Sunday's Jazz Brunch At Muraski Cafe Features New York-Based Artist's Original Compositions
By OWEN McNALLY
May 13, 2012
A renaissance woman who speaks four languages, sings in nine, has a Master's degree in German literature and studied English history at Oxford University, Napua Davoy has dramatically expanded her range of artistic expression since first establishing herself nearly two decades ago as an exceptionally fine, interpretive jazz singer and pianist.
A smart, dulcet-voiced, elegant interpreter of song, the New York-based performer is celebrated for her rare ability to get deep inside the meaning of a song's lyrics and creating a seductive mix of the sultry and the spiritual.
Besides being a jazz diva, she has other artistic talents.
Not only is she now a playwright whose musical plays have been produced from New York to Edinburgh, but she's also a composer who mixes jazz, blues and classical into Gershwin-like or Bernstein-like "jazzical" pieces and musical dramas. In addition, she's a lyricist of wit and feeling; a charismatic stage performer whose striking one-woman performances embrace a cast of characters; a painter and a sculptor.
No stranger to Hartford -- she's sung jazz and cabaret numbers here in clubs and presented her one-woman musical, "Stella Rising," a heart-rending memoir of her mother's struggle with Alzheimer's disease -- Davoy returns to town to perform in the Sunday Jazz Brunch at the Muraski Cafe at the Mark Twain House & Museum.
Her Mother's Day performance, a concert focusing on Davoy the Diva not Davoy the Diverse Practitioner of the Arts, will be devoted to standards, originals and, to add to the suspense, maybe a few surprises. Hartford guitarist Rich Goldstein accompanies her.
"I might even sing an operatic number, maybe an aria by Bellini," Davoy says by phone from her Manhattan home.
This seriousness of artistic intent is very much the case with Davoy, a student of all things musical since she was a child taking piano lessons, playing guitar around the house and singing in school and church choirs in her small hometown of Beaumont, Texas.
"I've been studying classical singing for the last five or six years -- opera singing and bel canto, developing the ability to sing coloratura, a really fast, high operatic style. Apply all that classical approach to jazz and you've got a singer who can sing like a clarinet," she says of her intense opera studies and interest in composing not just 32-bar pop tunes but arias brimming with operatic passion.
Davoy may dip into her widely varied, original compositions. These could range from songs and arias from her musical, "Stella Rising," a portrait of her painful childhood in a backwater Texas town and her complex relationship with her Alzheimer-stricken mother, to her latest pop opera, "Fly Me to Miami."
"Miami" is set in 1939 in Spanish Harlem. Teeming with colorful characters including lovers and mobsters, its libretto is stocked with heavyweight dramatic themes --murder, lust, racism and anti-Semitism. Her sizzling compositions dance to Latin grooves over tango, bolero, salsa and mambo melodies in a red-hot score orchestrated by Afro-Cuban jazz master and Grammy winner, the pianist/composer Arturo O'Farrill.
If character and careers are formed by fate, then there are at least two giant elements that shaped Davoy's direction, the first and primal one being her tumultuous childhood in Texas where she grew up as one of five children in a racially mixed family in a small town.
Her father, a farm boy from Valiant, Okla., was Cherokee, Choctaw and English. Her mom, a deeply ambivalent figure in her life and the problematic heroine of "Stella Rising," was Hawaiian, Chinese and English and originally from Maui.
Davoy was born in Norman, Okla., but was raised in Beaumont, in a strife-torn, hardscrabble household, an environment which she calls "a volatile mix of Paradise and 'The Grapes of Wrath.'"
Another character-forming event occurred years after she had left home and was beginning her jazz career with what seemed like a giant shot at success with her debut album for Columbia Records.
Despite having to cope with the psychologically crippling burden of performance anxiety, Davoy, when not tending to college studies, was singing on the jazz club scene. There she was discovered by her future manager who put her under the wing of George Butler, then the influential head of Columbia Records' jazz division. Butler, a record baron and the maker of careers, was going to guide her, Davoy believed, to what would surely be a colossal career breakthrough on the powerful Columbia label.
But that opening for instant fame slammed shut when the album, with its misguided repertoire and anemic promotion, died a quiet death in the marketplace.
There were problems with what should have been the dream debut, including, Davoy readily admits, her lack of experience accented when she stepped into the Big Leagues of a Columbia recording session.
But there were other factors leading to the album's demise.
Instead of letting Davoy show her natural strength with jazz standards and ballads, for example, Columbia cajoled the young singer to sing pop material. Columbia's conservative centrist approach appealed to neither lovers of commercial pop nor straight-ahead jazz fans.
So what initially seemed like one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities fell as flat as the album's bland repertoire.
With little support from the legendary Butler, who was heading out the door toward retirement, or from her own seemingly ineffectual manager at the time, Davoy crossed her fingers and made the recording anyway.
With little corporate PR sizzle behind it, the album fizzled and Davoy was dropped from Columbia's artists list -- a severe setback and sore disappointment for the young singer.
Davoy bounced back, even conquering that severely inhibiting performance anxiety that had always held her back. She diversified her artistic interests and that, along with the creative boost she got from meditation, became her magical watchword for survival and success.
She practiced dress designing (she has her own dress line) and gardening in a special site in New York City's scenic Riverside Park with a Hudson River view. Known as "The Singing Gardener of Riverside Park," Davoy, who lives near Central Park, has turned landscape artist and created her own urban Eden in Riverside Park.
