PortFolio Weekly
August 13, 2002

Diane Hubka: You Inspire Me

by Jim Newsom

"Diane Hubka sounds just the way she looks...cool, understated and very pretty."

So wrote jazz critic Roger Crane earlier this year in reviewing Hubka's latest release, You Inspire Me, for the All About Jazz website. And Crane hits the nail squarely on the head, for Hubka is a cool vocalist, relaxed and never overbearing, quite attractive both physically and musically.

VSOJaz recording artist Diane Hubka kicks off Jazz Norfolk 2002 Wednesday night at the Chrysler Museum Theater, backed by a quartet of Hampton Roads jazz all-stars ūguitarist Fred Hibbard, pianist John Toomey, acoustic bass king Jimmy Masters and drummer Rich Mossman. With her attention to pitch, soulfully mellow lyrical approach and soft improvisational scatting, Hubka is an ideal choice to launch this year's celebration. And, this "Jazz For Hope" show will not only be worthy in and of itself, its proceeds will go for a worthwhile purpose -- to benefit the non-profit Hope House Foundation, whose mission is providing supportive living services for adults with disabilities.

Perhaps it's appropriate for this jazz chanteuse to be performing at such a charity event. While pursuing her musical destiny, she has used the extra-musical talents she acquired pursuing an accounting degree from Frostburg State University to provide financial management assistance to non-profits on a part-time basis.

However, it is not the accounting degree that will fill the seats at the Chrysler Museum. It's the suave, sophisticated jazz that she and her sidemen will produce. Based on her three recordings thus far, the concert should be one to remember. Her first album, Haven't We Met, was nominated for "Best Debut CD" of 1998 by the Jazz Journalists Association. The followup, Look No Further, generated considerable critical acclaim as well.

She has really found her stride on this year's You Inspire Me, one of those rare discs that approaches perfection. Recorded as a tribute to jazz guitarists (she plays guitar herself), it features seven of the best in the biz -- some known, others less so -- and is the kind of album you can put on, sit back, relax, and lose yourself in the sweet magnificence of the music. Her singing reminds me of June Christie, whose best known recording was "Something Cool" in the early '50s, and Jackie Cain, the female half of the famed jazz vocal duo, Jackie & Roy.

The guitarists are amazing: Romero Lubambo, oft-time fretman for Herbie Mann and leader of the Brazilian Trio da Paz (who performed at the Town Point Jazz Festival several years ago); Elder statesman/jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli, master of the seven-string guitar; young acoustic jazz virtuoso Frank Vignola; tasty nylon-string great Gene Bertoncini; electric guitarist Paul Bollenback; and the lesser known but no less talented John Hart and Jack Wilkins.

The material ranges from well-known songs like Rodgers & Hart's "Blue Moon" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave" to less-recorded chestnuts like Hoagy Carmichael's beautiful "Winter Moon" and the swinging title cut. Pizzarelli and Vignola accompany Hubka in a guitar duet on Django Reinhardt's classic "Nuages," complete with new lyrics by her friend, Dr. Frank Forte. Also worth singling out are the album opening "Love," a simmering slice of Brazilian swing with Lubambo and his Trio da Paz, and the lovely Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer ballad, "Moment to Moment." In addition, Lubamba weaves six-string magic around the singer's vocal on Blossom Dearie's "Inside a Silent Tear."

Hubka is a native of Western Maryland who originally followed her folk-singing mother's lead in charting a musical direction for herself. The first jazz number she recalls hearing was Joni Mitchell's verson of Annie Ross' "Twisted" on the Court and Spark album. However, a guitar teacher at Frostburg State, Bill Bittner (to whom You Inspire Me is dedicated), gave her a cassette full of songs by jazz singers.

"At first I thought they were corny," she recalled in an interview after the release of her first album. "Then I heard Carmen McRae sing 'Love For Sale' and I knew that was it."

She subsequently joined Bittner in the Frostburg Jazz Quartet, then moved to Washington D.C. in 1979, where she furthered her music studies and picked up performance experience. Six years later, she struck out for New York City where she received a Jazz Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and began singing in Big Apple jazz clubs like Birdland and the Knitting Factory.

Her perseverance on the New York jazz scene began paying off as musicians, jazz writers and radio programmers began to take notice. One of the radio producers to notice her was Jack Frieden, whose "Vocal Sound of Jazz" program has been heard in Hampton Roads for over 20 years on WHRV-FM. Frieden and musician Jimmy Masters formed a record company a while back, VSOJaz, with the express intent of furthering the cause of jazz vocal music.

The pair's first endeavor, Laura Martier's Intersection, attracted positive attention in the jazz world. With Diane Hubka looking for a new company to work with in spreading her music to a wider audience, the Virginia Beach-based VSOJaz was a perfect fit for her third release.

Wednesday night, Masters will be wearing three hats. Not only was he co-executive producer of You Inspire Me with Frieden, he is also the bandleader for Hubka's Chrysler Museum gig. And, he was recently installed as president of the Hope House Foundation, the non-profit organization that will benefit from this "Jazz For Hope" concert.

I'm really looking forward to hearing Hubka in live performance, and hearing our own jazz guitar master Fred Hibbard filling the shoes of the seven superb string-slingers on You Inspire Me. It promises to be a sublime evening of sweetly swinging, high-class jazz.

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