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 Irene & Her Latin Jazz Band

 Irene & Her Latin Jazz Band

 Irene & Her Latin Jazz Band

You’ve just released your second CD. “A Song of You,” which, as with your first project, “Summer Samba,” is a rich tapestry of Brazilian and Latin tunes and rhythms. What brought about the focus for you on this enticing genre of music?

When I started taking singing lessons about eight years ago, I was singing a lot of jazz standards; The Great American Songbook. I began to get bored with that style and started asking my music teacher, Alex Varden, to add Latin rhythms to those songs on his keyboard when I was singing them. That made it a lot more for fun for me. From there the natural course of events was that I got a book of songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and starting learning some of them.

You need to know that when I was a child my mother had her own little informal music appreciation course going on during breakfast every day. She would put on the radio to either a station that played classical music or another one that played jazz standards and some Brazilian tunes here and there. I particularly remember being entranced by “One Note Samba” and would always be delighted when they would play it. When I was in high school someone (and I don’t remember whom) introduced me to Sergio Mendes’ music. I just loved it. My brother who was into heavy metal rock thought I was nuts, but I didn’t care. I listened to every Sergio Mendes recording that I could get my hands on. So, that Brazilian style of music was just something I gravitated towards from a young age.

You were “discovered” in October, 2003 at “Karaoke Night” at Club Med in Bora Bora, and you’ve been returning there regularly to perform ever since. How did that first gig come about?

My New Year’s resolution for 2003 was that I was going to get over my fear of singing solo in public by forcing myself to go to clubs and sing Karaoke. By the time I got to Club Med it was eight months into the year and I had sung Karaoke maybe three times. We got to Bora Bora on a Saturday, and on Monday it was Karaoke night. I had brought with me a CD with a bunch of tracks so I could practice my singing while we were there. I took my disc and went over to the bar where they were doing Karaoke and asked if I could sing one of my own songs. So I sang “Why Don’t You Do Right?” After I was finished with that song the Chef du Village (General Manager), Bruno Ibanez, came over to me and asked if I would sing another song. So I sang “You Took Advantage of Me.” I noticed while I was singing that song that he went into the sound booth and was talking to the sound guy. After I was done he came over to me again and said he noticed I had a lot of songs on my disc and wondered if I would be willing to sing the next two nights in the shows they do in the theater. Being as I was a Drama Major in College and will get on stage any chance I get, I naturally said, “Yes.”

The next two nights I showed up on time to the theater, did my sound checks, sang in the show, and behaved in a professional manner. After the second show, Bruno, took me aside again and said that he would like to offer me and my husband a third week of vacation free and would change our plane tickets at their expense if I would stay and sing. I was shocked at the offer. It never occurred to me that anyone, let alone an expensive resort, would want me to entertain their guests, and for three weeks! It was quite frankly the last thing in the world I ever expected to come my way. Up until that point I was taking singing lessons for the pure joy of singing. I had no professional aspirations whatsoever. I accepted the offer.

At the end of the three weeks, Bruno, approached me again and said he wanted me to come back to sing in December. I wasn’t able to make that date, but I returned in January.

You have to understand that because I hadn’t been singing that long I didn’t have much of a repertoire. Bruno wanted me to do a set during the cocktail hour three nights a week. So when I returned in January I brought a girlfriend with me (who is a terrific singer) to share the singing duties. That two week gig went well and I kept being asked back and by the end of the year I had been to Bora Bora four times for a total of nine weeks.

Your “Latin Jazz Band” is made up of a group of impressive, World-class players. What was the process involved in finding and hiring such talented, experienced musicians for your band?

After I had been singing in Bora Bora for almost a year my singing teacher, Alex, started insisting that I needed to start singing in Los Angeles. Up until that point I hadn’t sung anywhere but Bora Bora. He cajoled me until I started going to an open mic night for jazz/cabaret singers. From there I was invited to sing in showcases. After I had done a few showcases with just a piano player I thought it would be more fun to sing with a band. I starting going to jazz events around town and met some musicians. I started putting together different combinations of musicians every time I would do a showcase. Sometimes I’d have piano, bass, drums. Or just bass and piano, or piano and bongos, just all sorts of combinations. That went on for about two years.

During that time there was a radio station in Los Angeles, KLAC, that played big band jazz, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, that kind of music. They had a “Fabulous Finds” competition where you would make your own recording of a standard and send it in. They would choose the best recordings to play on the air and the listeners would vote on the best amateur recording. I sent them a recording of me singing “Besame Mucho.” I won the first round competition and was then scheduled to sing with a live band at an event in front of a panel of judges. The week before the next competition I went over to the venue to check out the room. When I got there, there was a group of three guys playing Latin Jazz. They were really good and were playing exactly the kind of music I had been wanting to sing. So I listened to their set and introduced myself to them when they took a break. I got the business card of Daniel Groisman, the bass player. We kept in touch and about six months later when I decided to start recording, I hired Daniel to play bass. He recommended that I get Marco Tulio to play guitar and Cristiano Novelli for percussion. That was the beginning of what turned out to be my “Summer Samba” CD.

