10 Questions with Libby York
Vocalist Libby York will be performing at Winter’s Jazz Club June 19th along with pianist Jeremy Kahn and trombonist Russ Phillips presenting a show called “Three For The Road: Traveling Light” featuring songs of travel to favorite destinations, both terrestrial and celestial.
We thought we would catch up with Libby and talk about how she got started in music, her influences, living and performing in New York, Chicago and Key West and how she conceptualizes her music.
1 When you were growing up tell us about how you were first drawn to music? Did you grow up in a musical home?
Although they were not professional musicians, my parents both played piano and sang and loved the Great American Songbook. I heard a lot of Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Benny Goodman, Art Hodes played around the house. I still have many of my Dad’s great 78’s. They were both Northwestern grads and Dad wrote a nightlife column for the Purple Parrot, the NU mag, which is great to read now with accounts of every famous band coming through town and all the many clubs in the 30’s and 40’s.
He would occasionally sit in & sing with the big bands that came to NU. The family story is Dad & friends who grew up in Winnetka were the inspiration for Bob Crosby’s “ Big Noise from Winnetka”, when they caused a commotion at the Huddle in Evanston. I always got the feeling from my parents that this music was to be treasured and the musicians to be admired and respected.
2 Was there a person or experience that drew you to start singing?
I suppose I was given the gift of a natural voice because I was chosen early on to be in school musicals. My first “promo shot” was singing at O’Keefe Grade School on the south side. I remember auditioning in class and being kind of surprised they picked me. While I was at Sullivan High School, I’d go after school to a record store on Morse Avenue, near the old Asheknaz where we’d hang out every day, and in addition to the rock & roll I was buying, I somehow got a hold of Frank D’Rone’s first album. This made a huge impression on me and set the bar really high for how this music was to be done. I’m so grateful to eventually become friends with Frank & Joan D’Rone which enabled me the chance to tell Frank how much his music meant to me. Singing duets with him at the Jazz Showcase was a dream come true. Also in high school I got June Christy’s Something Cool album and I was hooked. Played both these albums over and over. I also always loved Johnny Mathis…. still do! Of course, then listened to Ella, Sarah, Betty, Joe Williams… all the greats.
3 Did you go to school for music?
I graduated in Political Science at American University in Washington DC. There weren’t many college jazz programs then and I didn’t start singing professionally till I was 35. Before then I taught for awhile in DC and then opened a restaurant, The Back Porch Cafe in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, now in its 45th year. My music education really began on the bandstand. I had taken piano lessons with Yehuda Guttman, a classical pianist and Juilliard scholar, who lived in Key West. He was a wonderful teacher and really taught me how to work. “Slow is fast” one bar at a time, separate hands, then put both hands together. Even though I had very basic piano, sight reading training I loved playing simple Chopin Nocturnes, Bach Inventions, etc. After I moved to New York and was playing gigs, I had to double back and take some voice coaching on how to use my voice if I was going to perform regularly. One memorable teacher who lived near Lincoln Center heard me and said “Oh, you’re a crooner.” And I thought, yes I guess that’s true . I attended workshops for sight reading, accompanying myself on piano, etc. But my main training has been on the bandstand in front of an audience. Trial by fire.
4 Who were some of your musical influences and why?
There was a wonderful singer’s workshop down on Great Jones Street in Manhattan run by Cobi Narita. I was one of the “New Discoveries” of 1980 -something. Our accompanying trio was Harold Mabern, piano, Jamil Nasser, bass and Frank Gant on drums! One of our teachers was the great Abbey Lincoln. She and I became friends and she was a huge influence on me, as she was to so many. Our styles are not alike but the honesty and soulfulness of how she approached a song sent a strong message. I love Rosemary Clooney’s comment “I’m a singer of fine songs who works with jazz musicians.” What she does is so deceptively simple, imbuing every word with meaning. I’m not a scat singer…actually don’t enjoy hearing it except from the best…but improvising with phrasing is endlessly fascinating. I had a memorable lesson with Kitty Margolis in San Francisco once. She suggested I “try putting the lyric in a bar where it doesn’t belong.” This is something I’m still having so much fun with, improvising with phrasing. I’m a firm believer of giving the song its due and singing it more or less as written one time through before you begin improvising. Being present in the moment with the lyric is vital. And it’s got to swing.
5 Was there a specific performance or moment that you had which helped you turn music into a career?
Interesting question since it’s been a process, not a moment, for me. I very much see myself as part of the band, and working with wonderful musicians is such a joy. In terms of performance, there are moments when I’m playing in a club when the sound is good, the band is in sync and the music becomes effortless …that high that I get really reaffirms the essential reason why we do this. I learn something every time I perform about connecting with an audience, staying in the pocket, living the lyric, etc.
Early on in New York, being featured vocalist with Barry Bryson’s 8 piece band “Swing Street” was a great learning experience. I answered an ad in the Village Voice, sent in my recording, a cassette in those days, and got the gig! We played all around town for dancers, parties and big events including the opening of South Street Seaport and a big party for Jim Henson at the famed Starlight Roof of the Waldorf. That band had great players including Doug Lawrence, saxes, Bill Moring, bass, James Chirillo, guitar, Matt Finders, trombone. I also had a steady gig at Cousins in Brooklyn with Tardo Hammer, Ted Kooshian, Lynn Seaton, John Hebert and Neil Miner. That was great experience. I also sang in LA with Jack Sheldon which was very memorable. I remember he said “Libby, I’ll keep it clean for you!”
