What is a “jazz singer”?
This question is so fraught with difficulty that is much easier to answer it in the negative. Elvis Presley was not, though his work could never have taken place if Louis Armstrong hadn’t defined the genre. Joni Mitchell probably is not, mostly, though even there you might get up an argument. Randy Newman: no. Gladys Knight, probably not.
The problem, of course, is that “jazz singing” has simply become some kind of absence. Whatever it is, it’s not today’s popular music. It’s old? It’s interpretations of Gershwin with saxophone players in the background? If you’re a contemporary singer, you can see why this category is a minefield of commercial disaster and—could it be?—an artistic cul-de-sac.
Various jazz singers have tried to update the discipline different ways: by adding some R’n'B punch, by recording more contemporary material, by going back to blues or folk roots, by getting weirder or by getting radically simpler. Many happily package themselves as nostalgic crooners or cabaret divas. But the problem remains: what does it mean to be a jazz singer?
Carmen Lundy is one of a large generation of jazz singers who has desperately been trying to address this question. She has a strong voice with flexible and expressive technique, trained in opera initially. She has ties to the tradition, certainly, but came of age as a singer in the late ‘70s and ‘80s—so she is comfortable working the soul side of things if necessary. And—most notably for this two-disc concert recording—she composes much of her own material. Indeed, Jazz and the New Songbook consists exclusively of Lundy originals.
So, does Jazz and the New Songbook help to mark off “jazz singing” in a positive but new way? Or is that asking more than anyone can reasonably deliver these days?
New Songbook is a strangely mixed bag. It is, by design, an attempt by Ms. Lundy to summarize and define her career, showcasing not only her songwriting but also her range of singing styles. Inevitably, then, it has the soft underbelly of a grab bag: a vaguely ADHD lack of focus that suggests artist who has been trying different things. When that artist has a huge personality, the through-line of all these approaches brings it focus. But, for me, Ms. Lundy’s singing—lovely though it usually is—is not big enough to corral this entire project.
The best of this material is harmonically challenging modern jazz designed around the idea of a singer who is integrally part of a true jazz band. The opener, “In Love Again”, is a swinging stop-time number that lets an uber-A-List horn section play snappy and sassy against the vocals: Bobby Watson, Steve Turre, and Mark Shim, not to mention jumping piano by Billy Childs. “Where’d It Go” is even better, with Ms. Lundy’s bendable vocal settling into a perfect groove that seems to mimic Bobby Watson’s expert alto obbligato. As a jazz singer, Ms. Lundy is absolutely unforced on this tune—embellishing and playing with melody just as she likes but never lapsing into jazz singer hell: that state of noodling where every syllable has to be flipped and scatted and toyed with just for the sake of sounding more saxophonic.
In other places, though, the “straight” jazz material seems to get away from Ms. Lundy. “Better Days” is one of her best known tunes, but she seems sharp and oddly-toned on this recording. Though her brother Curtis anchors the tune with a driving acoustic arpeggio, the LA String Quartet is also there to sweeten it, and the feel-good lyric gets pipey-sounding in her upper register. One wonders if the song’s familiarity works against it here, with Ms. Lundy trying too hard to color it differently.
Inevitably, however, there are songs purposefully pitched away from any jazz mainstream. These tunes—many quite likable, well written, and expertly performed—seem to be from a different album. “Something to Believe In” is gentle gospel-pop, and “Afrasia” is a tasty slice of world-fusion in 6/8, decked out Steve Turre’s great shells and more strings, harmony vocals and Fender Rhodes licks. “(I Dream) In Living Colour” is a shuffly kind of disco tune with a really sweet horn chart that even segues into a tasty James Brown section for Phil Upchurch to jam over. It’s cool music across the board, but it’s music that makes Ms. Lundy’s talents seem scattered or ill-defined.
But that kind of criticism seems unfair even to me. When Ms. Lundy sings with her fine rhythm section on a tune like “You’re Not in Love”, she is dead on. Staying in her lower register across the head, nursing the song’s emotion, she sounds like a perfectly in sync member of the band who knows how to hold back. Mr. Turre’s muted trombone solo takes its cue from the leader, and the slinky perfection of the performance is certain. “Walking Code Blue” is maybe better and riskier, with an electric rhythm section (Rhodes, guitar, bass, brushes on snare) playing a harmonically vague, echo-y accompaniment to a half-spoken, bent-note tale of degeneration.
Also somewhat risky—but with a big pay-off—is “One More River to Cross”, which interpolates Langston Hughes “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” with a searching, impressionistic tune. Sounding like a combination of McCoy Tyner’s pianism and some of the 1970s’ better impulses toward smart soul-jazz, this tune suggests how modern jazz singing might re-explore the work of people like Abby Lincoln, Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron. “Wild Child” also evokes some of the hairier sides of the 1970s—swirling soprano saxophone cushioned by Rhodes as Ms. Lundy sings of discovery.
Taken as a whole, Jazz and the New Songbook is an impressive jumble. Gathering stray strands of a frayed tradition, it certainly shows off the considerable and diverse talents of its auteur. For fans of Ms. Lundy, it is a career summation of mighty range. But as an attempt at focusing or redefining the art—as a draft thesis statement on the state of jazz singing, which is certainly suggested by the title—it falls short.