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October 30, 2005

Rhiannon improvises in life and music

Boston Globe

It began in New York in the late 1960s, where Rhiannon (her legally adopted single name) lived for a few years after graduating Cornell with a degree in theater. She arrived to teach drama at a predominantly black Long Island high school, and her students and their parents encouraged her to check out the jazz clubs in Manhattan. Not that she needed much prodding. ''I heard Ella Fitzgerald two nights after I got to New York," she recalls by phone from Madison, Wis., where she recently spent several days teaching and performing. Rhiannon comes to the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center tonight to celebrate the release of her new CD, ''In My Prime," backed by Tim Ray on piano, John Lockwood on bass, and Pedro Ito on drums and percussion.

''It was in a small club in midtown. I could have reached out and touched her. With those little bitty tables, you know, big enough for two drinks. And I remember what impressed me about her was how calm her body was while she was singing so fast. Her body was very still and relaxed."Soon she was driving into the city several nights a week to hear music, where her other early influences quickly accumulated.''I just got to thinking about voices and horns and texture and bel canto and lyrics and original music and jazz," she said. ''I was really a sponge." She wasn't singing at the time, though. After studying classical voice and piano for 10 years growing up, she'd caught the theater bug. ''I stopped singing completely," Rhiannon says. ''I don't even know if I sang in the shower."

Her singing resumed a few years later, in the mid-1970s, after she moved to San Francisco, became disenchanted with acting, and put together a cover band by tacking a notice to a bulletin board. ''Then along came the women's movement," she says, which led her to hitch rides to a pair of all-women's music festivals. There she made an important discovery: ''There was nobody doing jazz at these festivals," she says. ''I thought, 'Well, I could say that I don't belong here, or I could say that there's a big open space for me.' "

She returned from those festivals and joined a jazz workshop for women taught by pianist Michele Rosewoman. The first night she met the musicians with whom she formed the group Alive! That all-women jazz quintet stayed together for a decade, recording three albums before disbanding in 1986. Rhiannon's subsequent, ongoing association with Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra has lasted nearly twice that long and counting. McFerrin sings improvised duets with Rhiannon on two tracks of ''In My Prime," the two weaving their voices together like a pair of instrumentalists. But improvisation is paramount even in such covers as Joni Mitchell's ''A Case of You" and the Beatles' ''Blackbird," the latter featuring a rapid-fire stretch of improvised storytelling that Rhiannon says changes every time she performs it.

I have had the pleasure of working with Rhiannon on many occasions over the years, especially when she was a member of SoVoSo, and have great respect for her abilities as a vocalist and one of the very few who can truly hold their own when improvising with Bobby. A great and unique talent.

Posted by acapnews at October 30, 2005 12:29 AM