Boston singer Marianne Solivan’s NY move pays off

Boston Globe, May 25, 2012

NEW YORK — This city may boast the nation’s highest concentration of jazz musicians, venues, recording opportunities, and cover-charge-paying aficionados, but that doesn’t mean you can just show up here and get a gig.

Just ask singer Marianne Solivan.

When she first got here in 2007, with enough money for a one-month sublet to get her started, she left behind the comfortable lifestyle that she had made for herself through regular work on the Boston scene.

“I had tons of gigs, teaching jobs, I was making money, I had a great apartment, a car,” she says. She sang twice a week at Les Zygomates in the Leather District. She was a regular at the Living Room and Red Fez. She ran a jam session at the Chopping Block in Mission Hill. She played cruises and corporate gigs.

And weddings. “So many weddings,” she says.

New York was a bigger pond. It offered Solivan, who went to high school in Newton and then earned degrees from both the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, the chance to stretch her work beyond restaurant and wedding fare.

But finding work was another matter, Solivan says, reminiscing from the pleasant vantage point of a bench on a sunny day in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

“I moved here, and it was like one gig every six months!”

Five years later, Solivan’s move has paid off. Her debut album, “Prisoner of Love,” appeared two months ago to critical raves. It features mostly standards — but no obvious ones — that Solivan delivers in respectful but also personal and original ways.

She has surrounded herself with some of the city’s most sought-after musicians, among them the stellar bassist Christian McBride, pianists Xavier Davis and Michael Kanan, and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, who produced the record.

And she returns to Boston Tuesday to perform at Scullers, in the company of Davis, bassist Matthew Parrish, and drummer Jerome Jennings.

Solivan’s power, her finesse, and the highly musical quality of her record, which features some daringly spare duos (for instance, with McBride on “All or Nothing at All”) and trios (with McBride and guitarist Peter Bernstein), may make it seem to some that this remarkable vocalist has appeared out of nowhere.

But it wasn’t a simple path. To begin with, as a singer — a female singer — she faced some annoying obstacles of a non-musical nature in the pursuit of paying gigs.

“It’s how much networking, how much schmoozing, and as a woman, how much sexuality you’re willing to push,” she says, describing what it often takes to get work. “And being the greasy, cranky wheel that’s always in their face.”

None of that was her style, Solivan says. Instead, she began to frequent the off-night jam sessions where musicians convene and a singer might get a chance to take the stage, if only for just one song.

“I went out all the time and sat in everywhere I could,” she says. It meant late nights, long subway rides home, and stolen moments of sleep before going to work in the morning as a kindergarten teacher.

“I have a lot of energy,” Solivan says. She also had a driving motivation. In her final year in Boston, she had surgery to remove a large cyst on a vocal cord. She says the realization that her gift was fragile pushed her to take the New York plunge.

“I was scared to leave for a million reasons,” she says. “But it was like: OK, now you have nothing, and you have this thing that you’ve always wanted to do.”

Solivan’s determination must have shown as she turned up every Monday night at the Upper West Side club Smoke, waiting all evening for a chance to do one song at the end of the night. Pelt, for one, noticed.

“I like to hear any musician who’s motivated and striving for something,” Pelt says. “I could feel that she was hungry to soak up as much music and musicality as possible.”

Solivan started performing with Pelt and others she met at these sessions. Often clubs would only pay for a duo, so she teamed up with Kanan, or with bassist Dimitry Ishenko.

When the time came to record, all these efforts, born of necessity, had a creative effect. At first, Solivan says, she thought she should do a traditional record in a quartet format. But Pelt and McBride told her there was no rule that required this.

“I rethought the whole idea,” she says. “I wanted to do smaller duo and trio stuff. It seemed more like what I was doing anyway, more real and more honest.”

The honesty is plain on “Prisoner of Love.” It’s a mostly melancholy program: The opener, “Bliss,” an original by Darryl Harper and Tony Haywood, is the one song “that wasn’t about being sad and single and not in love,” Solivan says.

But she delivers the others, from the title track to “The Lonely One,” “Day Dream,” or “Social Call,” with far more poise than pathos, leaving lots of space for the music to breathe and lending new colors to classic lyrics.

Now, Solivan says, she’s hearing more and more calls to write her own lyrics. She does this from time to time, but her affection still runs toward the standards.

“There’s a certain amount of poetry in this music,” she says. “If you can say exactly what I was feeling and thinking, and say it beautifully with a great melody and good changes, I don’t care when it was written. I want to do that tune.”