THE STORY BEHIND IN MY LIFE

by Grammy Award Winner Bob Blumenthal

That rare combination of native talent and keen perception has made Rondi Charleston a commanding vocal stylist and a spellbinding storyteller, with tastes that traverse the musical spectrum and a love of interpretive risks. The honesty of her sound and her insight into the emotions behind lyrics mark Charleston as a singer for all seasons, one who feels at home in give and take with the jazz world’s most inspiring accompanists yet makes just as strong an impression on those listeners who care less about virtuosity than the visceral experience of a musical vignette truly told. She has reached this point by drawing upon a lifetime of resources that span music, media and the empathy at the core of every true artist.

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The course of life’s journey is rarely a straight path. Twists, turns, and unexpected detours can change our direction and alter our destination. Those of us with a creative curiosity can seize on these new routes and turn them to our advantage, learning in the process where we were headed all along. Which explains how Charleston has emerged, after an early life filled with diverse adventures, as such a compelling singer; one who is both technically assured and able to connect on the personal level of lived and shared experience, and whose current power is exceeded only by the even greater potential that her vision suggests.

Charleston considers herself destined for a life in the arts. Both of her parents sing, her mother teaches voice and Dad is a classical music radio announcer. I heard Miles Davis records in utero, met Duke Ellington when I was six, and would find classic novels next to my cereal bowl, she recalls. Growing up in the Hyde Park area while her father attended the University of Chicago, she was also exposed to that city’s wealth of music, and as she grew older, took the opportunity to worship at the feet of Carmen McRae when her idol appeared at Ratso’s and other local clubs. By age 15 Charleston was singing professionally, at a folk club called Somebody Else’s Troubles, but other youthful interests suggested that she might pursue a career in theatre. At first the stage won out, when an audition with the legendary John Houseman led to her acceptance at age 16 to Juilliard’s Drama Department. A firm believer in cherishing the process as well as the performance, Charleston embraced her evolving Juilliard experience. I just followed my passion, she explains, using the theatrical training to learn how one explores the emotional depths of material. After two years, the school’s Voice Department accepted her as well, and her course seemed set on a career in opera. As a young vocalist Charleston had her successes, but soon realized that she had chosen that rare profession in which being a slim, attractive blonde was not always an advantage – where, if you will, it would never be over when she was done singing. The rigidity of operatic performance was another problem. The classical years were tough, she admits, because the spontaneity of creating something in the moment was missing for me.

Charleston responded by returning to school on a fellowship, specifically the NYU Graduate School of Journalism. One of her assignments was to write a story on a local train crash, and when her investigations revealed a cover-up, The New York Times and the New York Daily News picked up the resulting story. A job offer from ABC followed even before she graduated, and soon she was co-producing Emmy and Peabody award-winning segments on Primetime Live. The job was demanding, but the urge to perform remained. I couldn’t not sing in those years, Charleston emphasizes, on lunch breaks, weekends, whenever the opportunity presented itself. There were occasional gigs in Manhattan as well, one of which was attended by her colleague Diane Sawyer. I came because I like you, Sawyer exclaimed after the set, but you never told me you were really good. You could do this.

Soon after, Charleston’s daughter Emma was born. The need to set priorities became clear, and while raising Emma, music again became central to her life. She began to study with Peter Eldridge of New York Voices, formed working relationships with creative accompanists like those heard here, and recorded her second CD. This latest recording and its companion DVD confirm that Diane Sawyer is a pretty astute music critic.

While the technical aspects of Charleston the vocalist are impressive, from the natural warmth of her sound to the ease with which she phrases and the assurance of her beat, it is her conviction as a storyteller that really sets her apart. Not for nothing did she revere Carmen McRae, one of the supreme vocal dramatists, and one suspects that it was at McRae’s feet as well as in Juilliard classroom that Charleston learned to keep feeling and meaning at the forefront every time she performs. When it comes to virtuosity, those singers who can dazzle too often do so at the expense of their material. Charleston has the chops that can leave us in awe, but always makes it about the song, which in the end is the greatest compliment that one can pay a singer.

