I was honored to be interviewed by Karl Ackermann for his article on the US Department of State's Jazz Ambassador program. The article is an extremely thorough and thought provoking piece on the inception of the program, its purpose and goals and its present form, the American Music Abroad program for which I've done 3 tours. I'm heading to Malaysia with the State Department in June and look forward to sharing my experiences. For now, check out the article HERE!
In the fall of 2017 I had the great pleasure of sitting down for an interview with Michael Bourne on his long-running show Singers Unlimited on WBGO. Recorded live at WBGO's Newark studio, we discussed my 2017 release, "Dream Ago", my upcoming Willie Nelson project, the inspiration behind some of the original songs on the album and much more. It was a true honor to participate in a show that I've loved for such a long time. I also performed 5 songs live in studio with pianist Joshua Richman and bassist Pat O'Leary. Hear the full interview below!
In August, 2017 I had the AMAZING opportunity to travel to Pakistan, leading my quintet on a 10-day tour sponsored by the US State Department. Pakistan celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding in August and I was invited to work with the US Embassy in Islamabad and several consulates across the nation on a series of concerts, workshops and collaborations with local artists and students to foster cultural diplomacy and cross-cultural understanding.
As I've discovered is so often the case, the people and culture of Pakistan was almost nothing like what I had previously seen in the US news media. In our tour we visited Islamad, Karachi and Lahore where we experienced a wealth of wonderful, pluralistic people, incredible food and beautiful music. The video below is just one of the TV interviews that we did- this one in Islamabad- featuring in-studio performances and talk about US and Pakistani culture and the ways in which music can foster understanding and how one-on-one interactions between people can change perceptions.
Our final performance in Malta was a special one, as it was also the last night of the entire tour. This tour was something I had worked on, looked forward to and felt nervous/excited about for so long- and then it flew by in a minute and was over in the blink of an eye. Much to our our delight, our last concert in Malta was in a gorgeous performance space called the St. James Cavalier Center For Creativity in the historic (and magical) city of Valletta.
The theater in the St. James Center seats about 100 people, features a beautiful piano and nearly perfect acoustics- we needed almost no amplification because the natural sound in the room was so good. We couldn't believe our good fortune that we would get to end the tour in this beautiful, warm, intimate space. I felt so emotional during this concert- I had truly enjoyed every performance on tour, but this was my last chance to soak it all in. We played an extra long set featuring Carlo Muscat, a wonderful local saxophonist who arranged the traditional Maltese song that we played. And if all that weren't enough, we were privileged to have Madam Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley in the audience, the very popular US Ambassador to Malta (it takes approximately two seconds in her presence to see how amazing she is). We closed with the song featured in the video below- Leonard Bernstein's classic "Some Other Time".
This tour has made me nearly evangelical about cultural diplomacy. I've had strong feelings about the importance of travel and cross-cultural connections since my first real experience traveling as an adult- on a nine month European tour of the musical "HAIR". I believe that travel makes you more empathetic; once you've experienced the feeling of a being a stranger somewhere, once you've had the experience of people allowing you into their world, you're more likely to be kind to the stranger when they're in your home. Travel and immersion in other cultures breaks down stereotypes and reveals the fact that wherever you go, people are so similar in so many ways. The world becomes more people, less "others". Yes, the old cliche that "the things that we have in common outweigh our differences" has become a faith-restoring truth for me as I meet more and more people the world over.
It was a privilege to represent the United States on this journey- in some of the places we went, the people there had never met an American before- and I'm so grateful that our government understands the importance and universality of music and its ability to connect strangers. I know that "art" can seem self-indulgent, childish and/or wholly unnecessary- but those are only things that it SEEMS to be. Anyone who’s been involved in an artistic endeavor knows what a soul-enriching experience it is, knows what a struggle it can be to create something that speaks to universal truths and emotions, and knows how incredibly necessary it is for the sake of humankind.
The opinions expressed herein are the sole opinions of Gabrielle Stravelli, not the US State Department nor American Music Abroad. Our ensemble is: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums. Pictures in this post by Monique Falzon and video by Susan Ross, both of the US Embassy Malta.
