Born: August 10, 1966 Primary Instrument: Vocal
“Roberta Donnay is a major new find. The fact that Orrin Keepnews produced her record is a tipoff, plus that her backup trio includes pianist Eric Reed with four guest appearances from tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis. Roberta has a very appealing voice somewhat reminiscent tone-wise of Norah Jones. However, she is much more of a jazz singer than Jones, swinging, using subtle improvising, making some tunes quite bluesy and displaying versatility. What's Your Story is a very impressive effort, highly recommended. It makes one happy that Roberta Donnay has decided to pursue a jazz career.” - Scott Yanow, L.A. Jazz Scene
After close to a half-century at the top of his game, venerable producer Orrin Keepnews now restricts himself to working with a small handful of artists, one of whom is vocalist Roberta Donnay… It is obvious throughout these dozen tracks that she knows how to swing and can sell a ballad with the best of them. There’s an infectiously charismatic lilt to her “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?”; an inviting hint of pending delight in her “Small Day Tomorrow”; an intoxicatingly sexy push-pull at the heart of her self-penned “Stop This Train!”; a marvelous bluesiness that invigorates Mose Allison’s whip-smart “If You Live”; and the blurry regret of her “Drinkin’ Again” can match June Christy’s “Something Cool” shot glass for shot glass. If What’s Your Story is indicative of Donnay’s musical future, then let’s all be grateful she’s thrown her hat into the jazz ring. -Christopher Loudon, Jazz Times
Forward by Orrin Keepnews:
At this specific point in my long professional life as a jazz record producer, I have chosen to limit my serious artistic involvements to only three performers. I am very pleased that one of them is the remarkable young singer you are learning something about at this time Roberta Donnay!
I have been producing jazz records for extremely close to fifty years by now, a statistic that would frighten me if not for two facts: I have enjoyed the work just about all of that time, and I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a great many valuable and enjoyable artists and thus to help support and advance some quite notable careers. This also means that I have pretty consistently faced the reality of making value judgements about talent. I won't claim not to have made some mistakes along the way, but for the most part I remain proud of my decisions, and pleased to emphatically note that for a great many years now I have not accepted producing assignments on any basis other than my own enthusiasm. I do not intend to change that policy, making Roberta one of a deliberately small group of my current personal artistic commitments.
I actually first met Roberta not as a singer but as a colleague. Although East Coast natives, we have both been living and working in San Francisco for quite some time, and have worked together for some time as members of the board of governors of the local chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. I became aware that, although enjoying success as a pop singer and producer, and as a songwriter with a substantial number of film and TV credits, Roberta felt increasingly driven to re- invent herself as the kind of artist she had initially wanted to be; a full-fledged jazz singer.
Having heard her, and becoming aware of the potential of her talent and of the depth of her drive in this particular direction, I became convinced not only that I could help her towards achieving her goal, bu t that I very much wanted to offer that help. (To move at a tangent for a moment, let me point out that, while the bulk of my producing efforts have been with instrumentalists Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Joe Henderson and Bobby Hutcherson are some of them I also have a certain track record with a variety of singers that includes Abbey Lincoln, Mark Murphy, Flora Purim, Wesla Whitfield.)
Roberta and I have been working hard for more than a year. I have sought to expose her to a great many influences (some of whom she was quite familiar with) and a wide variety of classic and recent material, believing that talent like hers combined with a thorough grounding in the art she is now exploring must have strong results.
We are at work on the careful construction of an album that will draw from a wide range of songs and singers. (If you listen carefully to examples of her current work, you might learn that she has paid proper attention to such as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae and many others. You will also learn that, like any truly valid performer, there is a lot that belongs entirely to herself including numbers in her repertoire that are her own compositions.)
~ Orrin Keepnews
ROBERTA DONNAY Q & A Session
I learned to sing off the radio. Since I was a child in the Washington DC area, I have been heavily influenced by jazz (see lyrics to Harold's Rogue & Jar). The music I heard at home and in the clubs was always jazz: George Gershwin, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and show music.
Much of my music influences have been blues based. I grew up listening to Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and groups like Rufus and Earth Wind & Fire. I listened to Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles. Also, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. I close my eyes and just feel the intensity from both these artists. Learning blues ultimately led me back to jazz. Jazz feels like home to me.
In your career, what have been some of your creative challenges?
Finding my own voice. Finding a way to express the lyric content in a new and entirely undiscovered way. Working through an idea as a band leader has compelled me to stretch my abilities in music arrangement and composition. I don't read music, so I've had to work harder to compensate for that.
How has the music business changed since you began your career?
The recording industry has changed completely. When I started you could not put out your own record; now you can. It is now largely an indie world, and I think, even soon, in sales as the majors are losing ground. In the indie world, you can be an artist and put out quality music at any age, build your own following and book your own tour. However, indie artists have to work harder than ever to sell their sound. It is all too often more than a full time job in itself.
What in your life feeds your music?
People, ideas and other forms of art feed my music. I listen to people's conversations and have written many songs based on conversations I've heard or quotes, or ideas that stir my imagination. I've been influenced by traveling to different parts of the world. I love to write about the human condition. Women's issues have inspired me. Then there's racial injustice, the government and people's inabilitly to see the consequences of their actions - like the destruction of the environment.
You are a Buddhist. Do you blend y
our spiritual life with your musical life?
On a creative level, most definitely. In Buddhism we have equal respect for others no matter what their position. How this translates: If I'm on tour I know that I want the sound person to be happy, I want the musicians to be happy, I want the person cleaning my hotel room to be happy as much as I want the audience to be happy. Treating others with equal respect can create a pure environment for my own creative expression. Buddhism has allowed me to discover a deeper purpose for being here on the planet as an artist and as a human being.
Mill Valley resident Roberta Donnay has long been one of the Bay Area's standout pop singer- songwriters. Now she's going home - to jazz.
Her new compact disc, What's Your Story, produced by the legendary Orrin Keepnews, is a revelation - soothing and seductive, softly scintillating. Her beautifully phrased vocals manage to be both innocent and worldly, subtle yet deeply moving. A versatile singer, Donnay can deliver the goods in swinging or slow and sultry style.
Her composition, Stop This Train, holds its own with songs penned by such luminaries as Johnny Mercer, Al Jarreau, Mose Allison and Thelonious Monk and Abbey Lincoln. Highlights on the CD include Life In The Slow Lane, the bluesy If You Live and the classic No Regrets, previously recorded by Billie Holiday and Phoebe Snow. Donnay makes every song her own. - Paul Freeman, Palo Alto Daily News
What's Your Story
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