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.
Eliane Elias and more...
Eliane Elias, Bossa Nova Stories (Blue Note)
Having just reviewed the new orchestral bossa nova collection by Diana Krall on Verve, I wasn’t sure I had a stomach for yet another meal with the same ingredients: a pianist singer on a major label with her small group supplemented by ‘60s-style orchestral accompaniment doing “The Girl From Ipanema” and other bossa standards Krall’s recording was ... meh.
But Eliane Elias has whipped up something with a bit more spice. First, while she mixes in Tin Pan Alley classics like Krall, she gives them all a samba groove. “The More I See You”, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “Too Marvelous for Words” all feel graceful getting the Brazilian treatment in Elias’s hands—not to mention Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman”, which turns out to be a natural bossa in the right light. And Elias’s repertoire of Brazilian music is more eclectic than Krall’s. She includes more modern tunes (by Ivan Lins and Caetano Veloso) and more obscure tunes (”“Estate” and “Falsa Baiana”) that roll out like fresh and vital additions to the often-done-to-death canon of Jobim and Gilberto classics.
More surprising, perhaps, is that—at least in the context of a bossa nova collection—Elias out-sings and out-plays Diana Krall across the board. Krall’s voice is, plainly, the superior instrument, and she’s no slouch as a pianist. But here, Elias brings a pluck and spark to a kind of music that is too often played as easy listening exotica. Her phrasing has contour and bite, and her tone is puckish. Of course, the Brazil-born Elias sings with committed authenticity in her native language, but she also plays piano with more verve than Krall. On her bossa disc, Krall seems to be channeling the over-simple piano style of Jobim himself, but Elias plays throughout Stories with the fluid, bluesy joy that she brings to her modern jazz recordings.
While the orchestrations here are pleasant, they don’t threaten to muck up the really hip tunes. “Minha Saudade”, for example, grooves along on pure nerve, and “A Ra” is positively aggressive in its polyrhythmic movement. Elias makes the bossa nova truly exciting again. Despite the cheesecake CD photos, this is not lounge music or a recipe for pure seduction. Eliane Elias draws the full spectrum out of this one style. A near-revelation.
Jennifer Lee, Quiet Joy (SBE)
Here is an unknown singer out of the California Bay Area. Unknown musicians, too. Small label. The cover photo is of the leader in her backyard garden, suggesting a homemade production. Uh-oh.
But from the first notes of Quiet Joy, my trepidation was dashed. Lee—a pianist and guitarist first who discovered her voice later—sings with musicianly clarity and drive, a bit like a bossa-nova-savvy, female Mel Torme. Like Torme, Lee’s voice is pleasing, precise and clean but also capable of moving through an arrangement like a brilliantly played alto saxophone. On “I Hear Music”, she dazzles with boppish syncopations and daring melodic turns, some sung in unison with her guitarist Peter Sprague. It’s special to be dazzled by Lee in large part because her voice has a gorgeous undersung quality that she likely learned from her obvious romance with Brazilian music; Jennifer Lee isn’t all about dazzling you ... then she does.
Half the tunes here are bossa novas, often delivered in convincing Portuguese, and all delivered with a rhythmically precise form of relaxation. Like Elias, Lee does a neat job of converting a standard, “‘S Wonderful” into a samba groove, and she also serves up bossas that are less than familiar. Unlike Elias, Lee does not immediately sound like the great bossa singers. Her tone is bright but typically light on vibrato, bringing to mind the “cleaner” band singers of the 1950s but with a keen knowledge of all the hip melodic dodges and killer rhythmic displacements from bebop singing. Because she plays her own rhythm guitar or piano, perhaps, she seems deeply in-sync with her band.
And when Lee tackles a familiar standard like “Pennies from Heaven”, she nails it with effortless swing and sparkle. Her second chorus of the melody, as is custom, contains embellishments of the original melody, each of which manages to be simultaneously surprising and dead-in-the-pocket. Neither rehearsed-sounding nor slick, this is still jazz singing that avoids seeming pointlessly tricky. Her wedding of “On a Clear Day” and “Never Never Land” is similarly balanced—dramatic without seeming theatrical, and sensitive but not maudlin. And her piano solo and accompaniment (and her arrangement) also strike a stirring balance.
Cap it off with this: Jennifer Lee writes her own sharp and soaring tunes. “You Knew” has a winding melody framed by a hip little figure and a great set of changes for solos. “Quiet Joy” is a wordless bossa that seems to move on a gentle breeze above the band. Quiet Joy, as a collection, begged me to overlook it, but I’m thrilled that I didn’t.
