Photo Credit: Lorenzo Abate
On 26th September Viviana Zarbo sings Marilyn at the Pheasantry in the Kings Road. Interview by Gail Tasker:
LondonJazz News: When did you move to London, and what sparked the change?
Viviana Zarbo: I attended a musical theatre masterclass in Rome. It was taught by Kenneth Avery-Clark and Mark Goldthorpe, and I immediately fell in love with their method. Studying musical theatre in merely one country and one language didn’t seem enough for me. So I auditioned successfully for the American Musical Theatre Academy of London. At first glance, London seemed likely to fulfil my thirst for knowledge. I was enticed by the opportunity to work with teachers and artists from all over the world, and by the presence of multiculturalism.
LJN: Did you have much contact with jazz in Italy?
VZ: Before coming to the UK I never thought I would end up a jazz singer. When I moved to London, seeing live music venues and open mics at almost every corner made me think about singing jazz more and more. As for Italy, it was nice to meet and work with talented Italian musicians who work in London. For example, Marco Marconi, a real virtuoso pianist, and Renato D’Aiello, the poetic saxophone player who was the artistic producer of my debut album. I would eventually love to sing in Italy, so that I can share my emotions with my homeland too.
LJN: What kind of music or performance did you do prior to jazz?
VZ: I used to do musical theatre and prose. I’ve been involved with acting, singing and dancing since a very young age. Before discovering jazz, I would interpret a character by singing a song. Today I feel that I too have something to tell others, both as a singer and as a person: jazz is a genre which allows for this kind of twofold expression.
LJN: Are you an actress who sings, or a singer who acts?
VZ: To answer this question I would like to take Marilyn Monroe as an example. She’s mostly known for being the most famous blonde bombshell of all time. She also however happened to be a fine actress and an exquisite jazz singer. Although back in the day her potential was perhaps not fully explored, she succeeded in many fields including jazz. So, I don’t think I have to choose really as I endeavour to be both things according to the mood and the need. Marilyn’s legacy and extraordinary career encourages and inspires me to just allow myself to be. I think this is all that matters.
LJN: Your gig this month is inspired by Marilyn Monroe. What other influences are you taking from her?
VZ: When I started to listen to jazz and learn the standards, Marilyn Monroe’s versions were the ones that impressed me the most. There is a balance between sensuality and irony, and her storytelling capabilities are well conveyed by her breathy richness of her voice. Besides greatly appreciating her films, her biography also made a great impression on me. I felt that behind that Hollywood star there was a huge deal of weakness. Behind that iconographic smile there was a sweet girl who needed a hug. Not only does she influence the way I sing, but she also leads me to reflect on how weakness and frustration can often pass by unnoticed. I’m looking forward to paying her homage on the 26th of September at The Pheasantry (Pizza express live Chelsea). I’d like to share my love of Norma Jean with the audience, as I’ve often seen tributes to her but few homages. I don’t try to imitate her in any way: rather I try to express my affection and love towards her through my own voice and interpretation.
LJN: Which other singers do you take inspiration from?
VZ: I adore singers like Julie London, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Maxine Sullivan and all the great jazz divas. Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day bewitched me with their unique artistic personality and creativity. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae inspired me with their accuracy and the velvety smoothness of their musical phrases.
LJN: Before you started singing jazz, you worked in musical theatre in productions like Evita and Cleopatra. In your bio we read that you have researched ‘the common features between musicals and jazz music.’ What conclusions have you come to?
VZ: The most famous standards were originally featured in musicals, plays and films. Because of my musical theatre background, I can’t ignore this aspect. When I sing a standard I tend to stick to the original tune at first, as the composer certainly chose those notes for a reason. From the second repetition onwards, I go with the flow and try to give my own interpretation. In my opinion, this is how musical theatre and jazz can co-exist.
LJN: Do you try and inject a bit of theatre into your jazz performances?
VZ: Sure, I love to do that. I plan to do this more in the near future and I’m looking forward to it.
LJN: Do you plan to keep up the acting and musical theatre activities whilst you continue with jazz?
VZ: I’m always open, but jazz keeps me very busy at the moment, with both studying and managing my career. I would need a 48 hour day to do it all. Also, I like to teach and I often do masterclasses in Italy where I try to share what I learn here with my Italian students.
LJN: You seem especially drawn to music from the forties & fifties. Can you explain why that is?
VZ: I’m fascinated by the Golden Era of jazz. I like the sound of those orchestras, those trumpets that sound almost off-key, the warm voices, dresses, hairstyles, makeup… In brief, the music as an expression of that period. I wish I was born in the 1920s, so that I could live in the 1940s. Most of my repertoire is from that period because I want to celebrate it. However, I’m continuously trying to develop myself as an artist, so I would like to have my own original repertoire. As a rule of thumb, I try to be as versatile as possible.
LJN: Do you enjoy listening to instrumental jazz? If so, who are your favourite artists?
VZ: Sure. In my opinion, instrumental jazz sparks creativity and enhances the imagination. It’s also a useful way for singers to learn some tricks. I would certainly place Chet Baker and Dexter Gordon at the top of my list.
LJN: You’ve studied literature. Words are important to you then?
VZ: I think knowing the meaning of words is the key to unlocking emotions. But words are made up of sounds as well as of meanings. They turn us into musicians because by uttering words we become like instruments playing notes. Jazz gives a singer the delightful chance to play with syllables and sounds.
LJN: You’ve mentioned that your upcoming album is based on your experience of ‘dissatisfaction’. What’s the story behind this idea?
VZ: To leave Sicily to go to Rome in search of opportunities, and again from Rome to London for the same reason. To look for something that can’t be found in the place you are. To wish you had something you don’t have or that you were somebody you are not. This is constructive, positive dissatisfaction… this is what leads a person to work hard. Often though, when you reach your goal you already want something else. So dissatisfaction becomes boundless. The song After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It, sung by Marilyn Monroe and composed by Irving Berlin, strongly influenced my debut album (which will be released at the beginning of 2018). So I thank Marilyn for inspiring me once more.
LJN: How do English audiences compare to Italian audiences?
VZ: When it comes to jazz, English audiences are certainly knowledgeable. This is normal, due to the long-time presence of the genre in the UK compared with a much more recent introduction of jazz in Italy. On the other hand, it is certainly true that Italians tend to develop an unconscious and instinctive bond with musical genres. Those who have some familiarity with jazz are usually very knowledgeable and tend to develop a connoisseurs’ attitude, and the number of jazz fans in Italy is ever-growing. All in all, I would say that despite the differences in approaches, Italian and UK audiences can be both very rewarding for a performer.
LJN: What other ambitions or dreams do you have as a performer?
VZ: I’d like to continue along this path, performing at an increasing number of venues and eventually singing in a range of settings, from the small clubs to the theatres with big bands and orchestras. I would like to perform around the world and share my emotions with more and more audiences. Sharing is the foundation of my life.
LJN: What’s your favourite thing about London?
VZ: You can be whoever you are and do whatever you want to do in London. I like the diversity; a big multinational company building elbowing a little vintage clothing shop. You’re often confronted with the unexpected. Past, present and future exist in London all at the same time, but they never conflict. Here, I could even be a Bob the Builder in the daytime and sing Marilyn at night!