The greatest satisfaction I get in writing this feature column is the opportunity to shine a light on talented piano bar jazz and blues artists who deserve more attention and respect. I want to focus on Abigail Riccards, an amazing singer who happens to be, by necessity, her own accompanist.
But before I get into her I’d like to discuss singing pianists.
Some people are multi-talented, but are only regarded by one, rather than the several or many things they can do. There is a prejudice against pianists who also sing. Some of it is fair; some of it is flat-out wrong. We seldom get called for sideman work, even if we are well qualified for the gig or session. It’s true, we often crowd out the bassist because we are so used to doing those notes ourselves and sometimes our playing is excessively busy. And, I know that I suck at trading fours because I so seldom get to do it. But many of us are serious musicians who also “entertain.” In some people’s minds, being an artist and an entertainer are mutually exclusive.
So how do you account for Nat King Cole?
Believe it or not, the great majority of non-musicians don’t think of Cole at all as a great pianist. It wasn’t until I was in college that his tremendous keyboard talent was revealed to me from teachers and from listening to his early trio recordings. And he’s not the only one who I thought of only as a singer: Shirley Horn, Carmen McRae, Diane Schuur, Harry Connick Jr., etc. After learning they were gifted pianists, I listened to them differently.
I asked some noted local players if they had any thoughts on the stylistic tendencies of singing versus non-singing pianists:
“Nat King Cole was a master of singing and playing piano,” Pat Mallinger says. “I’ve had the pleasure of performing with a number of fantastic musicians who do both—Diane Schuur is certainly one of them. She has an internationally recognizable voice, but also plays great piano, which I feel gets overlooked.”
I was lucky to be in the audience at SPACE in Evanston when Pat played with her back in 2014. I was very impressed with her ability to trade fours, which is something that certainly eludes me. “Yeah, with Diane that’s an exception, as she really loves trading, and building on that to an exciting climax,” Mallinger said. “She thrives on that interaction and call and response.”
I also noted that her solos were short, never more than two or three choruses. Pat agreed, saying, “That’s probably true because singing pianists tend to think more like a lyricist—get in and get out like a good vocalist does.”
Also, there are two Chicago players mostly known as “pianists,” Bob Dogan and Bill Carrothers. But both do sing great and know tons of lyrics. They both have CDs, and they sing as they’re playing the piano.
“I spend a fair amount of my practice learning to play piano and singing,” Mallinger added. “Not only do I find it enjoyable, but an encompassing way of learning piano, tunes and lyrics, among other tools. I’ll never be Nat King Cole, but I’m having fun!”
Electric bassist, Steve Hashimoto, said, “In general, and mind you this is a sweeping generality: Pianists who also sing tend to play with more space than non-singing pianists. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Not many people know that Ron Perillo is a very good singer, and that when he sings he accompanies himself with great delicacy. The other night Nick Russo sat in at Tuscany/Oakbrook. Two other piano players with more chops than Nick also played, but Nick sounded great, partly because he doesn’t have the kind of chops that the other guys have, but his ‘feel’ was beautiful. And Judy Roberts, of course, who has chops like nobody’s business, is also a great singer and knows when to use those chops and when not to.”
There is no doubt that no one in Chicago—or pretty much anywhere—can touch Judy Roberts when it comes to being a singer with a great outgoing personality that makes her a great “entertainer” (a term of derision in some jazz circles), and a first-rate jazz pianist. And, I’m old enough to remember when a much younger Judy was so cute she could have gotten away with just singing.
This brings to mind another local hero, the late, great Gwen Pippin. Her career arc was very different than the players mentioned above because she was a singer first, who, out of necessity, became a pianist so that she could keep working after her career as a stand-up singer stopped advancing. A terrific vocalist with movie-star good looks, Gwen played a little guitar and piano when she started gigging in Chicago in the ‘70s. That worked for her for a long time, but eventually she had to learn how to hack out a living as a working piano bar artist. I knew her at the beginning of this period, when she was a pretty good self-accompanist. As the years went by, she really learned how to play the piano well and eventually became famous as an accompanist/teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music and a regular at Davenport’s.
Aside from these illustrious ladies, my ideal great “chick singer,” who also played piano, is Shirley Horn. Though not a “chops” pianists by any means, her playing created a perfect frame for her voice. Her chord voicings were very modern, clear and unambiguous. Rhythmically, she occupied a perfect space inside of the ensemble. There is nothing “loungey” about her pianism—those superfluous arpeggios, excessive prettiness, overly dramatic cadenzas, that horrible jaggedness between the left and right hands that is the hallmark of a hack pianist, etc. Horn would have been a welcome member of any good jazz ensemble, even without her terrific singing. She was the quintessential “taste” player rather than “chops” player.
Of course, I could go on to include Carmen McRae and Nina Simone, but then there wouldn’t be enough room for Abigail Riccards, who has a very impressive resume. She has been performing in Chicago since 2011, and quickly established herself as one of the rising vocalists on the scene. “When I moved to Chicago five years ago, I was primarily singing,” Riccards says. “Once I got here, I saw what a great market there was for singers who accompany themselves.”