On our second day in Malta we had a fantastic interview with David Perry, an English expat who now lives on Malta and hosts a show on Radio Malta called Connect Africa. The mission of David's show, which he co-hosts with David Millner, is to help integrate Africans and immigrants of all kinds into Maltese society by increasing "the knowledge of African affairs, music and culture". According to an article in the Guardian, Malta receives the highest number of asylum applications in the world, in relation to its population. Both Davids are incredibly gracious hosts and it was a real honor to talk and play in the studio with them. We performed a few tunes live, including an impromptu performance of Bob Marley's classic "Get Up Stand Up"! Our interview was originally broadcast on Christmas Eve but you can listen to it anytime HERE.
All opinions expressed herein are the sole opinions of Gabrielle Stravelli, not the US State Department nor American Music Abroad. Our ensemble is: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums. Photo by Susan Ross of the US Embassy Malta.
All opinions expressed in this blog post are the sole opinions of Gabrielle Stravelli, not the US State Department nor American Music Abroad. Our band is: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums. All photos in this post by Monique Falzon of the US Embassy Malta.
This weekend I'll be performing at the Kaufman Center in New York City in a series that teaches children about the Great American Composers and Lyricists- people like the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Leonard Bernstein, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. I love being a part of this program because I love the idea of getting kids into music early- especially a kind of music that they might not hear at home and that they certainly don't hear on the radio. The opportunity to connect with young people was something that made our time in Malta very special. In all the other countries we visited we worked with college-age kids and adults, but in Malta we had two workshops with young children.
Malta is a gorgeous place- an island in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and the Northeast tip of Africa. It gets about 360 days of sunshine each year (why are we not living there?) and has extensive natural beauty as well as some really incredible historic sights- we visited Megalithic Temples that are older than Stonehenge.
On our first day we did a workshop at an elementary school on Malta's sister Island, Gozo, with about 40 music students. We were met by a lively (but incredibly polite!) group in bright blue uniforms carrying guitars, trumpets, a Euphonium, clarinets, saxophones and one snare drum. We had two vocalists and a large group of pianists. We started off as we often did, by playing a tune for the group and talking about where we come from and the kind of music we play and after that, we got them playing like a big band. For most of the workshops on tour, we got each group to form some kind of "vocal" big band- doing shout choruses and soloing- but this workshop was extra fun because we actually had a big band this time. We were able to split the various instruments and vocalists up and teach them little melodic lines to play that all fit together and that Jim and I solo'ed over once they all got going.
The big band exercise with this particular group was really fun (if not a little cacophonous)- they were very enthusiastic and surprisingly, already knew a bit about jazz music- but the next part of the workshop was even better, and I have to give credit to Pat O'Leary for leading it. He got the group to do a collective improvisation, which may sound a little nuts and I think some of the kids were scared or nervous or put off at first. After all, there's SO much emphasis put on practice and structure when you're a young musician that to hear someone tell you "just play anything!" would feel overwhelming. Lucky for us, there was a tremendously gifted violinist in the class named Matteo Pio who jumped in first and I think, inspired the other students to try improvising too. Matteo Pio is probably about 9 years old. He's got perfect pitch and when Pat first brought up the idea of improvisation Matteo Pio raised his hand and started talking about the music of Benjamin Britten. Remember, he's only 9 YEARS OLD!!!! Pat invited him to play duo- improvising sounds on bass and violin together- and Matteo Pio took to it naturally, following Pat's lines with phrases that answered him brilliantly. Everyone in the band left that day feeling pretty sure that Matteo Pio is going to be writing symphonies in the not so distant future. Here he is below, improvising with Pat...
Slowly, we brought other sections of the class into the improvisation until the entire group was participating. I can't say whether or not we made brilliant music that day, but I can say that we drove home two really important points:
1. Music should be fun. Of course you have to take it seriously, but at the same time, it's really important to have fun with it. Yes, musicians have to practice their craft, build their chops and learn repertoire, but it's equally valueable to get some time alone or with a friend to use your ears, see what you can create on your own and make music for the sake of just making music.
