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There is a certain breeziness to Carmela Rappazzo's 'Love & Other Difficulties' / off Beat Magazine

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"I try really hard as a writer to write light and airy songs," says jazz singer and songwriter Carmela Rappazzo. "And I suck at it."
off Beat Magazine's STEVE HOCHMAN writes.....Rappazzo is trying to identify the thread that connects the songs on her new album. There are nine originals, interspersed with three from the American songbook (the wistful Hoagie Carmichael/Johnny Mercer tune "Skylark," Cole Porter's heart-as-captive "So In Love" and Billy Strayhorn's openly romantic "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing"). And rounding it off is the loss-imbued "Empty Chair" by Paul Sanchez, the first musician friend she made in New Orleans upon her arrival six years ago.
But frankly, the album title does the job: Love & Other Difficulties, the phrase borrowed from an anthology of the emotionally rich prose and poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.
There is a certain breeziness to the performances with Rappazzo backed by a tight jazz-club trio of pianist Oscar Rossignoli, bassist Martin Masakowski and drummer Doug Belote. There's even a playfulness to it all, with the relentless bugs-as-metaphor of her frisky "Cicadas" and the push-pull of "Keep Your Distance." Here and there it calls to mind 20th-century cabaret greats Annie Ross and Blossom Dearie, both known for their mix of melancholy and mirth, and both of whom Rappazzo saw numerous times in her formative youth while living in Manhattan.
Still, her self-analysis is on point.
"I love love songs," she says. "But love is really complex and difficult. It can be a little dark."
She laughs, pausing for a second in a Zoom chat from her Gentilly home.
"I'm a really normal person," she stresses. "You know, I've been married to the same person [musician Mark Carroll] for 31 years. And before that I was very happy alone. But for some reason I have this kind of dark sensibility when it comes to love songs."
And that, she says, helps explain how she connected with New Orleans and its music, how she, well, fell in love with it on first sight.
"The shadow here is long and intense," she says, noting the city's vibrant, but also troubled history and nature. "And you're drawn to it. I'm drawn to it. There's something we need to discover about ourselves, our inner nature, that New Orleans brings out in us. We get to act it out in the streets and it gets acted out for us in the [music] clubs. Even the trad-jazz people, there's an intensity and a heart and a soulfulness. It's exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. And I've never been anywhere that has that other than New Orleans."
Of course, she had some other help connecting as well, firstly Mr. Sanchez. It happened shortly after she and Carroll moved to town after living in Los Angeles and New York (she worked in music, theater and film in both), New Mexico (where they did a stint farming outside of Santa Fe, with surprising success) and New York again. Rappazzo's close friend from Los Angeles, casting director Jane Jenkins, was in town working on a Rob Reiner movie and insisted that Rappazzo accompany to her to an event at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. There, Jenkins introduced her to Sanchez.
"He said to me, ‘Oh, you're a singer. You work in jazz. Meet me at the Columns on Tuesday and I'll introduce you to [pianist] John Rankin and you'll sit in,'" she says. "And I'm looking at him like, ‘Who is this guy?' But now I'm obligated. I expect him not to show up, but I go to the Columns and he's there with [writer and collaborator] Colman DeKay. I don't know these guys from Adam. He introduces me to John Rankin on the break and says, ‘John, this is Carmela'-it's taken him a few years to get my last name-‘and she's going to sit in with you.' Not, ‘Can she sit in with you?' But, ‘She's going to sit in with you.' I was blown away by it."
It shouldn't have been a total surprise. A similar thing precipitated their move in the first place. Living in New York had been exhausting, without the exhilaration.
"The gigs were awful, and it was expensive," she says. "And Mark wasn't getting any work at all. So, for his birthday I gave him an airline ticket to New Orleans and said, ‘Go have a vision quest.' A friend of his picked him up, the only person we knew who lived here at the time, and said, ‘I have a guitar for you in the back. We're going to do a gig.' And he called me up that night and said, ‘We're moving to New Orleans.'"