Peter Cincotti, East of Angel Town (Warner Brothers)
Peter Cincotti, a super-hyped charmer since he was 13, did not wind up on my pile of discs as an obscurity, yet I’ve got confess that I’d never heard a lick of his music. I felt like I already knew what it would sound like: he was “discovered” by Harry Connick, Jr., and he seemed to combine similar “young fogy” qualities—traditional instrumental chops, a crooner’s vocal approach, and good looks. His first disc, cut when he was still a teen, combined jazz standards with some canny contemporary tunes, but who needed to hear it?
East of Angel Town completes the transformation begun with the kid’s second disc. No longer a Baby Sinatra, Cincotti is now a Baby Billy Joel. Or maybe a Baby Manilow. In a word: OUCH.
Cincotti is now writing overproduced pop-rock that is driven forward with his percussive pianism and his complete lack of irony. The music is chock-a-block with dynamics, sharp melody, and harmonic invention, but it is also a glitzy mess. Cincotti’s roots as a jazz singer (if that was ever more than a marketing pose) are no longer detectable. Not that they should be. Why, this recording asks, would a talented 24-year-old want to play music that wasn’t rich in the pure pleasures of the surface? Tunes like “Angel Town”, with its big slabs of pop production that lyrically critique surface pleasures, are bids for pop-stardom. Tracks like “Lay Your Body Down (Goodbye Philadelphia)” are maudlin schmaltz aimed at touching the generic heart.
Hearing it all, you want to tug on the sleeve of Cincotti’s designer blazer and whisper to him, “Hey, man, maybe you should trade in your copy of Piano Man for a Ben Folds album”. Because East of Angel Town sounds like it emerges from some Pre-Steely Dan version of the ‘70s, where big pop-production is somehow leached of rock’s power and rock’s sense of transgression or playfulness.
Neither elastic and thrilling like jazz nor potent and scathing like rock, Peter Cincotti’s 2009 music is Adult Contemporary at its adult-iest. Now I know what Peter Cincotti sounds like, or at least what he thinks he wants to sound like. And it makes me long for Harry Connick, Jr.
Kendra Shank Quartet, Mosaic (Challenge Records)
Kendra Shank is not aiming for a commercial market. This is plain because her Mosaic is credited to the “Kendra Shank Quartet”—Shank aims to be not a mere singer but a member of the band. And her top-notch band (including Frank Kimbrough on piano, Ben Monder on guitar, reed man Billy Drewes) plays abstract, modern jazz. So Shank tries to be right in there with them: she sings on most tracks with a slightly atonal, halting, abrupt style—wiggling around the melody elliptically. And it’s a mess.
Shank’s sins here remind you of the strengths of Herrera, who integrates with her band and improvises, but still sings with sure tone and grace. Take Shank’s “All of You”. The band swings with impressionistic groove, but Shank is not content to sing the tune “straight” even the first time around. She attacks each note with an odd burst of breath that quickly dies—a deliberate attempt, it seems, to sound like a free saxophonist? On her second trip through the melody, she embellishes very freely, but she sings at least a dozen clams. She is flat—or just weirdly outside the chords—several times, and she chooses funky intervallic leaps that BAM against your ears. This apparently “modern” approach is repeated on Cedar Walton’s “Mosaic” (where Shank’s “solo” finds her scatting freely in some kind of bizarre pseudo-Yiddish tongue or in “hoowoooop"s and “t-koooo"s).
On other tunes, Shank affects a beat sensibility, reciting poetry (“Water from Your Spring—Beautiful Love”) or singing with comical pseudo-seriousness (“Reflections in Blue—Blue Skies”) or trying a jazz tune that has a melody ill-suited to lyrics (Bill Evans’s “Time Remembered”). It’s the kind of thing that a monster talent like Kurt Elling has pulled off in the past. Kendra Shank is not up the task.
On a few tunes, she proves herself a pleasant if underwhelming singer. The collection opens with Carole King’s Tapestry classic, “So Far Away”, and Kimbrough and Drewes imbue the track with a floating gravity. But Shank could be any one of ten thousand woman who’ve assayed this tune at a local coffeehouse. She gets nicely inside of Kimbrough’s original, “For Duke”, where she is intimate like a cabaret singer without indulging all the bizarre quirks that wreck so much of Mosaic. And a couple of Kirk Nurock tunes suit her somewhat, as she comes off as a theatrical art-song singer.
Shank is a pro with gigs at terrific New York clubs (55 Bar) and cities all over the country, so maybe I’m horribly wrong about Mosaic and about the talent that it represents. Maybe.
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But when this many jazz vocalists are out there making a go of it in so many different ways, the only thing I know is to trust my ears. How wonderful it is to be pleasantly surprised by folks like Jennifer Lee or Magos Herrera, or to find Eliane Elias more sumptuous than I expected. Having to listen to other material that clangs against my ears is a small price to pay for today’s riches in jazz singing.