Recording and producing my 4 CD’s has also been an amazing creative experience. From the moment you conceive the theme, choose the repertoire, think through the arrangements, schedule the band and studio, go over each day’s recording meticulously, oversee the graphics, choose radio and press PR, it’s really a creative project like no other…not to mention writing the checks and figuring out how to pay for it. You are in control as much as circumstances will allow. Thousands of decisions. Lots of waking up at 4 AM with ideas or fears, but when the finished product goes out on the airwaves around the world it’s an exhilarating experience. I have a new project in the works so just the thought of going through all that again is frisson- making.
I think the validation of having my performances and recordings appreciated by musicians I admire and respect helped in forming my self awareness that yes, this is who I am and what I do. There’s something to be said for having done it long enough to feel I’m kind of starting to get the hang of it. My first recording Blue Gardenia was done here in Chicago for Southport Records and I learned a lot working with wonderful Joanie and Sparrow. My next release Sunday in New York (Blujazz) was recorded in New York with Frank Wess, Renee Rosnes, Todd Coolman and Billy Drummond and Neil Tesser wrote the liner notes. This was kind of a breakthrough and got lots of airplay, made the JazzWeek charts, etc. Recording and producing the next two albums Here With You at Bennett Studios with Howard Alden, Russell Malone, Warren Vache with liner notes by Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker, who became a friend, and my latest, Memoir with Russell, Warren, Martin Wind, and John DiMartino, and Greg Sergo was a joy. I’m so glad Greg was able to come to New York to record because he passed not all that long afterwards. Connecting with jazz radio folks around the world is one of my favorite things…talk about a labor of love on their part!
6 Your repertoire seems deeply rooted in the Mercer, Van Huesen and Gershwin songbooks. What is it about those composers that connects with you?
I’m drawn first to the lyric. Johnny Mercer is definitely one of the composers I feel most simpatico with…. the cleverness of his lyrics and that southern Savannah feel. I also love the freedom of just doing songs I like. Lately I’ve added a song written by Pulitzer Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro “Remains Of The Day” and Jim Tomlinson that Jim sent me from his recording with his wife, the great singer Stacey Kent. I have songs in my repertoire by Irving Berlin, Truman Capote, Noel Coward and Donald Fagen. I tend to stay away from the “woman as victim” lyrics and love a little humor when possible. The poignancy of “Something Cool” or Peggy Lee’s “Cloudy Morning” grabs me too.
7 You not only live in Chicago but you also have a residence in Key West and you perform regularly there during the Winter. How did end up in Key West and what is the music scene like?
Key West has been home base for many years. When we opened the Back Porch Cafe we had winters off so someone suggested Key West. I fell in love with the historic wood frame conch houses, swimming in the aquamarine sea, riding my bicycle everywhere, and all the fascinating artists and writers who live there. Perfect home base for the winter, easy flights to NYC. I still work quite a bit there. Last winter The Studios Of Key West mounted a “Remembering Lenny” production to celebrate Bernstein’s time in Key West which I was happy to be a part of. He hung out down there and I was fortunate to sing with the great maestro at a dinner party one night. For a two mile by four mile island the very cosmopolitan, international community there is pretty amazing. I also love doing concerts at the Truman Little White House, where Harry Truman spent so much time. It’s now a museum run by the State of Florida, and they occasionally open up the living room for the ultimate house concert. Jeremy Kahn, Andy Brown, Howard Alden have all been down to work with me there. There isn’t as much of a jazz scene on the island as there used to be, but I still perform at The Gardens Hotel, Little Room Jazz Club, The Tennessee Williams Theater, private parties, etc.
8 You also have a strong presence in New York. How did you establish yourself in New York and is there a difference between the Chicago jazz audience and New York jazz audience?
I moved to New York in 1981 and stayed for about 15 years, with a lot of time back there since then. That’s really where I learned to sing, to work with a band. The struggle of living in New York, always having some part time job to make ends meet, my most notable was a short stint as PA, production assistant, on Saturday Night Live. Living in New York I was surrounded by so many of the best players in the world who formed my vision of how the music should sound. Early on in New York, someone told me “there are always going to be singers who you think are better than you.” This helped me a lot in dealing with the feeling of competition. You kind of get over yourself and always support the fellow musicians you admire. Chicago is a great jazz town with incredible musicians who I love working with. The city has also some very loyal fans who love the people who have been here for many years, while also being open to excellence wherever they find it. It’s really wonderful to see the sold out house recently at Studebaker Theater for the CJO with my friend Paul Marinaro, or an enthusiastic full house for Jazz at Symphony Center or one of the fine clubs. Of course the Chicago Jazz Festival and Jazz Institute of Chicago are world class as well. The musicians and audiences are here!
I’m kind of in a funny place, since even though I was born and raised in Rogers Park because I lived on the east coast for so long I’m still building an audience here. Up until my partner, drummer Greg Sergo, passed in 2014, I hadn’t kept a residence in Chicago for quite a while.
9 Tell us about your upcoming performance at Winter’s Jazz Club coming up on June 19th. Who are the musicians performing with you and what will the repertoire be for that evening? (feel free to expand on the musicians you are playing with, how long you have known them, etc.)
