March 10, 2016
Reviewed by Lynn DiMenna for Cabaret Scenes
Having spent my year after college as an au pair in Rome, Italy, taking care of four “ragazzini” by day and singing for my supper at local establishments and ski resorts at night, I know, first-hand, just how much Italians love hearing their beloved Neapolitan songs sung by “una bella ragazza Americana!” However, lo these many years later, Vanessa Racci, with her debut CD, Italiana Fresca, has taken these songs and made them as fresh and tasty as a newly made ball of mozzarella!
On the cover of her CD, looking like she was plucked right out of a piazza in Naples or, at the very least, a scene from La Dolce Vita, Racci describes her first recorded effort as a “jazz-inspired twist on Italian-American classics.” For me, her colorful interpretations of this unique and impressive song list go down like the refreshing blend of a signore’s Negroni and a signora’s Aperol spritzer…part bitter, part sweet, smooth and fizzy, with an abundance of orange and lemon peels thrown in for added kicks.
In his liner notes, author/journalist James Gavin compares her sound to Racci’s idol, Connie Francis. I heard that plaintive quality as well, but, particularly on ballads, I also heard a similar shimmering whimper that separated the late Nancy LaMott from her fellow girl singers. Racci’s warm, contralto voice, along with her sexy and swinging takes on some of the most revered Neapolitan standards, immediately pulled me in and sustained my attention throughout her twelve thoughtfully chosen cuts.
For example, Ervin Drake would have been thrilled, in the opening cut, to hear the English lyrics he wrote to “Al di La,” written by Carlo Donida and Mogol which won The Eurovision Song Contest in 1961, done in a more contemporary, up tempo version that allowed Racci to tell the story of the song while communicating a deeper understanding of its meaning. “Guaglione,” with its funky, New Orleans-style drum beat and modern lyrics, also gives the vocalist the opportunity to tell the time-worn tale of a street-smart, older woman being wooed by a young man half her age to its fullest dramatic effect.
Similarly, in interpreting “O Sole Mio” (“Oh, My Sun!”) written in 1898 by Eduardo di Capra and Giovanni Capurro and sung by all Italian and Italian-American singers worth their vino, Racci brings a delicate and distinctly feminine sound to this traditionally male-performed Neapolitan standard. Confident and fearless, she goes where the story and the music take her and her exceptional and supportive sidemen are with her every step of the way.
Her excellent diction and, most specifically, her facility with the difficult, southern Neapolitan dialect that even a northern Italian finds challenging to master, also deserve mention. Having grown up in a family where this dialect was spoken and having been greatly inspired by a revered grandfather to whom she dedicated the project, by recording these songs for a new generation, Racci, fulfilled a life-long dream of keeping the songs of her childhood alive with “re-inspired rhythms and lyrics that represent the modern female perspective while staying true to the original Italian meaning.”
Joining her on two duets is the very talented Chicagoan, Paul Marinaro. If there were elements of LaMott in Racci’s vocal fluidity, Marinaro is the Italian equivalent of one of LaMott’s favorite duet partners, Michael Feinstein. Their medley of “Anema e Core” (“Soul and Heart”) and “O Marenariello” (“Seaman”) is simply breathtaking.
Listening to their voices blend and hearing them sing so passionately and conversationally about all things Italian brought back memories of gliding through the alleys of the ever-enchanting city of Venice on my honeymoon 40-plus years ago. Given that it was Racci’s intention to “ignite the Italian passions inside all of us,” I’d say she succeeded…I can’t wait to “torna a Venezia!”
The producer of the project, renowned bassist David Finck, compares the process of making this CD to a successful collaboration in the kitchen where there are few disagreements. A great recipe—fresh ingredients combined with a creative concept and a hefty dose of love and passion—has given us something very special…Italiana Fresca!