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Charleston Contributes Song to Holocaust Documentary


Posted 5/6/2013 by Frank Alkyer

There are stories that seem so unbelievable they have to be true. Such is the case with the film No Place On Earth, a documentary about a group of 38 Jews who hid in the caves of Southwestern Ukraine for 511 days to survive the Holocaust.

It’s not the kind of story that typically gets covered in DownBeat, except for one reason—music. Singer Rondi Charleston and pianist Fred Hersch wrote the original song “The Cave Knows” for the film. And when No Place On Earth had its Midwest premiere on April 10 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, Charleston was there, too.

It was the most unlikely of performance spaces for Charleston, but she confidently performed to an appreciative audience that included three of the film’s subjects, who are now in their 80s.

“The thing I kept in mind was, ‘This isn’t about me,’” Charleston said after the performance. “It was about them and serving their story.”

She added that in writing the song, she and Hersch struggled to come up with the right theme. “It became most logical to us that the cave was another character in this story. The cave knew everything that they went through. The cave would not forget.”

A trailer and information on the film are posted on its website.


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For Rondi Charleston, songwriting is in her ‘DNA’


She has described herself as an archaeologist, always digging in her songs “for the truth behind the story.”

But regarding her latest album Signs Of Life, acclaimed jazz chanteuse Rondi Charleston speaks like a geneticist. In fact, the centerpiece track of the album, which was released in March, is titled “DNA.”

“It’s one of the songs that’s particularly resonant, from having been an investigative reporter,” says Charleston, a Chicago native and Juilliard music grad, who also studied journalism at New York University, then worked as a producer with Diane Sawyer at ABC’s PrimeTime Live and contributed to stories that won Emmy and Peabody Awards.

“I’ve gone from an investigative reporter to investigative lyricist,” Charleston continues. “I’m exploring now through my lyrics, asking questions of myself and our collective existence, and trying to grapple with issues of who we are, and in the case of ‘DNA,’ investigating which part of us is predetermined by our genetic makeup and which is influenced by environment.”

“What’s fascinating,” she adds, “is that it’s both, of course, but if you really pay attention to what science is saying these days, you can have not only physical characteristics passed down but also character and personality traits. It’s almost as if DNA is the screenplay of our lives, and the more we understand about it, the more able we’ll be to handle the surprises and challenges that life throws our way.”

The song “DNA” also stands out in that besides writing the lyrics, Charleston co-wrote the music.

“It was very clear that it needed to be very primal blues-based,” she says of “DNA”’s music. “It was so organic to come at it from the blues perspective for so many reasons: Blues is connected to our roots, and our roots are connected to our DNA. No matter what nationality you are—African, Swedish, Italian, Chinese–it’s universal.”

Charleston, who, incidentally, is Scandinavian, also singles out the new album’s “The Wind Speaks,” for which she also wrote lyrics and music.

“It’s based on an experience I had in the Napa Valley with my husband,” she relates. “We took a magical hot air balloon ride one morning, and floating in the air and looking down at the spectacular countryside, I had an epiphany about climate change: I appreciated and evaluated the beauty of the earth, not from an airplane speeding by, but in slow motion from a balloon. The song evolved into addressing the issue of climate change.”

Both “DNA” and “The Wind Speaks” are part of Signs Of Life’s showcasing of Charleston’s growth as a songwriter.

“The exciting thing for me is that the original songs are based on personal life experiences,” she says, “and that they’re sparking a response from both critics and audiences. It’s a turning point for me, and very reassuring to know that the time and energy and devotion I’ve put into writing music and lyrics are actually resonating with people.”

She jokes: “Something’s really opened up in me in my old age, and I have a lot to say!”

Charleston’s past life in broadcast journalism also came into play in Signs Of Life’s closing cut “The Cave Knows,” the music for which runs over the closing credits of No Place On Earth, the award-winning documentary/reenactment of the 17-month survival of 38 Jews who were hiding out from the Nazis in a cave in the Ukraine.

“My former colleagues at ABC News are now brilliant documentarians,” says Charleston, referring to the film’s director Janet Tobias and producer Susan Barnett. “No Place On Earth tells the remarkable story of the will to survive, and the unbreakable human spirit that triumphs over such incredible evil.”

Jazz pianist Fred Hersch composed the music for “The Cave Knows.”

“He’s one of my musical heroes,” says Charleston. “I wasn’t born when the events took place, and couldn’t figure out how to approach the song when they asked me to write it. So I asked Fred, and he was thrilled. Working with him was a dream come true, and we figured out the perspective of personifying the cave and having it bear witness to what happened there.”

