New Riffs From Jazz Lips: From Eminem to Sun Ra

There's an unending flow of vocal jazz these days, which is a blessing and a curse. Beyond the glut of rehashed standards from 50 years ago, some original work shines.

When I was first listening to jazz as an adolescent boy, I dreaded “jazz vocals”. Sure, I dug Ella Fitzgerald, and hearing Louis Armstrong sing sent something electric through my core. But most jazz singing seemed hopelessly corny to me: all curlicues and boop-di-bopping, or else music that I couldn’t really distinguish from the “easy listening” stuff that my parents used as sonic wallpaper in their living room.

Over time, my taste matured. I still loved the hard-edged fire of Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet or Jackie McLean’s acidic alto saxophone, but I developed a taste for Carmen McRae and Sheila Jordan, for the sly Blossom Dearie and the hip Mark Murphy. And when I started hearing Cassandra Wilson sing with Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman or, more recently, hearing Kurt Elling expand Paul Simon’s “An American Tune”, I realized that there was a future to jazz singing too, some place it could go.

And goodness, there’s enough of it. As a jazz writer, I get upwards of a dozen jazz vocal recordings every month — and the problem is that it’s mostly a glut of sameness and repetition, lounge singers and standards, bossa novas, endless rehashes of Ella and Sarah that can’t live up to the past.

Happily, there are spikes of wonder, to be found. The soaring highlights this fall are from Kellylee Evans (a jazz singer covering hip hop really well), Joelle Lurie (a young singer whose bright tone mixes well with a versatile set of arrangements), Elizabeth Shepherd, (with a set of originals that slink and slither and seem hip and up to date), and composer Darius Jones (who has created a daring, breathtaking album of a cappella vocal music as part of his Man’ish Boy cycle).

Here’s a month or so of jazz singing I’ve collected. See what you think.

The Tradition, Ad Nauseum

Way too many current-day singers are doing the same songs as their idols in the same style and with the same instrumentation. Overwhelmingly and unendingly, there are the singers who might as well be recording music in the ’50s. Some do it well or even very well, and most do it with no imagination or distinction. I understand why this music lives on in clubs or cabarets, in fancy hotel lobbies and restaurants. Live music is a beautiful thing. But why record another version of “I Got It Bad” or “Polkadots and Moonbeams”?

A strong concept and real talent can make a difference. For example, I admire the singing and playing on Intimate Conversations by Dee Daniels. She does some standards (“Exactly Like You”, “All the Way”) but she also includes gospel and soul tunes — all in duet format with great musicians like pianist Cyrus Chestnut, guitarist Russell Malone, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, and Houston Person on tenor saxophone. Daniels, who has had a long career mostly outside of the New York jazz mainstream, clearly knows how to make a great record. She’ll do a set of tunes with a unifying concept, but there are also surprises along the way. And, with a voice drenched in gospel feeling and under beautiful control, she knows how to sing with expressive intimacy.

Melissa Stylianou is a strong, clean singer. She doesn’t futz around with complex theatrics or a bunch of over-singing; she just delivers great songs with a flexible and pliant sense of time and a bright, hip tone. What’s not to like? On her new album, No Regrets (Anzic) she’s backed by the A-list band of Bruce Barth (piano), Linda Oh (bass), and Matt Wilson (drums). And I really love hearing her do Sammy Fain’s “Humming to Myself” and the rare “Remind Me” by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. She is superb on these tunes — and also on “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “I Got It Bad” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”.

But on those tunes she is superb in a way that makes her seem familiar, as she’s singing tunes we’ve heard a million times before. She sings the little-heard verses, which is cool, but it’s hard to want to hear No Regrets a second or third time through when I can hear those old chestnuts done so similarly on records I’ve owned since I was 13. When Cassandra Wilson did “Polkadots” on 1988’s Blue Skies, it felt like the last post-modern reworking of that repertoire I would ever need — and it was much more modern than Stylianou rendition is today.

The vocal tradition I’m hearing on many records I’ve received this Fall is considerably less up-to-date, or expressive, than some of the older stuff. Anthony Jefferson has a sterling vocal sound on But Beautiful, a collection of ten standards that are straight out of The Vocal Real Book. He poses on the cover with one of those old-fashioned microphones, and you know what’s coming: “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay” with strings and rhythm and … (yawn). Jefferson is a terrific vocalist. He adds some interesting timbre in places, bringing snatches of his New Orleans heritage to these tunes. Still, this music is so exactly the same as all the other music like it over six decades that you want to ask, Why, man?