2. The most important thing you can do-that you must do- is to give yourself permission. I wish I had grasped this concept so much earlier in my life (#latebloomer) and now I'm hell bent on imparting this idea to the young ones. To improvise is to trust yourself, to trust your instincts, and to give yourself permission to just do what you think, what you know, is right in the moment. To say yes to the first thing that comes to your mind is to say no to self-judgement and the laundry list of doubts that can cripple the artistically inclined. I don't think those kids (besides Matteo Pio) had ever heard crazy music like the kind we made with them before that day. I don't know that anyone had ever told them to play the first thing that came to mind- to just make it up. But I really think that by the end of our time with them, they felt a little more emboldened to play with that kind of confidence and spirit.
Our next workshop with kids took place the following evening at the Johann Strauss School of Music on Malta and brought to us many talented kids, including a child who required no encouragement- and I mean that in the very best way. Liam is a young trumpet player who definitely has the music bug and is also well, a total ham.
The Johann Strauss School of Music has a jazz department with a fantastic faculty- including pianist Joe Debono, guitarist Manny Busuttil and drummer Joseph Camilleri, who've clearly set the students up there very well. We worked with some vocalists and instrumentalists who were really impressive- they already had a firm grasp of many of the techniques we wanted to work on. There were also a lot of younger kids at the workshop that night who were very eager to play, and we were eager to encourage them. We didn't do any free improvisation with them, mostly due to the fact that we had to accommodate both children and experienced adults in the same clinic. For the first part of the evening we split into groups by instrument (See pics below of Pat O'Leary working with strings and brass and Jordan Young working with young drummers) and then we reconvened for the last 20 minutes or so for a group jam where the students could put into practice everything we'd just worked on.
So remember that trumpet player I mentioned, Liam? Well, he kind of became the star of our jam session. Joe Debono sat in on piano for a tune and played beautifully. Sarah Marie Bugeja sang and scatted with great skill on two songs. Several drum students jumped in for a chorus or two and Liam played on everything- even the tunes he didn't know (i love this kid!). We brought him up to solo on the first tune and then as I tried sending him back to his seat for the second tune he turned to me and said pleadingly "Maybe you need just a little trumpet on this one?" How am I gonna say no to that?! We had a lot of fun with Liam and the largely younger crowd that night- I was proud of all of them for being brave and getting up to play in front of each other, even if they didn't feel entirely ready. As for Liam, he's clearly given himself permission to play, make mistakes and have fun. My only hope for him is that he never ever lets life squash that instinct.
The opinions expressed herein are the sole opinions of Gabrielle Stravelli, not the US State Dept or American Music Abroad. Our ensemble is: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums. All pictures and videos by Mateja Uric.
Our second day in Slovenia provided us with the other big highlight of our time in this country- our visit and performance at The Education, Work and Care Center in Draga. This center is a sprawling compound for children and adults with moderate to severe special needs, some of whom live on the premise and some who attend part-time for school, job training and/or healthcare.
When we arrived we were given a tour of the facility by their wonderful director- there was an area outside for physical activity and a barn with horses who are cared for by the Center's elderly patients. A big part of the Center's mission is to integrate people with special needs into mainstream society, to lessen the degree to which they are marginalized, and so the patients don't just live at or attend the Center, they also have jobs and responsibilities. Inside we toured classrooms where students were working on language skills, art and games. At first I felt a little nervous about how to interact with the people at the Center, so I took my cue from the director. She spoke to them as she would speak to you or me and I did the same. Their responses were beautiful- they had artwork to show us, they very proudly introduced themselves in English and shared a few English phrases that they knew. We sang Happy Birthday to someone, Jordan drew a picture for an art class (picture below) and they were excited when we told them we were going to perform a music concert for them. Of course, this seems obvious now- these are whole people and they should be treated as such. There's no particular way you need to treat them, other than with the same respect you would give anyone else.
