Grammy-nominated jazz singer Denise Donatelli knows how to caress a lyric so that you feel the story in the song — the happiness, the ache, the sadness and the soul. “A dark, enchanting voice, an intuitive ability to tell a musical story, and ineffable rhythmic drive — all the qualities one looks for in a fine jazz vocalist,” is the way Don Heckman describes Donatelli’s singing in the International Review of Music.
Donatelli brings her soothing sensitivity and from-the-heart stylings to the Holmes Amphitheatre stage on Saturday, Aug. 27. Complementing her in a perfect pairing is musical director, pianist and arranger Geoffrey Keezer. His arrangement of “Don’t Explain” on Donatelli’s 2010 Grammy-nominated CD “When Lights are Low” received a separate Grammy nomination for best instrumental arrangement accompanying a vocalist. Keezer’s arrangement is haunting and evocative, and his partnership with Donatelli has been critically acclaimed. “It would not be as special without Geoffrey,” said Donatelli. This is her second CD with Keezer at the helm.
Although she studied classical piano from the age of 3, Donatelli remembers that what moved her emotionally when she was a child was listening to her sister’s jazz albums.
“Studying classical piano was like another form of schoolwork for me,” she remembered. “Listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn was my recreation. What pulled me in was the rhythm — the soul of the music, and listening to the lyrics. They touched me in a way that classical did not.”
Notwithstanding that sentiment, for three years Donatelli won first-place awards in the National Federation of Music Club’s yearly piano competitions. She credits her classical training with helping develop her ear and her intonation as a vocalist. Donatelli, an Allentown, Penn., native, often attended those competitions with another budding pianist, Keith Jarrett. Donatelli and Jarrett both studied with the same piano teacher.
Donatelli came late to a professional singing career. As a single mother, she waited until her sons were out of high school. “It was enough working a day job,” she remembered. “I couldn’t see going out to gigs at night until the boys were raised. So I tabled my career.”
Once her boys were old enough, Donatelli began honing her vocal chops with a steady three-night-a-week, two-year gig at the downtown Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta while still holding her day job with Turner Broadcasting System.
Only after moving to Los Angeles 11 years ago did Donatelli begin singing professionally full-time. Her first CD, released in 2005, “In the Company of Friends, produced and arranged by Tom Garvin, received critical plaudits and earned her a Blue Chip Jazz CD Award. Not long after, Donatelli and Keezer began working together. The result of that collaboration, Donatelli’s second CD, 2008’s “What Lies Within,” received strong critical notice.
Taking the stage at Jazz in the Pines with Donatelli and Keezer are Hamilton Price on bass and Duncan Moore on drums.