It got to the point with the recording that I needed someone to play flute and saxophone for a few songs on that CD and I didn’t know anyone who was up to the task. The engineer at the studio where we were recording knew Scott Martin and offered to call him for me. Scott came in and recorded all his parts on one session and was just terrific.

When I was starting the recording sessions for “A Song of You” Marco and Cristiano started telling me I needed to get Rique Pantoja to play piano for me. I looked him up on the internet and was rather intimidated by his extensive credits. I didn’t really think he’d want to work with me and said that to Marco and Cristiano. But they kept at me and insisted I contact him. Finally I screwed up the courage and sent him an e-mail. He responded right away and said he would love to work with me. I was stunned. So, Rique joined in on the recordings.

The band and I had a live gig last summer and my regular pianist for live shows was not available, so the guys recommended I call Frank Zottoli, who used to play with Stan Getz. He joined us on that gig and was so much fun that I decided I needed to have him on the CD, too. At that point all the piano and keyboard parts were finished, but I discovered that Frank had a great singing voice that I felt would blend well with mine, so I invited him to sing background vocals.

So, basically finding great musicians has been just another step along the road. I haven’t ever made a list of who I wanted to work with and then tried to meet them. I just seem to find people when I need them through referrals. It’s just been a very organic experience.

You come from a musical family, and consequently launched your singing career at a very young age. Who was our primary inspiration in those formative years?

First of all I did not start my singing career at a very young age. My singing career started in October 2003 at Club Med Bora Bora. I never even took singing lessons until a few years before that. And the only reason I started the singing lessons was because I felt I needed to add a little fun to my life. None of what followed was ever on my list of things I wanted to accomplish in life.

You need to understand that in my family culture, the appreciation of music and fine arts was very, very important. It was also important to have musical training. All of my aunts and uncles played piano and/or sang. My Uncle Frank had a career for a time as a concert pianist and performed across the U.S. and in Europe. But he was the only member of the family to attempt a music career.

All of my aunts were involved in church music as organists, pianists, choir directors, soloists etc. My mother played the piano, but was primarily a singer. She started teaching my brother and I to sing as soon as we could talk. When I was three and a half we got a piano, so my brother could start taking lessons. I would sit at the piano by myself and make up tunes. My mother had a rule that I could only play one note at a time. So, I would sit there and plink away for long periods of time. When my brother was learning to read music I learned at the same time.

Making music was just part of the life of our family. I started taking piano lessons at eight and was playing all three movements of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata by the age of thirteen. I continued to take classical piano lessons until I graduated from high school. When I went to college it never occurred to me that I should even consider majoring in music. The attitude in my family was that music was just part of life and not something you did for money. As a musician I was a piano player and that’s all. Any singing I did was as part of a chorus.

My mother sang in the church choir and when I was little she would take me to Sunday afternoon practice. I had nothing better to do, so I started singing with the sopranos. I was about seven or eight and there I was singing with the adults. When the choir would perform in church services I was up in the choir loft hidden from view behind the organist just singing away. The choir members showed me how to read choral arrangements and I just followed the notes.

My father also loved music, particularly opera and enjoyed torturing my brother and I by making us listen to Russian operas in the car. By the time we would get home we were always incensed that he would put us through that.

I guess you could say that my primary inspiration was my mother, although inspiration isn’t exactly the right word. It was just part of my education and my mother’s efforts to turn me into a well rounded person. She succeeded.

Who are some current musical artists you’re impressed with and enjoy listening to these days, whether for inspiration or just pleasure?

My musical tastes are all over the place. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Michael McDonald and Norah Jones. But I have everything in my collection from Madonna, to the Beatles, to Queen, to Ella Fitzgerald, to Michael Buble, to Diana Krall, to Elis Regina, Garth Brooks, Sergio Mendes, Edith Piaf, Van Morrison, Eliane Elias, Sting, Al Jarreau, Sheryl Crow, Patricia Kaas, Natalie Cole, The Barefoot Man, Brian Setzer, Eric Clapton, Charles Trenet, Celso Fonseca, James Taylor, Paris Combo, Gal Costa, and so many others. The list goes on and on. I also go through periods where I listen to nothing but classical music, particularly Brahms, Chopin, and Debussy.

When you are not involved with music-related interests, what other creative endeavors do you find yourself inspired by?

I am artistically inclined in general. I sometimes paint large murals of ocean scenes. I am passionate about snorkeling in tropical places and observing sea life. I design clothes for myself and even make the patterns. I garden and arrange flowers. I taught myself to cook using Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” I study French to add to my vocabulary and keep up my fluency. I enjoy photography. I am fascinated by history and read a lot. I’m also inspired by outer space and love the pictures that have come from the Hubble Space Telescope. I take improvisational acting classes regularly. I love hiking and the great outdoors. I am inspired by just being alive.

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