Going Up: Story Elevation by Leonisa Ardizzone

Leonisa Ardizzone CD

Multi-instrumentalist Leonisa Ardizzone believes in a world with fluid musical boundaries; that’s why in her latest release “All in Good Time” she delicately re-threads a Go-Go’s staple (“Our Lips are Sealed”) and adds new coloration to The Smiths’ “Girl Afraid.” Ardizzone’s crystal-clear vocals and intuitively placed phrasing make this album  extremely accessible.

“Cyclone” is a different kind of love story, literally climbing to heights and dropping to lows in sketching out a sweet but temporary romance. In the fully scatted cover of “This I Dig of You” the quartet absolutely swings and crackles with energy that boils over into every available space. A heartwarming celebration of melody-meets-rhythm, the CD has found its right time.

What do you remember as your first public performance?

My first public singing performance was probably a solo in fourth grade at my elementary school. I vaguely recall singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” while wearing a jersey. My early years also included violin and piano recitals and gymnastic competitions, so performing, while not always singing, was a big part of my life. My first “real” performance in jazz was in 1994 when I started playing with my then-partner in a trio in Ithaca, NY.  

How would you characterize your voice?

This is a tough question! I’ve been compared to people from Natalie Merchant to Sade and others in between. I guess I would say that I don’t think I have a traditional “jazz sound.” I often feel like my voice would be better suited to folk or fronting a punk band, but I have control and good ears, and I like to take risks. I also know that my voice adapts to the song I am singing.

As a voice teacher once told me, I have to embody the song, so I do what the song tells me to do!

What goes into choosing what you will record or perform?

I have such a vast taste in music that anything is possible! I particularly like to find tunes that speak to me in some way, that have had an impact on me or that represent some aspect of my life or what I am feeling. Depending on the gig, I can bust out standards or bossa or pop tunes or jazz versions of grunge tunes.

I do not like the idea of recording jazz tunes that have been recorded a lot. I’d rather find a non-jazz tune and turn it into a jazz standard, as in the case of the Smiths’ “Girl Afraid” or the Go-Go’s “Our Lips are Sealed.”

I love singing in foreign languages, especially Italian (but bring on the Portuguese and French and Spanish too!)  I also have embarked on finding tunes that have not been recorded by vocalists.

Lately, I’m moving into more songwriting. “All in Good Time” has two tunes that I wrote (one in English and one in Italian). This summer I’ve written more which will hopefully end up on the next recording.

Talk about the Jazz Vespers series you launched in NYC. What inspired it and what did you like most about it?

A fellow Unitarian Universalist had taken me to a Jazz Vespers service many years ago and I loved it. So when the intern minister at my home UU Congregation in NYC (4th Universalist on the Upper West Side) mentioned that she wanted to add a Soulful Sundown worship series on Sunday evenings, I jumped right on board. I volunteered to curate a Jazz Vespers service one Sunday a month, and looking back, I know that that experience was one of the things that led me to attend seminary and become an ordained UU minister. 

I loved our Jazz Vesper series for a few reasons: 1) I got to bring in my jazz musician friends and invite them to create a theme-based contemplative musical service.  What a blessing it was to have so many friends and colleagues share their gifts at 4thU!  2) The sanctuary at 4thU is amazingly beautiful and acoustically wonderful, so everyone who played – myself included – just loved the sound and the vibe, and the listeners were treated to a jazz sound bath (which I was told more than a few times, was spiritually profound). 3) I loved creating an “alternate” form of worship, using music with some readings and moments for  contemplation/meditation to invite people into a silent dialogue with the divine, the ineffable, and that which brings us all close to one another in community.

Our local UU community loved it. Some members and friends would skip regular Sunday morning service choosing to attend Vespers instead!  We never got a big crowd, or a huge following, but the folks who attended found it transformative. It only lasted for three years, but it was a lovely three years. I feel so fortunate that I was able to be a part of something so beautiful. I hope now to bring Jazz Vespers to the UU Congregation I serve in Kingston, NY.

How does your background in science, education and social justice tie into your music? Are these themes in your music?

It’s not a direct line but certainly a form of inspiration and sensibility. For many years, I compartmentalized. My science and peace and justice work were my “work-work” and music refilled my cup, fed me and inspired me. It was my creative outlet.

Now, as I move into being a minister/musician full-time those boundaries are not so clearly demarcated. My songwriting and future recording ideas include all aspects of my various life work.

You also play oboe and violin. What was it like to transition from that classical upbringing (as well as having two operatic parents) to jazz?

It was a little tricky at first, especially getting comfortable with the idea of improvisation. I was so used to reading notes off a page! But being steeped in classical music gave me a solid foundation and deep appreciation for the gifts of music.

