Jazz music is like catnip to Irene Atman, when she rubs her vocals all around its creamy lathers and emits sensual purrs as if the music is an aphrodisiac that she cannot resist. Jazz calls to Atman like bees swarm to honey, barnacles attach to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, or lightning strikes are drawn to metal. She admits that her attraction to jazz music stems from, "The rhythm, the harmonics and the freedom to make up your own ideas ..and playing with people doing the same thing. What I love about jazz is the freedom of expression it allows you .you can take a straight-ahead song like Charade a waltz - and really make it swing. I once read that "Jazz is the art of expression set to music". That is so true .it’s all about emotion and that’s why jazz resonates with me the most. I was classically trained on the piano and I was playing very structured music but it just didn’t swing for me and I had that inclination in me early on in life, so it was only natural that I gravitated to jazz. It didn’t hurt that my father had this huge record collection I used to listen to every minute of the day. But singing jazz allows me to let my emotions out ..let my guard down and feel free."
Atman’s sophomore album, New York Rendezvous honors the beauty of classic jazz numbers branded in easy listening regalia of down-feathered vocals and streaks of liquid-fires in the instrumentation. Her rendition of Henry Mancini’s "Charade" is a sample of Atman’s timeless elegance. It’s a song that she remembers fondly, "Oh yes, the 60’s, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and Henry Mancini. Charade is such a haunting melody and Mancini was such a master. He is one of my favourite composers and it’s interesting that I have 2 of his songs on the CD ‘Two for the Road’ and ‘Charade.’ My first CD, I had a couple of Michel Legrand tunes .I like to choose a favorite composer and do a couple of their tunes, so I thought about other Mancini songs that would work for my voice and ‘Charade’ immediately came to mind. It’s a waltz and works beautifully as a jazz waltz. Frank liked the idea of doing the song right away and what came out of the studio was pure collaboration no arrangement and one take everybody listening and playing off each other .what a rush."
Atman also delves into the softly spangled bossa nova motifs of "Somos Novios," which she wanted for the album. She recalls, "Yes, I do remember the first time I heard this song. I was about 11 years old and my mother had an old Vicki Carr album I used to listen to all the time. I loved it I didn’t know what she was singing about but the melody was beautiful and she sang it with such emotion. The song did sound familiar to me . it was only later on I learned that the song was originally written in Spanish and had been translated into English very bad English I might say and recorded by Perry Como called ‘It’s Impossible.’ When I was thinking about songs for the CD, I wanted to include something with a bossa nova feel. I thought about ‘Somos Novios’ and decided to find out what the original Spanish lyrics meant .. it has nothing to do with the words ‘It’s Impossible.’ The song is about the intimacy between 2 lovers and I knew this was a song I could get my audience to connect with emotionally if not with the words, then with the approach we took with the song. I told Frank I wanted the song to sound as if I were singing to my lover in bed .that I wanted the audience to really feel that intimacy and to feel as if I were whispering in their ear .I think it works. The funny story about this song is when we pulled it out for the recording, Frank had mistakenly titled the chart ‘It’s Impossible,’ instead of ‘Somos Novios.’ You could almost hear this inaudible gasp of horror from the musicians and even the engineer when they thought they were going to have to play ‘It’s Impossible.’ When the song was over, there was not only a huge sigh of relief, but it was as if the guys were discovering the song for the first time .’that’s a gorgeous song" was the first words out of Matt Wilson ..Frank and I just smiled.’’"
She expresses that the songs which she chose for the recording all meant something special to her. "Most of the songs on the CD," she tells, "I grew up listening to. I fell in love with the music, the lyrics and the artists who performed them. Now the interesting thing is that I had never performed these songs before entering the studio. It’s kind of something I discovered about myself with my first CD, and I know it sounds odd, but there’s just a freshness and spontaneity that happens with the unknown. Does that make sense?" she poses to audiences.