After our tour of the facility we performed a concert for staff and students. I saw that they had a Christmas tree set up so we started with Jingle Bells before moving into more traditional jazz rep. We did "Take the A Train" and I had everyone in the audience make the sound of a train whistle on my cue. We did a blues and I had them sing little melodic lines with me, the same way I did in masterclasses with University students. As I moved into the audience to get them clapping and singing I was thrilled to see many of them moving along with the music. Jazz was created to be dance music, so what better way to teach them about the form than to get them dancing! Below is a short video of one of the students I danced with- he's got moves!
At the end of the concert, the students presented me with a gift- an incredible birdhouse that they built themselves! The birdhouse was accompanied by a card that told the story of a boy who lived in a town where a castle was being built. People were donating lots of money to help build the castle so that they might get credit for the construction. The boy had no money, so he brought just one stone to contribute. People ridiculed him- one little stone was all he had to give? What difference would that make? But in the end, the boy's stone was just the thing that was needed to complete the building of the castle. Each of us matters. Each of us has something to contribute. Each life is sacred.
Ljubljana (pronounced Loob-Lyana), the capital city of Slovenia, is a magical place. Basically it looks like Disney erected a movie set of a small, Western European city, left it standing after the film was finished and then never allowed a speck of dirt to enter it. Ever. It is lovely and truly, immaculately clean. The country as a whole is gorgeous too- there's a Slovenian saying that God created Slovenia on the last day and put into it everything that was left over- mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, giant cave systems!- a lot of varied terrain for a comparatively tiny country. I had visited Ljubljana once before the tour (and loved it) and was delighted to have a chance to see more cities and sights this time around.
Our first evening in Ljubljana started us off with a bang, thanks to some incredibly talented students who we worked with at the Konzervatorij za Glasbo in Balet Ljubljana or the Conservatory of Music and Ballet Ljubljana. I should not and can not pick favorites- we met many talented people along our way- but as far as knowledge of and comfort with jazz techniques, these students were the most advanced. Oh, and they're all around high school age, studying jazz at the Conservatory after their regular school day. :)
So what made these students so great?, you may be asking. As I said, they were already well versed in the basics- they knew how to count a tempo, communicate with a band and give cues for solos and endings. They had excellent, well trained voices. They had a good sense of swing feel- some of them were already developing a deep sense of swing. The instrumentalists we worked with knew how to solo and how to accompany. I could go on, but I think you get the point. Also, there was something else even more special about them besides their talent- they were incredibly open and humble. I've found that the group workshop setting can be terrifying- everyone watching while you sing and get critiqued? Very often participants go into performance mode rather than work mode and steel their egos before the teacher may have anything critical to say. And yet while these kids had so much already figured out, they were eager to listen to us and hear what we had to offer. They tried every adjustment and exercise we threw at them with willingness, great spirit and great facility. It was joy to work with them.
Speaking of great facility, the video below features Ana Cop- a wonderful singer who you'll see from this short video, has a great career ahead of her. We were working on learning how to scat and you'll hear the other singers in the class sing bass notes while Ana scats over them. SO GOOD!
That night, we stayed well past the scheduled ending time because the energy and hunger in the room was infectious and we wanted to share everything we could with them. I took this short video below towards the end- when the band broke into little groups and everyone was working on their own instruments privately:
I remember that after we left, we left feeling like we were flying- it sounds like a cliche, but that kind of talent and enthusiasm is inspiring and it reminded me of what a privilege it is to teach and to witness the journey of musicians on their way to being something truly great. So many thanks to the students (and faculty!!!!) at this school for greeting us and making music with open arms!
The opinions in this blog are solely the opinions of Gabrielle Stravelli, not the US State Department nor American Music Abroad. All photos and videos in this post by Mateja Uric, except where noted. Our ensemble is: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums.
Wednesday evening was our last night in Azerbaijan and it ended up being a real highlight of the tour for me. If you read my post on our closing night in Moldova I talked about having the kind of performance where you feel like there's electricity in the air- this was like that, times ten. We were booked for a double header at YARAT a super hip, contemporary art space on the outskirts of Baku. We were to give a lecture on the history of jazz for about 45 minutes and then follow with a concert. The house was packed- so packed that we invited people to come sit on the sides of the stage. I invited them without even thinking of it- this was going to be a long event, too long to stand up for- but I think people really appreciated the gesture. Either that or this crowd had just come to party because they were AMAZING. They were the kind of crowd that lets you know early on that they're willing to meet you more than half way. And when I feel that from an audience, it makes me give 1000% because well, that's the kind of audience we pray for as performers, right?
