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I’ve spent some time recently listening to vocalist Roseanna Vitro’s very first album, Listen Here — or rather, re-listening: Vitro reissued the album on CD this year. I still have the original vinyl, released in 1984 on her one-and-done Texas Rose label, back when the CD was still an exotic newcomer. She has since released more than a dozen albums, earning jazz-world prominence with her dark-honey timbre and exuberantly versatile phrasing.
Vitro hasn’t stood still; she has nearly 40 years of subsequent life experiences, and digging into that trove, she has mastered the art of communicating the lessons learned. Comparing that first effort to her later work, I can hear some missteps. Yet Listen Here retains its own honored niche in my memory. It led to a decades-long friendship, which in turn provides a quite specific perspective on her career.
Without question, and even as a first recording, Listen Here made good on its title imperative — this is someone you should hear! — and with Kenny Barron, Buster Williams and Ben Riley in the band, Roseanna had all the support one could want. (Also, Fred Hersch wrote the arrangements.) At the time, I was the jazz critic for USA Today, where I placed an enthusiastic review of the album. The following year, Roseanna contacted me and asked if I would consider writing the liner notes for her next recording. I considered this an especially flattering request, since I’d be following the guy who annotated the first album — revered songwriter, comedian and innovative TV host Steve Allen.
The timing smacked of kismet: I was slated to visit New York a month or so later, and Roseanna suggested we meet in Manhattan and talk about the upcoming record. Still in my early 30s, this gave me a good feeling about where my so-called career might be headed — even before Roseanna, bubbly and spunky, driving a stylish sedan, picked me up at a corner in midtown right around sunset and played me the tracks of her second album as she sped downtown, challenging NYC cabbies like a native. (She’s from Arkansas, actually.)
Those of us who study jazz and its history, including those who write about it, relish the chance to “grow up” with an artist as their talent and vision continue to evolve. I can read and listen to everything available about Armstrong and Parker, Ellington and Coltrane, and gain a deep admiration for their lives and music: They come alive as revered teachers of past generations. But the chance to meet a contemporaneous musician, early in her career, and then to watch her arc develop in real time — perhaps in tandem with one’s own accomplishments — lends an entirely different appreciation. Instead of absorbing her story as compacted from another era, I get to share that history as it unfolds, step by step with my own.
Over the years, Roseanna’s musicianship has steadily evolved. In 1984, she could bewitch and bedazzle in a few phrases; now she provides lilting uplift or sobering pathos in just a couple of notes. Besides that, she’s established herself as a respected educator and valued collaborator. She’s mined rich musical ore by diving into heady compositions by McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Kenny Werner. And she’s demonstrated an ear for smartly turned concepts, successfully translating into jazz the songbooks of Ray Charles, Clare Fischer and Randy Newman.
There’s a kind of — what? pride? affection? empathy? — that comes from looking back on the careers of musicians I’ve gotten to know as we’ve both come of age. It extends beyond the listening. It’s not restricted to journalists: Any longtime fan who has followed a musical hero from the start will recognize this emotion. We all have certain memory markers along those epic journeys. As I write this, Roseanna has grabbed her producer’s hat to put the final touches on a new project: Sing a Song of Bird, with lyrics sung to Charlie Parker compositions. Nonetheless, my mind darts back to a golden-hour springtime drive with a happening chick (period-appropriate slang) and the start of a long, rewarding ride with the music and the artist behind it. - Neil Tesser