Singer Amy Cervini’s work has been aimed at tearing down boundaries between old and new jazz styles, rock, pop, country and more – a reminder of Duke Ellington’s old axiom that there’s just two kinds of music, good and bad. — Time Out New York
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. In January 2012, the Toronto-bred, New York-based vocalist releases her third solo album and first for Anzic Records: Digging Me, Digging You, an homage to the vintage jazz pixie Blossom Dearie. This follows 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 the “honest, self-assured and honey-dripping presence clearly heard.”
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 works regularly with her “North Americana” group Jazz Country, as well as the vocal ensemble Monday Off. Her performances have been praised far and wide. The Boston Phoenix 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. before While attending the Etobicoke School of the Arts, she focused on the saxophone near TKand 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 her high school’s 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 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”). Cervini’s latest album – Digging Me, Digging You: A Tribute to Blossom Dearie – presents her homage to the quirky jazz singer who counted among her admirers Miles Davis and John Lennon and who jazz vocal authority Will Friedwald described as having “a perfect juxtaposition of wit and swing.” Cervini is backed on the album by a band of all-star New York jazz players – including drummer Matt Wilson and clarinetist Anat Cohen – as she puts 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”).
Dearie has felt like a kindred spirit to Cervini since her youth, the singer says: “She wasn’t selling sex – she wasn’t a bombshell. That was cool to me. She was hip enough to hang with Miles and Gil Evans, so she was more like one of the cats. She had a little-girl voice, but with this natural, melody-focused delivery, one that swung. She was just really musical and had that subtle wit. But with this album, I’m not paying tribute so much to Blossom Dearie as a singer and a pianist as I’m paying tribute to the choices she made as a singer and a pianist.”
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.’ I often start shows with `Don’t Fence Me In.’ That’s because it’s a motto for me.”