McRae and the amazingly fluid Sarah Vaughan—she lives up to the title of her U.S. debut CD, Easy to Love.