The Singers and the Songs

Carmen Lundy
This Is Carmen Lundy
(Justin Time)

Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue
(Lesun Music)

Stacey Kent

It’s a pretty good time to be a jazz vocalist — particularly a female one. If your name is Diana Krall, it is of course even better. Now, I may be suspicious of the hype machine surrounding Ms. Krall and the reasons for her huge success, but there is no denying her talent, nor the poise and assuredness of her arrangements (take a bow, Russell Malone et al). If it raises the profile of women in jazz, it is worth the hyperbole and if it adds to the sales and marketability of other singers, then that is all positive.

However, as the Krall bandwagon rolls relentlessly on (obliterating the fact that she is probably a more interesting pianist than a vocalist) the jazz community is already looking elsewhere. The Canadian no longer looks quite like one of their own. Snobbishness is playing its part, but the emphasis on Philharmonia and photo-calls seems to be overshadowing the core values and yet again turning a jazz act into an MOR pop one. Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan both underwent this and they were more distinctive singers than Krall will ever be. The search is on for a new heroine. So who is around that might fit the bill?

Stacey Kent looks like mainstream jazz’ favoured choice and is currently on the cover of several publications. She has some good credentials. A definite style of her own, a penchant for standards (improvisation and experiment is for the boys still in jazz’ chauvinist world) and, how can I put this delicately, she is white. For mainstream jazz has tended in recent years, consciously or unconsciously, to push white over black in the singing stakes. Whether this is the record companies’ fault in their search for crossover appeal or something to do with the conservative but stylistically polished readings of tunes that white female singers have specialised in, I am not sure. What I do know is that contemporary white jazz women seem to get more publicity and unqualified praise than their black counterparts.

Whatever dubious underpinnings that betrays is of course nothing to do with Stacey Kent. The absolute predilection for safe material is. The shift really came with Dreamsville, the fourth of what is shortly to become six releases for Candid. Her fans were invited to suggest tunes and inevitably they came up with the much loved and over-recorded standards. “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, “Isn’t it a Pity”, “Thanks for the Memory”, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”, “Little Girl Blue” and so forth. Every one perfect in its way and pretty well perfectly performed in Kent’s particular way.

That way is mellow and intelligently articulated, with the lyrics given their full value (and what lyrics, one has to say). Her voice is a very seductive mixture of worldliness and ingénue innocence and her phrasing is precise but very chic indeed. The sympathetic small group arrangements are immaculate and the whole effect is unforced and awash with timeless charm. So what’s the problem?

Well, after about five tracks all the songs start to sound the same. There is little passion, despair ,exultation or any of the emotional risk-taking usually associated with jazz. In fact I am not really sure, despite all appearances, that this is jazz. It comes across as a series of (very superior) renditions of the American Popular Song catalogue and is all a little too hushed and reverend for my tastes. There is so much to cherish in the songs, the playing and the singing that this seems a churlish response. Yet, the overall package is unthreatening to the point of tiresomeness.

Society has tended to reward more greatly those who roll the small stone to the top of the hill rather than those who push a much greater weight half way to the top. Hardy said that in response to criticism of “The Dynasts” and, while I am generally on society’s side in such cases, for the current state of jazz vocals I think it is time we acknowledged some less even but more daring performances. If not jazz is in danger of merely being a platform for the production of “showbiz”, easy-listening singers.

So although Kent’s take on songs such as “Violet for Your Furs” are as delightful examples of cool, cabaret artistry as have ever been heard, their strengths are essentially those of already realised goals rather than as a move towards future targets. No harm in that, but if it becomes the only option open to the next generation of singers then the museum beckons.

As uneven and full of highs as lows so as almost to represent Kent’s polar opposite is Ledisi’s sophomore album. Ledisi raised a lot of expectations with her neo-soul debut set, which became one of the hottest indie products and sold due to a word-of-mouth campaign of conspiratorial proportions. A leading light of the Bay Area jazz scene, she has now delivered an album that though commencing with some soul-type cuts is more representative of the club act that has made her much loved in San Francisco jazz circles.

Sadly, I have a feeling that this album will might dent her prestige with Soul fans and do nothing to extend her jazz base beyond her hometown. Quite frankly, on first listen it sounds a complete mess. Ledisi over emotes, scats too frenetically and attacks Monk and Ellington standards with something less than subtlety. Her own songwriting is patchy (as it was on the first album) while her band seem not quite up to the jazz numbers and much more at home in neo-soul/R&B mode.