She discerns, "All I know is something more emotional comes out of me in the studio because of it. With the musicians I’m really discovering the song for the first time. And it’s the anticipation of what’s going to happen when the music starts and that first note comes out there’s really no feeling like it. Many of the songs I chose because of their intimacy .I think ‘Why did I choose you’ is one of the most intimate and tender songs I’d ever heard it’s the ultimate love song ’why did I choose you what did I see in you, I saw a heart you hide so well .the lyrics are simple, tender and beautiful and it’s one of those songs that’s not heard enough. ‘Alfie’ .probably one of the best songs ever written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach - beautiful, beautiful harmonics. ‘Two for the Road’ by Henri Mancini I chose because it was the first song I heard Frank play 20 years after I met him and I fell in love with what he did with it I knew I had to include that in the CD." And ‘A Time For Love’ has a special meaning for me because it was the song that Tony Bennett sang to me in the back of a limo so many years ago in Toronto. Now there’s a story," she interjects.
She proceeds, "I had the great opportunity to open for Tony Bennett early in my career. We were driving in from the airport together in a limo and Mr. Bennett leaned over and said, ‘Irene, I’ve got a great song for a young singer to sing it goes like this’ and he started singing ‘A Time For Love’ to me in the back of the limousine a memory I will never forget. There was one song I decided not to include on the CD. We recorded "I could write a book" and I felt it just wasn’t the right fit for the CD .I also didn’t like my vocals on it, although Frank felt I was being too hard on myself. But I think I made the right choice."
She explains how she and her keyboardist Frank Kimbrough became friends, and why she wanted to work with him on the recording of New York Rendezvous. "Frank and I first met in Miami on a cruise ship more than 20 years ago Frank is from North Caroline and me from Toronto, Canada. We were so young, right out of school, starving artists with a mutual love for jazz. I knew he was a genius then and although I had to sing a lot of show tunes on that ship, I took any and every opportunity to sing jazz with Frank. I used to come down to the main ballroom during the day because I knew Frank would be there by himself playing the piano. I would quietly listen to him and be ‘floored’ by the emotion and sensitivity in his playing. One day I actually got up the nerve to ask him to write me an arrangement for ‘My Foolish Heart.’ I remember him telling me that he doesn’t really write arrangements and that he would think about it and couldn’t promise anything. Well, the next thing I knew, Frank had called me back into that ballroom and pulled out this amazing arrangement of ‘My Foolish Heart’ which I still have to this day. What is so wonderful about working with Frank is his generosity in his playing. He is always original in his ideas and always developing. He plays with such sensitivity and I just feed off of that. He anticipates where I’m going and then at times leads me ..I can hear him offering ideas through his playing while I’m singing .it’s such an intimate relationship between a vocalist and her pianist and when that’s apparent, the audience knows it because the singer and pianist become the heart and the soul of the tune. I am so very privileged to work with Frank and to call him my friend."
Kimbrough brought along a handful of talented musicians to play on Atman’s album, including bassist Jay Anderson, drummer Matt Wilson, and saxophonist Joel Frahm. She describes the recording experience with sheer enthusiasm. "Okay this is a cliché, but it was a dream come true to work with these amazing musicians. Frank told me he works with these guys all the time and all the stars just seemed to align for me that day in the recording studio because they were all available for the 6 hour session in Brooklyn. I was a little nervous with all the talent in the room but these guys were so sweet to me that the nerves faded away quickly. What I enjoyed most about playing with them was their ability to create off the floor, play off each other and just have a great time doing it. They made it easy for me to do the same thing in my approach to my songs I felt a real freedom to explore different sounds and really connect emotionally. Jay Anderson is such an imaginative player with great ideas .and his playing is so melodic. I would love to do a ballad with him - just voice and bass. Matt Wilson wow, what a unique drummer. Here’s a guy who was coming up with such different sounds and ideas for the session. Matt’s genius was behind "I’m a Fool to want you". He came up with that steady cymbal beat that made the sound so unique beautiful, quiet and understated. I loved working with Joel Frahm .he’s a very intuitive player and was listening closely to what I was doing. My emotions lie deep when singing ballads and the way Joel played, particularly in solos, I felt as if he was swept up in the emotion with me. Playing with these guys was a real life-changing experience for me another cliché I know, but I sang better because of them."
