For Darla and Rich Tarpinian — the Lawrenceville-based husband and wife jazz duo known professionally as Darla Rich — working to perfect their harmony is the key to the smooth rhythms of their sound. It is also important to their lives as a couple — in fact a quest for harmony is what brought them together in the first place.
While Darla Isaacs was born in Covington, Kentucky, within commuting distance of Cincinnati, and Rich grew up in New York near the Canadian border in the small town of Massena, both sang in church choirs with older siblings who introduced them to singing in harmony with other voices. Both also continued and developed their musical interests in college while majoring in other areas: he in computer science and she in business. And each held jobs with large companies that brought them to central New Jersey, where they would meet through music and blend their varied interests into a musical partnership and then a marriage. The music continues this month with appearances at Fedora Cafe, Witherspoon Grill, and Carnegie Center.
Darla says she was three when her 18-year-old brother Vernon began training her to sing gospel hymns in the youth choir at the Church of God in northern Kentucky. They would later form a gospel quartet with another of their three brothers and a sister-in-law. Darla, who had some early piano lessons, became the accompanist.
“I grew up singing gospel music in church. So I learned harmonies and rhythms and all that and reading music in the church, mostly from my brother,” Darla says. Her brother played guitar and worked with the youth and young adult choir. Her father, an engraver for a casket company, and her mother, an assistant supervisor at a data collection company, had earlier formed a family gospel group with her older brothers in church.
“My father continued playing music all of his life. When he was 79, he played out with friends at jam sessions until he died. He was always playing guitar, singing, and things like that,” Darla says.
Graduating with a college degree in business administration in 1985, Darla entered the business world — Federal Reserve, Procter & Gamble, and AT&T — yet pursued her interest in vocal music by successfully auditioning for the Cincinnati Symphony Chorus.
“It was a volunteer chorus. You were required to audition every year, which was nerve-wracking. But I sang with them for 11 or 12 years. It gave me the opportunity to tour Europe on several choral tours, which was a wonderful experience,” she says.
As a member of the Cincinnati Symphony Chorus she also became part of the renowned May Festival Chorus, which performs at an annual choral festival in Cincinnati as well as with the Cincinnati Pops and the Cincinnati Symphony.
It was not until moving to New Jersey as a manager for AT&T that Darla would begin her career as a jazz vocalist and bass player. She recalls as a child watching old movies featuring jazz standards. She was and is a particular admirer of Rosemary Clooney, the pop and jazz singer of the 1950s and 1960s, who also grew up in the Cincinnati area.
Soon after arriving in New Jersey, she became involved in the local music scene at Six Mile Run Coffee House in Franklin Park. “I went down there to hear somebody sing and got involved in that, and you could volunteer. You could bake cookies. You could sell coffee or whatever. And I thought that would be a great way to get to know people.”
At the same time, she was hoping to become a solo performer or to sing in a small group, she says. She met a man named Tim and his wife at the coffee house, which was held in a church. They were church members, originally from Canada.
“I wanted to perform. He was a guitarist. He wanted to perform. So we started singing. He would play guitar. He would accompany me, and we would sing together, either songs by ourselves or duos,” Darla says. “Actually I didn’t choose jazz right away, partly because the young man that I was performing with was more into a lot of Canadian artists and some folk music.”
But she had gained the experience she sought performing as a singer in a duo. And when Tim returned to Canada, he suggested she might want to ask a friend to be her accompanist, a guitarist they both knew from the coffee house named Rich Tarpinian.
Rich had recently moved to New Jersey from upstate New York, where one of his earliest musical influences was his older sister, Susan, later a voice major and a music teacher. “She would even organize little four-part musical presentations in the neighborhood,” Rich says. “She’d put a quartet together and write out the parts and give everybody their part and teach it to them.”
His mother sang in an Episcopal church choir, and he would hear her working out her vocal parts on the piano in their home, or singing along to musicals on TV with his sister. He and his sister also joined the choir. His father, not active in music, is a retired metallurgical engineer living in New York, whom he credits for his analytical abilities.
Rich says another early influence was his fifth or sixth grade music teacher. “The music program when I was very young was excellent, and I had a music teacher who really pushed the principles of harmony and helped us to learn intervals and what makes harmony work. And that left a lasting impression on me.”
