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Rondi Charleston

The third solo release from singer-songwriter Rondi Charleston was a challenge to make as well as a celebration of her life. She entreats audiences with a CD/DVD set entitled In My Life, produced by Suzi Reynolds and featuring a number of jazz standards, classic pop tunes, and two original tracks, "Ancient Steps" and "Telescope," both inspired by her daughter, Emma who sings background vocals on "Telescope." The bonus DVD contains footage taken from her show, "Live at Lincoln Center Presents Rondi Charleston - Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola®," accompanied by her band: Bruce Barth on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, Clarence Penn on drums, Joel Frahm on tenor saxophone, Adam Rogers on guitar, and Hadar Noiberg on flute.

Rondi Charleston comes from a musical family, who were rooted in the suburbs of Chicago. She started singing and playing the piano at 6-years old. When she was 15, she obtained her first paying gig at a Chicago folk club called "Somebody Else’s Troubles." She entered Juilliard at the age of 16, matriculated in the Drama and Voice Departments. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music, and after graduating, she began singing Opera professionally. She always knew that she wanted to sing professionally, but did not realize that she wanted to sing jazz until years later. She became frustrated with the Operatic repertoire, and jazz seemed out of reach to her. Through the hand of fate, Rondi Charleston was redirected towards jazz, and it was a natural fit for her.

She discusses the making of In My Life, how her life changed course midstream from being an investigative reporter at ABC News to becoming a jazz vocalist, and what are her plans for her upcoming tour dates which include Sculler’s in Boston on May 5th, the Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles on May 20th, Dazzle in Denver on May 23rd, The Dakota in Minneapolis on May 24th, and a return New York City engagement to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola® on June 1st.

JazzReview: Why did you decide to make In My Life a combined CD/DVD set? Why did you feel ready to include the live footage of your show at Lincoln Center? What was the highlight of the show for you?

Charleston: The highlight of the Jazz at Lincoln Center show was definitely the moment my then 8-year-old daughter Emma came on stage to sing "Telescope," the song I wrote for her. I was so proud of her for being fearless and professional and sharing her story in such a generous way. As far as why we did the CD/DVD set, it was really my producer, Suzi Reynolds' idea. In this age of media awareness, I think it helps to have the visual documentation of music-making. It kind of says - "this is real" - this is what we do in real time, without editing or sweetening. It's very exposed and revealing.

JazzReview: How did you meet Suzi Reynolds and why did you want her to produce the CD? What did you like about the way Suzi handled the recording?

Charleston: About three years ago, I saw a video of the brilliant pianist Lynne Arriale that Suzi had produced. I knew there was something special going on there. I liked the way Suzi captured Lynne's essence - with such love and care and passion. Around the same time, I read about the story of the great Teri Thornton, and again, there was Suzi - behind the scenes, making everything happen. I sent her a demo and she called me back right away and said she wanted to work with me. We've been together for three years now and counting!

JazzReview: How did you choose which songs to record for the CD portion of the set? Do the songs show recurring themes that are also a part of your own life?

Charleston: I've had several chapters in my life, I've had careers as a classical musician, as an investigative reporter for ABC News, and now as a jazz singer and songwriter. The songs on this album reflect the amazing experiences and adventures I've been fortunate enough to have had -- from my childhood days listening to the Beatles, to my varied careers, to motherhood. If there is a recurring theme, it would be due, I think to an insatiable curiosity (a blessing and a curse!) and need to understand the deeper truths of life and love - whether they be in the form of a real life news investigation, or of a piece of music! All of these chapters come together in the song choices for this album.

JazzReview: It’s mentioned on your website that "Ancient Steps" and "Telescope" were inspired by your daughter, Emma. How so, and how did she do singing backup for her mom on "Telescope"?

Charleston: By far the most exciting adventure I've ever had has been motherhood. I am fortunate to have a big-hearted, bright, inquisitive, generous, kind -- now 11-year-old daughter! "Telescope" was inspired when she was 8 years old, during a trip to the Hayden Planetarium in New York. she had one of those moments that all kids have -- when she started connecting the dots between herself and the world -- and barraged me with a slew of BIG QUESTIONS - for which I had virtually no answers. I had an existential crisis as a parent. But out of that crisis came this song - and having her sing backup was only natural - she did a great job. "Ancient Steps" evolved from going to see the documentary "March of the Penguins" with Emma -- again a big subject, and BIG QUESTIONS about human nature, natural habitat, animal instinct... If you see a pattern forming here, you are right!

JazzReview: What is it about The Beatles song, "In My Life" that resonates with you so deeply that you made it the title of the CD/DVD set? When you recorded the track, what were you thinking about?

Charleston: As a teenager, growing up in Hyde Park, Chicago, I used to take my guitar and go sing at the folk clubs on the North Side. I lied about my age to get in, and actually got paid $30 bucks a night! One of the songs on my set list was "In My Life" -- which was pretty ironic, since I was so young at the time! Now, when I sing that song, I think back on the rich life experiences I've had, and a movie of my life flashes before my eyes - peppered with some wisdom and gratitude - and I am just so glad to be able to share these experiences.

JazzReview: Whose idea was it to record "Until" with a gypsy waltz rhythm? How does singing in this style challenge you?