Husky-voiced Maggie Herron, who sings in Hawaii with a certain individual sound, is also doing Harry Warren, Henry Mancini, Ray Noble, Bobby Troup, and “Body and Soul” on her new album, Good Thing. “The Very Thought of You” gets some muted trumpet out front (check), her “The More I See You” contains tenor sax obligato (check), and her “Body and Soul” contains the required tenor solo (check). When she varies things on the standards, such as her barroom bluesy version of “Straighten Up and Fly Right”, we realize why the standards are not usually done that way.

Herron contributes five originals to the album, and they have refreshing melodies. But my opinion is that she should not have started out her record with a lyric that goes, “I took my cat to the vet today / He’ll fix her up and she’ll be okay / And when I got home, I read your letter / I’m not too bad, but things could be better”. It’s actually a pretty tasty tune, but Harry Warren it ain’t. Which is why we hear so many standards, I guess.

Other records of standards commit a much worse sin. Sonya Perkins gets gigs in New York and is blurbed by the respected jazz writer Scott Yanow on her new album, Dream a Little Dream, but her collection of ten super-exhausted tunes (“Don’t Blame Me”, “Fine and Mellow”, etc. and so forth) is marked by intonation problems that would be avant-garde if they were intentional. With Warren Vache on trumpet, how bad can it be? Let your imagination roam.

At the opposite extreme is Ann Hampton Callaway, who just released From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project, yet it’s a record I’ll never listen to again. Hampton Callaway sings with killer professionalism and control, and she’s backed by a crack band live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center. But this superbly wrought music is just as cringe-worthy as Sonya Perkins’ music.

Hampton Callaway uses her broad, cabaret-styled vibrato to ape Vaughan on “A Night in Tunisia (Interlude)”, and her drippingly dramatic reading of “Misty” is like a dessert pie with too much creme filling. The breathiness she puts into “a thousand violins” is … corny. Fake to my ears. I can see her flourishing hand motions in my head as I listen, her eyes closed as she channels deep emotions.

The witty “Mean to Me” is ruined by a schticky approach. Jobim’s “Wave” is here to represent Vaughan’s wonderful Brazilian period, and it is over-sung within an inch of its Ipaneman life. Hampton Callaway will use three different timbres on a single syllable and then she’ll bring in the wide vibrato. Rather than floating on top of the rhythm, Hampton Calloway swallows the tune whole and spits it back out at you. Can you imagine how overdramatic “Send in the Clowns” is? Isn’t it bliss? Maybe for cabaret fans, but it never sounds like jazz.

More “New Standards”: Jazz Singing Widens the Tradition

More and more, jazz singers feel empowered to claim newer popular songs as part of their territory. Of course, singers like Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald were trying to sing The Beatles back in the ’60s, but those efforts tended to backfire. I think it’s fair to say that those efforts often were record company conceits, first and foremost. Since the ’90s, we’ve had Cassandra Wilson recording Neil Young, Luciana Souza recording James Taylor and Michael McDonald, Brian Wilson tunes on jazz instrumental records. The “rock” songbook is getting soaked up into the jazz repertoire. Right on. When it works.

Artist: Kellylee Evans

Album: I Remember When

Label: Motema

US Release Date: 2014-07-22

UK Release Date: 2014-07-22

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/j/jazztoday-kellyleeevans-rememberwhen-200.jpgI think it works wonderfully well in the hands of Kellylee Evans, a singer from Canada who has just released her first recording the in US, I Remember When. What’s cool about Evans’ record is not just her warm and soulful voice, but also her choice of pop material: songs by Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Eminem, and John Legend. Evans broke out by snaring second place in 2004’s Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal Competition, and she has recorded music associated with Nina Simone, among others. Here, sure, she sounds more like a soul singer.

Yet her cover of “Ordinary People”, backed by an acoustic rhythm section and trumpet, certainly presses the argument that jazz and soul are very close cousins. Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” is sung over a funky acoustic piano-driven New Orleans groove, punctuated by syncopated horn blasts — a touch of Trombone Shorty with your rap, I suppose, and it’s fun, convincing, and utterly great. Kanye’s “West” works just fine over Wurlitzer electric piano, acoustic guitar, upright bass, and brushes.

Eight originals written with producer Eric Legnini are here as well, several built around samples from some classic hip hop and soul songs, too. Is it jazz? Is it “neo-soul”? Who has the patience or interest for that debate, really? But the music is strong, sincere, and comes from the tradition that gave us both Etta James and Nina Simone, both Gladys Knight and Cassandra Wilson.

