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Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009

Jeannine Rivers’ Jazz Journey

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Jeannine Rivers fondly recalls some of her earliest performances.

"My mother used to do a lot of baby-sitting growing up and I used to perform for the kids in the basement, singing 'Summertime' and songs by Gladys Knight," she remembers.

"When I was in third grade, I won first place in the school music competition. I sang 'Let's Stay Together' by Al Green. My teacher was like, 'Oh my God!' and she called my mother and said, 'You know your daughter can sing!'" Rivers says, laughing, her hearty laughter a sort of music of its own.

Rivers straightens her bright blue floral and paisley print dress, and then leans forward at a table at the Rochambo coffee shop on Brady Street. She says she began to take music seriously as a student at Custer High School, taking voice lessons and entering competitions. After a brief move to California, and a stint with Milwaukee band Collage, Rivers decided to concentrate her efforts on her daughter and her career in banking. She occasionally performed at weddings and other events. After a while, she felt like it was time for a serious return to music.

She enrolled at MATC for a music occupations degree, and it was there that she found several like-minded musicians, including ­members of her current backup band.

Rivers cites singers Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae as her musical influences, and her powerful voice follows in the footsteps of these jazz greats. Although she mostly performs jazz and R&B, she isn't afraid to adapt the tone if the mood calls for it.

"What I'm doing is adding a little funk or a little R&B to the jazz," she says. "A perfect example is a jazz standard I perform called 'Let's Fall in Love,' which I perform differently than people would expect, with a more R&B feel to it. I also do 'Superstition' by Stevie Wonder, but totally as a jazz song with a little funk to it. You have to figure out who your audience is and reinvent things."

After Rivers' return to the music scene a couple of years ago, she has been "performing nonstop," getting gigs at festivals and Milwaukee establishments like the Jazz Estate and Caroline's Jazz Club.

"It has been quite a journey; I'm enjoying every minute of it. The funniest thing is I'll get a call from my 22-year-old daughter and she'll say, 'Mom, you are having too much fun!' I feel like I'm 22 again," Rivers says, laughing loudly.

"Wherever this takes me, that is where I'll go. This is a journey I'm willing to take, and enjoy taking."

Jeannine Rivers will play a short set at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 22, at Woodland Pattern Book Center as part of a daylong benefit show for WMSE's "Alternating Currents" live music program. She also performs with Jack Grassel at the Carleton Grange Pub on Aug. 23 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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