Don't fence her in: Amy Cervini is a jazz-honed singer who has the big ears and free spirit to reach far and wide for great material, whether it's from Cole Porter or Leonard Cohen, Nellie McKay or Willie Nelson. February 2014 brought the release of the Toronto-bred, New York-based vocalist's fourth solo album and second for Anzic Records: Jazz Country, which sees Cervini perform jazz, country, folk and pop songs - a mix she calls "North Americana" - with a sense of storytelling, melody and atmosphere to the fore. Jazz Country has already garnered a four-star review in DownBeat, which has also named her a Rising Star two years in a row in the magazine's Critic's Poll. Cervini's latest release follows Digging Me, Digging You (January 2012), an homage to the vintage jazz pixie Blossom Dearie that DownBeat declared "a gem." Prior to that were the albums Love Fool (2009) and Famous Blue (2007), which established Cervini as one of the more individual talents on the North American scene for her intrepid sense of song and pure-toned, ever-swinging vocalism. The New York Times has enthused over her as "a thoughtful and broad-minded jazz singer," while the All Music Guide recommends her recordings for a "honest, self-assured and honey-dripping presence clearly heard."
Jazz Country - produced by star drummer Matt Wilson, who put his sticks down to take a seat behind the board - finds Cervini league with her eponymous Jazz Country trio mates: guitarist Jesse Lewis and bassist Matt Aronoff. The album also features such guests as clarinet superstar Anat Cohen, one-of-a-kind singer-songwriter Nellie McKay and avant-jazz saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, among others. Jazz Country features songs by the likes of Hank Williams and Neil Young, Johnny Cash and Carrie Underwood; there are kindred-spirit originals, inspired novelties and a soundtrack classic ("Calling You" from Baghdad Cafe'), along with irresistible versions of such evergreens as "Blue Moon" and "Smile." Along with praising the "genuineness" of Cervini's interpretations, the DownBeat review extolled her singing, saying: "The pure tone and crystalline expressiveness of her alto - along with sure phrasing - do the trick."
Cervini has performed in clubs and concert halls from Toronto to Tel Aviv and in New York City venues ranging from the Cornelia Street Cafe, Joe's Pub, 55 Bar and the Knitting Factory to the Jazz Standard, Birdland, the Blue Note and Carnegie Hall. She performed at the Newport Jazz Festival's inaugural Family Concert, along with establishing the "Jazz Kids" concert series in New York City. Cervini works regularly with her "North Americana" group Jazz Country, and she has a new vocal-harmony trio, Duchess, that sees her alongside Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou. She made a guest appearance with Matt Wilson's all-star Christmas Tree-O band at the Jazz Standard in December 2013. Such performances have been praised far and wide. The Boston Phoenix has said, "Her singing drew distinctions between rhythm and phrasing - that is, she can swing, but she also knows where a lyric should fall in the melody and how to turn a syllable." And the Ottawa Citizen declared that "the ex-pat Canadian sings terrific, gimmick-free jazz [with a] poise, intelligence and an unforced honesty that makes every song ring like it was her own." For her part, Cervini says: "I just want to make listeners feel something when I sing. I know that's why I go to a show, because I want to feel, to be moved."
Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1977, Cervini studied classical piano as a teenager in an advanced program at Canada's Royal Conservatory of Music. While attending the Etobicoke School of the Arts, she focused on the saxophone and performed with the Toronto All-Star Big Band. Although she sang solos in choirs and was called upon for vocals as one of the few women in big bands, singing was peripheral to her studies until she auditioned to attend the New England Conservatory in Boston. She was auditioning on her principal instrument, the alto saxophone, when the instructor asked her if she sang. She ventured "Bye Bye Blackbird," and the audition board was knocked out.
