Two Great Vocalists Lost: Astrud Gilberto and Tony Bennett
Two kinda-jazz singers, who I prefer to many “jazz” singers, left the planet this summer.
Tony Bennett often denied being a “jazz” singer, even though many fans and critics heard him that way. Maybe this was his way of backing away from the pretense associated with jazz as “art music”. But, in his pop hits and, yes, his jazz recordings (not to mention his painting), Bennett was certainly an artist.
The Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, who also passed early in the summer, wasn’t properly considered a “jazz singer” either. She stumbled into her career when her husband, the guitarist and singer João Gilberto, was recording an album with jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and composer/pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim, and she was recruited to sing the English lyrics on “The Girl from Ipanema”. It was a breakout hit in the United States (and across the world) for bossa nova, a reaction to Brazilian samba that incorporated jazz harmonies and phrasing. The style had already been introduced to the United States in 1962, but it was “Ipanema” — with Astrud Gilberto’s intoxicating, nearly affectless vocal style at its center — that came to define the style.
Both Gilberto and Bennett, to my ears, rubbed up against jazz in a mutually enriching partnership. Their best work was rhythmically and harmonically sophisticated, and their relationship with top-flight instrumentalists never made them seem less than great themselves.
Bennett’s two duet recordings with pianist Bill Evans are masterfully intimate, and his 2015 recording The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (including several duets) with jazz pianist Bill Charlap was proof that Bennett’s jazz chops were both enduring and versatile. He never scatted or took on the repertoire beyond the American Songbook that jazz musicians created — so he is not as obvious a jazz artist as Mark Murphy or Kurt Elling — but Bennett sits plainly in a legacy that includes the influences of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Carmen McCrae. His accompaniment of choice for decades was a jazz piano trio, and probably two of his finest recordings are In Person! and Strike Up the Band, made in 1959 with Count Basie’s big band pushing him hard and cushioning him delightfully.
Because Bennett earned a delicious 25-year career revival after his son managed to market him to MTV without having him compromise on his dedication to classic songs, it feels to me like he managed to sing his way out of any association he may have had with the sappier male pop singers of the 1950s. He will be remembered not as a Bobby Darin but as a Frank Sinatra. For me, he will always be a nose ahead of Frank if only for his willingness to take more risks with musicians like Evans and Charlap.
Gilberto’s vocal art is so distinctively Brazilian that calling it “jazz” is a harder argument. But the music she recorded with jazz musicians was so wonderful that her style has become a modern version of what “jazz singing” can be. Look to the Rainbow (1965) matched her largely vibrato-less vocals with feathery large band arrangements by Gil Evans, for example. The hip, bossa-nova-tinged pop albums made for Verve through the 1960s were up and down but intriguing. Windy (1967) includes the backbeat-driven title track, a cover of the hit by the Association, and the Beatles’ “In My Life” as well as “The Bare Necessities” from the animated movie The Jungle Book — all mistakes, perhaps, but her cool approach to addressing the melodies never fails to elevate average arrangements.
I Haven’t Got Anything to Do from the following year is better. Perhaps it was inevitable that she would make an appearance on Creed Taylor’s CTI label after the run on Verve, where Taylor made his name as a producer. Gilberto with Turrentine (1971 on CTI) was produced and arranged by fellow Brazilian Emir Deodato, with the saxophonist Stanley Turrentine playing on about half the tracks as a blues-strong foil to Gilberto’s cool vocals.
Ultimately, Gilberto’s style was an antidote to the more blues-based, semi-soul singing that was otherwise dominant in 1960s voices from Sarah Vaughan to Etta James. She gave younger singers a different way to find their voices. “She was very much on my radar (and in my car sound system) in my mid to late teens when Brazilian samba and bossa nova were finding their way into my orbit.” the singer/composer Becca Stevens told me.
“To my ear at that time, she had a very low-maintenance/no-nonsense approach which made an interesting contrast against some of the other singers I was admiring. I felt that Astrud’s approach to singing almost had an ‘indie’ flavor to it, akin to Lætitia Sadier of Steroelab or even Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead. It felt like she wasn’t trying all that hard, which gave it an air of coolness. Her pitch, lack of vibrato, and phrasing never felt particularly effortful to me. Like she could have been singing the same way in the shower or while walking around her house.”
