Some things are meant to be. In the case of Italian singer Emilia Vancini, there are no accidents. Music runs through her veins and singing is woven into every part of her melodic make-up. Emilia’s story transcends 30 years and countless countries from Italy to her current home in The Hague. With each note and mile she has fallen deeper in love with jazz, via a story that doesn’t begin with finding her voice, but rather, tells how singing found her. “Singing is a place where I feel safe,” Emilia says. “The first time I sang to an audience it was like a miracle. To me it was home, and I sing because I cannot not do it. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t sing.”
In Emilia’s safe place, music holds memories and traces every contour of her life, ever since her upbringing in Northern Italy’s cultured Cento – the Bologna suburb with its opera theatre, concert halls, library and cinemas. In her family’s literary household expectations ran high so music was saved as a hobby; Emilia would read, nurture her growing appreciation for languages and at age 7, like her mother and sister, practise the piano whilst developing a love of classical music. Meanwhile, pop music would fill the house; the youngest of four children, she’d hear her older siblings play ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s British and American pop, blues, rock and Italian cantautori on their record player, before a jazz epiphany in her teens. “I loved and kept singing Rickie Lee Jones’ rendition of ‘My Funny Valentine’ and was surprised to learn my mother shared my modern tastes; she told me ‘that’s jazz!’ and I fell in love; at that moment I knew jazz would play an essential role in my life.”
At that time, in a society where “real jobs” were favoured over music careers, Emilia never dared reveal her ambitions but continued studying music theory, singing and playing the piano, whilst developing her love of languages. Learning English in London, she sang with the city’s Ripieno Society and Square Singers of St. James’s before moving to Berlin to study German, sing with the choir of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche and continue her jazz education. “I used to hear a saxophone player perform at this live jazz bar. People would walk past but I’d sit and listen. It was music my father enjoyed and I’d always liked it. Yet, hearing it played live made me love it madly”, she says. Back in Italy, between work as a secretary, translator and ground stewardess, Emilia would study jazz singing with Martina Grosse Burlage and perform with Cento’s Prosecco Blues Band before eventually choosing to dedicate herself to music full-time.
Relocating to The Netherlands to pursue her jazz career, a string of happy accidents ensued, through which Emilia discovered the complex improvised sounds and life of American jazz great Charles Mingus. Hearing ‘Song With Orange’ was the turning point. “My husband, son and I started dancing: it was fantastic! It spoke to me immediately.” Sharing Emilia’s safe space, the magic of Mingus took her to Washington DC’s Library of Congress where she began delving into his manuscripts and started a 20-year obsession researching his music. “One day I hope to have permission to honour Mingus’ memory; he had a rare appreciation for singers, unlike many jazz musicians. Like many other performers, music was his most natural form of communication.”
Singing her own language, each of Emilia’s musical phrases soar, dip and skip with emotions of stories which would be otherwise difficult for her to tell. Her music channels deep connections and whether by twist of fate or coincidence, the signs directing her towards Mingus were impossible to ignore; from stumbling upon his music while shopping in Brescia, to being told about him by American jazz bassoonist Michael Rabinowitz and her teacher Jeanne Lee: “She was amazing; she was active in the ‘60s freedom movement with a group of other artists including Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach and Mingus. I admire these musicians who were fighting for human rights, a cause close to my heart as a member of Amnesty International since I was 13 years old.”
Preparing to turn the page of her next exciting chapter, Emilia’s fourth album “And if you fall, you fall” is a compendium of improvised jazz standards between voice and piano with good friend and talented Sardinian pianist Augusto Pirodda. Introduced through a mutual friend at The Hague’s Royal Conservatory, the pair follow each other’s lead and instinctively develop their own lingua franca across traditional songs they both know and love, culled from Emilia’s extensive repertoire of around 300 jazz standards. Its title – taken from Johnny Burke’s lyrics in Jimmy Van Heusen’s ‘But beautiful’ (“beautiful to take a chance / And if you fall, you fall / and I’m thinking I wouldn’t mind at all”) – is a poignant reminder of challenges we all face and expectations of perfection, yet offers positivity and comfort in being yourself and living in the moment. “It was stressful, the first recordings were not going well. My improvisation teacher said: ‘what are you afraid of? What can happen? Will you die? Just let yourself go. The worst thing that can happen is making a mistake.’ ”
Recorded live in The Hague’s Happy Bird Studio – the album forces the mind to pause and embrace the intimacy of every note. Spontaneity radiates from both performers’ intuition, while imperfections offer authenticity in acceptance of mistakes. ‘Just Friends’ takes down the tempo and offers a unique singer’s perspective, as Emilia’s own interpretation of the words and feeling created by them adds a sorrowful twist to its regular upbeat swing and her vocals are expressive, like Joni Mitchell singing with evocative tones of Helen Merrill in a smoky New York jazz joint in the ‘50s. ‘Ruby My Dear’ nods to the song favoured by her beloved Carmen McRae, while Augusto’s own experimentation recalls Brian Wilson-esque innovation as he turns the grand piano to percussion by playing the strings inside and beating its wooden frame. Meanwhile, Emilia brings each track bang up to date by injecting it with her personality and rewriting lyrics. “The lyrics of ’If I Were A Bell’ were supposed to be: “that’s the way I’ve just got to behave” but I couldn’t bring myself to sing that, so I changed them. Some ‘30s standards have words like ‘swell’ which don’t capture the right emotion for me. As a singer I feel very privileged to be able to use lyrics as well as harmony and melody to convey meaning.”
Since reading Moravia’s “Gli Indifferenti” at age 10, Emilia’s imagination and singing have only been enhanced by a love of literature across the works of Tolstoy, the sonnets of Shakespeare and poetry of Emily Dickinson, Leopardi and Rimbaud. On her bookshelves are novels by Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and James Joyce and between them, in her living room in The Hague, is where she will launch her latest CD with a live YouTube set. With 30-minutes of a cappella performances, piano solos by Augusto from Brussels, and videos created by his visual artist partner, Claudia Ignoto, Emilia will send a contemporary jazz postcard from her adopted city to the rest of the world. “The Hague has such a lively international jazz scene; in the club you’ll have the 85-year-old granddad and the 18-year-old student from Norway… it’s so great.”
Following: “In a sentimental mood” (2018), “Whatever Possessed Me” (2008), and “Canzoni e standards” (1999), Emilia’s latest release “And if you fall, you fall” continues to celebrate the music that inspires her. It’s just the next part in a journey that has also seen her perform with guitarist Peter Denissen, trumpet player Victor Borkent’s octet “Vic’s!” and Big Band “Straight Life”, saxophonist Gianluca Masetti, pianist Denis Biancucci and double-bass player Tiziano Zanotti.
Listen to Emilia Vancini sing and you feel what she feels. Like musical soul-mate Augusto Pirodda, emotion moves with the music. There are no straight lines on the path to her safe place but only one destination; “the most important thing to me is to keep singing,” she affirms, “there is nothing else I want to do.”
” Lisa Durrant / Just The Type”