Joelle Lurie (press photo from Joelle Lurie.com, photographer unknown)

I also like Take Me There, a debut from singer Joelle Lurie, who mixes pop songs, originals, and standards, but she gives everything a fresh sound. She’s aided by having a good if modest band, The Pinehurst Trio, plus horns, that can funk a little on the jazz songs and swing a little on the pop songs. They are pleasant if not a revelation on a strolling version of “Just What I Needed” by The Cars.

“Head Over Heels”, the Tears for Fears song, is better: it’s a pop song already armed with interesting harmonies that Lurie and the band transform into a contemporary jazz ballad streaked with bits of Sondheim. Lurie and Ben Gallina (bassist and arranger here) have an airy touch with putting pop grooves beneath old standards. “Almost Like Being in Love” swings, but with a Motown shuffle on the verse. “The Man I Love” is built around a funk stop-time groove with punches “on the one”, even as it contains a slick written horn line that snakes around like a Woody Herman section workout. “All or Nothing at All” has a spare funk groove and a slightly simplified chord structure.

While Lurie trained in opera for a bit and is capable of turning on the Broadway Singer Gleam, she (unlike Hampton Callaway) pulls back from cheesy showmanship just often enough. As a whole, Take Me There may be too much of a Whitman’s sampler: the standards funked, the pop songs jazzed up, some other originals that push toward the twee, and even a straight version of “Detour Ahead”. But Lurie is onto something here: both accessible and a little different. It’s not just more cocktail lounge jazz singing, even though your Aunt Sadie might love it. Why not?

Aunt Sadie might dig Cyrille Aimee, too, a French singer working with a string band in the “gypsy jazz” tradition, plus drums, and doing a mixture of jazz standard and originals on It’s a Good Day (Mack Avenue). Their version of Duke’s “Caravan” is a scamp of a tune, Aimee’s pointed and flexible voice sets off nicely against fast acoustic guitars and hand clapping, which create a thrilling setting. Aimee sings in a small voice that has a whiskey edge; frayed a little at times but also kind of cute.

It’s a sunny affair as the title suggests, and while the charm of her “Young at Heart” is unremarkable, I dare you to resist the band’s acoustic funk/swing arrangement of “Off the Wall” from the classic Michael Jackson album. Almost as good is an uptempo “Love Me or Leave Me” that demonstrates chops even more than the scat version of Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricolism” that closes the album.

It was cheeky of Daniela Cotton to title her recent recording The Real Book, which is the ironic name of the famous jazz “fake book” that musicians use to quickly read tunes while on “standards gigs”. Despite the throwback look of her album cover, Cotton is not a jazz singer and has simply made a “cover” album of rock tunes (“Gimme Shelter”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Can’t Find My Way Home”), and a really good one. Why is this album of pop songs fundamentally a pop record whereas Take Me There and I Remember When are not? Maybe it’s just where the artists are coming from, the context, their intention.

But what’s interesting about Cotton’s Real Book concept is how rare it is in the rock/soul world, where original material and a certain “authenticity” around expression has been the rule since Dylan and The Beatles took pop music by storm 50 years ago. In jazz singing, the problem has been the opposite; it’s not just a premium on interpretation rather than original material, but a stranglehold of a repertoire that has barely been updated in 50 years.

Singing Original Material: Jazz Singing Widens the Tradition

Well, what about jazz singing based around original compositions? There is a whole lot less of that, most certainly. But there is so much jazz singing out there now that even this category is overrun, from awful to visionary.

Malonie Carre is a Canadian singer who currently works in Cancun, and she has recorded Forever, a cycle of eight original songs with music by Gianny Laredo and her lyrics. When you hear Carre leap off the cliffs of these tunes, you will root for her. They are harmonically complex, many bubbling over Latin grooves, and there are intriguing left turns in the melodies. Ambitious music seems much preferable to another cover of “The Man I Love”.

Except that these tunes are oblique and sung harshly (and not intentionally) out of tune. The musicians are reaching too, but you can hear what they want to do. And it doesn’t happen. To top it off, the disc concludes with covers of “The Man I Love” (yeah), honestly, an off-pitch duet with Laredo, and “Windmills of My Mind”, a quartet track with an ambitious rhythmic arrangement that contains off-putting reharmonization and a ruinous vocal that leaves you hunting for earplugs. Gaaaaaak!

Elizabeth Shepherd

Worlds better, and original in interesting ways, is The Signal by Elizabeth Shepherd . Shepherd is yet another singer from Canada (based in Montreal) who also plays keyboards and writes quirky, modern tunes that use tricky rhythms, sinuous melodies, and catchy grooves. The record sounds like Robert Glasper got together with Suzanne Vega and Esperanza Spalding. The arrangements are layered in Rhodes and vocal harmonies, but for all the appealing singing here, your ear gets hooked by the stuttering 11/8 groove of “Willow” (with Lionel Luoke as a guest) and fat acoustic bass bottom of “B.T. Cotton”, which starts off with a sample of some Leadbelly and includes a steel pans solo.