She notes that "We had no arrangements. Frank and I both agreed that we wanted a live feel to the CD as if recorded right off the floor in fact it was recorded right off the floor ..almost every tune we recorded on that session was one take .no lush arrangements, no chance of over-producing, just creative juices at work a complete collaboration. How can it be any better than that? And nobody got in anyone’s way because everyone of these guys are such generous players."
The title of the album, New York Rendezvous summarizes Atman and her band’s symbiotic relationship, drawing comparisons to the organic chemistry that New York City jazz musicians had during the genre’s heyday. She discusses that the impetus for the recording was her need to honor old-school jazz that once rang through the corridors of New York City’s music halls. "After having some success with my first CD," she determined, "I knew the next step for me was to go to New York to record my 2nd CD. I really wanted a distinct ‘New York’ sound with New York musicians and the only New York musician I knew was Frank Kimbrough, whom I had worked with on cruise ships years ago. I hadn’t seen Frank for over 20 years. I didn’t even know if he would remember me. So I googled him, and the next thing I knew, I was having dinner with him at Alfredo’s on 45th street and talking about recording my next CD. Before dinner was over, Frank offered to help produce the CD for me and I was over the moon. I knew back on the cruise ships that Frank was a genius and having him partner with me on this project was really a dream come true. This CD is all about Frank and I getting back together in New York, so New York Rendezvous was the perfect title."
When Atman sings jazz, it is like she was divined to perform on this stage. She reflects, "I really get lost in the song, particularly in ballads, so the only thing I’m thinking about is what the song is saying, what the music is making me feel. When I sing a song, I’m telling a story, delivering a message whether it’s about love, heartbreak, tenderness it’s all emotion. If a vocalist has this emotional connection to a song, the audience feels it immediately and is able to experience that same emotional connection. I think that is the greatest gift you can give anyone and a large part of why I sing. Life is hard enough as it is and if I can give someone just one moment of an emotion they may have felt in the past it’s that moment that makes them forget about how hard life can be. Music is so full of memories you remember the song that was playing when you had your first kiss, your first love, your first child .if I can do that for people through my songs, then it really makes everything worthwhile for me .it may sound a little corny, but it’s absolutely the way I feel."
She assesses that singing in the studio places a different set of demands on her from singing in concert. She remarks, "Very different in many ways. When you sing in the studio, you really need to find your studio voice .you need to be more subtle in your approach in the studio because the microphones are so sensitive and everything gets picked up from the clicking of your tongue to the popping of your ‘p’s. When you’re on stage, you need to project to the back of the room not only your voice, but your persona as well, so it’s very different. What I like about the studio is the intimacy and the lack of inhibition to really let your emotions show in the song. The luxury of experimenting with new ideas and creating something different. You can achieve that on stage but it varies really, depending on the room and the audience. What I like about performing on stage is the reaction you get from the audience and how you can feed off each other emotionally. There’s nothing like the feeling when you know you’re performing a song and you’ve got the audience hanging on every word when you can hear a pin drop .it really is almost like an out of body experience I don’t know how else to explain it, but there are moments when I feel as if I’m watching myself .it’s quite a feeling ask any singer, I think most will tell you the same thing."