Her self-made slice of pastoral paradise comes complete with a 400-square-foot patio and steps she's made from large found stones she's lugged to the site by bike, wheel barrow and field pack to create an idyllic retreat. In a 15-minute bike ride through traffic she can pedal from her apartment on 69th Street to visit her garden on 119th Street.
A singer who's more than paid her dues, Davoy has toured throughout Russia, Europe and the United States, ironically even becoming far better known in Russia than in the States.
At one point her press kit was packed with ecstatic reviews and feature pieces written in Russian. She has toured extensively with Russia's famed jazz pianist/composer, Andrei Kondakov, and played major festivals from the United States and Australia to Odessa and Murmansk, and to packed houses at such classic jazz spots as Manhattan's Birdland.
Her accolades in English, which have, of course, escalated over the years, include a rave from George Wein, the legendary jazz producer and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival who called her "one of the most extraordinary song stylists in today's jazz world." Similarly, her series of high quality recordings have drawn wide critical acclaim, but not yet the broad-based public recognition that Davoy devotees feel she so richly merits.
Here are some of Davoy's thoughts on everything from her mother's Alzheimer to meditation. She thinks meditation has made her a stronger person, particularly after the shattering end of a profound love affair, and, most importantly, has opened the doors of her unconscious to expression in a wide variety of the arts.
Q: What kind of relationship did you have with your mother, both before and after she got Alzheimer's disease?
A: My mother and I had a really bad relationship, and then in the mid-90s she got Alzheimer's disease, and she turned on a dime and became the most lovely person I ever met. We became great, great friends for the next 10 years. She lived with Alzheimer for 20 years and died a little more than a year ago.
Q: Your relationship was strained as a kid growing up?
A: That would be an understatement. It was horrible. We were like oil and water. She hit me every day until I was 12, and then she grounded me. We were just in a horrible way with each other.
But I have found that this is not atypical in the place I grew up in, Beaumont, the armpit of Texas in the southeast corner of the state.
Q: Why armpit?
A: Well, it's pretty pathetic. It's all humidity and racism. That's it. That and football.
Q: Anything good about your childhood?
A: It was a mixed bag. I had great friends, a zillion friends, and had my first band when I was 10. I was always playing a guitar and singing.
Q: Tell me about your struggle with performance anxiety early on in your career. That seems quite puzzling because of your obvious talent, good looks and the vibrant but totally relaxed, natural stage presence you seem to project so easily today.
A: Because of not feeling good in front of people, all I did was practice in my living room and play in little coffee houses when I was younger.
Q: How did you get rid of that albatross?
A: Well, I had to get sober and give a small annuity to a psychotherapist, and that did it for me in the mid-90s. Obviously, I have no problem now.
Q: What was your experience like at Oxford University where you went on scholarship for a summer?
A: It was dreamy and right between my bachelor's and master's degrees, which were both in German literature. I lived in a quadrangle in one of those idyllic university settings. It was pretty near close to perfect. I read English history and studied with a don who was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Q: Why did you pursue an academic program like that rather than study music?
A: I think I was afraid of failing at something that I really wanted to succeed at. So I just did something that I knew I was good at. Get a degree. If I had it to do all over again, God in heaven, I would have gone to Juilliard!
Q: How did you get hooked on jazz?
A: I was singing light rock in a bar in Syracuse, N.Y., when I was working on my master's at Syracuse University, when this guy came up to me and said he had never heard anybody singing light rock like me who should be singing jazz. He took me to his home and had me listen to Ella Fitzgerald. Being a Piscean and a completely impressionable person, once I get started with something, I just go crazy with it. I just became addicted to jazz and delved into it, realizing that I didn't know what the hell I was doing.
Q: You mentioned the power of meditation. How has that helped you and your creative process?
A: I don't write anything. I go into meditation and the ideas come to me like on a comet.
Q: So you don't sit down at a keyboard and laboriously compose measure by measure. It just kind of emerges from your subconscious?
A: You have got to have tabula rasa and be open to your divine being. That's where all those great ideas are happening. I can craft you a song, but it would never be what an inspired song is through meditation. It's the trying that stops your creativity. To open up your mind like that, all you have to do is just cultivate gratitude and humility.
Q: What would you say is happiness for you?
A: I know that happiness for me is born of learning. So when people are watching a movie or going out to dinner, I'm home studying a language. It's just kind of in my nature.
Q: You describe the music in your musicals as "jazzical," a mix of jazz and classical, but what is that and what makes it work?
A: It's the juggernaut between the melody and the harmony which makes a good song. When you have a really tragic moment, you don't get a popular song. You get an aria-like song.
Q: How did you rebound from the disappointment of that Columbia release?
A: Success didn't happen and you really have to get over it. You have to grow a second skin. You have to just do the work and love the work and be grateful that you have even a modicum of talent to do it.
A Mother's Day Jazz Brunch with Napua Davoy is served Sunday, May 13, at 11:30 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. at the Murasaki Cafe at the Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford. Admission: $35. Sunday Jazz Brunches are presented by Japanalia Music and curated by producer/fashion designer Dan Blow at the Twain House's Murasaki Cafe. Reservations: 860-280-3130. Information: 860-247-0998 and www.marktwainhouse.org
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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