It’s been so much fun putting the songs together for June 19th. The show is called “Three For The Road: Traveling Light” and Jeremy Kahn, Russ Phillips and I are presenting songs of favorite destinations, both celestial and terrestrial, I just like saying that! Travel has always been a passion for me ever since my grandfather, florist Otto Amling of Amling’s Flowerland, would travel the world for business and bring back gifts from far flung places. We’ll swing songs such as “Mountain Greenery”, “Rhode Island Is Famous For You”, “The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain”, the great Dave Frishberg tune “Do You Miss New York”, “Paris Blues”, “Corcovado” and of course, “Chicago”. Pianist Jeremy Kahn is really my right hand man on Chicago stages for his wonderful, inventive, sensitive, swinging playing and he always has my back! What a talent! This will be just the second time I’ve had the chance to work with the wonderful Russ Phillips, even though he and Jeannie Lambert have been friends for years. I love the beautiful, mellow tone he gets on his trombone. Since Russ sings too, we have a couple of special vocal duets on tap. It promises to be an especially fun night & I hope folks will come out!
Sunday June 17the and 9pm l I’ll be live in the WGN studios with Rick Kogan on his After Hours show. We’ll chat about the Winter’s date, and whatever else we come up with. Talk about a Chicago treasure always love being with Rick.
10 What do you have coming up after your performance at Winter’s Jazz Club on June 19th?
I look forward to returning to Mezzrow NYC August 28 with Michael Kanan, piano, and Neil Miner, bass. Spike Wilner has created the closet thing to the old Bradleys, an intimate listening room and wonderful hang.
Before that, July holds several Chicago dates with great musicians: July 6 Music By The Fountain concert at the Fourth Presbyterian Church with Andy Brown on guitar, July 19 Marie’s Pizza with JoAnn Dougherty and Larry Kohut, July 25 WDCB night at Parker’s, July 30 Serbian Village with Tom Muellner’s group, I’m headed to California early August….gig dates soon. And it’s become something of a tradition for me to celebrate my birthday at the Jazz Showcase, so I’ll be back there in September to mark my 74th trip around the sun. That will be one of the last Chicago dates till spring as I’m singing in Paris in October.
Details for all dates at www.libbyyork.com A recent reviewer said I was “a keeper of the flame of jazz singing.” I’ll take it. I still find it endlessly fascinating, challenging, creative and joyful. Heaven knows, we need the music now more than ever. There’s nothing I’d rather do and I’m grateful for the chance to live this jazz life. Jazz musicians and fans are the most fascinating people!
Another Reason To Celebrate
from Hot House
You’ll often find singer Libby York in the company of great piano players, with John Di Martino, Renee Rosnes and Bruce Barth among the fine musicians she’s gigged or recorded with. But there’s one keyboard maven in particular who stands out in her memory: Leonard Bernstein, whom she met at a dinner party in Key West. She recalls grappa flowing generously that evening, and at some point, the legendary musician said, “Libby, let’s go to the piano and play some blues.” “Sounded like a great idea!” she recalls. “It took a while for the realization to sink in: Oh my god, I just sang ‘Fine and Mellow’ with Leonard Bernstein!”
Libby plays a bit of piano herself although she hasn’t developed it to where she’d consider doing it in public. But that doesn’t mean it will never happen. After all, Libby didn’t start singing professionally until age 35. More than three decades later, she jokes about finally getting the hang of it. So much so that the vocalist, who now splits her time between Chicago and Key West, is considering moving back to the Big Apple to be at the epicenter of jazz.
“I’m still fascinated by singing; it never gets old. I have a list a mile long of songs I want to do. I kind of have the hang of it by now, and the process has not lost its interest. As long as the voice holds out, I’m there,” she declares.
This month, listeners can catch Libby in action in New York. “It’s kind of sentimental in a way,” she notes, since she’ll appear with pianist Bruce Barth and bassist Neal Miner, both of whom she frequently worked with when she lived in New York for 15 years in the ’80s and ’90s. You can catch them at Saint Peter’s Church’s Midtown Jazz at Midday on April 18, a venue she’s played many times in her career.
The singer will delve into her long list of songs for the gig. In honor of Bernstein’s centenary, she’s planning to do his tune “It’s Love” from Wonderful Town. Also among her picks could be Blossom Dearie’s “Rhode Island is Famous for You,” citing the “cute and funny lyrics” as part of the appeal. Barry Manilow’s “When October Goes” may also be on tap. Libby points out, “I’m not a huge Barry Manilow fan; I don’t think of him as a jazz musician. But Johnny Mercer is my favorite composer and this song is based on some of his unfinished lyrics.”
A new recording is in the early planning stages (her most recent, Memoir, came out in 2014). “I approach recording in an organic manner—choosing songs that are current favorites.” While she doesn’t start out with a theme in mind, sometimes one reveals itself as the process continues. One thing listeners can count on: “I don’t approach songs with nostalgia, thinking about the good old days, or as a period piece. To me, it’s all very current. As a jazz musician, we don’t play anything the same way twice. Staying present and in the moment, improvising with the phrasing, that keeps it fresh and makes it so much fun!”
Libby has an attitude of gratitude about her life in music. “It’s endlessly fascinating and it’s a blessing to have something you feel that way about,” she says. “Creative people are very fortunate. It’s not a secure lifestyle, but we have goals and things we love to do. We’re lucky.”
— Elzy Kolb
Libby York Quartet
from The New Yorker
“Memoir,” Libby York’s most recent recording, is a telling reflection of a gifted and experienced singer whose subtle manner may have kept her from greater popular acclaim. A warm tone and a sharp sense of humor bolster her restrained artistry. (Jazz at Kitano, 66 Park Ave., at 38th St. 212-885-7119. Sept. 30.)
