A pearl is born out of a grain of sand through a process that transforms stubborn pain into lustrous gems.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Elaine Lucia knows all about this strange alchemy, creating a body of arrestingly beautiful music out of a fraught childhood’s persistent ghosts.
She’s best known as a long-time creative force on the San Francisco Bay Area jazz scene, applying her pure tone and conservatory-honed technique to an alluring repertoire gleaned from the American and Brazilian songbooks and far beyond. But with her album Twist Run Road, Lucia is reintroducing herself as a tune-smith, lyricist and player with a sound so fresh and appealing it’s hard to believe she’s kept the music to herself for so long.
“This is a departure from my three previous CDs; it’s my first record where I wrote all of the tunes and am playing guitar on every track except one,” Lucia says. “I had spent 30 years on the jazz scene but never really considered myself a ‘pure’ jazz singer. I just enjoyed singing all different styles of music but with a jazzy twist, so to speak. And spent my career primarily singing other artists’ songs…while writing my own music all along. I just very rarely performed my original songs with my jazz groups because frankly I didn’t think there would be an audience for my songs…they don’t fit neatly into any particular genre. Plus, with monster guitarists like Dave MacNab, Randy Vincent and Jeff Massanari, I felt I really needed to become a better player to be on the same stage with them!”
With “Twist Run Road,” Lucia has opened a brilliant new chapter while triumphantly completing a circle, transforming her early trauma into radiant song. The music has been there from the beginning, as her youth in rustic upstate New York was filled with glorious sound. She first sang in choirs and local musical theater productions, often walking or riding her bike several miles from her rural home to rehearsals in the nearby town. She taught herself to play the guitar, piano, and flute, and formed or sang in countless ensembles, performing everything from classical and country to jazz, rock, and R&B.
At 15, she started studying opera and the classical repertoire with the local opera company. A summer scholarship to attend the Chautauqua Institute for the Arts gave her a jolt of confidence, and after graduating early from high school she won a theater scholarship to Binghamton University (then known as SUNY Binghamton). She performed in various musicals and sang with the university’s big band, which is where she experienced a musical epiphany when legendary pianist Marian McPartland performed as the orchestra’s guest artist.
She pursued graduate studies via a vocal scholarship at Eastman School of Music, focusing on the classical repertoire by day and immersing herself in Rochester’s lively jazz scene at night. When federal grant money was cut right before her senior year, Lucia lit out for the San Francisco Bay Area and quickly established herself as a creative force, contributing background vocals at recording sessions and performing with her own jazz group at clubs around the region.
Her impressive 2001 debut album “Elaine Lucia….Sings Jazz and Other Things” (Raw Records) earned strong reviews and propelled her onto the national stage. She followed up with 2006’s “A Sonny Day,” a tribute to her late, jazz-loving father, Frank “Sonny” Lucia. Lucia completed her jazz trifecta with 2008’s critically hailed “Let’s Live Again,” a tribute to the sensuous George Shearing Quintet albums with singers such as Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee, Dakota Staton, and Nancy Wilson. She didn’t know it at the time, but she offered a sneak peek at her musical future with the concluding track, her original song “Sayulita.”
She’d included a couple of original tunes on her earlier albums, but “Twist Run Road” marks the emergence of a powerfully poetic sensibility building on the revelatory foundations laid by jazz-savvy singer/songwriter masters like Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Armatrading. Opening with a caress of guitar chords, “Under the Water” is a plunge into self-discovery. The pulse of a gorgeous string arrangement by guitarist Dave Mac Nab (performed by the string quartet from the Hamilton SF orchestra pit) propels the 5/4 rhythm’s bobbing and weaving melodic line of “Fireflies,” an ode to the wondrous nightlights of the insect kingdom that feels like a lost hit from Tin Pan Alley.
“You Can’t Save Me,” is a sharp but compassionate account of an attempt to rekindle a teenage romance set to a melody that soars like a well-fueled conflagration. “The Mockingbird,” like several of the album’s well-observed songs, draws inspiration from the natural world, rendering a beatific portrait of a garden sanctuary enhanced by Rob Reich’s relaxed accordion work. Not surprisingly, the album’s emotional and thematic centerpiece is the title track, “Twist Run Road,” which is the name of the street where Lucia spent her childhood in upstate New York.
Her family life was chaotic and it wasn’t unusual for the seven-year-old Lucia to find herself shoved out the front door and locked out of the house in the early morning cold. “Twist Run Road” is a loving ode to her neighbor across the street whose kindness and attention helped preserve the young girl’s spirit. “Decades later, during the one and only time I went back to Twist Run Road, I knocked on her door,” Lucia says. “We visited for hours, and she told me so many things about how the neighborhood saw and heard what was going on in our house while I was growing up there. She had been a safe haven, a loving influence during my childhood. I never forgot her and wanted to thank her. I wrote the song after that visit.”
