Carmen Lundy: Jazz and the New Songbook

A live, career-encompassing date of all-original material from a top jazz vocalist.

Carmen Lundy

Jazz and the New Songbook

Subtitle: Live at the Madrid
Label: Afrasia
US Release Date: 2005-11-14
UK Release Date: 2005-11-14
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.