“Music Scene” Interview
from Florida Weekly
“I first heard Libby York in the best way you can hear somebody. Totally unexpectedly, and as a surprise. I was listening to that wonderful Singers Unlimited show on a Sunday morning from a great jazz station in Newark, and I heard a voice singing ‘Sunday in New York.’ I sat up from my waffles and said, ‘Who is THAT?’ Minutes later, I went online and found one of her wonderful recordings and I have been a keen fan of hers ever since. I have written six books and hundreds of pieces for the New Yorker magazine, but nothing in my professional life makes me prouder than that I got to write the liner notes for Libby York’s last record. She swings. She’s tender. She knows how to sell an emotion without overselling it. And she just embodies a certain spirit of jazz which is all too precious and all too rare.” — Adam Gopnik, author; contributing journalist, The New Yorker magazine
Libby York spends a lot of time traveling and performing in New York; her hometown of Chicago; Paris; and Paso Robles, Calif., but she still keeps a Key West home that she bought back in 1980.
“This is my home,” she said. And it continues to be her hub of operations.
Ms. York graduated from the American University in Washington, D.C., and was musically influenced early on by her parents.
“Both of my parents sang and played piano,” she said. Her early influences included Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mercer, George Gershwin and Rosemary Clooney.
“My last record was in a way an homage to Rosemary Clooney,” she said.
Then, in 1974, she says, “We opened a restaurant, the Back Porch Cafe in Rehoboth Beach, Del., a resort on the ocean for the Washington, D.C. crowd. It’s still there!”
When the place closed for the winter that year, a friend suggested Key West as a place she might want to visit, so she did. And her visits continued after that.
“My first piano teacher, Yehuda Guttman, was here in Key West, a Julliard scholar who once played at Carnegie Hall,” she said. Mr. Guttman’s son later started Key West’s cab company, Five Sixes Taxi.
“I performed once for Tennessee Williams at the Rose Tattoo, named after his play (and movie). I placed a rose on his plate.” And then, coincidentally, “I was the assistant stage manager for the opening season of the Tennessee Williams Theatre. (The Tennessee Williams play) was called ‘Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?’ It ran once, but never again. I still have pictures and the program from the original show.”
And in another ironic twist, she now performs “Libby in the Lobby” on occasion at that same theater with Bobby Nesbitt. “I can’t wait to do that again,” she said.
She met guitarist Franklin Micane at the Pier House in 1981, and he invited her to sit in.
“I’ll never forget: I sang Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day.’ He asked me to come join him in New York. I got a summer sublet in the Village with nothing but a bed and piano, and we had our first gig, with just three songs. But I was bit. I stayed in New York.”
She got her first job from an ad in The Village Voice.
“It was with an eight-piece band called Swing Street, for dancers,” she said.
Over the years, she graced the Waldorf Astoria, the Metropolitan, Kitano Hotel and numerous small clubs.
“I toured throughout Paris and performed at the Cafe Laurent,” Ms. York said.
She works hard, but it’s clear that she loves what she does. And from the mountains of accolades she’s earned, it is apparent that she is extraordinarily good at it, which, in turn, keeps her extraordinarily busy.
“When you’re your own agent, you’re always looking for work. Now I can pick and choose. I enjoy what I refer to as a Listening Room,” she said, referring to a room without annoying distractions, designed for music lovers with discerning ears and tastes.
One such room is the Little Room Jazz Club on Duval Street here in Key West, where Ms. York will be performing most Wednesdays throughout the season. It is a warm, upscale, intimate space in which connoisseurs of fine wine and fine music regularly congregate. In New York City, she might perform with a trio of musicians, but here, she is usually accompanied by one, such as guitarist Tim McAlpine.
Keep an eye out for Libby York performances at the Studios of Key West, too. The best way to keep up with her past, present and future endeavors, and to see videos from some of her memorable performances, is to check out her website: www.LibbyYork.com. She is easy to find on YouTube as well.
In February, she’ll take a break from the island and head to Paso Robles to teach and entertain there, including a master class at Cuesta College on Feb. 3, and performing at the Paso Robles’ D’Anbino Vineyards and Cellars Feb. 5.
Then she’ll be back to Key West for March 5-6 performances of “Libby York: Still on the Road – Here’s to Life” at Truman’s Little White House, which is always a sell-out. She performs this show in Harry Truman’s living room, where there are just ten tables. (Tickets are $60, available at KeysTix.com.)
“I’m very excited to be performing with Woody Allen (no, not that one), the lead guitarist for the Survivors,” she said. The Survivors are typically known more for their calypso, folk and jazz genres, so this should be an interesting mix.
Her new record release, “Memoir,” named among the Top Ten by KCRW’s Bo Leibowitz, has garnered rave reviews, including these from her website:
“… a jazz singer of cool composure and artful subtlety…” – Nate Chinen, The New York Times.
“… relaxed perfection…” – C. Michael Bailey, All About Jazz.
“… her wit and easy swing.” – The New Yorker.
“Her smoky voice will appeal to Diana Krall fans, but she is very much her own woman.” – The Times of London.
“There are a lot of wonderful female vocalists on the scene today, and one of the best is Libby York.” Joe Lang, JerseyJazz.
“… every inch Diana Krall’s equal … warm, intimate and imbued with a fogbound sexiness.” Christopher Louden, JazzTimes.
“It’s hard to imagine a voice more suited to classic jazz standards than that of Libby York.” Roark Littlefield, Stage Buddy. And the list of praise goes on and on.