With only 45 minutes to work with, we knew we could only discuss the major highlights of how this form has developed and we also wanted to make it more interactive than just a straight up lecture. I prepped hard for this (I'm not a real Jazz historian!) and what we ended up doing was I discussed a particular era in jazz history and then we would perform the song 'Honeysuckle Rose' in that style- from trad to swing to cool Jazz all the way up to fusion. It was really fun and I think it worked well to illustrate the musical development of the form- for the audience to hear the same song grow and change gave them a chance to compare apples to apples, ya know? When we got to the 1940s and we discussed the big band era, I split the audience into sections to sing some background vocals (just like we did in our workshops) and the crowd was hilarious. They sang enthusiastically and I got random people from the crowd to scat vocal lines over the backgrounds. Again, this crowd was clearly there to enjoy the music and have a great time- no shrinking violets here!
The concert that followed was nuts- I honestly wanted to give them back all their beautiful energy ten fold and I think we did. The video below is another audience creation and I'm so grateful to whoever captured this. Toward the end of the concert we surprised the audience with our Azeri folk song arrangement and what you'll see is a rowdy sing along that I think again, shows the electricity and incredible spirit that we felt in the room that night. Weeks later I can still feel this experience so vividly- a night where our collective love of music transcended everything. Maybe that sounds corny and maybe there are people who would read this and think that's not possible, but after this night I know that it is.
The opinions contained in this post are the sole opinions of Gabrielle Stravelli, not the opinions of the US State Dept and/or American Music Abroad. Our ensemble is: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums.
As ever, the opinions contained in this post are the sole opinions of Gabrielle Straveli, not the opinions of the US State Dept and/or American Music Abroad. Our ensemble is: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums. All photos by John Ferguson.
Our time in Azerbaijan began exactly the same way as in Moldova- on our first day we did a morning TV show appearance, then a masterclass followed by an evening concert. It felt something like being shot out of a cannon, plus, we were jet lagged again, having travelled further east from Moldova, losing another hour or two in the process. Hello, under eye bags!
We stayed in the capital city, Baku, which is a very interesting place- located in the east of the country right on the Caspian Sea, it's a real mash up of older, more ornate/classical architecture and hyper-modern construction (which I was told is in the "Dubai style"). They have oil, so there's money in this country and we could definitely feel and see the difference in wealth compared to the poverty of Moldova.
Our first workshop was at the Baku American Center where we were joined by a small group of instrumentalists who worked with us on jazz technique (Swing feel, groove, blues progressions) and jammed with us on some standard tunes. After that we went directly to Park Bulvar- a shmancy shopping mall in a very shmancy section of Baku that reminded me of Fifth Avenue in NYC. For reasons I won't go too deeply into here, we performed only in privately owned venues in Azerbaijan as opposed to any place that is state-run. I am honestly not exactly sure what the relationship between the US government and Azerbaijan is at this moment in history, but I can say that we felt ZERO Anti-American sentiment. On the contrary, everyone we met was extremely friendly. I think so often, the actual people in any given country don't really care where you're from- especially when you're a musician. We are lucky to do what we do, as it offers a common ground for people to meet us on, totally devoid of politics. And that's why music is awesome.
The pics below are of Pat O'Leary and Jordan Young working with musicians in our masterclass at the Baku American Center.
So our first concert was in a shopping mall. I'll admit, I was skeptical of this set up. I figured it would be noisy and that we would essentially become background music, but as per usual, my preconceptions were wrong. We had a great crowd that gathered around the performance area and listened attentively for over an hour. They sang along with some of the more familiar American tunes we did and someone even requested "Moon River" at the end of the show! Azerbaijan is a very cosmopolitan place- many major musical acts have toured there, so I figured out by the end of our time there that it's a pretty sophisticated audience. Yet again, I felt my spirits lift through the experience of singing and through sharing music with people. It had been a tremendously long day, but I felt completely energized at the end of the concert..."Dr. Jazz" (as it's sometimes called) to the rescue.
