Jazz may not be part of the 2009 zeitgeist. Sales of jazz recordings are not exactly breaking records. Yet there is a kind of flowering of the music still, with a vast diversity of approaches and styles represented by dozens of small labels producing work by artists from all over the world. If there has been one area of commercial success, it has been with jazz—or strongly jazz-inflected—vocalists. Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson, and Norah Jones have sold in great waves, and folks like Madeline Peyroux, Melody Gardot, Patricia Barber, and Jane Monheit are not far behind.
So it’s no surprise that there should be a rush of relatively unknown jazz vocalists storming the in-box of this relatively unknown jazz critic. More arrive every week: mostly women, but otherwise in every flavor you can imagine. Many sing standards, but not always the way you would imagine. There are original tunes, unusual choices of instrumentation, international flavors, daring experimentation—a hothouse of approaches to singing within a tradition that has not always known what “jazz singing” even means.
I'm in Heaven Tonight
(Sweet Sassy Music)
Bossa Nova Stories
East of Angel Town
Herewith, a random inventory of recent jazz vocal discs to cross my threshold and intrigue, thrill, bore, or annoy me.
Magos Herrera, Distancia (Sunnyside)
Google “Mexican Jazz Artists” and you might be surprised. Though jazz long ago embraced Afro-Cuban influences that ought to make Mexico a logical bastion of the music, there are few well-known players from Mexico. But here is a brilliant singer, Magos Herrera, with a US debut on Sunnyside Records, recording with a top-flight band (Aaron Goldberg’s piano, Lionel Louke on guitar, among others) and making Mexican jazz sound as obvious as chocolate ice cream.
Distancia succeeds so powerfully because it presents several styles of jazz in a unified way. Herrera contributes compelling original songs driven by Latin/Afro-Cuban grooves that, nevertheless, suggest the jazzy-pop sophistication of Joni Mitchell. The same band, and the same feeling, works on several classic bossa nova tunes—particularly an ingenious soul updating of Milton Nascimento’s “Vera Cruz” and a “Dindi” that moves in a slow, deliberate groove that meshes bossa with a wide-open sense of jazz freedom. Herrera also transforms a bolero (“Tu, Mi Delirio”) into a slow funk tune. Regardless of the provenance of the music itself, every track feels like part of the music’s larger tradition.
Herrera’s voice is a genuine jazz instrument. She has great control of her tone, dynamics and attack, and she never uses her control to do anything flashy. She scats in places, but she also sings with ballad sincerity. She invests her singing with emotion and drama, but she also merges her sound directly with the band. Distancia drips with assurance. Magos Herrera is an artist who knows what she wants her music to sound like. And it sounds great.
Sarah DeLeo, I’m in Heaven Tonight (Sweet Sassy Music)
Listening to the sophomore effort by New York-based singer Sarah DeLeo is a bit like watching the cable show Mad Men: You sense that you have been uncomfortably transported back to the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. DeLeo includes a few newer songs (notably, The White Stripes’ “In the Cold, Cold Night” and a Patricia Barber tune) and some older ones (“You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me”) but everything is pitched as a cooled-out Peggy Lee song, sometimes dosed with some early Blue Note funk. Intriguing, particularly because DeLeo has a nice band behind her: Brian Charette tasty and period-appropriate on organ, Chris Bergson playing soulful jazz guitar, or David Cook impressionistic and fine on piano.
But: promising on paper does not always make for great music. DeLeo has an interesting texture to her voice—papery and precise—but she suffers from a devastating absence of swing or blues feeling. Her attempt to pull off a vocalese feature with “Stolen Moments”, exposes every flaw she’s got. Instead of singing Oliver Nelson’s classic modal melody straight, she gives it a series of undisciplined blues bends from the start, throwing her intonation to the birds. Her vocalese solo, on the other hand, is dull and unswinging, the very opposite of the kind of high-wire tongue-twisting that makes a Jon Hendricks “solo” so much fun.
DeLeo’s more conservative choices, such as “On the Street Where You Live” done as a straight swinger, sound like flops to me—the kind of thing that results when a musical theater singer decides to go wild and “sit in” with a jazz band at the last second. Her rhythmic syncopations sound like they were planned well in advance by an MIT engineer, and her decisions to bend notes seem forced—it’s not as if the emotion of the performance required her “style” but more as if a producer said, “Hey, make this more ‘jazzy’, OK?”
How is that White Stripes tune? Well, it’s set to a bassline that is as “Fever”-ish as possible, with no chording instrument and some “Fever”-style key changes. “Let It Rain”, the Barber tune, suits DeLeo entirely better, but suggests that the Barber influence may be a bit too strong. Maybe the coolest things here are the funked-out versions of “Rockin’ Robin” and “I Feel Pretty”. The former grafts the groove of “The Sidewinder” beneath the tune, and the latter uses a series of hard-bop stoptimes to shove along the Bernstein melody.
But on all these tunes, alas, the problem is the singer herself. Maybe it’s the influence of all that cabaret singing in Manhattan or maybe it’s a misplaced Peggy Lee fantasy, but Sarah DeLeo sounds about as comfortable here as my mother was when she had to wear those 1960 Mad Men girdles. Jazz singing has got to be more natural and relaxed than this.