Ms. York is already working on her next project, one she will record in New York. “There will be some interesting new things on the new CD,” she promises.
Referring to the classification of her timeless music, she says, “I prefer ‘Great American Songbook’ over standards or covers. Like Johnny Mercer and George Gershwin. I love them.”
With a seemingly endless library of fascinating stories of fascinating people, she recounts meeting Leonard Bernstein.
“After dinner at Antonia’s house (the namesake of the popular Duval Street restaurant), we were drinking grappa with Leonard Bernstein, when Lenny says, “Libby, let’s go to the piano and sing some blues.” We did Billie Holiday’s ‘Fine and Mellow.’”
She has a list of about 20 songs she wants to do. For example, she said, “I love Jobim’s ‘This Happy Madness.’”
I asked Ms. York why Key West has remained her hub, after experiencing a big-city metropolitan lifestyle.
“It’s the people,” she said. “There’s such a cosmopolitan, international group of people right here. The beauty. The homes. The tropical air. I can ride my bike everywhere. I can swim every day.”
Catch a Libby York performance the next time you see her name on a marquee.
“I’m just a singer of fine songs who works with jazz musicians,” she concluded. “Great jazz musicians. That’s the difference between jazz and cabaret. It’s got to swing!”
And Ms. York does.
Concert Review: The Libby York Quartet
The Japanese atmosphere of the lovely Kitano Hotel faded away as the Libby York Quartet took to the stage Wednesday evening. A timeless jazz club suddenly appeared out of the Asian mist. York, elegantly dressed in black, dazzled.
The performance was a bit more melancholy than York’s recent album “Memoir”, with an even richer atmosphere of saloons and lonely nights. Some of the songs were new to me, such as Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk” and the delightfully seedy “Something Cool” by Billy Barnes. York performed these with relish, referring to the latter as the ultimate song for lounge lizards.
With “Thanks for the Memories”, the Chicago-born chanteuse has really taken ownership of this classic, and I hope it will remain one of her standards. She sings it like no one else, with all schmaltz and bonhomie long gone. What is left is a delightful, unabashedly wistful private moment with an old lover. The magical Warren Vache on cornet added some deliciously boozy notes and a few tears of his own before handing it over to pianist John DiMartino, who attempted a gentle dose of cheer before finally giving in to his own heartache. Matt Wind on bass was reflective, yet provided just the right amount of lift to keep the number from becoming maudlin. It was a wonderful essay in melancholy with each player adding a unique chapter to the bittersweet story.
The brightest moments came with Vache joining York in the classic duet “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. Vache went straight for laughs with improvised lyrics while York tried to rein it in, striving to save the “whole thing”. With Vache looking for the exit the entire time, this was no small feat.
Vache has become a lion in the jazz world, and his mischievous glances and quick flashes of humor are almost as entertaining as his lovely cornet. He still experiments with his instrument, and he creates achingly beautiful sounds that seem to linger in the air long after he has set the horn down. DiMartino conjures up memories of Vince Guaraldi when the late pianist wasn’t playing for peanuts. His touch is delicate yet strong, with magnificent color and rhythm. His expressive face is engaging and unpredictable. On bass Matt Wind didn’t always get a solo, but when he did his tone was rich and clear. He even treated his listeners to some lovely, all-too-seldom-heard artistry with the bow. These musicians clearly love playing with one another. They left the audience at the Kitano wanting more, but surely grateful for the memories.
Roark Littlefield, Stage Buddy
MEMOIR – Libby York Music
Libby York is not a huge name in the jazz world, but those who are familiar with her singing know her to be an appealing representative of the Cool School. Influenced by Anita O’Day, Chris Connor and June Christy, York does not shout to get your attention. Restraint and understatement prevail throughout Memoir, a pleasing effort that finds the Chicago native joined by pianist John di Martino, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Greg Sergo. Guitarist Russell Malone joins on Ralph Ranger-Leon Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory”, Cy Coleman’s “When in Rome” and Roberto Menescal’s bossa nova standard “Little Boat” while cornet player Warren Vaché is featured on Jimmy Van Heusen-Johnny Burke’s “Put It There, Pal” and George Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”.
For all her subtlety, York brings plenty of feeling to Memoir, whether interpreting Cole Porter’s “Take Me Back to Manhattan”, Frank Loesser’s “On a Slow Boat to China”, Rube Bloom-Harry Ruby’s “Give Me the Simple Life” or “Walk Between the Raindrops” by Donald Fagen. York’s sense of humor is evident with some fun male/female banter with Vaché on “Put It There, Pal” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”.
Some jazz instrumentalists don’t care to work with singers, but thankfully, the musicians York chose are known for their work with vocalists: Malone spent years backing Diana Krall; Vaché played with Rosemary Clooney extensively; and Wind and di Martino have both backed numerous singers in their careers. The overarching melodicism of the band certainly doesn’t hurt. In a perfect world, York (who didn’t start singing professionally until 35) would have a larger catalogue. But the albums she has recorded have been solid and Memoir is no exception.
