04 June 2017, 1800
“She’s a sensual stylist who pours herself into the song.” (Bruce Apar, North County News, Yorktown, NY)
Vanessa Racci’s 2017 debut album, Italiana Fresca, heralds the breakthrough of a fresh sound in jazz: a sweet-and-sour, wide-ranging alto with a passion and sex appeal born of her Italian-American heritage. On this recording, Vanessa puts a modern, jazz spin on the Italian songs she heard as a child; several are updated with her own English lyrics. Vanessa’s producer, the renowned bassist David Finck, has raved about her “natural sense of rhythm and flow, and her wonderful ability to communicate both musical and poetic language.” Lynn DiMenna of Cabaret Scenes magazine seconds his enthusiasm: “Confident and fearless, she goes where the story and the music take her and her exceptional and supportive sidemen are with her every step of the way”. Acclaimed jazz vocalist, Jane Monheit, also endorsed the project; “Vanessa, with her clear, mellow alto, has taken songs treasured for generations and completely redefined them.”
Vanessa was born of a working-class Italian family in Thornwood, New York. She began singing when she was four. “Music was very much alive in my family,” she says. Its source was her grandfather, Frank Prisciantelli, who lived in the basement apartment. Vanessa’s early musical schooling came largely from his record collection. He took great pride in his Italian-American heritage and filled the house with its most beloved voices, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Vanessa’s favorite, Connie Francis. Vanessa and her grandfather spent countless happy hours singing those tunes together.
Her vocal promise had been clear from the age of four, when she began singing at family parties; at twelve she started performing in local theater. At Westlake High School in Thornwood, she won lead roles in several school productions. Her portrayal of Christine in Phantom of the Opera earned her the coveted Helen Hayes Award. But despite her talents, her traditional family urged her to take a seemingly more stable path, and after school she embarked on a career in marketing. Still, her musical dreams kept haunting her. “I said to myself, I have to pursue this, because if I don’t I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life. That’s when I discovered jazz. Those were the songs I found most authentic to my voice.”
Vanessa was no stranger to jazz; her grandfather’s cousin was Tony Mottola, the celebrated studio guitarist who played on thousands of albums and in the Tonight show orchestra. She gathered the pop-jazz standards she knew and learned many more; from there, she began presenting solo shows throughout Manhattan and Westchester. In 2012 she launched a collaboration with Glafkos Kontemeniotis, the respected jazz pianist, bandleader, and accompanist. Glafkos, she says, was “a golden find. He was patient, and had the training and reputation to take my music to the next level.”
In 2012, Vanessa became a finalist in the MetroStar Talent Challenge, an annual competition held at the Metropolitan Room, one of New York’s foremost cabarets. A reviewer for Cabaret Exchange wrote that Vanessa “got the most vociferous applause for the evening” for her performance of “Cry Me a River.” The following year she brought her own show to the Metropolitan Room. New York Cabaret Today called her “a star on the rise,” adding: “This twenty-something is what cabaret is all about—fine, sexy, informed vocals, a winning personality, and a beautiful appearance. Vanessa can sing a modern ballad, a showtune, a blues tune, and do any jazz arrangement with ease and class.”
Eager to keep learning, she took a master class with the star jazz singer Jane Monheit at Birdland in New York. Owner Gianni Valenti was impressed with what he heard, and encouraged her to make an album.
A theme occurred to her in 2016, immediately after her grandfather’s death. Vanessa decided to honor him by revisiting the Italian songs he loved, while giving them a jazz flavor. In Italiana Fresca, Vanessa is surrounded by a bevy of top jazz players; the piano playing and arrangements are supplied by Kontemeniotis and Yaron Gershovsky, longtime musical director for the Manhattan Transfer.
Now living in Tarrytown, New York, Vanessa maintains a growing performance schedule. Last year’s highlights included a fundraiser at the Italian American Museum in New York to aid victims of the summer earthquake in central Italy; Oscar-nominated actor Chazz Palminteri hosted the event. Vanessa’s 2017 agenda will include stops at Birdland and the Friars Club in Manhattan, the Winery at St. George in Lake Mohegan, New York, Jazz Forum Arts, Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack and Italian American Festivals across the East Coast.