In Stevens, Gretchen Parlato, and many other singers under 50, I believe you can hear Astrud Gilberto’s cool influence. She made jazz a richer music, even if she wasn’t exactly a practitioner.
SUMMER JAZZ TO LINGER INTO FALL
Rudy Royston and Flatbed Buggy – Day (May 2023, Greenleaf Music)
This is the second release from this chamber jazz band, featuring the unusual sonic mixture of bass clarinet (John Ellis), cello (Hank Roberts), and accordion (Gary Versace) over the Royston/Joe Martin rhythm section. The album is dedicated, in part, to the late Ron Miles, and some of the cornetist’s approach is intact here: singable melodies, unusual textures, and a propulsive swing that is all the more powerful for being chilled out and relaxed. It is wonderful to hear an improvisation from, for example, Roberts on “Missing You” that is fluid and meaningful. A bowed cello solo? Absolutely. Similarly, if you associate bass clarinet with the jazz avant-garde (Eric Dolphy, David Murray), then the dramatic and muscular but brightly consonant solo that Ellis plays on “The Mokes” may be a surprise. There is a fair amount of melancholy in Royston’s compositions (with one each also contributed by Roberts and bassist Martin), but whimsical tunes like “Thank You For This Day” keep things popping with a folky optimism.
Nicky Schrire – Nowhere Girl (June 2023, Anzic)
Nicky Schrire is a South African singer and songwriter who made a series of engaging, original albums about a decade ago (Freedom Flight, Space and Time, and To the Spring — all worth seeking out). Her body of work used some jazz standards and jazz phrasing, but her sound was original — a bell-like tone that could also harness the delicious vulnerability of a “singer-songwriter”. Comparisons to Kate McGarry, Luciana Souza, and Becca Stevens are on point.
Her latest is another joy. In some spots, such as the title track, she sounds more like a “jazz” singer than ever before, with saxophonist Tara Davidson playing hip unison licks along with Schrire’s scatting and then flying into improvisation over the sensational piano trio of pianist Chris Donnelly, bassist Dan Fortin, and drummer Ernesto Cervini. But on tunes such as “Traveler” and “A Morning”, Schrire creates appealing melodies that sound a shade outside this tradition.
Most of Nowhere Girl, however, is gloriously in the creative middle — songs that are crisp and original but still draw on sly harmonies, gospel chords, push-pull jazz rhythms, and precise conversation among the musicians. “This Train”, for example, begins like one of those great Paul Simon songs about traveling through New York at night, but then the surging dialog between the melody, the blue-tinted piano chords, and Cervini’s minimalist syncopation turns it into a “What if Joni made a record with Keith Jarrett?” fantasy. “Father” and “In Paris” are equally compelling story songs that use words as effectively as notes.
Schrire’s singing has a clarity that is quietly electrifying: You don’t just hear every word, but you hear her play with tonal shading and subtle emphasis. She doesn’t sound like Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday; she sounds just like herself, and she does it with compelling tools learned from all over. The Beatles run through “Love is for the Birds”; the groove of “My Love” uses bits of Township music, and “Keep It Simple” finds Donnelly channeling Romantic composers as well as Brad Mehldau. Nicky Schrire, currently based in Canada, is a hidden gem.
Donny McCaslin – I Want More (June 2023, Edition)
Donny McCaslin is a tenor saxophonist of the Michael Brecker school — with a big tone and a sense of how his horn is heroic and explosive. McCaslin had a moment of beyond-jazz fame in being featured on David Bowie’s final album along with the band that he rounded up for his own Beyond Now (Jason Lindner’s keys, Tim Lefebvre’s bass, and drummer Mark Guiliana) and the latest. The music on I Want More is being made by “jazz musicians” using tools that we associate with the jazz tradition, but McCaslin’s artistic intentions are different.
Guiliana is a sterling jazz drummer but also thrives in the realm of electronica, using his riveting chops to create sonically dazzling grooves that have a mechanized fascination. He is at the center of this music, with Lindner and Lefebvre roughing up the edges and textures with their electronically fuzzed-out power. At the center of all this are compositions and saxophone playing from McCaslin that stress insistent simplicity (repetitions, pulsing patterns, narrow intervals, a focus on tone) and then bravura outpourings of improvisation.