Alex Henderson, New York City Jazz Record
MEMOIR – Libby York Music
Maturity and confidence trump youthful enthusiasm every time. Experience and self-assurance are both sexy and smart when in the hands and voice of Chicago-native Libby York, who has that rare ability to take use- worn standards, strip out the sentimentality and present the piece as originally intended. On Memoir, York boldly grasps pieces like, “Thanks for the Memory,” “On a Slow Boat to China” and “How Long Has This Been Going On,” shakes off the dust of nostalgia, recreating them as first intended. It takes a recording like this to demonstrate how a patina of nostalgia can tarnish the surface of a great song. Pianist John J. DiMartino and guitarist Russell Malone melodically soften these arrangements, while cornetist Warren Vache plays and sings (on “Put It There” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”). The duets are playful and vibrant with Vache providing a bit of sepia tone with his cornet. York achieves a certain relaxed perfection in her singing, one that can only have come from a love of the repertoire and its performance.
C. Michael Bailey, AllAboutJazz.com
MEMOIR – Libby York Music
Every so often a CD comes along that seems to have everything you want. Tunes and lyrics by the grand craftsmen of Tin Pan Alley, instrumental breaks by sympathetic musicians, and a singer who can interpret the GAsbook in the vocal traditions created by such as Ella, Peggy, Billie, Anita, Frank etc and yet retain his/her individuality. This is just such a disc!
Well there are the songs – Give Me the Simple Life; When in Rome; Put it There Pal; Thanks For the Memory; Take Me Back to Manhattan; I Was Doing Alright; My Little Boat; Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off; On a Slow Boat to China; How Long Has This Been Going on?; Walk Between the Raindrops – if I’d had to pick out the set list myself at least half of these would have been on it!
And the musicians. Warren Vache on cornet, the best thing since sliced Braff, is so perfect for this type of set up. I have fond memories of a weekend at the Breda Jazz Festival back in 1982. I loved every minute of those few days and listening to Warren, (was he Warren Vaché back then?) in the company of Guy Lafitte and Bob Wilber, contributed to some of those memories. Warren also duets vocally with Libby on a couple of numbers. How ironic that one of the numbers on this disc should be Thanks For The Memory with Vache’s cornet outstanding – he’s certainly outgrown the junior tag! On guitar Russell Malone is another ace in this stacked deck. John DiMartino is great on piano although his predilection for the “a fish is an animal that swims in a brook” quote – he does it at least 3 times – perhaps partially undermines his creativity!
Now we come to Libby York. Her fourth album – how many have Krall, Monheit and co made? York should have at least a dozen on the shelves! She hasn’t, so make the most of this one. We’re hardly into March 2014 but this is the one the pack’s chasing.
You can catch her on March 26 at the Tennessee Williams Cabaret Theatre, Key West, Florida – excuse me, I got to go book an airline ticket…
PS: Today is my birthday and THIS is the best present I’ve had – beats the Chevrolet hands down!
Lance, Bebop Spoken Here
– – –
MEMOIR – Libby York Music
There are a lot of wonderful female vocalists on the scene today, and one of the best is LIBBY YORK. Memoir (Libby York Music – No Catalog Number) finds her in excellent company with Warren Vaché cornet, John di Martino on piano, Russell Malone on guitar, Martin Wind on bass and Greg Sergo on drums. York is a singer who can take familiar tunes like “Give Me the Simple Life,” “Thanks for the Memory,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” or “How Long Has This Been Going On,” and make them sound fresh. She is a wonderful interpreter of lyrics, and phrasing should be her middle name. Vachés, as I have written countless times, as good as it gets. In addition, he contributes some nifty vocalizing on “Put It There, Pal.” And “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” If asked to list the first call piano accompanists, you could not omit the imaginative di Martino. Malone simply swings with the best of them. Having Wind and Sergo anchoring the rhythm section is an added bonus. This is Libby York’s fourth album, and she has recorded another winner.
Joe Lang, JerseyJazz
– – –
MEMOIR – Libby York Music
With the assistance of pianist John DiMartino on arrangements, producer and leader Libby York offer up a real classic slice of traditional jazz. This is the Great American Songbook done in a style that is respectful, reverent and totally true to form. Being an artist, York takes certain liberties with phrasing and structure but delivers in a manner that pays homage to the greats such as Rosemary Clooney, Annie Ross, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. There are no real surprises with this record and no disconcerting curves thrown. It’s just sturdy and dependable songs lovingly handled with care and polished to perfection.
“Give Me the Simple Life” kicks off the track list and kind of exemplifies the whole mood of the album at the same time. York has an easy going and relaxed approach that totally will relieve what ails you. She alters time and space ever so slightly while the band responds with a mild and carefree swing. The amusing travelogue “When in Rome (I Do As the Romans Do)” follows and features superb vocal dexterity and enunciation, flanked by Russell Malone’s exquisite solo guitar and Warren Vache’s delicate horn embellishments. Jimmy Van Heusen’s delightful “Put It There, Pal” is a fun one that finds York and Vache sparring comical asides and vocal improvs together. They are, indeed, artistic compadres that exhibit a ton of good humor and simpatico here. “Take Me Back to Manhattan” is a love letter to NYC and the 1930’s show tune is topped off by DiMartino’s elegant piano and Vache’s soulful cornet. Gershwin’s “I Was Doing Alright” continues that air of urbane sophistication via the leader’s highly stylized vocals and the rhythm section’s light, yet driving swing. The mood changes slightly with the introduction of the sambafueled “My Little Boat.” The band arrangement and interplay is smooth and transparent, allowing York to really get inside the melody and rework it a bit. Her phrasing here is romantically entrancing and magical. Some other tunes of note include another Gershwin gem “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and Donald Fagen’s modern jazz classic “Walk Between the Raindrops.” With the first piece, Vache, once again, vocally duets with York and recalls the charming and comedic musician-actor Jack Sheldon. The second and final track on the album was originally composed by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen for a solo project called The Nightfly. This was a good call by York as the light hearted cadence and chord structure of the piece fit in extremely well with the rest of the, mostly, Tin Pan Alley fare.