Atman learned a great deal about being singing in a way that pleases audiences from her mentors, whom she cites, "Tony Bennett was a huge mentor to me although I only got to know him for a few days. He taught me that you always needed to respect your audience not to be self-indulgent and to sing what your audience wanted to hear .but sing good music and do it in your own way. He taught me about grace and generosity and kindness. Tony Bennett holds a special place in my heart for me because I started listening to his albums when I was very young. When I was 13 years old, I got a job as a banquet waitress at the local Holiday Inn so I could afford to go see Tony Bennett perform at the Imperial Room in downtown Toronto. I would take my very hard-earned $25.00 which was a fortune to me at that time, take the subway downtown and sit at the back of the room with my ginger ale to watch the master at work. It was really a thrill to see him live. I did that for as many years as I can remember but never met Mr. Bennett until I had the great fortune to open for his show in Toronto 10 years later ..it’s that lucky star over my head again. That’s when Mr. Bennett gave me his phone number in New York and told me to give him a call when I got to New York. Well as life sometimes goes, it took me a little longer to get to New York than I expected. But I held on to that phone # for many years and when I got to New York last year, it took me 2 months before I had the nerve to even think about calling him. Frank Kimbrough kept saying, what are you waiting for, call him. So I finally got the courage to dial the number and waited while the phone rang, not knowing what, if anything I was going to say if by some miracle Tony Bennett actually picked up the phone. I heard a click, took a gasp and waited while the voice on the other end said, ‘I’m sorry, this line has been disconnected.’ Well, I wasn’t surprised, it’s been a few years, but I’m optimistic .I have a feeling our paths will cross again, soon .I think it’s in the stars."
Atman learned at an early age to believe in the stars. She remembers, "My mother used to tell me that I was born under a lucky star because so many good things always happened to me, but I think it has more to do with attitude, how you live your life, how you treat people .the more good you put out there, the more good you get back. It’s an old adage, but it’s absolutely true. My fortune is in meeting and working with truly good human beings, people who are examples of how the rest of us should act and think. Respect, generosity, compassion, humor, love, kindness .all of that I try to strive for in everything I do and because of it, I feel I’m really lucky in life good things just seem to happen for me. It’s true what they say once you know what you are meant to do in this life, the universe conspires to give it to you. Well, I’m a great example .girl from Canada goes full circle and finds herself in New York living her dream it’s not an easy road, but it’s a road I wouldn’t miss for anything ..so, yes I do think I’ve been very lucky in life. And I know that influences my singing 100%, in the songs that I choose, the musicians I work with, the audiences that come to hear me. Life is good, life is great and it’s what we make of it."
Irene Atman tells that she began singing even before she was out of diapers. She recalls, "My parents tell me I started singing before I started talking .everything was a song to me but I think my first recollection was when I was about 7 years old lying in bed listening to my father’s stereo in the living room. He played all the greats and I would sing along with the records for hours it would literally drive my father crazy, but I couldn’t help myself, it was in my blood. I knew at a very young age that I was going to be a singer. I started playing the piano at 7 years old so with the piano books came the songbooks. I was always the first to volunteer for school musicals and church basement productions but I actually started singing professionally when I was 19 years old. My girlfriend in high school had a brother who played the saxophone and she kept telling me to sing for him. Turns out he played in the hottest jobbing band in the city at the time and luck smiled down on me when the Stan Hiltz Orchestra asked me to join the band. I had no experience, no formal voice lessons, just a natural sound that audiences seemed to really like. It wasn’t until I left the band to work on the cruise ships that I really started singing more jazz all those poor starving jazz musicians I met were a great influence on me. As for vocal lessons, I never really took any. I went to a coach once to find out the right way to breathe but always remembered what a musician once told me you have a natural voice, so be careful about singing lessons don’t let anyone try to change you. So in essence, I taught myself, mostly by listening to singers like Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Doris Day she had such an easy, calming way to her singing that I liked. I also listened to horn players ..I read once that Frank Sinatra learned his breathing by listening to Tommy Dorsey play his trombone, so I started listening more to horns and how they held their notes, bending them in the middle working in the band was really a great learning experience for me. I did have one trick that I used to improve my breathing with so I could hold those really long notes ..I used to listen to Sarah Vaughan, Cleo Laine even early Streisand albums while working out on an exercise bicycle. I would sing along to these songs, holding the notes as long as I could while spinning on the bicycle .now that’s a great way to build up your breathing chops."