Charleston has been performing “The Cave Knows” at various holocaust museums, including the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, and No Place On Earth screenings—some with some of the survivors in attendance. At her album launch in New York at Joe’s Pub, she performed the song to the screening of the film’s trailer.

But she’s already at work on her next album.

“I’m writing songs,” she says, adding, “When you’re ready, you’re ready. My label, Motema Records, is extremely supportive and looking forward to it.”


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Critical Jazz Review

critical jazz

By Brent Black at 7:32 PM 5/9/2013

Stunning cover art welcomes you to an equally stellar release from Rondi Charleston. Signs of Life is a marvelous look at the musical make up of one of the finest female vocalists across any genre of music. Honesty, passion and a genuine sense of musical integrity run through what is arguably Rondi Charleston’s most successful release to date. Intimate in presentation yet with a depth that goes past the heart and examines the human condition from the soul of a dynamic artist whose exponential growth since Who Knows Where The Time Goes is nothing short of amazing.

The A list ensemble cast includes guitarist and musical director Dave Stryker. Along with Stryker we find Brandon McCune ( Abbey Lincoln, Nnenna Freelon ) on piano, Ed Howard ( Shirley Horn, Pat Metheny ) on bass, Clarence Penn (Michael Brecker, Christian McBride ) on drums and Myra Casales ( Tito Puente, Celia Cruz ) on percussion. An added bonus includes featured soloists Gregoire Maret on harmonica and Ted Nash on tenor saxophone. “The Cave Knows” is a bonus track co-written with the brilliant Fred Hersch and composed for the closing credits of the soon to be release film No Place On Earth which has garnered numerous accolades from critics and contemporaries alike. The genesis of this composition is the true story of 38 Jews that survived living in a cave system that stretched 77 miles deep in the heart of the Ukraine and it is from deep inside the earth these brave souls survived for 17 months until the close of World War II. In a brief but enchanting conversation with Charleston at the JEN Convention held here in Louisville two years ago, Rondi Charleston reminded me of the importance of a critic to always address the “why” question be it good news or bad. Keeping this lesson in mind a key to the heartfelt presentation with Signs Of Life is the ease and natural ability that Charleston is able to harness whether she is delivering an original composition or reworking a classic such as “Footprints” from Wayne Shorter. There are similar artists in the tightly clustered pack of female vocalists that are as passionate about the world they live in and their responsibilities both as an individual and as an artist but most of these artists tend to venture into the abyss of the self indulgent when singing about politics, religion or their riff on the human condition. Signs Of Life is an open self portrait where Charleston avoids the self indulgent but manages to open her heart to reveal a wonderfully organic buffet of stories where the listener can pick and choose to their liking.

Other gems from Signs Of Life include “Spirit Voices” from Paul Simon and “Reflections” from Thelonious Monk. One particularly compelling Charleston original is “How The River Flows” which chronicles a near death experience while rafting with her family in Costa Rica and a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley which resulted in an eye opening experience of a world coming to grips with climate change. Rondi Charleston is emotionally invested in her craft as well as the world she lives in but presents her own life experience without the slightest bit of pretentiousness that trips up so many vocalists when attempting to tackle the hot topics of the day. While I personally try and keep my music and politics in separate compartments with my politics labeled “break glass in a case of emergency” there is that musical middle ground and innate gift that Charleston has to not only make the listener feel but to think.

All the stars were in perfect alignment for Signs Of Life. Rondi Charleston is a critically acclaimed and wildly successful artist and here she raises the bar for her contemporaries to follow.

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WEMU FM 89.1 review of Signs Of Life

Here is an excerpt from the review of Signs Of Life by Linda Yohn, WEMU FM 89.1.

With Signs Of Life, singer Rondi Charleston breathes new life into jazz classics and shares highly personal yet universal reflections on life. During Women’s History Month we are focusing on women of jazz and blues past and present. Rondi Charleston’s Signs Of Life is one of the most powerful and personal discs to be premiered this March.

In her notes, Rondi Charleston credits two important mentors: Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter. Following in their footsteps, Charleston writes songs that inspire us to consider the beauty and fragile nature of our world and songs that question our very genesis and future. Rondi also displays significant musical courage by covering Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections” with the John Hendricks lyrics first interpreted by Abbey Lincoln and Carmen McRae as well as a touching new lyric to Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”. Abbey Lincoln was often quoted saying “unrequited love is a bore”.

