Her delightfully casual and welcoming voice, defying gravity in a manner not unlike a legend such as Blossom Dearie or peer Kat Edmonson, has the special charm that's easy on the ears with the potential to stir your heart.
Roberta Brenza has been a lifelong supporter of the arts, all along a jazz fan who could carry a tune, due in part to her dad's longtime love of Ella Fitzgerald. While raising two sons and doing a variety of nonprofit volunteering—including service on performance arts boards in Boulder, Colorado—she stumbled into an opportunity to pursue a secret, long-held dream to make jazz a focus in her life. Due to her deep passion for the genre, Roberta organized a private youth jazz combo for her then middle-school-aged sons. At the invitation of the boy's teacher, she joined an adult jazz combo class where her naturally adept ear, rich tone, and visceral feel for swing soon led to local gigs and many private lessons and workshops. Roberta's first jazz mentor was Boulder-based pianist, Art Lande. Additionally, she sought training and inspiration from a number of consummate women of jazz including Sheila Jordan, Jay Clayton, Ellyn Rucker, Tina Phillips, Marguerite Juenemann, and Dawn Clement.
Roberta's zeal and success behind the mic took her places on stage in the jazz world but also offered more opportunities to continue working on behalf of others from the wings. She contributed significantly to the work of New-York-based, Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca, whose Grammy-nominated album, Cinque, Roberta executive-produced in 2017. Elio wrote this intricately composed suite in tribute to Joseph Cinque, the West African man of the Mende people who led a revolt of many Africans on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad in 1839. Cinque features music honoring five Caribbean islands with performances by Elio on piano, along with Wynton Marsalis, Lewis Nash, Steve Turre, and six other instrumentalists of the highest caliber. Roberta was steeped in work honoring the African and Caribbean roots of jazz while learning from behind the glass how some of the greatest instrumentalists of jazz work in the studio. She was also honored with the opportunity to put her own voice on Cinque as part of a small chorus.
Roberta then started her own "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" storyline (the lauded Amazon Prime series), if you will, but this always-supportive mom (and producer) headed to the West Village to sing jazz, not to perform stand-up comedy, and she learned that she had a certain appeal. Spreading her wings in the spotlight of the world capital of jazz was downright exhilarating. That earlier training in Boulder and beyond had given her enough tools to throw herself into a period of sitting in and listening, listening, listening in New York. All this has produced a singer refined organically, in the way it used to go, where you just got out there and tried to learn as much as you could from the masters.
During these exuberant plunges into the New York scene, Roberta enjoyed the notable honor to have been accompanied by Roy Hargrove at Smalls and Harold Mabern at Smoke, among many other of New York's great musicians. Getting heard at jams led to invitations for Roberta to contribute her voice to the gigs of some of New York's finest jazz artists, including the legendary Johnny O'Neal, Patience Higgins, Anthony Wonsey, and Jon Davis.
Roberta felt encouraged and confident enough to think about recording her first album. She asked a number of esteemed musicians whom she had met along the way, "If you were me, who would you hire to produce your first CD?" To Roberta's enormous delight, the great Matt Wilson said, "I will." And so It's My Turn to Color Now was recorded in June, 2019, with a stellar, largely New York-based band: producer Matt Wilson on drums, musical director Dawn Clement on piano, bassist Cameron Brown, and Stacy Dillard on soprano and tenor sax. With the masterful Mike Marciano of Systems Two at the recording helm, Roberta could not have asked for a more swinging, experienced, and supportive team.
Amazing to Roberta, her dear mentor of a number of years, jazz vocalist icon Sheila Jordan, agreed to record a couple of tracks with Roberta, an honor she treasures immensely. It was indeed Sheila who had years earlier been the inspiration that got Roberta back behind the mic after a two-year pause, a crash in confidence. It was seeing Sheila then at 89, still singing, teaching, and uplifting others, that solidified for Roberta that her own path—of having started to sing after many years in the service of others—was invaluable to who she was as an artist. Life experience brings depth to any art form. Then living in Colorado, Roberta was well aware that another highly acclaimed vocalist, also with a history in Colorado, the fabulous Rene Marie, had also started singing in her 40s. Roberta was indeed in good company, and for good reason.
Roberta's first album, It's My Turn to Color Now, will be released by Origin Records on August 19, 2022 as a substantial and autobiographically revealing first offering that she hopes will inspire others to pursue their dreams, regardless of age.
Indeed, Roberta will be releasing a second album of standards selected in part in reflection on the era of COVID that began in 2020. This album was recorded in the spring of 2021 with the great Johnny O'Neal and his trio, including Mark Lewandowski on bass and Charles Goold on drums.
She now lives in her native Chicago after over two decades in the Boulder, Colorado, area where she raised her now-grown sons, Xavier and Gabriel. Roberta enjoys creating visual art as well as singing jazz and has become involved in Chicago's storied avant-garde, creative music scene.
For more information about Roberta Brenza, please visit: https://www.robertabrenza.com.
Allison Adams Tucker