Laurie Antonioli: A Constellation In The West
While vocalist Laurie Antonioli may not be a household name, she is not exactly an unknown quantity. The Bay area native has been singing pre-professionally and professionally since the late 1970s, initially influenced by the diamond songwriting talents of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Neil Young. She took a right turn listening to her grandmother's 78s of the bawdy and bold jazz/blues princess Nellie Lutcher, which led to the universes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
Formal study, careful examination of Nancy King, and an invitation by Mark Murphy brought Antonioli and her developing scat chops to public attention. During this period, she concentrated largely on bebop, drawing her into orbit with excellent but largely unheralded saxophonist/vocalist Pony Poindexter. Poindexter took Antonioli on the road for a European tour that ended as an eight-month pilgrimage.
In 1985, Antonioli debuted on vinyl with Soul Eyes (Catero Records), recorded with pianist George Cables. In the years following, the singer became a staple of the Bay area, working with singers Bobby McFerrin and Jon Hendricks, pianist Cedar Walton, and most closely with the late saxophonist Joe Henderson, a relationship lasting until his death in 2001.
Antonioli has spent the lion's share of the years since 1985 working as a music educator in the US and abroad. In 2002, Mark Murphy suggested Antonioli for a professorship in the jazz vocals department at KUG University in Graz Austria, where she worked until the summer of 2006, when she returned to Northern California to teach at the Jazz School in Berkeley.
Surrounding her repatriation, Antonioli returned to the recording studio, recording two new collections, the second being American Dreams (Intrinsic Music, 2010). Once lost to the academy, Laurie Antonioli has returned in a big way, emerging as a powerful constellation in the west. Here is what she has been up to in the studio under her own name.
Laurie Antonioli and George Cables
What the duet Soul Eyes reveals in Antonioli is a talent evolving with impressive velocity. As a debut recording goes, the singer emerges fully formed with chops to burn. Antonioli and pianist George Cables ride a minimalist "In A Mellowtone" out of the chute, Cables playing with Count Basie-like attention to notes, sprinkling only those necessary to support Antonioli's fresh-scrubbed youthful voice. Her scat shops are perfectly intact, melding naturally with Cables' piquant comping. "Prelude to a Kiss" is humid Duke Ellington, Antonioli, relaxed, dancing with Cables in a full-bodied performance, the pianist more orchestral.
The ballad "Lazy Afternoon" displays the paradox of Antonioli's youthful maturity. By the time of these recordings, the singer had already sung with Mark Murphy and toured with Pony Poindexter. That wealth of bandstand experience provided Antonioli abilities beyond her years. This manifested as a fresh approach to established standards that could not be achieved by older artist. Juxtaposed against the exacting scat of Charlie Parker's 1948 composition "Barbados," a view of Antonioli's range is readily secured.
Antonioli covers two tunes composed by uber-composer Larry Gelb: the angular "Bird Lives" and the inventive "I'd Like to Melt Your Ego for Dinner." On these difficult tunes, she excels in navigating the songs' melodic corners and recesses with Gelb's too clever lyrics. Antonioli revealed that a full album of Gelb songs was once recorded and never released. From these samples, release of this material would certainly be welcome. Soul Eyes was a bright and assertive debut by an artist intent on further growth and evolution.
Laurie Antonioli featuring Nenad Vasilic
Twenty years later, Laurie Antonioli's musical vision was fully expanded. Where Soul Eyes showcased a keen jazz sensibility, Foreign Affair shows Antonioli picking up where Cassandra Wilson left off with recordings like Blue Light 'Til Dawn (Blue Note, 1992) and New Moon Daughter (Blue Note, 1995). Wilson opened the jazz doors to a more organically conceived presentation, recasting the expected ("You Don't Know What Love Is") and unexpected ("Death Letter"). Where Wilson plied her wares with increasingly larger groups with increasingly esoteric instruments, Antonioli keeps things small, acoustic and very fundamental.