After a rest day on Sunday, our busy schedule continued. On Monday we led a combination workshop/jam session at Khazar University in Baku and performed a concert for the students there in the afternoon. In our concert we were joined by the Khazar University Chamber Orchestra and I owe a huge shoutout to Pat O'Leary and Jim Ridl for this- for our performances in AzerB we had created an arrangement of a beautiful Azeri folk song called "Lacin" and the orchestra had prepared their own version of it as well. On the spot, in a matter of minutes, Pat and Jim created an arrangement that fused both versions so that we were able to perform the song together. Thanks, guys!
Monday evening we were honored to perform a few songs at the home of the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Robert Sekuta. It was a really lovely evening (despite having to duck out a little early thanks to an awesomely heavy head cold I came down with) and I was really struck by something the Ambassador's wife said to me. When we arrived at the house, I said something like "thanks for having us here tonight" and she said to me "This is YOUR house". Before this tour I had no idea how much access Americans (and people of all nationalities) have to embassies and that's been a great discovery. These institutions are open and here for the purpose of engaging with the public, so there's no need to feel like it's the Emerald City and you'll never get in. It's your house.
On Tuesday afternoon we taught a masterclass at the Baku Music Academy where we worked with classical music students, exploring some of the fundamental differences (and similarities) of playing jazz music. Tuesday evening we had a packed house for our concert at the gorgeous National Art Museum. The arrangement of Lacin with the Khazar U Chamber Orchestra had worked so well that we invited them to play with us again on Tuesday night. I felt really good about this concert- the crowd was very diverse, with many young and older folks joining us, as well as the Ambassador and staff from the US embassy. Even though we were in an art museum, the vibe wasn't stuffy at all- it felt intimate and informal in the best sense of the word- there were a few young girls in the back who I remember were swaying to the music and people hummed along to the songs they recognized. Check out the video below! Someone in the audience created it and I think it conveys the very warm feeling in the room that night.
As part of our visit to the town of Rabnita (pronounced "Rebnitsa"), Moldova, we did a masterclass/presentation with some very lively kids at a University there (see my blog post Moldova, Part 2 if you want more info on that). During these presentations we get the group singing all together- a sort of vocal big band where I split them into three sections and have each group sing a simple melodic line. Imagine an instrumental big band- the horn sections all play melodic lines that provide "backgrounds" for the soloists to play over. Once I've got the backgrounds established, I ask if there are any students who'd like to solo with me and miraculously, even in the most quiet, shy groups at least one person always volunteers. This group wasn't shy at all, so we had a few volunteers, all with great spirit, and one who really stood out...
A young lady named Ketti (like our "Katie") Stepanova was sitting in the front row of the room and I could see just from the way that she was listening to me and the band play that she was very interested in music. (I wondered if she was studying music, but as it turned out, the University has no music program). When she got up to sing, we were totally blown away- she had a great sense of groove and time, could easily sing back to me any line I sang to her AND she was making up harmony on the spot. WHAT?! We continued with the rest of the class which ended with a few minutes for Q&A. There were lots of questions about life as professional musicians and at one point Ketty asked "how do you to learn how to sing this kind of music?" You know how sometimes you can tell by the way a person asks a question that they're really hungry for the answer? We knew that there isn't a lot of opportunity to study privately in Moldova, so we talked about how you can learn a great deal about music from listening and singing along with recordings, etc.
After the class was over, I spoke to Ketti in more detail about music study- it turns out she's majoring in visual arts- and we invited her to sing with us in that evening's concert. Again, a big part of the tour is to engage with local people and musicians and also, we feel that if we turn just one person on to loving and learning music then we've been successful.
That night she came to soundcheck where we taught her a blues tune to sing with me that evening- nothing like throwing her in the deep end, right? And yet she's such a natural talent that she learned it easily and performed it flawlessly in the concert, again nailing every part of it and making up perfect harmony on the spot.