Yet, whereas the Kent sound is as good as it is going to on first acquaintance, the Ledisi takes a little time. Passion and energy are Ledisi’s strengths, she is the expansive expressionist as opposed to the carefully crafted art of Kent. I would not trade one for the other but at the moment the latter is not in short supply in jazz. The imagination and humanity of the former is rather harder to find. Anyway, what on Orange… sounds brash and clumsy at first becomes more merit-worthy once you get used to it.

The early numbers are the most soul based and unproblematic. The opener, “So Right”, has a loose funky feel, complete with some tasty bass and trumpet licks. Its mixture of Soul Diva plus scat suggests that Ledisi is really producing a new R&B/jazz fusion along the lines that fellow independent woman N’Dambi so successfully managed recently. They both come into the dreaded “Organic” camp but although there is a backlash against Female Black Hippiness Syndrome at present, these two (along with the likes of Karen Bernod/Nichelle/Saundra Williams and Sandra St. Victor) still seem to be making some of the most convincing black music around.

The fusion is made explicit on track two. Some gorgeous Hammond work from Ledisi’s musical and business partner, Sandra “Sun” Manning, adds luster to a bold inter-weaving of Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar” with D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar”. It’s much more effective and much less contrived than you might imagine, has, like much of the disc, a very live feel and displays an insouciance and a sexiness that is very engaging. A similar spiritedness suffuses the even jazzier “Meeting Marcus on a Thursday” which paves the way for the “proper” standards”.

“Round Midnight”, “Straight No Chaser”, “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Autumn Leaves” are a formidable quartet to attempt and they receive something of a roughing up from Ledisi’s onslaught. Great in a club but raw to an uncomfortable degree on disc. But that perhaps is the point. Her interpretations are expansive and aggressive where Kent is calm and introspective. After spending a month with both albums, I find I am still discovering things in the Ledisi — although it has certainly not been an Easy Listening experience.

Interestingly, although Ledisi writes her own material when it is more on the Soul side, she remains true to the canon when it comes to jazz. There is an unwritten rule, it appears, that female jazz singers should stay with the Songbook. Carmen Lundy has spent a long career singing standards but has now delivered an album’s worth of her own material. It is wonderful.

Though she probably is held in higher regard by soul than jazz fans, this is the purest jazz album she has ever recorded. It has garnered plenty of acclaim but that has usually been tempered with criticism of the quality of the songs. Her rich, fruity contralto and formidable technique, she uses the lyrical line to “solo” in a quite unique fashion, are all noted but she is, it seems, doomed to be seen as an artist who never quite fully succeeds in all her aims.

There is a tendency towards the bathetic as the album progresses and some moments do jar, but this set, to me, stands head and shoulders above any other vocal performance last year. Not only that but at least four of her compositions are worthy of achieving standard status, should any expansion of the canon ever be permitted.

The Latinesque “All Day, All Night” and the breezy “Better Luck Next Time” as well as the exquisite ballads “Is It Love” and “This Is the End of a Love Affair” along with the bluesy “Send Me Someone to Love” will each be re-interpreted in a less sensual,low-key way by some future Stacey Kent, of that I have no doubt. As it stands, they display all the traditional virtues and are handled with such lavish vocal richness that these will likely remain their definitive versions. Five gems out of nine original pieces is a major achievement in a world still dominated by Gershwins and Johnny Mercer.

The band is as flexible and sprightly as Lundy’s vocals and seem to sense the specialness of the occasion. There are lapses but forgivable ones. If the Langston Hughes-incorporating “One More River to Cross” over-reaches slightly, its ambitions alone justify the arm-chancing. If jazz singing is to build on the past, rather than emulate it in ever more pristine but timorous fashion, then Lundy is going to be a key role model. There is a Broadway tendency to her style that can deter (“In Living Color” smacks of Oprah-isms and Tony award shows) but such is the coincident vitality that even that is excusable. As an afterthought, the instrumental solos (particularly from saxman Bobby Watson and pianist Anthony Wonsey) are the pick of all three sets.

I don’t want to set Kent up as a “straw woman” but the other two records (in the UK at least) will probably get much less exposure. This is wrong, for aesthetic rather than PC reasons. It is not really a white/black thing — but the evident “blackness” of Lundy and Ledisi’s vocal talents is a factor here. If the jazz mainstream can’t unreservedly cope with Lundy , nor see the arrival of Ledisi as something significant, it has lost sight of the importance of personality and exploration to the art. All three are fine singers, very different and doing very different things. We need all three, but jazz might lose the two African-Americans to the soul fans. This will be jazz’ loss, not Lundy’s or Ledisi’s. Mind you Soulfulness is not exactly uppermost in R&B circles these days either — but that is a different story.