Double Standards

Cassandra Wilson
Blue Note

Singing is the most difficult element of the jazz culture. It’s hard enough to answer the question, “What is jazz?” But answering the question, “What is jazz singing?” is vexing in the extreme. Frank Sinatra, for example, is not typically considered a “jazz singer” even though he sang in front of jazz big bands and recorded a repertoire of songs associated with jazz.

This dilemma simply got more troubling with the advents of rock and soul. To be a “jazz singer” increasingly meant either (a) you were Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, or another aging jazz legend, or (b) you copied the repertoire and style of those icons and were, therefore, old-fashioned and irrelevant from the start. Talented folks like Diana Krall or Harry Connick, Jr. sold some records, no doubt, but what did they add to the art of jazz singing? Their moves away from singing standards (as Krall did in recording her songs with Elvis Costello and as Connick did in performing non-jazz New Orleans material) were career errors. To be jazz singers, they seemingly had to play by some very narrow rules.

A Tale of Two (Jazz) Singers

Two exceptions to this jazz singing orthodoxy have been Patricia Barber and Cassandra Wilson. Both Barber and Wilson have pioneered an idiosyncratic approach to their vocal styles and their choice of material since the 1980s. Indeed, their career tracks are eerily similar. Roughly the same age (Barber was born in 1956 in Chicago to a father who used to play with Glenn Miller; Wilson was born in 1955 in Jackson, Mississippi to a father who was a guitarist, bassist, and music teacher), each started playing jazz locally at the start of the 1980s. Neither approached the music as a diva but rather as an ally of fellow musicians working collectively — Barber was essential to the Chicago scene, and Wilson moved to New York and became a key part of Steve Coleman’s M-BASE collective. Each was schooled in jazz tradition and each was encouraged to write her own material — resulting in strong albums as leaders in the late 1980s.

In 1992, Barber released A Distortion of Love on Polygram, a program of individually conceived standards, including an ingenious cover of Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl”. In 1993, Cassandra Wilson released Blue Light ‘Til Dawn on Blue Note, featuring jazz and blues standards, but also a Joni Mitchell song (“Black Crow”), Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey”, and the soul tune “I Can’t Stand the Rain”. Each proceeded to make a string of stunningly original recordings over the next decade, developing mature and inimitable vocal styles and taking on more and more songs from the rock and soul book.

This summer finds each singer returning to her jazz roots — and each on Blue Note. Wilson’s latest, Loverly, contains mostly standard Tin Pan Alley songs that could, indeed, have been recorded by Ella or Sarah decades ago. Barber’s new disc, due out in September, is The Cole Porter Mix — ten songs by the master plus three Barber originals featuring her typical wordplay and keen intelligence.

What does it say, if anything, that our two boldest — maybe best — jazz singers are finding the time right to sing standards again?

Cassandra Wilson, Loverly

In the case of Wilson, the turn back to standards seems a stark contrast to her recent path. Her last effort, Thunderbird, was the culmination of a series of discs — arguably beginning with that first Blue Note from 1993 — that deliberately set her rich contralto in the context of guitars rather than pianos, pop rhythms rather than straight swing. Thunderbird, with its hip-hop affectations and sequenced feeling, suggested that it might to be close to the time when Wilson was no longer making “jazz” albums, whatever that means.

Loverly is, thus, a clear return to the fold. Even beyond the repertoire — standards by Ellington, Ray Noble, Lerner and Lowe, Irving Mills, Harold Arlen, and Oscar Hammerstein — there is the instrumentation: piano, acoustic bass, drums, a single guitar, and percussion. The first track even features a swinging (and uncredited) muted trumpet solo by Nicholas Payton. With a rhythm section of Reginald Veal on bass and Herlin Riley on drums, Wilson is tapping into the Wynton Marsalis/Jazz at Lincoln Center tradition. But, by retaining Marvin Sewell on guitar and adding the adventurous pianist Jason Moran, she rounds out a traditional jazz group with two decidedly forward-thinking players. So, it is a return to tradition only up to a point.

Many of the songs are “straight” enough to have been on Wilson’s crisp and defining 1988 standards recording on JMT, Blue Skies. Made when she was a mature person (33) but perhaps not yet a mature artist, Blue Skies swung like crazy and contained some revelatory interpretations — such as Wilson’s neat and smart rethinking of “Sweet Lorraine”, shifted to the third rather than the first person. Here, there are similar swingers that bring a fresh perspective. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” is exceptionally relaxed and easy, with Wilson displacing the syllables of the lyric in nearly every bar, blending with the band like a saxophone player. On the second chorus, she sings behind the beat like an updated Billie Holiday, and after Sewell’s liquid solo, she returns taking even more liberties. “Lover Come Back to Me” seems even more traditional at first, with Sewell playing like Freddie Green, Riley swinging like Papa Joe Jones, and Moran spicy like Basie. However, Wilson’s decision to deliver the word “lover” as two sharp-and-quick bursts is tangy every time we hear it, and Moran’s solo breaks from any period convention to use modern chords to throw a new flavor on it all.

Other songs, while still standards, are designed from the start to feel contemporary. “Gone with the Wind” begins with a harmonized piano/guitar lick that sets up a groove dominated by Nigerian hand percussionist Lekan Babalola, over which Wilson, Moran, and Sewell all play with a generous sense of liberation. “Caravan” is a natural for this groove-based approach, and Moran is stellar, playing a repeated one-note figure under the vocal that keeps the tonal center of the song mysterious though we’ve all heard it a million times before. Moran’s soloing here and elsewhere is so clich√©-free, you’d think he was the first guy to try playing jazz on a piano.

