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Sharon LaMotte

Café on the Square jazzes up downtown Mondays
Sharon LaMotte and friends appear weekly


By Toni Moneta

Rapid River Vol 8 No 3 November 2004
Asheville Arts & Cultural Monthly

You don't have to go to Paris to enjoy three of life's greatest pleasures at the same time right here in Asheville-fantastic food, sophisticated ambiance and incredible live jazz that alternately raises your temperature, cools you off, breaks your heart, or mellows you out.

Yes, it's Monday night at downtown's Café on the Square, with jazz vocalist Sharon LaMotte and the Bill Gerhardt Quartet.

When Sharon LaMotte sings, you notice she's not distracted by the delicious dinner you're enjoying, or the bustling waiters, or folks smooching at the bar. This woman is into the song. All that exists for her is the raw emotion captured in lyrics and melody.

Experiencing one of LaMotte's live performances close up is like diving into a dose of honesty. Low-key, almost shy, LaMotte sings with a guileless disdain for embellishment. And with her softly swaying brunette hair, she resembles an earth goddess holding reverence for the natural simplicity of the song.

You'd think that someone who sings with such core depth would have been doing it for a long time. Ha! Are you in for a surprise. It was only one year ago this month that LaMotte became a professional singer-at the Café. Since then she's performed all over the region, but her Monday night gig inside the window cove in the Café remains her favorite and most frequent venue.

LaMotte's sets are always different but there's a friendly familiarity to them. She begins with a ballad and there's usually some Gershwin, a little swing, a Broadway revue tune, and to make it one of those special nights, there will be a Latin number or two with echoes of Brazil's Astrud Gilberto and Flora Purim.

LaMotte loved music from early childhood. "I remember my first waking dream," she says, "I said to myself "'I want to be a musician.'" But with the constant moving in her father's Navy career, she was never able to get formal music training.

As an older child, she realized that she'd have to have instruction to be a musician. "So I turned instead to drawing and painting," LaMotte says, "because I could do that all the time." She studied fine arts in college-and life went on...

LaMotte really didn't have anything in her life to encourage her dream of music until four years ago, when 21 years of marriage ended suddenly. LaMotte had seen to it that her kids received music training from their early years so they were both avid musicians. (Keenan plays piano, drums and guitar. Laura plays the clarinet.) One Sunday morning during church services LaMotte was in a pew, sitting alone in between her children. "You have such a nice voice, Mom," they whispered. And something clicked.

"I'm going to take singing lessons," LaMotte told herself. So at an age when other people feel satisfied with themselves, LaMotte threw herself into a new life. She studied singing. She took up the piano. She turned the living room into a music room. She filled the house with the voices of legends, such as Billie .Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Blossom Dearie, Anita O'Day and Shirley Horn. She discovered new voices such as, Karrin Allyson and Kendra Shank.

LaMotte found some angels along the way. Encouragement from her first voice coach, Amy Rae Stupka, was like water to a wanderer in the desert. Stupka invited LaMotte to perform in a recital that had already been planned. "Let me see if I can sing a whole song first," a terrified LaMotte replied. She prepared the blues tune, "All Right, Okay, You Win" and got a wild, tremendous response. Stupka was very impressed. "She didn't know I'd made all my friends come!" LaMotte laughs. But it was the last time she had to stack the house.

After studying voice for six months, LaMotte decided to concentrate on jazz. "Jazz speaks to my heart, "she says. "There's something about the music that is healing. And the fact that there's no end to what you can learn makes jazz so exciting."

Her new-found passion for jazz set LaMotte on a path that anyone else in their right mind would have told her was impossible-starting a singing career in her 40s. But LaMotte didn't have any ears for naysayers. All she was listening to was her own heart and the inspiration of other jazz singers.

She started sitting in with Stupka's band, Vitamin Love, that played for swing dancers at the Grey Eagle. (Stupka is now with Tuxedo Junction.) About the same time, Tuesday nights found her at open mic night at Tressa's Downtown Jazz & Blues Club

"I worked unbelievably hard every day on getting songs ready," LaMotte remembers. Soon she was performing at Tressa's every week. "I'd try to add a new song each week. Two different flavors, a ballad and a swing tune." To date, LaMotte has a repertoire of 160 songs, an amazing amount for any singer, especially considering how few years she's been at it.

One night after singing at Tressa's, members of the Taken Back Quartet , a modern jazz band consisting of Phillip Whack, tenor sax Sam Macy, guitar Mike Holstein, bass and Taylor Davis, drums asked her to join them on Sundays for a jazz jam. "About 99% of jazz is listening," La Motte insists, "and I wanted to get as much jazz into my bloodstream as possible-so I just followed them around everywhere they went."

One thing led to another and LaMotte found herself with her own band, the Bill Gerhardt Quartet: Gerhardt on keyboard, Aimee Sullivan on soprano sax, Mike Holstein on bass, and Sonny Thornton on drums. With her first performance at Café on the Square in November, 2003, LaMotte finally realized her impossible dream-she'd become a professional jazz singer.

"I still consider myself a student of jazz," La Motte says. She takes vocal lessons and continues to improve her piano playing skill, adding the study of bass to her daily schedule. "There's a lot of jazz theory to be learned and I approach singing from a musician's standpoint," she explains "I find that it enhances my vocal instrument to be trained on another instrument."

Like all jazz musicians, LaMotte loves the role of improvisation in jazz. "A jazz song is always new. It might be the same form, and same original melody but you can improvise and make it all new."

LaMotte feels she's at the beginning of learning how to improvise. "I do it on the intros and endings on tunes. I haven't taken it through the whole song yet." That's why she studies in New York with Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan-the queens of improvisation.

When you see LaMotte perform with her band, it's fascinating to watch the silent communication that goes on among them. "There's a connectedness with jazz musicians," LaMotte says, "a listening to one another, a union that happens- and goes to a new place."

If you go:

Monday Nights
Café on the Square

What: Sharon LaMotte and the Bill Gerhardt Quartet
Where: Café on the Square, 1 Biltmore Ave.
When: Monday nights, 7-9pm

Dinner reservations: (828) 251-5565.