His interest in guitar began soon afterward. “I was in high school when I first got my hands on a guitar,” he recalls, “and it was a steel string guitar that was very inexpensive and didn’t play well at all. Your fingers got really strong playing that thing. It was hard to get a good sound out of it, but I still just kind of fooled around with it.”
He remembers listening to a Montreal radio station that featured jazz from the bebop era, in particular the music of Charlie Parker. “I think that’s where I got that initial interest in jazz,” he says.
While he focused in on his studies at State University of New York at Potsdam in the early 1980s, he also found time for classical guitar and voice classes at the University’s Crane School of Music and for master classes at the nearby Ottawa Guitar Society.
He recalls being surrounded by a vibrant music scene, both in and around the college. Faculty and students would play jam sessions around a piano in the student union while people were dining, and the small town of Potsdam boasted more than its share of coffee houses, jazz clubs, and venues for classical and folk guitarists.
After college and various IT jobs in New York state, Rich ending up in New Jersey as a software engineer at Bristol-Myers Squibb, where he would work for many years. He also began frequenting the Six Mile Run Coffee House, where he met Darla, and Darla Rich began performing in 1995. Music turned to romance, and the couple married in 2000.
“We were good friends for five years,” Darla says. “And I think it started through music. Rich would come to my house. I lived in Franklin Park at the time. He would come from Plainsboro to my house on Monday evenings, and we would work on repertoire and arrangements and those things. And then at some point we’d go out to musical venues and either hear friends play or go into the city and hear professional musicians play.”
They began evolving more toward a jazz repertoire, honing their technique by observing other musicians.
Initially, Darla sang and Rich accompanied her on the guitar. They would hire a percussionist or a bass player if the job called for it.
“We were just getting started in little local gigs and weren’t really making a lot of money at a gig. A lot of it was just going out and playing open mics and things just to get experience and then moving on to smaller venues,” Darla recalls. “And I think we needed to hire a bass player at one time.”
“Which is hard to do when you can’t pay them a whole lot of money,” Rich adds.
“So I said, “Okay, I’ll try it,” Darla says. “So we got an electric bass and Rich was my teacher, and he taught me. That’s quite an accomplishment for boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife, to have the patience to do that. He’s a very patient teacher.”
About two years ago, Darla began learning to play the upright bass.
“A lot of self-study, but also getting some tutoring and mentoring from upright bass players,” Darla says. “And I’m enjoying that.”
Darla Rich has performed as a duo, trio, and quartet in many local restaurants and clubs and at weddings and private events. On a typical day they practice their instruments in the morning, take a long walk or exercise, and eat raw vegetables, fruits, and juices — both are long-time vegans with Darla specializing in substituting vegan ingredients in familiar recipes and hoping to publish a cookbook on the topic.
Rich — a former hockey player who coaches the Queenston Hockey Club, part of the United Women’s Hockey League — also teaches guitar to both children and adults in his studio, where he also provides accompaniment for college audition tapes and other projects.
The couple is also a duo off stage: Darla manages publicity, website and invoicing, while Rich takes care of charts and arrangements.
This year they will celebrate 20 years together as musicians and 15 years as husband and wife. In marriage, as in jazz, one could say that it’s all about individuals learning to listen to and play off of each other’s contributions to create harmony.
“A lot of people think that improvisation in jazz is taking an improvised solo,” Rich says, in a response to a request to define jazz that could easily be applied to success in marriage. “After you play the melody, then you take an improvised solo and the next player takes an improvised solo. But really the whole thing is improvised to some extent. The accompaniment is evolving as you’re playing a tune, you’re changing the way you’re accompanying, you’re responding to how somebody else plays. You’re feeding them ideas. They’re feeding you ideas. The real desired outcome is to be improvising the rhythms, the harmonies, the melodies.”
Darla Rich Quartet, Fedora Cafe, 2633 Main Street, Lawrenceville. Wednesday, August 5, 7 to 9 p.m.; first Wednesdays through December.
Witherspoon Grill, 57 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Tuesday, August 11, 6:30 to 10 p.m.; first Tuesdays from October through December.
Carnegie Center 500 Series Greenway Concert, Thursday and Friday, August 27 and 28, noon to 1:30 p.m. www.darlarich.com.