One is a venerated Capital Region jazz legend, while the other is one of the most compelling young artists to come out of upstate New York in years. But 78-year-old pianist Lee Shaw and 23-year-old singer/songwriter Sarah Pedinotti share more than the music that has made one famous, and seems sure to touch the other with stardom.
For 10 years, Shaw has been Pedinotti’s teacher and musical mentor, helping her develop what by all accounts is a prodigious natural talent. Shaw met Pedinotti at One Caroline Street Bistro, the Saratoga Springs restaurant and jazz club owned by Pedinotti’s parents. From an early age, between waiting tables and general chores, Pedinotti cut her teeth on stage there. Her first two albums, in 2003 and 2005, were both on Billboard Magazine’s “10 Best New Albums” lists, and a sparkling performance at the 2006 Freihofer’s Jazz Festival created palpable excitement around her. A vocalist of remarkable power and subtlety, Pedinotti rejects being labeled a jazz musician, and devotes herself as much to writing her own songs as to interpreting those of others. Besides the expected influences of Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits, she names Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, and Kurt Vonnegut. Traces of all these artists can be heard on her newly released CD “City Bird,” a melting pot of influences from jazz to pop and even country, with heavy New Orleans seasonings.
But perhaps Pedinotti’s most intimate influence is Shaw, who has played and recorded with the likes of Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan. Shaw’s mentor was Oscar Peterson, who played a key role in turning the young Oklahoma-born concert-piano student into a jazzer of international renown. Her Lee Shaw Trio has toured extensively in the US, Canada, and Europe, and has just released an exquisite CD, Originals. When not on the road or in the studio, Shaw teaches at The College of Saint Rose in Albany and gives private lessons. Her most famous student, at least for the time being, is John Medeski, keyboardist with Medeski, Martin and Wood.
Though the muse-beautiful Pedinotti is not a pianist, she nevertheless says Shaw’s impact on her career was “like hitting the jackpot.” In July, Chronogram brought the two musicians together to talk about art, performing, and friendship. They met at Shaw’s home overlooking the Mohawk River, just as a huge thunderstorm broke over the region. They were like two long-lost comrades, laughing, touching each other affectionately, often taking over from the interviewer, who simply listened with pleasure as the two women vamped on their life in music. That first meeting, and subsequent phone calls, have been combined into the interview below.
As the dusk fell in Shaw’s home and the interview came to an end, the mentor and her protégée sat for photos at the piano and spontaneously, almost impulsively, began to perform. They played two songs, the old Sinatra tune “Everything Happens to Me” and the Holiday standard “God Bless the Child.” The music was sublime, enchanting, pure magic. They do not perform publicly together, but regularly appear individually around the region. Pedinotti will be at WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium in Albany on September 15, while Shaw plays the Castle Street Cafe in Great Barrington on September 20, and Justin’s in Albany on September 23. For more information, both women have websites: www.sarahpedinotti.com and www.leeshaw.org.
David Malachowski: Tell me how you met.
Sarah Pedinotti: I was 13 when I met Lee. We started out playing together at my parents’ club. She took me under her wing, and explained to me how a singer is not just a singer, a singer should be a musician. Out of all the performers who played at One Caroline Street, there was something about Lee that I respected immediately. There was something supernatural about it when Lee was playing—the energy she gave off, the way she really communicated with an audience. And for a pianist—she doesn’t even have the lyrics—it’s tactile. She’s a poet in a way.
Lee Shaw: Sarah was an incredible presence, this skinny, sweet little kid. From the beginning, she knew the keys of all her songs.
Pedinotti: (laughing): Well, you told me to get a little black book and write down all the songs I know and put the keys next to them. You really whipped me into shape!