He didn't have to twist her arm. They'd planned to move to New Orleans in 2005, "but this hurricane happened." When the move did come, a decade later, she felt at home quickly, the lure of that shadow and of the birthplace of her beloved jazz holding a strong appeal. Still, New Orleans can be tough on newcomers trying to make their way in the sometimes-insular music scene, especially newcomers who don't really do "New Orleans" music. But with Sanchez opening the door, she found the city welcoming.
"How lucky am I to have my first friend here to be Paul Sanchez," she says.
A second crucial right-place-right-time meeting happened shortly after that, when she was at an art fair in Palmer Park.
"My ear got pulled in the park," she says of music she heard coming from a little tent.
Following her ear, she found bassist James Singleton, whom she'd met already, anchoring a group of young players. In particular, her attention was grabbed by pianist Oscar Rossignoli, the Honduran native who, after studying at LSU, had only recently moved to New Orleans himself. Rossignoli, who in the time since has become one of the most-prized players in town, working with John Boutté and releasing his own acclaimed solo album this year, is also not a "New Orleans" musician, per se-not a Professor Longhair/James Booker acolyte. But his playing immediately resonated with Rappazzo, reminding her of some key pianists with whom she had sung, notably Jon Mayer ("not the rocker," she stresses) and Mike Melvoin (the late L.A. veteran with too many credits to highlight, as well as the father of Wendy, of Wendy & Lisa and Prince's Revolution fame).
"Singing with Mike was like singing in church," she says. "I got to work with incredible people. So, when I heard Oscar, I walked up to him and said, ‘I need your number.' And I started looking for gigs because now I know I could play modern jazz, straight-ahead jazz here with somebody."
Soon she was playing in various restaurants and bars, including a steady Sunday night slot at the French Quarter hotel Maison Dupuy for a stretch. Mostly she'd sing the American Songbook standards but would also work in originals along the way.
"At Maison Dupuy, that's what I would do," she says. "I would do three standards, one Carmela, three standards, one Carmela."
On albums, she'd already transitioned from the standards-heavy early releases to the all-originals Myths and Legends, made in her New Mexico years. The latter, she says, was met with some rough reactions, but also bolstered her resolve, and settling into the New Orleans world boosted her confidence as three years ago she made Howlin' at the Moon, with just one cover, the Tin Pan Alley-era "Lullaby of the Leaves" alongside eight originals. For that one, she did shoot for a more-New Orleans-style sound, with local stalwarts Gerald T. Watkins Jr. on drums, Mark McGrain on trombone and Steve Glenn on tuba, among those joining her and Rossignoli.
"It's a really odd record," she says. "And I had a really good time with it because I got to use a horn section and it has that New Orleans kind of style."
For Love & Other Difficulties though, she focused on her own musical history and strengths, enhanced by Rossignoli's Latin-jazz acumen, particularly on three songs he co-wrote with her. His playing meshed perfectly with her style, honed from her obsession from an early age with classic female jazz singers. She mentions Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O'Day, and particularly those two evoked in some of the new album's performances, Ross and Dearie. She'd even met O'Day, Ross and Dearie and once got to open for Ross in New York.
"I was so awestruck," she says. "I walked into her dressing room, and I didn't know what to say to her, aside from, ‘Oh, by the way, I worship you.' Her innovation, her timing, her ideas. And here she was! She was playing in the Metropolitan Room every Tuesday and I would be dragging everybody I knew who could go with me."
She credits co-producer Barbara Manocherian, a friend who also produces Broadway shows, for pushing her to bring that all up front on the new album. Rappazzo wasn't even sure she would make another record after Howlin' at the Moon, but Manocherian urged her to move forward, and to do it her way.
"She had heard some of what I was writing and said, ‘I'm only going to help you if you make this your record,' because she really likes my writing," she says.
And more is on the way.
"I don't have any delusions of grandeur about my writing," she says. "But I do love writing. I have four new tunes sitting on my piano downstairs."
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