It is hard to imagine a better version of “‘Til There Was You” than the one conceived here. Plaxico and Sewell, with generous help from the drummer and Babalola on (!) triangle, set up a soulful two-step groove that is begging for radio play on some very hip station. Wilson delivers the melody, then she underpins Sewell’s solo with a series of blues moans that will melt you. On the closing tag, the band gets so deep in the groove that it feels like it should never end.

For me, the highlight is the duet with an acoustic Sewell on “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”, where the blues impulse of “Dust My Broom” is wedded to the singer’s affinity for complex melody. It is a performance — simple, quiet, definitive — that obliterates the difference between old and new.

Patricia Barber, The Cole Porter Mix

Barber’s new disc focuses on just one great songwriter, but it also seeks a diversity of approach. Compared to Wilson, Barber has been more traditional in her instrumental approach but more adventurous as a songwriter. Her band here is near-identical to Wilson’s Loverly band: piano (Barber herself), guitar (Neil Alger), bass (Michael Arnnopol), and drums (Nate Smith or Eric Montzka) — with Chris Potter guesting on tenor saxophone on some tunes. That said, the band tends to play within more conventional jazz boundaries: bossas, ballads, swing.

Despite this bit of convention, Barber is a bold interpreter. Her voice is expressive and pleasant, but she is not afraid to use it in idiosyncratic ways. On “I Get a Kick Out of You”, the vocal is delivered with yearning, as if the speaker is afraid to admit her obsession. This is accented by the reharmonized chords, which make the tune itself seem afraid to resolve even as it gets a little Latin feel under Potter’s solo. “Just One of Those Things” is taken at an easy tempo by the vocal but at a streaking double-time by the bass, creating a sense that Barber is barely tethered to time. “Miss Otis Regrets” opens a cappella, and it just gets better when the rhythm section comes in with quietly funky hand percussion and distorted guitar. Cole Porter: transformed.

Not all of Barber’s takes seem entirely fresh. Performing “In the Still of the Night” as a zippy bossa nova is fine (and Alger’s acoustic guitar solo is wonderful), but it’s been done often enough. In fact, Barber also does it with “Easy to Love”. Both tunes are cool, but they seem like stock arrangements that Barber has probably been doing for years during her running Monday night engagement at Chicago’s Green Mill.

What Barber brings to the mix that Wilson cannot, however, are her original songs. “I Wait for Late Afternoon and You” is a harmonically complex tune with brilliant words about a clandestine love affair, and Alger’s acoustic guitar solo perfectly compliments the longing of the lyric. In “Snow”, the narrator addresses a series of questions to her lover: “Do you think of me like ink / Skinny words you want to keep? / Do you think of me like fat? / Irresistible as cream / On your lips, on your hips / Like chocolate, like a dream.” It’s a brilliant song, and Barber’s vocal quirks — a certain over-articulation, and the occasional tonal weirdness — sound most happy and at home on these original songs. The originals, frankly, seduce you. And that they don’t seem out-classed on an album dedicated to Cole Porter tunes says it all.

Cassandra, Patricia — Patricia, Cassandra

Artists don’t compete, of course. Both Loverly and The Cole Porter Mix are stand-out jazz vocal statements, and they both deserve to expand the number of people who are hearing jazz singing as something that is moving forward without forsaking its tradition.

That said, the remarkable parallel between Wilson and Barber almost begs comparison…and judgment?

Barber’s original songs are superior to those of Wilson. On Loverly there is just one, “Arere”, which is a collectively composed groove that allows Wilson to reach back so some African feeling and allows Moran to cut his chops loose. Even on earlier records, Wilson’s originals paled in comparison to her interpretations of other writers’ material.

Melodically and tonally, the two singers take very different approaches. Barber developed out of a hip and sophisticated tradition, the jazz chanteuse who is a little bit “cabaret” and a little bit literary — indeed Barber’s last album Mythologies was based on the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Wilson exploits her Southern roots, tackling gospel and blues material as her birthright and sounding every bit like a soul or blues singer even when she is negotiating a complex melody from Tin Pan Alley. You might prefer one or the other, but Wilson is ultimately more successful at transporting the jazz tradition forward through the pop music of the last 40 years. While Barber’s 1998 version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” is outstanding, it tends to drag the classic rock song backward to Peggy Lee’s “Fever” rather than moving jazz forward the way Wilson’s work does.

In the way they arrange their material, they are fairly close. Barber is quicker to use a bossa groove, and Wilson is much more likely to set up a soulful groove, but both bandleaders get a huge array of sounds out of their guitarists and are unafraid to go one-on-one with a single instrument, exposing their vocals. When Wilson performs “The Very Thought of You” with only Reginald Veal on bass, her assurance and swing is as fine as when she commands a whole band. Similarly, Barber is top-notch on “C’est Magnifique”, accompanied only by acoustic guitar with a dash of accordion. Both singers swing like mad regardless of the context — something that few jazz singers truly achieve.

Listening to The Cole Porter Mix and Loverly in parallel, I wished I could get each singer to try her hand at an arrangement from the other’s disc. Barber sets up a devilish but quiet soul groove on “Get Out of Town” that would be delicious for Wilson. And Wilson’s sumptuous Latin groove on “Black Orpheus”, with a seductive conga part and lovely sustained guitar parts, seems tailor-made for Barber. With the two women both recording for Blue Note, can a joint concert appearance be possible? Might my dream come true?

In the end, jazz is lucky to have both Wilson and Barber at work. Both singers are getting exposure on the music’s premier label, and they are both managing to ride the edge between vanguard music-making and mainstream success. And on these recent, outstanding collections, both are splitting the difference between looking forward and reaching back. Loverly, indeed.