“Tell Me Why Life is Beautiful?” (Hint: It’s Music)

Debbie Gifford 1

The rich, lush sound of crooner Debbie Gifford brings a dramatic flair from her background in theater with particular attention to telling stories of regret and lost opportunities. Debbie colors these musical vignettes with strength and character, exhibiting an awesome vocal range and emotional delivery.

Her performances are very physical and engaging. You’ll see her hands dance and her body sway; and you can tell she’s truly pondering the old-as-time questions like (as the song says) why are there “So Many Songs About Love”? Debbie can also sing about luck and good fortune, as the musicians accompanying her follow her lead easily and with great tone.

When did you decide to be a singer and why?

When I was four years old. My father, Gene Masi, was a musical director and  had been staging “South Pacific,” casting a young child in the role of Ngana to sing “Dites Moi.” I just happened to be in the theater that day with my mother, Dorothy Masi, who was designing scenery and costumes. My father looked out into the audience and there I sat, hypnotized by the music and the magic of the production.

[The lyrics in English: Tell me why life is beautiful; tell me why life is gay? Tell me why, dear Miss, is it because you love me?]

The next thing I knew he was calling me up to the stage and teaching me the solo of the song! A few weeks later on opening night, as I stood on the stage and looked out into the audience and began to sing, I knew I was home and this is what I wanted to be – a singer! I sang all during my school years and then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s in Vocal Performance. To this day my passion is performance and bringing my love of music to the hearts of everyone who hears my voice.

How do you take care of your voice?

Taking good care of my voice is my #1 priority. I avoid shouting at all costs – unfortunately that limits my attendance at sporting events. But all kidding aside, my voice is my life and I always protect it from harm. I rarely drink beverages with ice cubes or with extremely cold temperatures, especially not on a performance day.  Living in the northeastern part of the U.S., I protect my throat against the cold by always wearing a scarf when temperatures drop, and this is also handy for that diva look. 

Before and during my breaks, whether recording or performing, I drink warm herbal tea with honey to keep my throat protected and coated. Warming up your vocal chords before a performance is a must. Would you run a marathon without stretching first?! Some performances are like a marathon when it comes to encores so I have to be prepared with an instrument in tip-top shape.

What do you like about the torch song?

I absolutely LOVE a good torch song- I am sure you noticed by listening to my recordings that they are a big part of my repertoire! I am very particular in choosing which ones I perform. I have to make a personal connection with the lyrics and believe in them and the story they tell. Then I call upon that connection to involve the audience in feeling the meaning along with me. Feeling the song is how I bring the song to life for myself and the audience.  

How has the study of opera informed you as a jazz musician? What are the areas of overlap?

Opera is my foundation for everything I do musically. From my first formal private music lesson at age 15 to today, this knowledge has taught me to use my instrument correctly with breathing techniques, vocal production, tone and timbre. You can’t build a house without a strong foundation if you want it to be standing for a good, long time. The same idea pertains to your voice: if you want to sing for a lifetime then you need a good, strong foundation. This is my recommendation for anyone considering a career as a vocalist of any genre: build a good foundation in classical studies and you can sing anything.

What are the differences in style between your ensemble and the big band?

While performing with my quartet I am able to sing in a variety of styles because there is more freedom with a smaller group. I am able to add more improvisation in melody, lyrics and rhythm, and have the opportunity to add some scat singing.

But I also love to perform with my big band because it brings me back to the days of my musical theater performances. Although big band charts are more structured as we adhere more closely to the band arrangements, I still sneak in opportunities to improvise the melody and rhythm but do it carefully so as not to take away from instrumental parts. The drum hits and kicks are some of my favorite parts of a big band arrangement!

How does your style and sound change from a small group to a larger group?

I have to use a bit more power with the big band because there are many more musicians contributing to the sound. This is where the use of proper breathing techniques is essential for tone production and intonation. It is quite a balancing act when performing with a big band to get your sound across, as well as keeping it in tune and paying particular attention to the dynamics. Louder is not better if it is out of tune!

With the smaller ensemble these are also very important, but with fewer musicians contributing to the music, I can use a different bag of tricks. Still, I always pay strict attention to tone production and intonation. To a jazz vocalist, proper microphone technique is also very important to achieve a certain sound, style and dynamics for your performance.

What are your favorite venues worldwide?

This is a very hard question to answer since I have so many favorites but I will narrow it down to three: Favorite in the States: Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill & Jazz Club in Beverly Hills, CA. A fantastic performance venue!

One of my favorites in Asia:  JZ Jazz Club in Shanghai, China – a great two-story club! One of my favorites in Italy – Spettacolo Arena Dafne – Cefalu, Italy. Great audience!           

What is the jazz scene like where you live?

I live in Ohio and we have a handful of jazz clubs in our two biggest cities, Cleveland and Columbus. Both cities boast a lot of talented local jazz instrumentalists and vocalists.  Cleveland is home to the TriC Jazz Fest which is an annual jazz festival attracting world-class jazz performances. My favorite performance venue in Cleveland is the Bop Stop @ The Music Settlement which was built specifically for jazz performances. 