When I found jazz, I admired the virtuosity of the players and loved how jazz pushed boundaries and could be so intellectually and emotionally stirring.  I love the fluidity and flexibility of jazz. I love that every time you hear a tune, it’s different. I love that I get to play with amazing musicians and engage in unspoken conversations with them each time we play. I love the way I feel – how my spirit is stirred – when I listen to jazz or when I get to make music with my bandmates.

How long did it take to create “All in Good Time” and what were the highlights of producing this album?

The album was about 10 years in the making, but then, it happened in a matter of months. A number of the tunes on the album are nuggets that the fellas and I had been playing for a couple of years before I went underground, so we all knew they had to be on this record.

When I started to really plan the album, I looked back over the past ten years and wanted to capture that journey, the transformation, the ups/downs, etc. So I chose songs that helped tell a tale. When I realized there was something missing, I wrote.

For example, I wrote “When Hagar Ran” to capture my feelings of fear and uncertainty while I was a single mom, calling on Hagar whom I encountered during my Hebrew Bible class in seminary. I then wrote “Ischia.” My daughter and I visited Ischia (an island in Italy) a number of times, staying with the D’Ambra family and I found such healing there, so “Ischia” is a love song of gratitude to them and to the island.

Our drummer Justin wrote “Cyclone” many years ago for his own band, and I loved it so much that Jess wrote an arrangement of it for me and the band.

I could go on and on…but suffice to say that creating this album was a great joy because I was working with people I love (Jess, Justin, Mark, Charles and Dean – more on them later) and it was truly collaborative. We were all in the room together, so it was like we were just playing live, playing our butts off and enjoying ourselves. We didn’t do any overdubs, we just had a blast. The whole experience was so very different than my first two albums…it feels like it’s truly mine. And I’m so happy with the final product. 

What is your favorite track or riff on it?

One of my favorite moments is Jess’s solo – especially the opening notes – on “When Hagar Ran.” That line is intense, jarring and almost violent; when we were recording, we all looked at one another with these “was that too much” faces? But then, when I was listening back with my co-producers Charles and Dean, I got chills, and so did they. We all loved it. It was clearly unanimous. And I think I love it so much because it not only shows Jess’s artistry but also that he got it. He understood why I wrote that song. His solo instrumentally captured the fear and anger and anxiety I felt as a single mom, and the fear and anger and anxiety I imagined Hagar felt when she was cast out into the desert.

But…I also love the opening lines – and repeating riffs – on “Girl Afraid.” I am a huge Smith’s fan and love the musicianship and writing chops of Johnny Marr.

I also love “Kid.” It’s the song Chrissy Hynde wrote so that one day I could sing it to my daughter. And, I can say that I just grin like a fool when I listen to the fellas going full rollercoaster during the solo section of “Cyclone”!

Who did you collaborate with on this project?

I am so completely blessed to make music with Jess Jurkovic, Justin Jay Hines and Mark Wade, among others. We’ve been playing together for 20 years and I truly consider them family. When we play together, I am filled with joy and deep admiration for their gifts and humanity. Jess, I would say, though, is my true partner in crime. If not for him, and his friendship and collaboration, this record might not have happened. I bring ideas to him – like “hey, let’s do a Smiths’ song or the Go-Go’s” – and explain how I hear it in my head, and then, he makes it happen. And for this album I wrote two songs, and then Jess and Justin dove in with me to make them whole, and what a treat for me, to have these two musical monsters help me complete my vision! 

I was also lucky enough to find Dean Jones and Charles Frommer to produce the album with me. They are my neighbors in Rosendale, New York (although the three of us technically live in the even smaller hamlet of Tillson, where I moved two years ago from Manhattan). We met through my husband Michael and they are amazing musicians and creative forces. For the first time ever in the recording process, I felt heard and valued, and thus the whole experience was like a blooming or a re-birth! I cried more than a few times over the 10 months we were working on this from sheer gratitude and joy.

What would you want audiences to most know about you?

I was recently ordained and the benediction I gave at the end of the service captures what I hope to be: I reminded folks to be brokers of joy and justice and to be inquisitive and grateful. Whether I am singing or preaching or teaching, I want people to feel intellectually engaged, spiritually moved, and experience unfettered joy.

Other comments?

Thank you for such great personalized questions and for including me on your fantastic blog! I am so glad you like the album. Let’s go ride the Cyclone together!

For more information, visit www.leonisaardizzone.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist. Credits: top photo (c) Scott Friedlander, CD cover (c) Angel Rodriguez
(c) Debbie Burke 2019

COATNEY 6x9 front cover FINAL

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