Artist: Elizabeth Shepherd

Album: The Signal

Label: Linus Entertainment

US Release Date: 2014-09-30

UK Release Date: 2014-09-30

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/j/jazztoday-elizabethshepherd-signal-2002.jpgThe title track artfully integrates a spoken-word sample from a radio personality, and it succeeds like one of Jason Moran’s experiments. Shepherd is up to something exciting here: using the complex funk rhythms of today’s jazz/hip-hop experimenters, telling highly personal stories in artful lyrics, and singing with an cool, indie-pop attack that is perfectly integrated with the band sound.

By far the most fascinating vocal music on the jazz spectrum this season comes from the pen of saxophonist and composer Darius Jones. Jones is a phenomenon. He’s both a seriously incredible alto saxophone player who comes from the rich southern tradition and a highly conceptual artist who collaborates widely from post-bop jazz to free improvisation to punk-jazz/post-rock electronics. The core thread of his own music has been a trio of albums that started with Man’ish Boy in 2009 and continued with Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) in 2011 and Book of Maebul (Another Kind of Sunrise) in 2012.

Each of these recordings is a chapter in a narrative that Jones has been developing with painter Randal Wilcox, an autobiographical story in music of an adolescent alter ego for Jones (the Man’ish Boy), his “homegirl” and running partner Big Gurl, and then a kind of spiritual advisor, Maebul, who stands in as a representative of all loving women in this alternate universe conceived by Jones. The music itself is not nearly as forbidding as his science fiction-y, Sun Ra-influenced story arc makes it seem. But the music of those first three albums is clearly telling a story about a young man growing up in a world of imagination.

Darius Jones (press photo from DariusJonesMusic.com)

Jones loves singing, and his latest, The Oversoul Manual, is a 15-part suite for a quartet of a cappella female voices. No saxophone, no instruments at all, and the quartet does not sing in English but, rather, an invented language based around the solfege syllables (do, re, mi, etc). It’s certainly the most ambitious thing that Jones has done, and it’s not “jazz” in any usual sense. Absent improvisation, swing, or an obvious root in blues tradition, Oversoul still makes a strong case for deserving your attention.

Artist: Darius Jones

Album: The Oversoul Manuel

Label: AUM Fidelity

US Release Date: 2014-10-14

UK Release Date: 2014-10-14

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/j/jazztoday-dariousjones-oversoulmanual-200.jpgFirst, this piece is uncannily beautiful and riveting. Jones has chosen the four singers for his “Elizabeth-Caroline Unit” (Amirtha Kidami, Sarah Martin, Jean Carla Rodea, and Kristin Slipp) with contrasting care. Each voice is a character, and while there are times when the voices blend like the humming reeds of a church organ, at other times one voice soars with operatic grandeur or another voice growls like Koko Taylor or wails like Miriam Makeba. Jones has a background leading his church’s gospel choir in Virginia, but this music more often sounds like ancient church music, from another civilization.

The Unit fits into the Man’ish Boy mythology as the mothers of the hero, and they sing these 15 songs as a birthing ritual that connects them to a culture, allowing the creation of another soul. For the listener, independent of the mythological narrative, you will hear in Oversoul a love letter to the female voice and a dramatic set of vocal timbres, contrasts, and tensions that suggests struggle, resolution, persistence, and history.

The music is extremely varied. There are solos, such as the start to portion six, in which one voice carries the story for four minutes before ethereal accompaniment arrives. There are duets that place one vocal sonority against another. There are extended vocal techniques that take this outside the usual “classical” safety zone, though it may sound more “classical” than “jazz” in many places. It brings to mind vanguard work by Meredith Monk, but it also evokes vocals harmonies of doo-wop or early ‘60s “girl groups”. For me, long parts of portions 11 and 12 are so lyrical and soulful that I would be eager to hear them carved out into “songs”.

The Oversoul Manual was performed at Carnegie Hall earlier this fall, but it won’t live on unless we listen to it. Is it as catchy and delightful as Kellylee Evans doing Eminem? That’s not its intent, but it contains the same soul-presence, a feeling so deep that it operates as communication unimpeded.

And that’s what the best vocal music has always done. It cuts closer to the human sound that we all share and know so well — the voice, the common tongue.

I suppose that’s why I get so many “jazz” vocal records every month. They’re not all as fine as Jones’ or Shepherd’s or Evans’ or Daniels’, but it’s great that there are so many voices. May they continue to be varied, as well as plentiful.