Giving the downbeat as naturally as brushing her hair, Roseanna Vitro was at home on stage, scatting and bending lyrics for a couple of agreeable hours on August 2, the fifth import in the lineup of the Community Arts Program 2012 Summer Series at the Coral Gables Congregational Church. Vitro served up a platter of jazzy, bluesy and contemporary dishes, fronting the piping hot Randy Newman Project Band – an attractive and animated Sara Caswell on electric violin, a polished Mark Soskin on piano, the cool upright bass of Dean Johnson, with hard-driving Tim Horner on drums.
Vitro, working durably over the past 35 years, gravitates to melodic invention, turning songs inside out to tell her story. Her big round notes were immediately apparent in the air as she warmed the crowd with Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”. The RNPB traded seamless licks as Vitro nimbly scatted her way through a homage piece, “In the Name of Love”, for the recently departed pop singer Kenny Rankin, later launching into a scat-fest with Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance”, covering her entire vocal territory.
In the first set, Vitro brought a pair of Duke Ellington pieces to the audience, her range on exhibit in “In a Sentimental Mood”, robust low notes launching into smooth high frequencies, Soskin offering a refreshing piano solo in the center of the piece. In this tune, as also with many of the others, an unamplified Vitro would have been preferred, her signature voice often overshadowed by the volume of her band.
One of the high flying moments of the evening was when Vitro invited Shelly Berg (Dean of the U of M Frost School of Music) to sit in on piano for Ellington’s “Love You Madly.” Berg uses his entire body to not only reach his musical destination but to delight the crowd as well. Berg, jumping in his seat, his arms and legs moving wildly, a face loaded with expression, passed the ball back and forth with Vitro, each one quoting, “mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread,” as they tore the tune up, the crowd loving it all.
In both sets, the music of Randy Newman was featured, no doubt celebrating the 2012 Grammy Nom for Vitro’s album, "The Music of Randy Newman", in the Best Vocal Jazz Album category. Vitro brought the right amount of haunt to “In Germany Before the War”, Caswell heartfelt on her electric violin. The RNPB players then took the lead on a jazzy “Mama Told Me Not to Come” (a tune made popular by the 60’s group Three Dog Night), turning it upside down with drummer Horner ripping it up at the end. Soskin and Vitro teamed up on “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” (appearing on Newman’s 1968 debut album), the piano and voice spinning this classic melody with honest heart.
Moving from Arkansas to Texas as a young vocalist relying on the musical genres of gospel, rock, R&B, theatre, and classical music, Vitro made her bones and settled on jazz as her bedrock style and moved to New York. Connecting and performing with heavyweights such as tenor-man Arnett Cobb, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Lionel Hampton, she appeared at all the major jazz clubs including The Blue Note, Birdland, and Dizzy's Jazz Club at Lincoln Center, collaborating with musicians such as Kenny Werner and Christian McBride (scheduled to close the Summer Series on August 16). Vitro currently holds a teaching post at New Jersey City University.
The second set spotlighted Vitro scatting with the drums on Bill Evan’s “Funkallero”, each member of the band taking a funkified turn at bat. Her phrasing was sincere and delightful in Randy Evan’s “Everytime it Rains”, while she took a soulful opportunity with “Unchain My Heart”, inspired by Ray Charles singing this Bobby Sharp tune through her mom’s radio when she was a little girl.
Vitro closed it up with “Ain’t Got Nothing but the Blues,” an Ellington tune which she and the RNPB kicked out of the hall, sending a satisfied audience into the steamy south Florida summer night.