She recollects, "Not one person in my family is musically inclined. In fact most of them are tone-deaf, so I have no idea where I got my talent from ..must have skipped a generation. I have 2 sisters who took piano lessons with me and we had a very honest piano teacher who told my parents not to waste their money on my sisters because they had no talent, so I was the one always entertaining everyone. My parents have always been supportive of my music, proud of my accomplishments and always wished me great success, However, my father, who by the way is literally tone-deaf really influenced me at an early age. He loves music and he’s the reason why there was music in the house all the time. He paid for my piano lessons, bought me songbooks and encouraged me to perform for anyone who would sit and listen. He had a collection of old LP’s from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s that were hidden away in the basement for years until I discovered them when I was 7 years old while playing hide’n seek in the fruit cellar. I pulled them out and he played them for me Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day .what a way to spend my childhood. My friends were rocking out on Elton John and I was in the basement with Billie, Frank and Tony."
She reminisces about her early musical experiences and catalogs them as, "Singing in church choirs, school musicals, church basement productions, performing in the living room for friends and family .my life was filled with music and performing. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t either playing the piano or singing a song. But I do remember the first time I realized I actually could sing. When I was about 13 years old, I was fooling around on the piano with my girlfriend and we were singing together ..the song was Goldfinger and I decided to sing it like Shirley Bassey. In the middle of the song, my girlfriend stopped singing and started listening to me. I stopped and asked her what was wrong she said nothing, you just really have a great singing voice you really do. You should be a singer, she said. So that was the first time I really thought about pursuing a career in singing. I was on stage when I was 7 years old in the musical Snow White I was the lead in the school musical 2 years in a row, so performing was always in my blood."
Times have changed since Atman first started singing in church choirs and school recitals, and she has adapted to the shifts in the music currents. She comments, "Yes, I think the music industry has changed since I first started out as a singer. Getting a record label to sign you was the first thing most singers would think about but now that’s not particularly true. Many artists are independent like myself, managing their careers like myself and moving up the ranks slowly but surely. Technology now allows you to market yourself more easily social marketing is huge Facebook, Myspace, internet radio help to get new artists more exposure. It’s always been a tough road and I think it’s tougher now for a couple of reasons. One is because there are just so many more artists trying to make a career for themselves in the music business and the other is simply that times are just harder. People just aren’t going out as much so a lot of venues are closing down and musicians/singers are scrambling to get work. I don’t know many singers or musicians these days who don’t have a day gig whether it’s teaching or working in an office. But the love of the music keeps us going. I keep singing the music I love because it’s really feels unnatural to me to do anything other than jazz. Early in my career, I did the top-40’s thing, I did the showtunes, Dixieland, even dabbled in some country, but jazz has always a part of my soul and I got to the point where I decided I was only going to sing the music that I loved because what’s the point otherwise? You need to love what you’re doing. If that means I have to have a day gig for awhile, then that’s what it is. I’m hoping that this new CD will get some notice and more work will come my way. For independent artists like myself, it’s really not about selling CD’s it’s about getting noticed, about getting known, so you get to work with the best musicians and you get to sing the best music."
Irene Atman has a voice that was divined to sing jazz just as assuredly as was Tony Bennett, Shirley Bassey, Vicki Carr, or any other vocalist born with the timeless elegance that Atman possesses. Her singing recalls of jazz music’s iconic figures showing a glint of modern brushstrokes. Atman is more than a pretty vocalist. She enables audiences to feel the lyrics and become a part of the stories being told in the songs. Atman is lucky indeed to have a voice that penetrates into the fibers of people’s souls, and fill them with good vibes that will last them a lifetime.