It was a real joy to meet her and to sing with her. I don't know if she will have a chance to pursue studies or a career in music, but I hope that she will not ignore what is for sure, real talent. And on a personal note, she's a lovely, gracious woman AND she gifted me with one of her own incredible paintings! What a beautiful reminder to hang in my home of this beautiful experience. Best of luck to you, Ketti, in all you do.
All opinions expressed herein are solely the opnions of Gabrielle Stravelli, not the US State Dept or American Music Abroad. Our ensemble, pictured above with Ketti is: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums. All photos by John Ferguson
As great as the first part of the week in Moldova was, our experience got even better. On Thursday, we did a masterclass and concert in a contested region of the country known as Transnistria. This part of the country has separated from Moldova and considers itself independent, though US and international policy doesn't recognize this. They have their own president and their own currency and we had to go through a border crossing on the way in and out. We didn't know what to expect in this town and once again it ended up being a reminder of how essential it is to NOT pre-judge. The students there were possibly the most enthusiastic group of students of the entire tour. They aren't studying music, but they had INCREDIBLE life and energy. Apparently they don't get a lot of visits like ours and they seemed hungry to soak up every bit of it- they sang with us, danced in their seats, clapped along and asked a lot of questions about life as musicians and on tour. After a three hour drive to get there, we felt completely re-invigorated by our time with them. One student in particular got up to sing with me and shocked all of us- but more on that in the next post!
Our concert that evening was very well received and we spent a lot of time afterwards talking to people. They were incredibly kind and again, seemed thankful for the chance to see a kind of performance that they just don't otherwise get in their part of the world.
Our final day in Moldova was spent in the capital city of Chisinau. That afternoon we had a long masterclass at the local Conservatory where we worked with singers and a few instrumentalists. The singers were great and are fortunate to have a teacher who is exposing them to American Jazz- they had prepared standards and were familiar with the big names like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. I loved working with them because they were genuinely talented and we were able to really dig in and concentrate on how to communicate with a band, how to get a deeper sense of swing-feel as well as body language and communicating with an audience/storytelling.
That evening four of the local singers joined us in our final concert at the National Philharmonic Hall in Chisinau, recorded live for Moldova's national radio. I don't know why, but all week I had had a feeling that this concert was going to be special and it was a moment I think all of us in the band will remember for a long time. The hall was entirely full- we had 900 people, some standing in the aisles and another 200 people who weren't even able to get in. The four singers we had worked with in the day performed beautifully and joined me in singing the Moldovan folk song at the end of the show. It's hard to really articulate what made the concert so special. All I can say is that it was one of those times when as a performer, you can feel the energy in the air and you can feel that the audience is with you and there's this fantastic feedback loop of love between the performers and the audience- basically it was everything I had hoped for. Thank you Moldova for an incredible week!
All opinions are solely the opinions of Gabrielle Stravelli, not the US State Dept or American Music Abroad. Our ensemble is: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums. All photos by John Ferguson
Hi there! Before you start reading I'd like to let you know that all opinions expressed herein are the personal opinions of Gabrielle Stravelli, not the US State Department or American Music Abroad.
Also, my beautiful bandmates featured in the pictures below are: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums. All photos by John Ferguson.
It's hard to say exactly when we fell in love with Moldova, but we fell hard and fast. It's a very poor country- the poorest in Europe except when they're bested by Belarus. Most of the architecture is Soviet-style and many of the buildings look sort of run down. And yet we had so many warm and open interactions with people and students there that I think we all walked away feeling it's very "poor in resources, rich in spirit!" (And also, do I know any millionaires that could help these folks out, cause they totally deserve it...) Yes, I'm aware of how simplistic that sounds. And yet I'd go back there in a heart beat.