What do you like about performing in Italy?

Italy is by far my favorite place to perform away from home! The audiences are so warm, wonderful and welcoming! They are so extremely appreciative to the artists for sharing their talents and they show it by their response to the music.

In the summer of 2016, I was honored to perform in a small town in Sicily, San Michele di Ganzaria, which is the hometown of my paternal grandparents. Our concert in the town was the most memorable performance of my life. The streets were filled with townspeople as far as the eye could see, and the warm reception they gave me made this concert one of the most cherished memories in my heart. 

Many decades prior to this performance, my father performed in this town. As a member of the U.S. Army he was stationed in Italy as a vocalist for the USO shows.  On a weekend leave he visited the small town where his parents were born and sang for family and friends. Many years later, his daughter came back to San Michele di Ganzaria to perform and what a homecoming it was!! I was treated like royalty. They even named a sandwich after me at the local deli! It was the experience of a lifetime and when it was time to leave this special little town tears flowed like a river.

Unfortunately, my father never returned to our ancestral hometown, but I will continue the tradition of a Masi (my maiden name) singing in the streets of San Michele di Ganzaria when I return for my concert in the fall of 2018. 

How has the sound of jazz changed from when you started in the business?

I began performing jazz in 1999 as a lead vocalist in a big band and a few years later formed my own quartet and set off to perform around the world.  For me, jazz is always changing, evolving and revolving around in an improvisation of sounds that come from my heart into yours. That’s what makes it such a unique genre.  

Besides technology, what would you say are the major differences in recording and producing from then ’til today?

From my first album “You Taught My Heart to Sing” to my upcoming release “Changes” the major differences are not in the technology but in what I am bringing to the table in recording and production. With every album I’m learning new techniques of portraying my ideas into the production as well as the recording. Our upcoming release was engineered by Pete Tokar, a Grammy Award-winning engineer, and that alone made a world of difference in just about everything including instrumental sounds and vocals interpretation. 

Current CD and what are the highlights of the album?

Recorded over the last two years, our upcoming CD “Changes” will be released in 2018. Highlights include two of my favorite winning songs from the San Remo Festival in Italy, “Senza Fine” (Never Ending) and “Voce del Silenzio” (Voice of Silence), two songs that I performed at my most cherished San Michele di Ganzaria concert.

It also contains two originals with music by John Trzcinski and lyrics by Debbie Gifford: “Heartbreak” and “Into Your Eyes.” Also, a song by one of my favorite singer/songwriters Carol Welsman, “You Take Me Away.” It was a labor of love! Every song has a special meaning in my life and so comes the title “Changes.” 

Life is ever-changing and in the world of jazz, especially with improvisation being the key to it all, change is bound to happen and continues to happen. 

Talk about the personnel in both bands and what strength each one brings.

The backbone of our bands is musical director John Trzcinski. His unique arrangements and compositions are very well-received by audiences around the world. His vast musical knowledge, as well as his phenomenal performance talents, are an integral part of all our bands. The two us have collaborated on original jazz tunes on two of our albums: “One Day at a Time” and “Changes.” The personnel in both bands are fun to work with as they are all top-notch music professionals in performance and many are professors in music education.

Our newest band member is Evan Mitchell, and although the youngest in age, he doesn’t lack the experience and talent of our veteran members.  I am surely one lucky girl. 

 “’Tis the Season to be Jazzy” –why do you think Christmas songs with a jazz spin resonate with audiences?

Who doesn’t love Christmas songs and jazz, but how do we take this to a new level?

This concert came about from the idea of making these songs unique while getting the audience in the jazzy holiday spirit, yet without taking away from their love of the standard tunes. My music director, John Trzcinski, accepted the challenge and rearranged all the Christmas tunes with his unique style to create a whole new sound and thus it was quite the Season to be Jazzy

The new arrangements included new rhythms, a variety of styles and improvisation – a great recipe to take our audience to the next level. The audience loved them so much that we will be recording them for a release in the fall of 2018. 

The most common question you get asked is__________ ?

Are you classically trained? (Second would be: Could you sing ‘New York, New York’?)

What new composers or genres within jazz would you like to try?

I think it would be fun to dive into some bebop with lots of scat singing added to the mix.  This will be quite a challenge for me and I think I am finally ready to take it on. 

What are your plans to grow your musical presence – both bands – in 2018?

2018 has already been shaping up into performances at many new venues across the States as well as the addition of new festival performances in Europe. We will be releasing our newest CD “Changes” at many of these venues on our 2018 tour. Additionally, I am very excited about our addition of a new seven-piece jazz ensemble that will premiere in July.

John Trzcinski is busy writing new arrangements for this group and rehearsals will start soon. Growing my musical presence will be a combination of searching out new songs to add to my repertoire and the opportunity to share our music with new audiences around the world. 

For more information, visit www.debbiegifford.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Debbie Gifford.

© Debbie Burke 2017 

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