Her interpretations of popular hits are prime examples of her taste and her expressive depth in action. Unlike many who have tried to bring such material into a jazz orbit, Charleston allows the song to dictate her interpretations. On the title track, where the melody is beautiful and the message direct, she feels no need to bend either unnaturally, while Carole King’s anthem Beautiful can accommodate greater variation and receives an original treatment fully in synch with its message, and Sting’s Until is transformed into a gypsy waltz. Tony Levin’s Fragile as a Song is a further example of Charleston’s knack for finding meaningful material.

The originals Ancient Steps and Telescope reveal that Charleston can write songs where both message and melody flow seamlessly. My Dad instilled a love of language in me, she explains, and he gave me a lot of Hemingway to read, which taught me the value of paring things down. Both songs arose from experiences shared with her daughter and display a world view that can only be described as ageless – one that conveys wisdom and affirmation to the young, while evoking knowing nods from those of us old enough to find Charleston’s images echoing our own journeys.  Ancient Steps, a Jobim-like meditation on life, followed from seeing the film March of the Penguins, while  Telescope,  which opens with a surprisingly apt African inspired chant, is a mother’s response to Emma’s questions after a museum visit. Both have music by Charleston’s pianist and musical director, Bruce Barth. Bruce is an exquisite collaborator with a profound harmonic vocabulary and a way of knowing just what is needed, she reports. I consider him a brilliant architect of space and time.

That level of sonic architecture carried over to the recording studio and to the live performance at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola that is captured on the DVD portion of the program. Barth, who has served Tony Bennett in a similar capacity, has been one of the dominant pianists and vocal accompanists for over a decade; the rest of the rhythm section (bassist Sean Smith and drummers Alvester Garnett or Clarence Penn) have similarly deep and star-studded resumes; tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm and guitarist Adam Rogers are two of the most mature and flexible soloists on their respective instruments. Together, they transform the familiar (I’m Old Fashioned), fashion instant orchestrations (the magical first take of Bewitched), set sultry grooves (Baby Don’t You Quit Now), a Jimmy Rowles gem that Charleston learned from a recording by another of her favorites, Irene Kral and do everything else that the music demands. There are also appearances by Charleston’s brother Erik, who plays regularly with the New York Philharmonic, on the two originals, plus supporting vocals by daughter Emma on Telescope, making In My Life a true family affair.

The accompanying DVD makes a few additional crucial points. By reprising several titles, it confirms that Charleston does not rely on studio sweetening or other such post-production effects, and that she possesses the spontaneous instincts that mark all true jazz singers. The bandstand give and take, especially in the responses that pass between Charleston and Barth and Frahm, are another sign that she finds joy in taking risks, and has the proper partners to ensure successful results. Sometimes a nod or a wink, when delivered on the bandstand, can be as demonstrative as a high five, and there are a slew of such endorsements passing between singer and band throughout the set. The listeners provide another marker of the performance’s excellence. They respond to every song choice, from the familiar Lennon-McCartney and Rodgers and Hart classics to Charleston’s evocative gaze through Telescope, as if savoring memories in their lives.

While early successes in other realms displayed her strengths as musician and communicator, Rondi Charleston’s path is now poised for even greater triumphs. Now there is nothing to deter her from becoming one of our major jazz and popular vocalists; but should the urge to reinvent herself strike again, we can only hope that she heeds the advice in Johnny Mercer’s lyric. Don’t quit now, Rondi. You’ve found your calling.

Rondi Live ar Dizzy’s Club, NYC

Arrangements By Bruce Barth & Rondi Charleston
String Arrangements By Bruce Barth
Arrangement for Someone To Light Up My Life by Peter Eldridge
Back Up Vocals On Telescope by Emma Charleston Ruchefsky
Vocals: Rondi Charleston
Piano & Musical Direction: Bruce Barth 
Bass: Sean Smith 
Drums: Clarence Penn 
Tenor Sax: Joel Frahm
Guitars: Adam Rogers
Flute: Hadar Noiberg
Vibes: Erik Charlston
Harp: Barbara Allen 
Strings: Meg Okura, Tanya Kalmanovitch and  Antoine Silverman Mary Wooten

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