Vocalists are often wary of making their debut CD a tribute album, especially covering artists as iconic as Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. There is a lot of history associated with those titans of the jazz world, and their songs have been covered by hundreds of singers. But ANAÏS RENO has such a strong affinity for their music that she knew she wanted her first recording to be a statement of who she is as an artist. LOVESOME THING, Anaïs Reno Sings Ellington & Strayhorn, available on Harbinger Records is a gorgeous tribute to the music of Ellington and Strayhorn and a welcome addition to their oeuvre. What is especially impressive is that Reno recorded it in 2020 when she was 16 years old.
It is rare to hear a singer who is so young yet so musically mature. Most likely her talents are a combination of nature and nurture, as her father is a former opera singer who performed frequently in Europe, and her mother is a concert violinist. Reno’s musical abilities were apparent to her parents when they heard her singing her favorite song from the Broadway show, Aladdin, at just five years old. Being professional musicians, they were more than just proud parents. They could hear that Anaïs was gifted and started her right away on music lessons.
Reno, who grew up in New York City, was taking voice lessons as a recipient of the Renati-Kaplan Scholarship Program at the 92nd Street Y at eight years old when a perceptive voice teacher suggested she learn the song “At Last.” The bluesy song, made famous by Etta James, became young Reno’s entrée to the world of jazz. Reno relates, “When I was eight years old, I didn’t realize I was doing anything special. I didn’t know that singing was actually very complex and that there was a difference between someone who liked to sing and a trained singer. I just knew I loved to sing, and I loved the soulfulness of “At Last.” That led me to listen to jazz extensively. It consumed my whole life.”
Although her father stopped singing professionally when Reno was just two years old, he was instrumental in her growth as a singer, not only teaching her technique, but sharing his love of singing. Reno had been performing in various musical situations, like school shows, events at the 92nd Street Y, and recitals by her mother. When she was 11 years old, she was part of the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers program and had the opportunity to perform with the orchestra.
At the age of 12, she began performing at open mic night at Birdland and soon became a regular at that storied institution. The friendships she made there with the staff and other performers soon became the most comforting aspect of her life. Reno got her first gig as a leader when she was 13, after her mother sent a video of her singing to the booker at Feinstein’s/54 Below. The club was so taken with her talents, they wound up giving her three solo shows with Billy Stritch and Tedd Firth.
Anaïs decided to make her first album when she was 15. She wasn’t sure how she wanted to structure the album, but she had participated in a tribute performance of Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s music at Birdland, and her mother suggested doing a whole album of their music. “At first, I resisted the idea,” says Reno. “But now I can’t imagine it being any other album. It’s a good representation of where I’m at musically and personally. The overall color of the album, a little sad, a little blue, a little romantic, is really me.”
Gianni Valenti, the owner of Birdland, helped Reno assemble the band for the album. EMMET COHEN is an internationally touring pianist and composer who has worked with some of the top names in the jazz world, like Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Jimmy Cobb, George Coleman, Jimmy Heath, Tootie Heath, Houston Person, to name just a few. The band also comprises bass player RUSSELL HALL and drummer KYLE POOLE. Reno wanted to add different sounds and textures to the album, so Cohen asked the highly sought-after saxophone player TiVON PENNICOTT to join the project. Reno’s mother, JULIET KURTZMAN, plays violin on “Mood Indigo” and “It’s Kind of Lonesome Out Tonight.” Reno is following in her mother’s footsteps, as the formidable violinist made her debut with the Houston Symphony at the age of 12.
The remarkable thing about Reno is not just her musicality, but her very mature ability to interpret song lyrics. There is a genuine world-weariness to her vocals that belie her youth. Listen to her subtle approach to a contemplative, bluesy song like “Mood Indigo” or a swinging blues tune like “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.”
Her resonant voice is as clear as crystal on ballads like “Daydream” and “It’s Kind of Lonesome Out Tonight,” which is one of Ellington’s more obscure tunes. She can also swing like a 1940s big band singer as she so capably demonstrates on “Take the A Train.” And she can even tell a story without words as she does on “Chelsea Bridge” on the “Chelsea Bridge/A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” mashup.
LOVESOME THING, Anaïs Reno Sings Ellington & Strayhorn is a sumptuous achievement by an emerging talent who will surely take her place in the jazz firmament in the coming years.