"It's ironic, but if I hadn't have sung for them, I probably wouldn't have gotten into NEC," Cervini recalls. "I was a double-major in saxophone and voice there until about half-way through, when I dropped the sax. I was self-conscious, and still am, about my improvising skills on the horn, whereas singing felt natural for me, everything about it. But being a saxophone player was crucial to me as singer in that it really helped my feel. I started out as a jazz player, not in musical theater; as a teenager, I was listening to Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley and Paul Desmond, not show tunes. So, I learned what it was to be in a band, inside a band. Now I can make my own charts, really lead a group and swing in a natural way; singers sometimes have a bad reputation in those areas, but being a player was invaluable for helping me really develop that feel, as well as the confidence to front a band."
The Amy Cervini Quintet's 2007 album Famous Blue saw the singer range from Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" and Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain" to contemporary art-pop songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen ("Famous Blue Raincoat"), Feist ("Mushaboom") and Fiona Apple ("Extraordinary Machine"). Cervini's 2009 solo album, Lovefool, features her hugely winning interpretation of the title gem by the Cardigans, as well as the first recording of Fred Hersch's "Lazin' Around" and versions of the ever-popular standard "Comes Love" and far-flung numbers by Willie Nelson ("Sad Songs and Waltzes"), Nellie McKay ("I Wanna Get Married"), Jack Johnson ("Upside Down") and Depeche Mode ("Enjoy the Silence"). These were the sorts of efforts that would lead All Music Guide to declare that "Amy Cervini stands out from the pack in her generation."
Digging Me, Digging You was Cervini's 2012 homage to Blossom Dearie, the quirky jazz singer who counted among her admirers Miles Davis and John Lennon and whom jazz vocal authority Will Friedwald described as having "a perfect juxtaposition of wit and swing." Cervini was backed on the album by a band of all-star New York jazz players - including drummer Matt Wilson and clarinetist Anat Cohen - as she put her fresh, contemporary spin on originals by Dearie ("I Like You, You're Nice"), standards done so well by her ("Everything I Got Belongs to You" by Rodgers & Hart) and tunes that she owned in her way ("Tea for Two" as a ballad, "Figure 8" from Schoolhouse Rock). New York City Jazz Record called Digging Me, Digging You "delightful," while Toronto's Globe and Mail said that Cervini "delivers each number with deft authority, easily capturing the effortless swing of Dearie's delivery while making ample use of her own richly colored tone. Definitely a disc to dig."
With the new Jazz Country, Cervini explores multiple aspects of the title. Most obviously, jazz meets country on the album or, rather, jazz-schooled musicians explore country, folk and pop music. More deeply, there's the idea of Cervini's own jazz country, in New York City. She explains: "At heart, the title Jazz Country reflects a community of musicians - kindred spirits for me, personally and artistically. The band's initial aim of blending jazz and country music - out of a love for each - has become something more: a celebration of a circle of musical friends, all the diverse personalities and talents."
For Cervini, being a jazz singer in the 21st century "isn't a challenge - it's a privilege," she says. "Issues come up in the marketplace, but there aren't really many record stores anymore, so why do singers have to go in a certain bin? When is a song 'jazz' or not? To paraphrase that Ellington quote, I say music is music - more than ever. Growing up, I listened to Ella Fitzgerald, of course, but I thought singers like [Canadian avant-pop/cabaret singer] Holly Cole were fantastic, too. I mean, Holly was singing Tom Waits songs before that was cool. So, when I recorded a Feist song on my first album, it felt natural to me because it's a great song. And I did a Jonatha Brooke tune, too. There were people who told me, 'This isn't jazz,' even though that song had a great improvised solo on it. Things have become more open in the past few years. For me, though, the boundaries have come all the way down, whether the world, particularly the jazz world, is fully on board or not. There are plenty of artists who sing the age-old standards, and better than I do. For me, the idea is to find new standards. As I said, I just want to find and sing songs that move me and move other people, whether it's a Ginastera classical piece or more of a jazz standard like 'Comes Love' or Depeche Mode's 'Enjoy the Silence' or even Carrie Underwood's 'Before He Cheats.' I often start shows with 'Don't Fence Me In.' That's because it's a motto for me."
- Bradley Bambarger