Too long absent from the Hartford jazz scene, the savvy, deeply expressive singer Roseanna Vitro returned to town recently as part of Dan Blow's popular jazz and cabaret series at Hartford's Japanalia Eiko. She sang with her band that collaborated with her on her Grammy-nominated album, "The Music of Randy Newman."
Versatility is one of Vitro's key trademarks as shown by her three acclaimed, special project albums. Imaginative and deeply thought out, they're homages to such diverse artists as Randy Newman; Ray Charles on "Catchin' Some Rays: The Music of Ray Charles" and Bill Evans on "Conviction: Thoughts of Bill Evans." And in that same Vitro vein of versatility and variety, she's ventured into wide-ranging, yet quite accessible explorations with one of her more frequent, favorite and finest collaborators, the great pianist Kenny Werner.
Some years back, Vitro, a native of Hot Springs, Ark., who grew up in rural Texarkana, Ark., converted local fans into Roseannaphiles with her appearances here, much as she has since charmed the international jazz community with her warm signature style. Hers is a perfect blend of Northern cool and Big Apple sophistication, mixed with a straight-shot of plain, old-fashioned Southern comfort.
Part of what accounts for Vitro's versatility and open-minded approach to a wide variety of music and composers is that right from her earliest childhood days in the poor, rural South, she was surrounded in her family circle by all kinds of music.
"My mother and her family, who came from around Nashville, Ark., all sang. One of her brothers made gospel records when he was young with his wife, and two other brothers sang. Everybody sang, primarily gospel and country. So I heard a lot of that, and I had the gene for music right from when I was a little girl. I knew from when I was four that I was going to be a singer, and that was it," Vitro says by phone from Flower Mound, Tex., a Dallas suburb where she was visiting family before flying off to her next gig in New Orleans.
"I just remember my mother with her beautiful alto voice singing all the time. She's a jukebox. And at 87, she's still leading a little choir in Ft. Worth. We always laugh when we say she has a direct line to Jesus. Anybody who wants to talk to Him can just go through my mother," she says, recalling a childhood blessed with Biblical amounts of both sacred and secular sounds.
On the paternal side, for example, her colorful father's musical passion ran in far different, more worldly directions.
"My father, John Vitro — the Vitro brothers came from Calabria, Italy — was a totally different entity. My parents were such an interesting pair because he was into Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Italian opera. It was like having Tony Soprano marry Loretta Lynn. Just imagine, my Dad had a personality like a mix of W.C. Fields and Rodney Dangerfield. He was a gambler and owned a nightclub called the Flamingo in Hot Springs, Ark. He was handsome and very Dean Martinish," she says.
This birthright exposure to gospel, country, opera, pop, Dino and Frank, eventually led Vitro to blues, soul, R&B, The Beatles, Janis Joplin, rock, and other styles — all except jazz —- that caught her always wide-open ears and mind.
"I was well-rounded. In school, as I progressed, I sang in every possible situation. I sang in madrigal groups, in all-state choirs, in church, the VFW and in competitions singing Beatles' songs. I studied theater music. I sang art songs in German, French and Italian," she recalls.
Billed as the Vitro Sisters in their early teens, Roseanna and a sister began singing in local clubs, digging into hoedown songs like "Jambalaya" or celebrating their pop potpourri on live radio in Nashville, Ark.
Vitro has recorded a dozen critically acclaimed albums and toured the world as a premier vocalist, clinician, teacher and international roving jazz ambassador in the grand tradition of such global, good-will, jazz evangelist/diplomats as Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck.
A Jazz Ambassador
Articulate, diplomatic but also quite irreverently funny and down-to-earth, Vitro has served as an official U.S. Jazz ambassador for the U.S. State Department, The Kennedy Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center; performed with a legion of jazz heavyweights including Oscar Peterson, Joe Lovano and Fred Hersch; toured with Lionel Hampton (an early gig after arriving as a young hopeful in the jazz jungle of New York City); and recorded with comedian/songwriter/pianist and super jazz advocate Steve Allen.
Besides her world travels as a diplomat, performer, teacher and perennial student who studied classical Indian vocal techniques in Mumbai, she's appeared at all of Manhattan's major jazz clubs — from The Blue Note to Birdland and the Village Vanguard.
Vitro sings with flawless intonation, pitch-perfect flowing lines and the ability to make the meaning of a song's lyrics resonate. She exudes plenty of soul and exuberant delight in the storytelling elements of every song she sings.
When she moved to Houston and at age 21, Vitro forever converted to jazz as the one true faith.
"Once I fell in love with jazz, I never looked back," she says of her lifetime marriage to the art.