Libby York is a fine singer, arranger and band leader. Her rapport with the group is so engagingly palpable you’ll wish you were in the studio absorbing their musically vibrant and positive energy live.
Eric Harabadian, Jazz Inside Magazine
– – –
While Diana Krall continues to top vocal polls and rack up platinum album sales, Chicagoan Libby York remains comparatively obscure. So consider this open invitation to all Krall fans to dip into York’s meager-just four albums across 15 years-but mighty oeuvre. Memoir, a terrific collection of standards, is an ideal place to start. What you’ll discover is an interpreter who is not only every inch Krall’s equal but also bears a strong vocal resemblance to the Canadian superstar: warm, intimate and imbued with a fogbound sexiness.
York has always demonstrated superb taste in both song selection and side-men. Here, traveling from a tender “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and a sly “When in Rome” to a shimmering “My Little Boat” and sprightly “Walk Between the Raindrops,” she is seamlessly supported by pianist John di Martino (her co-arranger on all 11 tracks), bassist Martin Wind, drummer Greg Sergo and cornet player Warren Vache. Guitarist Russell Malone joins on three tracks, including a misty “Thanks for the Memory,” and Vache twice contributes vocal accompaniment, adding gravel-filled joy to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and a cleverly updated take on the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope chestnut “Put It There, Pal.”
Christopher Loudon, JazzTimes
– – –
MEMOIR – Libby York Music
It’s hard to imagine a voice more suited to classic jazz standards than that of Libby York. Listening to this throaty, laid-back chanteuse easing her way through “Take Me Back To Manhattan”, you can almost see the cigarette smoke and catch the aroma of spilled bourbon in a beautifully lived-in jazz club, the kind that perhaps no longer exists.
In its best moments, York’s new album, “Memoir”, sounds like something the singer and her damn talented companions did for themselves, not caring too much whether anyone else might wander into the joint. They toss back some more gin and pick it up again, vibrating with soul as the clock on the wall eases its way towards two in the morning. The record starts off strong with a witty performance of “Give Me The Simple Life”. It’s jaunty, effortless, and as in so many of the tracks on “Memoir” made all the more enjoyable by York’s generous habit of passing it off to her mates for a few bars. After they add their own delectable flourishes, it’s all the more pleasurable when she comes back in again.
Strong, too, is the eminently recognizable tune “Thanks For The Memories”, a stoic, smiling-through-the-tears tune that was unfortunately made corny and insipid by its decades-long warbling by Bob Hope. She reminds us what a great meditation it is, a happy/sad reflection on a relationship long gone. It’s truly a classic, and York’s is the best rendition I’ve heard in years.
York is justly known for her great control and confident phrasing. She also has the ability to create a vocal shade that implies a broad grin while she sings. It’s occasionally charming, sometimes a bit much, but in the best tracks on this album, she sets this aside and bares her heart.
The most disappointing track is the Crosby tribute “Put It There, Pal”, a duet sung with Warren Vache in which most of the time is spent exchanging cutesy banter such as “Shall we dance? …No, I got my girdle on tonight!” and other Bing-esque jibes. When Louis Armstrong and other singers made this kind of thing work, it was because it was spice, not the whole dish. Somewhat less interesting, too, is “My Little Boat”, a fairly obscure and forgettable song. But the weaker songs are not only few, but also mercifully short, whereas the best songs are given a lot of time.
The best performance on the album, the Gershwin classic “How Long Has This Been Going On?”, is simply magnificent, an aching rendition that really takes its time, and in this song York is at her most vulnerable. In fact, it is the vulnerability in her voice that is most gripping. It’s even more appealing than the laid-back confidence she has in spades. It moves the listener into a poetic and gorgeously melancholy realm that is simply blissful. Confidence is great in jazz, but vulnerability and heartache is what gives it its beautiful sting.
I cannot find fault with any of the playing of York’s mates, and she gives them plenty of play time. Vache is truly great on the cornet, often pained and reflective, and John DiMartino appears in many of “Memoir’s” numbers with delicate piano playing that is a perfect accompaniment to York’s vocals. When these musicians match her sensitivity and ache, “Memoir” really glows. The rest of the time it’s still a fine evening in a great old club off a rainy street sometime close to two am.
Roark Littlefield, StageBuddy
– – –
“…with a voice like amber–dense, rich and imbued with an enchanting hint of smokiness–York proves that simple beauty is often the most stunning.”
Christopher Loudon, JazzTimes
“As befits her acknowledged influences, Chris Connor and June Christy, York’s is an intimate, conversational style, with the Great American Songbook her natural habitat. It’s a laid-back approach, ideal for her dark, mature voice, impeccable phrasing and irreproachable swing.
Given that the small group here is based around Howard Alden (guitar) and Warren Vache (cornet), with just bass and drums, it’s no surprise that they groove so well, turning such songs as “Look For the Silver Lining,” “The Things We Did Last Summer,” “You Go To My Head” and “I Love Being Here With You” into sunny, warm experiences.
The closest she comes to angst is the feeling of a “that’s life” shrug she imparts to “For All We Know,” one of three polished duets with guitarist Russell Malone, and a fine “But Beautiful” with Alden and Vache (who is in great form throughout the album).”
