Irene Jalenti, no longer a Baltimore secret
by Andrew Gilbert
Born into a family of illustrious Italian musicians, Irene Jalenti has followed a singular creative path as a jazz vocalist, songwriter and arranger who draws on an international array of kindred musical currents. Possessing a strikingly rich cello-like tone, she’s equally impressive improvising a scat solo or interpreting a song with soulful intensity (across five languages). While her sound has often been compared to international legends such as Nina Simone, Mercedes Sosa, and Beth Carvalho, her phrasing, repertoire, and poetic sensibility are all her own.
On faculty at Syracuse University where she teaches jazz and commercial voice and directs the Orange Collective jazz choir, Jalenti has been a creative force on the Baltimore jazz scene since 2010. She turned the pandemic-induced hiatus into an intensive writing workshop, composing and arranging a gorgeous set of material for her 2021 debut album Dawn. With guest stars Sean Jones on trumpet and flugelhorn and vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and her working trio led by pianist Alan Blackman, Jalenti crafted an album that announces the emergence of an artist who has carved out a niche unlike anyone else in jazz.
Music is both a birthright and a family calling for Jalenti. It’s a lineage that includes her paternal grandparents, several uncles, and her cousin Francesco Jalenti, a gifted jazz and classical guitarist who performed widely around Italy. But she credits her father with shaping her musical evolution by exposing her to a panoply of styles and traditions as she was growing up in Terni, a small industrial city in southern Umbria where she was born in 1980.
Even as an adolescent Jalenti possessed a conspicuously low singing voice, and discovering Nina Simone made her feel even more at home in jazz. She earned a full scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory in 2010 and went on to earn a Master’s in jazz studies at Howard University, where jazz vocal professor Connaitre Miller encouraged her to focus on composing. Her Peabody classmate César Orozco, a Cuban/Venezuelan pianist and violinist, introduced her to Latin American songs that brought her to Brazilian stars Maria Bethânia and Beth Carvalho and Argentine icon Mercedes Sosa.
“In Italy, we love Latin American music, but I had this insane idea my voice was not suitable for Brazilian music,” says Jalenti, who’s working on a project focusing on the rich history on the contributions of Italian immigrants to Latin American poetry and music. “César introduced me to all these amazing musicians who showed me how wrong that was.”
Given her accomplishments, Jalenti is something of a late bloomer when it comes to recording. While she’s contributed to many projects and recordings by other artists Jalenti resisted making her own album for years despite encouragement by musical collaborators and queries from fans looking to buy CDs. She knew she didn’t want to record a straight-ahead album of standards.
It wasn’t until 2020, when the pandemic shutdown forced her to step off the daily grind of gigging, that she felt able to integrate all her various experiences and influences. Within the sudden silence and seclusion, she “finally allowed my own music to come out.”
Dawn provides a breathtaking answer, the first of many as she continues to expand her artistic vision. Jalenti has found her musical identity exploring out beyond the crossroads where jazz and Latin America and the Mediterranean converge. Expect a lot more beautiful music from her before the day is done.