There is nothing boring about Rondi Charleston’s Signs Of Life. It’s nothing new for us to premiere a singer-songwriter session on 89.1 Jazz, but Signs Of Life brings new energy, passion and deep thought to questions and concerns of life couched in flowing melodies. It was a very memorable premiere today.

To read the full story, click here or the link below.

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New York Daily News: Top Ten Pick for “Signs Of Life”

New York Daily News

New York Daily News: Rondi’s new album made the top 10 picks in music for the week of March 17, 2013 (by Jim Farber). See the full list below and click here to view the list online at NYDN!

1. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell “Old Yellow Moon” They’ve been friends for 40 years, and occasional collaborators too, but only on “Old Yellow Moon” have these two Americana icons made a full joint project. These country-inflected songs seem to reenergize two singers clearly made for each other.

2. David Bowie “The Next Day” In his first CD in 10 years, rock’s greatest changeling muses on mortality in guitar-driven music delivered with a harsh gravity.

3. Various artists “Love for Levon” In the DVD version of last fall’s stirring tribute concert to the late Levon Helm, stars like Grace Potter, Roger Waters, Mavis Staples and Ray LaMontagne honor the Band member’s steady beats, earthy vocals and unshakably American character.

4. Son Volt “Honky Tonk” Alt-country pioneer Jay Farrar explores the swinging sound of Bakersfield honky-tonk on his latest CD with Son Volt. He makes it credible by curling his voice into a twang that turns down sadly.

5. Rondi Charleston “Signs of Life” Jazz singer Charleston has a thick and tawny voice that has caused many to compare her to Abbey Lincoln. Her flair for lazy Sunday ballads deepens the connection. But the huskiness of her timbre has its own DNA.

6. The Virgins “Strike Gently” New York band the Virgins favors the skeletal rock of local groups from Yo La Tengo to the Strokes. But their best calling card remains front man Donald Cummings, whose voice recalls the cool of the young Lou Reed.

7. Low “The Invisible Way” Married couple Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk drift and drone in their long-running band Low. It’s slow-moving, muted music that proves how much emotion a moan can hold.

8. Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet “In a World of Mallets” The youngest brother in the Marsalis dynasty dedicates his new album to instruments like the marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone and vibraphone. The way he plays them gives these jazz pieces a shimmering resonance.

9. Stick Men “Deep” The rhythm section of late-period King Crimson (Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto) teams with guitarist Markus Reuter in this consciously disruptive prog-rock foray. Using rare instruments and fingering techniques, they make these songs run dark and heavy.

10. Rakim and Raekwon at Stage 48 on Thursday In a show rescheduled from January, two of hip hop’s hottest icons combine 30 years of eloquent expression.

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Signs Of Life review from Birmingham Times

Birmingham Times

Read the latest review of “Signs Of Life”, just in from the Birmingham Times:

“Soulful, sultry singers are not created – they are born with that innate talent. This is just what Rondi Charleston is, what she possesses and what she expresses through her music. Her new collection, Signs Of Life, shows just how much she has grown by exposing the vocal powerhouse that her true fans know she commands. It is wonderful.

Signs Of Life is by far an extraordinary album. So much of Charleston can be felt in it as each original composition has a story. It features expressive pieces, a mesmerizing mixture that encompasses a perfect marriage of singer and songwriter. With Signs Of Life, Charleston eases into this role effortlessly.

The LP features 10 selections and an additional bonus track. Quite a number of these are either written or co-written by Charleston. The album opens with “DNA.” In addition to Charleston’s priceless vocals it maintains a wicked tempo that’s wonderful. The title track offers a relaxed pace which fits impeccably for its title. It is evident that Charleston poured a lot into composing this tune. “The Cave Knows”, the bonus track, features music by Fred Hersch accompanying Charleston’s lyrics. It is originally from the film documentary No Place On Earth. Signs Of Life is an excellent jazz collection. It is utterly exceptional!!!

Rondi Charleston is a native of the Windy City. She grew up as an only daughter of a vocal teacher (mother) and English professor/Jazz pianist (father). Although music permeated her home as a child, she began a career in acting as a teen. She originally enrolled in Juilliard’s Theatre but after a few semesters she returned to her first love. In addition to Charleston being a professional singer and an accomplished actress, she has also worked as a Journalist. Her work for ABC News garnered her Emmy and Peabody awards.

Signs Of Life will be available in retail on March 12. It released through Motéma Records.”

See the full article here.

Buy now at iTunes, Amazon, or Motema.

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Jazz Inside “Signs Of Life” review – 2013

Click here to read a PDF of the new review of “Signs Of Life” from Jazz Inside.

