Although I am absolutely certain this was not what the fine folks at Concord had in mind when conceiving this project, I have to say that the overall effect of listening to two discs of the world’s greatest jazz vocalists in concert makes me extremely nonplussed to return to the world of conventional pop. Of course, being the inveterate pophound that I am, I would be the last person in the world to dream of reintroducing any of those hoary old Manichean dichotomies between modern pop and, well, everything else that dominated academia and criticism for much of the last century. But still, considering the absolute disproportion of vocal talent on display here to the vocal talent on display in most modern rock, pop and R&B acts, I can only come to the summary conclusion that no-one cares anymore.
Modern pop singers just don’t know how to sing, and it seems as if they don’t feel the loss. Every young female singer on the charts today learned to sing primarily from listening to the radio, and it shows in the fact that the very same stylistic deficiencies and vocal shortcomings practiced by Whitney and Mariah’s generation are retained and magnified by the Britneys and the Christinas and the Beyonces of this generation. Does no one bother to learn how to sing anymore, and I don’t mean just singing along with The Bodyguard soundtrack?
Well, a few besides just opera singers do, and thanks to labels like Concord, they have a home.
These two discs were recorded at the 2003 Montreux Jazz Festival, in celebration of the venerable label’s thirtieth anniversary. The disc begins with three tracks performed by the young prodigy Peter Cincotti. He’s got an agile, powerful voice, and he sings with the confidence of someone at least ten years older. In another 10 years, he’ll probably have a voice for the ages. Although this is primarily a showcase for the performer’s vocal abilities, Cincotti also has a pretty fierce way with the piano, as his energetic ten-minute interpretation of “Sway” will readily attest.
Karrin Allyson delivers an extraordinary performance, and what she perhaps lacks in range she more than more makes up for with sultry soul. Her performance of “Little Boat” handily navigates the challenges presented by the song’s spry bossa nova.
Monica Mancini—yes, Henry’s daughter—lacks Allyson’s sensual edge, but her fragile, breathy alto is well-suited to tracks such as her father’s “Charade” and the tremulous “A Day in the Life of a Fool”.
Not without reason is Diane Schuur considered heir, in some quarters, to Ella Fitzgerald’s incomparable legacy. On a stage filled with some of modern jazz’s strongest talents, she makes everyone else seem positively sick. She takes a phrase in her mouth and possesses it in every conceivable manner, enunciating every syllable perfectly even as her incredibly strong voice travels up and down the scale. For a low alto, she’s got a simply remarkable range, and much like Bjork, she has no qualms about showcasing this range simply for the hell of it. There are few singers alive who could perform a track like “Deedle’s Blues” with anywhere near the same degree of effortless virtuosity. But she’s not just a showoff: her duet with the significantly less agile Allyson on “Stay Away from Bill” shows off a facile ear for harmony, to the decided benefit of her partner. There’s not a bad singer on this disc, but likewise, there’s not a one to hold a candle to Schuur, and her scant three tracks go by all to quickly.
Curtis Stigers is a likeable enough singer, but he suffers from the same problem that many other modern male jazz vocalists seem incapable of bypassing. That is, he seems almost comically insincere. I wonder why it is that so many male vocalists are unable to extricate themselves from the shadow of Sinatra and his ilk. Even vocalists with much more verve or attitude than Sinatra seem to have his token callow disregard hardwired into their DNA. It’s annoying, is what it is.
Nnenna Freelon certainly deserves her reputation among the vanguard of young jazz talents. She’s got an unerring sense of swing that conjures up an almost frenetic mental image of her performances. She sounds like she’s exhausting herself, and yet she can wail through a demanding number like “Better Than Anything”, and then turn on a dime to do a fantastic job of the insanely nuanced “The Lady Sings the Blues”, undoubtedly one of the most demanding songs in the entire jazz canon.
On the heels of both Schuur and Freelon, Patti Austin’s enthusiastic performance almost feels anticlimactic, but there’s enough talent in her crystalline voice to put any negative comparisons to rest. Her climactic performance of Ella Fitzgerald’s signature “How High the Moon” puts a fitting capstone on her set. There are no shortage of female vocalists who have tried to fill Fitzgerald’s shoes over the years, and Austin certainly doesn’t embarrass herself in trying.
There’s a group number at the end, a reprise of “How High the Moon” with every one of the preceding singers scatting as fast as they possibly can. I’ve never been a fan of scatting, but still, it’s hard not to appreciate it in this context. These are some of the very best jazz singers in the world, and we are uniquely privileged to be allowed to listen as they have the time of their lives.