Our tour started with a trip to Balti (pronounced 'Belts') on Monday, November 9th and a trip to Cahul (ka-hool) on Tuesday, November 10th, both about a two hour drive from the capital Chisinau, where we stayed. We did a presentation/masterclass during the afternoons and performed a concert in the evenings. The students were not all music students and they seemed very shy at the start of the hour, but as we played and talked about American music and culture we eventually got them singing some simple blues licks. I've really noticed the difference in the demeanor of Americans- my loud, outgoing self very much included- we are more gregarious, more outspoken and in some ways, more open. This isn't to say that Moldovans aren't open, but they definitely take more time to warm up- though once they warm to you they treat you like family. I know this is largely a result of the comfort and privilege we enjoy in America. We can afford to be relaxed, and I'm more aware of this than ever.
There's a huge classical tradition in Europe but it seems that there isn't a lot of access to live Jazz in Moldova and there certainly aren't a lot of visits from American musicians. Happily, our concerts were very well received. People seemed not only enthusiastic, but grateful for the fact that we had visited their town and performed for them.
Our first concert in Balti, at the National V. Alesandri Theatre, was sold out and very well received. In our 2nd concert at Cahul's Cultural Palace the following evening, it felt like the crowd took a little longer to warm up, but in the end it felt really successful. In each country that we've visited, we've learned a traditional folk song, arranged it in a jazz style and I've performed it in the native language, which is perhaps the most important part. In Cahul, once I sang the Moldovan folk song "Ioanne, Ioanne" (Ioanne is the name John in English) I felt like I had totally won them over. We're eager to make the point that we're not only in their country to share American music but also to receive THEIR unique culture and music and people have seemed incredibly appreciative of that gesture.
At the end of both concerts, almost the entire audience came up onstage to take pictures with us, to have us sign things and to talk- with limited English and limited Moldovan :) This part of the night was a favorite for me during our time in Moldova. I don't want to just leave the stage and go back to the hotel. I want to talk to people, talk to local musicians, talk to people who've visited the US, talk to people who've never met an American in their whole life, hug people (I'm Italian, afterall!) and thank them for being with us and sharing the experience. If we're not making personal connections, then I think we're missing the point of the tour. And I want to convey how happy I am to be there and how grateful I am that they were open to us and came to see us- because that really is how I feel.
Considering that we're two weeks into our tour, I realize I'm glaringly behind on writing about the experience. This is mostly due to a very rigorous schedule that leaves little time for writing and also due to my habit of falling into bed each night in a semi-coma. The good news is that we're having a fantastic time- it really is a life affirming, life changing experience. I´ll back track a bit, starting with our "community event" at DC´s School Without Walls...
School Without Walls is a high school in DC- I don't know what they're doing there, but they need to do it everywhere. These kids were so outgoing- no blank stares or mumbling! I was struck by the diversity of the student body and their seeming nonchalance about the diversity of their group. They were amazing- early in the workshop I asked for full participation and they obliged me. With only a little gentle coaxing they were clapping and singing. We split them into "sections" to make a vocal big band together and the bravest came up to trade scat phrases with me. They seemed to like jazz and didn´t treat us like lame old people. A student who's studying electric bass sat in with us and played some funky bass lines to the great excitement of his classmates, They were definitely making me feel like the world is unicorns and lollipops. It was a fantastic way to kick off the tour and a great confirmation of my suspicion that when you work with kids, if you treat them like fun, intelligent people, you get a lot of fun, intelligent behavior in return. If these children are our future, I'm not worried at all.
Photos by Jacob Volkmar
I'm thrilled to announce that next Wednesday, November 4th I'll be embarking on a US State Department- sponsored tour for American Music Abroad, a program "designed to communicate America’s rich musical contributions to the global music scene as it fosters cross-cultural communication and people-to-people connection to global audiences." The Gabrielle Stravelli Ensemble will represent jazz and the Great American Songbook and features pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Pat O'Leary and drummer Jordan Young. We'll be teaching and performing throughout Moldova, Azerbaijan, Slovenia and Malta- and we'll be jamming and playing with local musicians using our music and their traditional music as well- something we are VERY excited about.
I'll be blogging about the experience as we go so check in here and on my FB page: facebook.com/GabrielleStravellimusic for regular updates. Hopefully, there'll be strong coffee in every country so I can form some cohesive thoughts. ;)
#exchangeourworld #culturaldiplomacy #americanmusicabroad
Photo by Stephen Brady