RC Jazz Inside

RC Jazz Inside


SIGNS OF LIFE – Motema Music.; DNA; Signs of Life; How the River Flows; The Wind Speaks; Footprints; Spirit Voices; In These Hours; Reflections; Babe’s Blues; Chega de Saudade; The Cave Knows.

PERSONNEL: Rondi Charleston, vocals; Dave Stryker, guitar; Brandon McCune, piano; Ed Howard, bass; Clarence Penn, drums; Mayra Casales, percussion; Gregoire Maret, harmonica on “Signs of Life” and “The Wind Speaks”; Ted Nash, tenor saxophone on “How the River Flows” on “Footprints”.

To write your own songs, particularly in a genre where one expects standards, brings a raft of challenges. You want the lyric to be witty and memorable, but can you sing it easily? Once that is accomplished, you worry about the tune, how the two fit together … and whether your creation feels out of place on an album
that also has standards. To even try such a task, you must dive in with both feet and give it everything; this is no problem for Rondi Charleston.

Given an emotive, enthusiastic voice, she instinctively reaches for reflective songs with unusual imagery – and when such songs are not there, supplies her own. The title track starts with a mystery (“I step down the wooden stair- way through my cellar door/ And I breathe the musty air from 1844”) and ends with a reverie (“There’s a spoon that fed a baby/ I hear childrens’ voices laughing/I smell supper in the kitchen up above.”) As her nostalgia grows warmer, so does the background: enveloping chords from Brandon McCune, tip- toeing bass, and the breezy wisp of harmonica.

More than just accompaniment, the music comments on the lyric in a way you rarely hear. When she thinks about what people of the next century will think of her, the drum brushes hiss, as if laughing at the thought. The following line she does so herself, a stifled giggle following “a page of scribbled poetry.” Ideas like this run through “The Wind Speaks,” an environmental snap shot of the present and worry for the future. Under the breezy Bossa pulse, a voice calls out: “It dances over grapevines, kissing their leaves/ And whispers through the wheat fields and the wilderness/ Winding through the rivers, rustling their reeds.” Those reeds are joined by the harmonicas, and the pattering cymbals conjure the breeze as well as her words. There is passion, but no melodrama; concern without preaching – a love song to the earth told in its language.

Ted Nash adds a strong tenor to “How the River Flows,” in a turbulent 6/8 marked by tart bursts of piano. “We paddled deep to the heart of darkness/ Too late to realize/ The currents pulling beneath the surface/ Hoping to hypnotize.” When Rondi turns optimistic, urging to “push on through,” Nash does likewise, fluttering and surging over the cymbals’ crash. McCune does some rolling himself, indulging in ragtime before resuming the lush chords. On “Footprints” his harmonics are simpler, but the mood remains rich: Rondi becomes an overdubbed choir, Nash hints Wayne Shorter in his solo, and Dave Stryker’s guitar walking between them. There are places where warm words are kissed by vibrato as Nash bids his farewell–not easily forgotten. Not that you’d want to.

On some songs Charleston adopts a lighter touch, handling the tune simply as the musicians work their magic. The earthy charm of Paul Simon’s “Spirit Voices” fits her aesthetic well: this is a triumph of drums, of rippling tropic guitars, of a voice delighted by the life around her. The lyric and band are wonderfully vibrant, and there is no need to do more – her direct reading works well. For “Reflections,” McCune avoids the expected invocations of Monk, playing instead with ballroom elegance; fits well to one of Monk’s most romantic tunes. There’s a bit of wistfulness in “some living souls rear- ranged,” a little throatiness as she sings the sad bridge; sometimes the best acting is barely noticed. Her jazziest reading comes on “Babe’s Blues,” a funky waltz by Randy Weston. McCune has fun with the chords, and so does Rondi: here she’s very hornlike, sliding the Jon Hendricks lyric and doing so with a big smile on her face. For dessert we

get “The Cave Knows,” a tune she wrote with Fred Hersch for a documentary film, and joined here by a small orchestra. An art song in all senses of the word, a sad topic (a network of tunnels in the Ukraine where Russian Jews sought refuge during World War II) is joined sad words and somber music… to form something that transcends sadness. Rondi shouts and she sobs – but mostly she lets the words sink in. “The cave knows the fire in the night/ The evils of the world/ The cave knows the childhood lost forever/ Our whispered prayers of faith/ It gave us warmth and shelter/ It gave us the gift of time/ It gave us strength and freedom/ It gave us the gift of life.” Slow, dignified, unforgettable; you cannot call this tune jazz, but I will call it beautiful. That word applies to the whole disc: a blending of word and sound you rarely get to hear.

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