Few topics in jazz spark more passionate disputes than who exactly deserves the title — and not merely the job description — of jazz singer. But there's no debate about Laurie Antonioli, a ferociously creative vocalist who spearheads the Jazzschool Institute's innovative jazz vocal program. Since returning to the Bay Area after teaching for several years in Europe, she's devoted herself to exploring and expanding the possibilities of jazz singing through her work as an educator, bringing her bandstand insights to bear in the classroom.
"What is a jazz singer? I open every class with that question," Antonioli said. "I like Andy Bey's line: It's a feeling. Certainly you should be able to swing and improvise. But there's also a sound, a certain kind of timbre and phrasing, something about how vibrato is used. I spend my life talking about this."
Antonioli offers a jazz master class in how to translate experience into art Thursday, May 26, at Freight & Salvage, where she performs material from her emotionally incisive 2010 album American Dreams. Conceived and mostly developed during Antonioli's tenure in Austria running KUG University's respected jazz vocal program, the album reflects her homesick longing for all of the Bay Area's cultural vibrancy and natural beauty.
"You miss that kind of thing when you're away from it, and the people and the diversity," Antonioli said. "You don't realize that until you go live in a country like Austria where it's mostly one nationality."
Rather than recording a travelogue, Antonioli sought to map her inner landscape on American Dreams. The result is an evocative tapestry woven from the raw materials of jazz, folk, and country music, an approach exemplified by her medley of the cowboy lament "Dreary Black Hills" and "Get Up and Go." She'll be focusing on material from the album at the Freight accompanied by the album's stellar cast, including pianist Matt Clark, bassist John Shifflett, drummer Jason Lewis, reed expert Sheldon Brown, and Mike Abraham, who's taken over the guitar chair from Dave MacNab.
While she's focusing on songs from the album at the Freight, Antonioli developed an expansive book of new material in Austria, often working with the esteemed pianist/composer Fritz Pauer (best known to American jazz fans as trumpet legend Art Farmer's longtime accompanist). She's been slowly breaking in new pieces with the band, crafting arrangements through a "process that's fairly organic," Antonioli said. "I present them with a song and I wait to see what they do with it. We'll nip and tuck it a little bit, allowing arrangements to take shape."
A Bay Area native, Antonioli began writing songs and playing guitar as a teenager in the early- 1970s, inspired by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Neil Young. She discovered jazz through her grandmother's collection of Nellie Luther 78s. Thrilled by the sassy vocals and piano work of the popular 1940s singer, Antonioli started checking out other artists. The search led her to Billie Holiday, who inspired her to start singing standards and to improvise.
She delved into the seminal recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Lee Morgan during a brief stint in Portland, Oregon, studying at Mt. Hood Community College's pioneering jazz vocal program. Back in the Bay Area, she had a chance to put her rapidly maturing scat chops to work when Mark Murphy began inviting her to sit in at his weekly gig at The Dock, a music spot in Tiburon. Witnessing the older singer Nancy King in action provided further education.
"They made me see that you could behave like an instrument and touch people so deeply with a lyric," Antonioli said. "I didn't sing with Nancy at the time, but Mark was very loose and generous on the bandstand, and when he found out I was a singer he invited me up. It was all bebop stuff and that scatting was what led me to Pony Poindexter."
A brilliant, but little remembered musician, deft vocalist, and dedicated entertainer, Poindexter provided Antonioli with invaluable bandstand training and insight into the jazz life. The New Orleans-born saxophonist had cultivated an avid following in Europe, where he had lived for much of the 1960s and '70s. He recruited the 22-year-old Antonioli for an eight-month European tour in 1980.
"Pony taught me in the oral tradition, all these Bird and Diz tunes, scat syllable for scat syllable," Antonioli said.
Antonioli recorded her debut album for Catero Records, 1985's "Soul Eyes," a ravishing duo session with piano great George Cables (the title track features Mal Waldron's lyric for his oft-played standard, which he gave to Antonioli after hearing her sing in Munich). Throughout the decade, she was one of the region's most visible singers, booked at leading venues and festivals with her own band, performing regularly with Bobby McFerrin and sitting in with luminaries like Tete Montoliu, Jon Hendricks, and Cedar Walton at Keystone Korner. She forged particularly close ties with tenor sax titan Joe Henderson, a creative relationship that lasted some two decades until his death in 2001.
"I'm so grateful I got in at the tail end of that scene with all those fantastic cats," Antonioli said. "That's where I learned. Teaching as much as I do, I'm always trying to make sense of things I learned through osmosis, figuring out ways to pass on that information to students."
Things slowed down considerably for Antonioli in the 1990s and she didn't release her second album until 2004's Foreign Affair, a bracing blend of post-bop jazz and Balkan music created with players from Serbia, Albania, Germany, and the United States. A collaboration with bassist and composer Nenad Vasilic, the project resulted from the Eastern European music she heard while living in Austria, which brought to mind music she heard while growing up.
"My grandparents are Yugoslav," Antonioli said. "I heard some Croatian music as a kid. But what drew me in was the Bulgarian Women's Choir, which I got addicted to as a late teen. Those LPs were the soundtrack to my life and I'd always wanted to try to do something using that vocal technique. When I went over to Europe I started hearing these Balkan jazz groups. I hung out with a bunch of Serbs and came up with something that was authentic to me."
Antonioli's work as an educator kept her off the US scene for a significant part of the past decade. At the recommendation of her old mentor Mark Murphy, KUG University hired her as a professor for the vocal jazz department in 2002. In the summer of 2006, Susan Muscarella coaxed her back to the Bay Area to work at the Jazzschool. Under Antonioli's leadership the jazz vocal program has attracted a glittering array of guest artists to conduct workshops, including Janis Siegel, Judy Niemack, and Roseanna Vitro. Gretchen Parlato and Theo Bleckmann are scheduled to work with students later this year. But the program's most significant innovation is providing superlative accompanists for the students, either Antonioli's rhythm section with Matt Clark, John Shifflett, and Jason Lewis, or Clark, bassist John Wiitala, and drum maestro Eddie Marshall.
"That's worth the price of admission right there," Antonioli said, adding that she's not just schooling students in the American Songbook — she's also churning out some real singers.