Charleston: A thing like this has to come organically. It's not something we super-imposed on the piece. There was something about Sting's lyrics and melody that had a quality of wandering -- wandering through the world, wandering through the universe - that suggested this feel. So we tried it out with guitar. I didn't even know what to call it. I played it for Suzi Reynolds, and she said "it sounds like a gypsy-waltz!" So that's how it came to be. As far as the style, I approached it like a folk song -- so that the storytelling is paramount, and the singing is secondary. This formula works well for me - whether it's a jazz standard, a pop classic, or an original. It's about setting priorities.

JazzReview: When you were recording these songs, were you influenced by how other singers performed them, or did you go with how you felt these songs should be delivered? How did you think through your vocal melodies before recording them?

Charleston: We are all influenced to some extent by the great jazz singers - Sarah, Ella, Carmen, Billie. They pioneered the genre of jazz singing. I also particularly love Irene Kral and Chet Baker. The standards have been recorded so well by so many people, that I have to have a really strong reason to tackle one of them. In the case of "Shall We Dance," (a song I've sung since a high school production of "The King and I" in Chicago!) I felt that there was more there to be explored, that hadn't been done yet. I wanted to key into the subtext - a subtle, suggestive, sultry underpinning. (Just imagine Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner after a few glasses of wine....) It's such a charming song, and Joel (Frahm) and I have a lot of fun playing with it on stage. It is continually evolving from the recording. While we stay true to the basic melody, when a new emotion comes up, we change a few notes, and rhythms to suit the moment. In the case of "I'm Old Fashioned," the take really came from my pianist Bruce Barth. He had recorded this very fresh take on his album "East and West," and I simply asked him if I could do a vocal version of it. The reason I like it is that while it stays true to the Jerome Kern melody, the harmony is 100 percent different from anything you've ever heard before. It's a living testament to the concept that everything old can be made new again! In the standard "Bewitched," we took it completely out of tempo - did the whole song rubato - to make it more intimate and revealing. It's as if someone were just whispering their innermost feelings in a contemporary setting.

JazzReview: How did you meet the musicians who played on the recording - guitarist Adam Rogers, saxophonist Joel Frahm, drummer Clarence Penn, bassist Sea n Smith, and pianist Bruce Barth? What was it about these musicians that made you want them to play on your recording?

Charleston: I have been incredibly fortunate to be playing with such great musicians for the last few years. Each one of them is so special in their own way, and each brings so much to the table. One of the primary reasons I am so happy right now is the pure joy and energy I get from recording and performing with these guys. I met most of them through my voice teacher Peter Eldridge (of New York Voices) who produced my second album, "Love Is The Thing," and gathered them for that occasion.

JazzReview: How have you grown as a singer, songwriter and performer since your debut recording, Love Letters? What are you able to do today that you would have never thought of when you first ventured out as a solo artist?

Charleston: Great question. Growth occurs on so many different levels at such unpredictable times. For me, the discovery in mid-life that I could actually generate ideas, write lyrics and melodies - from scratch -- was huge. This growth for me has involved weaving together large sections of my life. For example, the love of language and poetry started in childhood with my father giving me T.S. Eliot to read. I learned how to tell a story from Diane Sawyer during my years as a journalist. And let's not even go into the years of ear-training I got from Juilliard! But it all came together over the last five years or so. When I recorded "Love Letters" I had no idea any of this was about to happen.

JazzReview: What were your early musical experiences like before becoming a solo artist?

Charleston: My parents sent me to piano lessons at age six when they discovered me playing the Bach two-part inventions by ear. I played through high school, but couldn't handle the hours of solitary practicing necessary to become really good. It was then that I took up the guitar, and played in the Chicago folk clubs. In addition to the Beatles, I played a lot of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Bob Dylan tunes! My dad conducted the choir in our church, so I also had quite a bit of choral experience - which was wonderful as well.

JazzReview: Were you able to transition easily from singing in the studio to singing live in front of audiences, or was this something that you needed to learn how to master?

Charleston: Even though I've been performing live for as long as I can remember, I am always working on techniques to become better at it. There are ways to deepen the connection with the audience and become more transparent and spontaneous.

JazzReview: What impression would you like audiences to have of you after a concert? What would you like them to go home thinking of after your show?

Charleston: I would like them to leave feeling lighter, more joyful, and like they've had a mini-vacation from the staggering demands of everyday life. If I can give back the energy they've given to me, then I've done my job. I'd like them to also leave with the notion that it's never too late to re-invent yourself, and to live your dreams.

JazzReview: Are there any places that you would like to play, but have not been asked to yet?

Charleston: I would love to play in Europe. I think they have a deep love of jazz and appreciation for this kind of music. I'd love to play some of the festivals there. I'm told that perhaps that is on the horizon.

JazzReview: Do you see yourself continuing to sing jazz in the future, or would you like to branch off in another direction later on down the road? What are some of your dreams that you continue to reach for?

Charleston: I hope to have the honor and privilege of singing jazz and pop classics, and composing original material with my musical soul mates for the rest of my life! What I am doing now is extremely gratifying. I suppose there will be a natural evolution - and I look forward to wherever that might be --but for now, I can't imagine anything more joyful and fulfilling.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Rondi Charleston
  • Interview Date: 5/1/2009
  • Subtitle: Ready For Everything
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