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Debut albums are greeted with the hope that they will offer a first glimpse of great musical talent. Last Quarter Moon, the recording debut of Italian singer, songwriter, and pianist Chiara Civello, makes good on the promise of discovery. This collection's enchanting originals should establish her in the firmament of today's songwriting talent. Pop veteran Russ Titelman - known for his associations with Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Rickie Lee Jones, and James Taylor - produced the album.
It's certainly an auspicious beginning for Chiara, yet the 28 year-old is quick to point out that it is also the culmination of her young life's work. "Is this a first album? A first attempt?" she questions. "Yes, it's the first step into this world, but it's the first step from a person who has already come from a long way."
The distance she has traveled is both musical and spiritual-literally stretching across the Atlantic Ocean. Born June 15, 1975 in Rome, Chiara was encouraged to play the piano by her grandmother; she kids that her nonna's out-of-tune upright afforded the best ear training. She briefly tried the acoustic guitar, but that ended almost comically with a drive to get some gelato. "The little car only had two doors," she remembers. "When I sat down, I broke the neck of the guitar. That was it for me. No more guitar. My mother said, 'You'd better sing, girl!'"
Chiara had already been in some classical choirs, but was looking for something freer than the operatic traditions of her homeland. A friend suggested that she learn jazz; she'd never heard of it. A little investigation brought her to a private music school that she would attend through her four years of high school: the St. Louis Music Academy in Rome. When she was sixteen, Chiara began singing professionally and won a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. She enrolled there from 1994-98.
Well-known jazz educators directed Chiara's studies: trombonist Harold Crook, tenor players Ed Tomassi and Jerry Bergonzi. "I had a very instrumental approach to singing," she remembers. "I studied bebop and transcribed solos like crazy-Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, even avant-garde jazz." By graduation, Chiara was a regular on the Boston club scene.
But her journey didn't end with Boston or jazz. Like generations of Berklee grads before her, Chiara's move to New York City was inevitable. Searching for something musically closer to her Mediterranean roots, she immersed herself in Latin and Brazilian music, learning Spanish and Portuguese along the way. She also wrote her first song, "Parole Incerte" ("Uncertain Words"), about the misunderstandings that can come from the distance between a person and her loved ones.
Meanwhile, two of Chiara's bandmates - pianist Alain Mallet and drummer Jamey Haddad - had begun working with Paul Simon and invited her to a rehearsal. It was there that she met producer Russ Titelman and left him with a demo of "Parole Incerte." He called the very next day and insisted, "You are a songwriter. Forget about everything else you are doing. You have to write." Chiara began composing lyrics in English. She studied the work of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and others and sang background vocals on Taylor's October Road. She also joined Tony Bennett for a duet on his upcoming Columbia release.
From this process emerged the 10 original compositions included on her debut album; seven written by herself and three co-writes, including the brooding ballad "Trouble" that was co-written with legend Burt Bacharach. "I had almost every song on the album," recalls Chiara, "when Russ called me to say that Burt Bacharach was interested in writing with me." "Trouble" came together during a three day session at Bacharach's Los Angeles home. Chiara arrived with an idea for the melody; they shaped and refined it as a team.
The album's title track, "Last Quarter Moon," speaks to this crossroads in her life, a place of transition and rebirth. "People rarely appeal to the last quarter of the moon," Chiara explains. "It always evokes a crisis in consciousness; there's a struggle between the desire for renewal and the things from the past that stand in the way." The album also features the melancholy "Nature Song," bearing witness to the change of seasons, while the spirited "Ora" ("Now") speaks to living in the moment. Chiara admits that the opening track, "Here is Everything", is "a snapshot of a moment very close to my heart. I love where the song leads. I had lots of fun doing the vocal arrangements at the end; they represent to me the breaking of a new dawn."
Chiara pays homage to the Brazilian influence in her music with "Outono" ("Autumn") by Rosa Passos, a favorite among music aficionados, and an elegant rendition of Suzanne Vega's "Caramel", delivered in Chiara's exquisite Brazilian-influenced vocal style.
The coterie of outstanding session musicians on the album further represents Chiara's musical travels. Titelman brought legendary drummer Steve Gadd, organist and pianist Larry Goldings, cellist Mark Stewart, vocalist Daniel Jobim - grandson of the famous songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim - on board. Chiara chose Adam Rogers (Michael Brecker's guitarist) and drummer Paulo Braga-"I couldn't sing Brazilian songs without using the drummer that Elis Regina and Milton Nascimento had," she exclaims. Rising talents include saxophonist Miguel Zenon and bassist Ben Street. Mallet, Haddad, guitarist Guilherme Monteiro, drummer Dan Reiser, and bassist Alex Alvear, her co-writer on "Ora," have known her since her Boston days.
"Jazz is the most incredible diving machine when it comes to going really deep into music," says Civello, about her path of discovery, one sure to continue in the future. "But I knew I couldn't be the new Ella Fitzgerald; I couldn't be the new Shirley Horn. I learned all different kinds of music and then I said to myself, 'I need to find my own voice. Time to unlearn now, time to be free.' It's like a hot air balloon: To be able to fly you have to throw off the sandbags. I want to be as light as I can-light as a feather."