She has showcased her talents at many of the city’s top jazz clubs with some of Chicago’s most respected musicians, headlining at venues such as the Green Mill, Jazz Showcase, Katerina’s and Andy’s Jazz Club.
Before that, Abigail was an active artist in New York’s jazz scene. She performed at some of the most treasured venues in New York, including being a frequent favorite at Birdland, the Jazz Standard, Smoke, Smalls, the Kitano, Sweet Rhythm and 55 Bar. Riccards has also collaborated with many of the best jazz musicians in the world, including Michael Kanan, Peter Bernstein, David Berkman, Mulgrew Miller, Spike Wilner, Neal Miner, Jay Leonhart, Steve LaSpina, Lee Hudson, Tony Romano, Brad Shepik, Matt Wilson, Bill Goodwin, Rick Montalbano, Eliot Zigmund, Joel Frahm, Adam Kolker and Ron Horton.
Her most recent studio album, Every Little Star, which is co-produced by the world-renowned recording artist Jane Monheit, was released in April 2015. The album features classics from The Great American Songbook, original tunes and a stunning duet with Monheit herself. All of the proceeds of this album go to benefit a fantastic New York-based nonprofit called ArtStrides (artstrides.org). Star also features sensational musicians such as Peter Bernstein, Michael Kanan, Neal Miner and Eliot Zigmund.
Nick DeRiso calls the album a “completely enchanting recording,” and he writes: “Riccards has brought a sense of child-like wonder to a project meant to ensure that the next generation shares it too.” Abigail’s first album, When the Night is New, was released as one of the most impressive debut albums of 2007. It also featured the talents of David Berkman, Ben Allison, Matt Wilson, Adam Kolker, Ron Horton, Lage Lund, Rogerio Boccato and was produced by Dena DeRose. Ken Dryden called it “an outstanding debut effort by the promising jazz vocalist Abigail Riccards.”
Riccards followed it up with her 2011 release Soft Rains Fall, an intimate collection of jazz and popular standards recorded in a duo setting with nylon string guitarist, Tony Romano.
In 2000, she was selected to participate in the Jazz in July workshop at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and competed in the 2006 Fish Middleton Competition, finishing as a semi-finalist. In 2004, she was selected to be a semi-finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition where she competed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. for the judges Kurt Elling, Al Jarreau, Jimmy Scott and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Since earning her master’s degree, Abigail has also become an active music educator. She teaches privately and conducts many college workshops. Recently, she has conducted vocal jazz workshops at Hunter College and Clark University. She was also selected as a collaborator for David Berkman’s The Jazz Singer’s Guidebook: A Course in Jazz Harmony and Scat Singing for the Serious Jazz Vocalist. She recorded the vocal examples for the accompanying CD. Abigail is also a licensed Music Together instructor and brings her knowledge of cognitive musical development to the forefront of her teaching approach—one that effectively merges her extensive performance experience and her sensitivity to “different” students and learning approaches.
The night I caught her Seasons 52 act, she did many contemporary pop tunes I wasn’t familiar with. There’s a draconian rule at some places that require pianists to only play tunes from this century, and 80 percent from the last five years! But my $5 did allow her to do a couple standards—which she nailed vocally. Her piano playing is competent, workmanlike, and does help to frame her voice quite well. She wasn’t allowed to belt anything out, but she smolders at a very low volume with a complete mastery of at least three octaves. She goes effortlessly from chest to head voice without any of that annoying yodeling that drives me nuts in so many of the new generation of singers.
“I had always played the piano, but I decided to get really serious about it,” Riccard says. “I had long admired the great singers who played for themselves—Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn. I never really considered doing that myself until a few years ago. I started playing solo pop gigs, like Seasons 52, and playing a few times a month at Stetson’s until that gig folded. I had done a few trio gigs when Eddie V’s opened up downtown. Soon after their opening I was playing there every Tuesday.”
A few months later, they added Riccards on Thursdays as well. “It’s become my favorite venue and a huge part of my life now. I’m incredibly grateful to have a regular venue to play with my trio. I just did the Ottawa Wine and Jazz Festival yesterday with my trio and guest guitarist Kyle Ashe. We had an incredible response and I look forward to many more engagements like this.”
I think it’s worth noting that this extraordinarily hard-working artist is also expecting her second child with her husband, musician Daniel Healy. She’s been a working mom while he has been completing his doctorate at Northwestern.
You better go see her before she gets a long-deserved maternity break this fall. Aside from her regular gigs at Eddie V’s and Seasons 52, you can see Abigail with her trio at Festa Italiana on
Abigail performing at Season 52
Taylor Street at the “center stage,” Saturday, August20 from 2:30 to 4 p.m. She adds it may be her last for some time.
“That’s my last gig before the baby!”
Singers and pianists of all styles are welcome to join the class Piano Bar 101, taught by Mick Archer on Fridays 8 p.m.-9:20 p.m., at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Call for availability (773) 728-6000.