Sara Lazarus: Give Me the Simple Life

[21 July 2005]

By Will Layman

My dad tried to get me to start training my son in curling (you know, that sport where you throw a big cheese-looking disc thing along the ice, then kind of sweep the ice to keep it going?) on the theory that there just aren’t many American curlers. Barely any competition, and his grandson might be an Olympian!

Not so much with jazz singing. These days, man, everybody is a jazz singer. To stand out from the crowd you need mad talent, a unique approach, a great story, and maybe some dead-on marketing. Sara Lazarus, making her US debut with Give Me the Simple Life, is batting about .500. Is that enough to success?

First, Ms. Lazarus does have a nice story. A product of the great state of Delaware, USA, she played piano and saxophone before splitting for Harvard U., where she knew sax-cat Don Braden. An encounter with Illinois Jacquet during college was fortuitous because, after she moved to France post-graduation, Jacquet hired her for a European tour. She returned to the US a decade later, where she bagged first place in the 1994 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. However, she promptly returned to France to raise a family and sing on the French scene, giving up the chance to sign a bigger record contract at home. So: ex-pat Harvard Monk Award winner arrives with her first US release! Good story.

Ms. Lazarus does not have a particularly unique approach, however. This is a standards set for singer and jazz trio (piano, bass, and drums)—about the most straight-down-the-center approach possible in this genre. While three tracks are spiced up with guest guitarist Bireli Lagrene, he plays and adds little. The repertoire covered here is not wholly vanilla, flavored with the usual Rogers & Hart, Weill, and Legrand material. In short, for this collection to make a strong impression, it will have to be the singing. And maybe that’s as it should be.

So, does Sara Lazarus have the mad talent? Well, she’s good. She swings effortlessly; she sings the ballads; she has an admirable rhythmic agility. I mean, you put this set on the old stereophonic player and no one’s going to shut you down or confiscate your Betty Carter albums or anything.

But. There is a kind of “jazz singer” stink about the whole project that seems off-putting to me. A while back, Saturday Night Live had a skit where one of the female cast members was a stereotypical jazz singer, and she did a hilarious parody of the kind of embellishment-for-its-own-sake vocal approach so often taken in jazz. And, while Ms. Lazarus is not ridiculous in any way, she has some of that gratuitous “jazz” sound—singing too many syllables on each word, changing the vowel sounds to get a “bluesier” sound, twisting the line to get an extra shake or one more melodic turn. Way too often, Ms. Lazarus sounds affected as she drops the “g” from the end of a word or bends a note on a word like “now” or “night” and seems to color the vowel sound in such a way that it seems, well, fake. On “Get Out of Town”, for instance, the line “Why wish me harm? / Go retire to a farm / And be content to charm / The birds off the trees” is over-determined with jazz singer tics: The gliss down on “why”, three notes on “farm” where one would do, “be contented” punched and swung so much that the lyric is lost, then the same three-note thing on “trees”. The whole song sounds ugly with little vocal jabs and feints—the farthest thing from singing the song as if the lyrics mattered.

I know that’s pretty harsh, but the problem lies not so much in the singing being objectively “bad” but in the sense that this kind of jazz singing has, indeed, become something capable of parody. It’s a problematic approach because, unless it’s done impeccably or somehow originally, it sounds—at best—like a copy of older, more authentic singers.

On the ballads, Ms. Lazarus seems closer to her own voice. On “He Was Too Good to Me”, she sings with less affect, and the flatter sound—while still reminiscent of an influence (in this case, Susannah McCorkle)—is more sincere and serves the lyrics more fully. But even here, she’ll take a word like “he” on the line that includes the title and twist it like a trumpeter who is half-valving a note. It’s not that she goes out of pitch but that she tweaks the moment uncomfortably or, as so often, for no good reason.

On “Smile”, the Chaplin tune she uses to close the record, Ms. Lazarus duets with Lagrene and delivers on that she can do with a ballad. The recording is intimate here, and the singing is more intimate too, so the vocal twists are lighter and less showy-jazzy. It’s a nice piece of work—no solos, no repetitions with additional embellishments, just the song, sung.

My favorite track is the samba-ized version of Clare Fischer’s “Morning”. Ms. Lazarus seems—by a long-shot—the most relaxed with this kind of tune. With the band syncopating its pants off behind her, she simplifies her line and sings with more ease. When she returns after the piano solo, her melodic variations are lovely—longer notes dragging the melody out into greater relaxation so that we want to follow her out into the tag as she plays with the phrase “we lost our love long ago” and even turns the word “lost” into an easygoing scat. This is the highlight of the disc.

The trio plays beautifully throughout. American Winard Harper swings the drum kit on half the tunes, with Andrea Michelutti on the remainder. Alain Jean-Marie solos and accompanies with assurance on piano. Gilles Naturel plays elegant bass. But, while these guys are not even a quarter-inch short of what we would expect from an American jazz rhythm section, neither do they press the music ahead of “the usual”.

And that’s the problem with this whole record. It’s an acceptable, occasionally inspired, sometimes mannered jazz vocal recording. Any of a dozen local jazz singers from New York, Chicago, or even DC could make this record in two days in a local studio. It would be good record, a fine piece of work. But, at least to my ear, it wouldn’t get anyone into the Olympics.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/lazarussara-give/