The songs on “Twist Run Road” come from a deep place, and perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s taken a lifetime for them to manifest themselves. Lucia credits the support of a close cadre of musical collaborators with convincing her to finally focus on her own material. Brazilian pianist and composer Jasnam Daya Singh (formerly Weber Iago), guitarist Hugo Wainzinger and drummer Alan Hall were avid early supporters, and the long incubation finally came to fruition with the superlative cast of players who join her on the album. While her songs draw on an array of influences from American folk and popular music, the interactive sensibility flows from her immersion in jazz.
The long journey to “Twist Run Road” was both creative and spiritual as she allowed melodies and words to flow through her without the friction of conscious interference. “Many of the songs came in my dreams,” she says. “I’d wake up and write them down or sing them into my phone, and later I’d edit them and flesh them out. These songs aren’t about romantic love. It’s more about ‘cosmic’ love, I guess…the love and acceptance that I finally arrived at out of a really difficult childhood. The rest of the songs are about the beautiful nature that surrounded that painful place up on Twist Run Road. The songs are gifts to me…and like the best gifts they must be shared. Music was how I escaped Twist Run Road. It healed me. I’m hoping the energy of this music might soothe someone else’s heart, especially during these very difficult times.”
Lucia’s band features some of the most creative and acclaimed jazz musicians on the San Francisco Bay Area scene. Guitarist Dave MacNab, a founding member of the Scott Amendola Band, would be far better known if he hadn’t spent years in Broadway show pit bands (most recently in Hamilton). “He is such a brilliant guitarist and musician,” Lucia said of her North Bay neighbor. “His sound and musicality have elevated this music beyond even my own imagination. And he is singularly responsible for the fact that I have the marvelous string quartet from the Hamilton orchestra pit on this project. Dave asked if I would mind if he wrote a string quartet arrangement for the song, “Fireflies,” and oh my gosh how could I say no to that? It’s just beautiful! And Kelley Maulbetsch later added her marvelous cello playing to the songs “Casting” and “Under the Water.”
Drummer Alan Hall has worked with Lucia since the early 1990’s, when he returned to the Bay Area after several years teaching at Berklee College of Music. He’s a drummer’s drummer, and his keen textural palette and subtle rhythmic sensibility has provided the pulse on all of Lucia’s albums. “I simply could not do this project without Alan; in fact, he had moved to the East Coast and I scheduled the recording sessions around his trips back to the Bay Area. He’s just brilliant and a marvelous human being. We’ve played hundreds of gigs together over the decades. I’m thrilled he’s on my project once again.”
Pianist and organist Jonathan Alford, another veteran accompanist who has worked with Lucia for some three decades, has also played on all of her recordings. “Again, there was no one else I wanted on piano, it had to be Jonathan. He’s a genius in my opinion and we’re so simpatico, musically. Plus he’s a dear, dear person and friend, so recording together again was so much fun.”
Sonoma bassist Cliff Hugo is a newer musical connection, and he comes from the world of pop, smooth jazz and rock, most prominently as a member of the British band Supertramp. “Cliff was so supportive and really tickled that I called him for the project,” Lucia says. “But since I was making the transition from upright jazz bass to electric bass for pop/jazz songs, there was really no other choice, it had to be Cliff! We had performed together just a few times, and he just blew me away, what a virtuoso! We rehearsed the songs for the album at his home with just acoustic guitar. He wanted to talk about the meaning of each song, how they should be heard. He took such great care of the music, I love that about his musicianship.”
Accordionist, composer and pianist Rob Reich makes a guest appearance on three songs (“The Instrument You Are,” “At the Dance,” and “The Mockingbird”). “I had only performed with Rob once, but knew his work. He’s so insanely talented! His accordion performance is so perfectly in tune with the character of each song…it just makes me happy every time I hear him! I’m so grateful he agreed to be on this project.”
During the six years of putting together “Twist Run Road,” Lucia says she could hear each song fully complete in her head, with all the instrumentation, including strings. “I dreamed of having a cello quartet….and a string quartet. But felt that there was no way I could afford to have the parts written for me or to pay the musicians to record strings. So I had basically given up on that.”
On the last day of recording basic tracks, guitarist Dave MacNab informed Lucia that he had brought her song “Fireflies” to the orchestra pit of “Hamilton” in San Francisco where he had been working since the show’s beginning. “Dave told me he had been searching for songs he could arrange for string quartet, and that he loved “Fireflies.” He offered to write the arrangement. He presented the song to the quartet; they too loved the song, and agreed to record it.” Coincidentally an old friend contacted Lucia that same day, telling her he had read on social media that she was working on her album, and he wanted to contribute a donation to help complete the record. That last minute infusion of funds paid for the string quartet and the resulting string session. “It was a gift straight from Heaven that dropped right into my lap all in one day…so I got my string quartet after all! Thank you, Universe!! And thanks, Dave!”
The quartet is comprised of:
Kathy Marshall – violin 1
Candace Guirao – violin 2
Darcy Rindt – viola
Kelley Maulbetsch – cello
“The quartet been playing together in the pit, eight shows a week for over a year, so they were incredibly proficient in the studio. Their blend is wonderful and I couldn’t have dreamed up a better quartet…it’s funny how the Universe provides and it’s even better than you imagined it!”