Ray Comisky, The Irish Times
“Another example of a premier artist who displays it through restraint rather than excessiveness is Libby York, whose new CD Here With You (Libby York) shows it’s possible to refresh any tune, even such frequently performed compositions as “But Beautiful,” “Flamingo” and “For All We Know.” Still, as inviting as York’s treatments of these numbers prove, she’s even more appealing doing “The Day The World Stopped Turning,” “Azure Te (Paris Blues)” or “I Love Being Here With You.”
On these she not only beautifully delivers the lyrics, she takes the listener right into the song through her exposition. These numbers only work if the vocalist can really make the person hearing them believe them, and York’s expressive, rich and striking voice has that ability. It also helps that she has several top musicians backing her, especially guitarist Howard Alden (also the primary arranger) and Russell Malone, and cornetist Warren Vache (who also backs her vocally on “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”). Though York doesn’t venture into the rock or pop arena on Here With You, what she does cover is done with grace and passion.”
Ron Wynn, Nashville City Paper
“Ms. York is a jazz singer of cool composure and artful subtlety, as she demonstrates on her fine new album, “Here With You.”
Nate Chinen, New York Times
“….an intimate, richly textured singing voice and warm
casual radience.” Variety
“Ms. york deliver[s] another peerless recording”
Alan Bargebuhr, Cadence, the Independent Journal of Creative Improvised Music.
* * * * 4 Stars
“This CD, rich with the scent of smoke rings and martinis,could possibly bring back Chesterfields (though probably not vermouth). Stylish and cosmopolitan with a broad streak of lush life urbanity, Libby York has a sound that recalls,without any condescension or gratuitous nostalgia, the slightly world weary, been around the block ennui of post war Anita O’Day, Chris Connor and Sarah Vaughn. It was a sharp contrast to the pre-war ingenues whose perky optimism characterized the swing band singers. And it wears well indeed. York offers what is more or less a salute to Sinatra. In these swank moorings she rises to her considerable best, discreetely accompanied by pianist Renee Rosnes. Wess is always a delight, providing a warm jazz sensibility to coplement York’s slightly husky elegance.”
John McDonough, Downbeat Magazine
“Delectable… bravura dexterity… simultaneously recalls the cool self assurance of June Christy and the caress of Edie Adams.”
Christopher Loudon, JazzTimes
“Wow! I love this CD! The program of songs is great, and the performance is so enjoyable! Is this a rave review? I hope so, one is intended.”
Jack Simpson, Jazz on the Beach, WUCF Orlando
“A really nice package throughout – choice cuts sung impeccably with ‘Her Rosnes’ and the ‘courtiers doing their expected super job”.
Carroll Coates, co-composer /lyricist Sunday in New York
“York is from the cool school of June Christy, and Peggy Lee… January in Rockefeller Center when you have the rink to yourself. You’re alive. The air is cool. She’s ice dancing and you’re in love.”
Dick Crockett, The Voice 88.7 FM Sacramento
“Carrying its emotional power in its graceful reserve, her voice finds the perfect complement in Frank Wess’ sensuous tenor lines…the “cool school” vocal tradition that Libby York keeps simmering in the 21st century…effortless.”
Neil Tesser, MilesAhead Jazz from Chicago
“This album caught my attention not only with the sweet renderings of York, but with the self assurance bred of complete confidence in her ability as a master vocalist with a deep well of talent at her disposal… In a word, I dug it.”
John Gilbert, Jazz Review
“Libby can sing!”
Ron Gill, Jazz Gallery, WGBH Boston
“Quite a beautiful recording.”
Chris Heim, WBEZ Chicago
“Dreamy, fabulous, warm, great intonation, super photos and dashing liner notes.”
Linda Yohn, WEMU Ann Arbor
“York is relaxed , subtle, and infinitely tender, especially on the ballads…you can hear the smile in her voice.”
Judith Schlesinger, ALL ABOUT JAZZ
“Libby is one of my favorite jazz vocalists. She’s incredibly well-versed in jazz standards yet can do bebop, too. She has a classy, dignified presence and connects well with the audience. She’s very special to me as a singer. There’s a lot of people that perform here, but she’s one of my favorites.”
Steve Delisi, Arts Programmer, Chicago Cultural Center
“Libby York is a great vocalist. She’s got a swinging jazz sound. York grabs the attention and people immediately relate to her. She’s a major player in the jazz vocalist world.”
Tom Verhey, Owner, Pops for Champagne
“Ms. York is a jazz singer of cool composure and artful subtlety, as she demonstrates on her fine new album, “Here With You.”
Nate Chinen, NY Times
Vocalist Libby York may have gotten a late start in her performing career, but one would never know from listening to these hip sessions. The cool-toned singer chose a number of timeless songs, arranged by Howard Alden, who also plays guitar on most of the tracks, though in more of a supporting role. She savors “But Beautiful” with a heartfelt performance and engages in a playful vocal duet with Warren Vache (who also plays cornet on several selections) of “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” The easygoing bossa nova setting of “Look For the Silver Lining” and the subdued, romantic setting of “Flamingo” showcase her voice at its very best. Russell Malone plays guitar on three tracks, including lush duets with York of the standard “For All We Know” and a warm, swinging take of “A Beautiful Friendship,” plus a loping, bluesy rendition of Wild Bill Davis’ “Azure-Te (Paris Blues).” Veteran bassist Jon Burr and percussionist Vanderlei Pereira also provide excellent support to the singer.
Ken Dryden – allmusicguide.com