Performances such as “Landsdown” are powerful because the throb of the band is its own kind of rock-line “swing”, and the synth sounds are rubbery or scruffy rather than soulless. In jazz, the historical comparison should be to the band Weather Report (listen to the title track, which is especially WR-ish), which made potent and human music out of electronics and the avoidance of hard-bop structures. The difference is that McCaslin also draws from the more recent advent of Electronic Dance Music and, a smidge, from hip-hop, finding a way to put his improvising atop rhythms that jackhammer, stutter, and hypnotize.
The Peggy Lee Band – A Giving Way (June 2023, Songlines)
Cellist Peggy Lee is an important figure in the Vancouver creative music scene and a talent forever deserving wider recognition. Her band has been combining brass, guitar (Tony Wilson — brilliant), and riveting structures for decades. On her latest, she has a classic front line of trumpet (Brad Turner), tenor saxophone (Jon Bentley), and trombone (Jeremy Berkman), but they sound less like the Jazz Messengers than like a chamber wind group that has been guided to warmth and soul by arrangers like Gil Evans or Maria Schneider.
“Boat Ride into Go Bay” and “Promise” suggest folk music or Aaron Copland, with wide intervals and clarity that, yes, is ragged out by improvising that is not hemmed in by simplicity. It is not a surprise that the only tune by a composer other than Lee is “Whispering Pines” by Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel of The Band. When Wilson is given some extra leash, he is capable of both lyricism and piquant electric guitar distortion, such as on the lyrical-to-wild “Internal Structures”. Lee’s cello is given several feature moments (the title track, for example), but the star is always the overall sound of this astonishing, fresh band. André Lancaster’s electric bass is an un-busy anchor, and Dylan van der Schyff is melodic and orchestral as the ensemble percussionist.
For listeners with affection for Bill Frisell and his collaborations with the late cornet expert Ron Miles, this music will open your ears and delight. Oh, and it’s for everyone else as well.
The Rodriguez Brothers – Reunited Live at Dizzy’s Club (July 2023, RodBro)
Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez has been racking up amazing performances with fantastic NY-area bands for decades, and one of those bands happens to be the one he co-leads with his brother, the pianist Robert Rodriguez. The latest was recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s small club, with drummer Adam Cruz, bassist (no relation) Ricky Rodriguez, and Anthony Almonte on percussion. Sons of a Latin/jazz drummer, the brothers cover a variety of Afro-Cuban and Latin American forms.
“Love Samba” draws from Brazil, of course. “Guayaquil” is about their mother’s Ecuadorian hometown but uses a Colombian cumbia groove. “Minor Things” is steeped in Cuban music. But their compositional and improvising vocabulary is equally fluent in post-bop modern jazz, so I hear just as much funky Horace Silver-styled groove as I do Chucho Valdez or Jerry Gonzalez. Indeed, the ballad “Lulu’s Song” is one of the strongest tracks from the concert, with both brothers playing ruminative solos that can stand next to their more rhythm-saturated music as arresting and mature.
Luciana Souza and Trio Corrente – Cometa (August 2023, Sunnyside)
The fleet and flexible Luciana Souza is a jazz singer with deep roots in the complex and joyous music of her home country, Brazil. When immersing herself in Brazilian songs, she has typically collaborated with guitarists. Cometa is a result of Souza accepting an invitation to work and record in São Paulo with a young piano trio (bassist Edu Ribeiro, pianist Fabio Torres, and bassist Paulo Paulelli), digging into the deep songbook of Brazilian bossa nova and artful samba/pop, but also creating new tunes that employ the rich rhythms and harmonies that animated the music of Jobim and so many others.
“Quando Você Vier”, written by Torres, more than stands up to the classics — a bouncing joy and is the equal of, for example, Dorival Caymmi’s “Requebre Que Eu Dou Um Doce”. The trio attacks every track like the brilliant jazz trio that they are, but these are three musicians who would know how to water down or compromise the subtleties in the polyrhythms and lush chords in this music. Souza has never sounded better. If her singing tends to be light or small (more in the tradition of Astrud Gilberto than of Elis Regina, perhaps), here it is powerful through its precision and rhythmic attack.
Always tuneful, Souza meets this jabbering, ecstatic trio with all her musical intelligence on display. You come away sensing that any real distinctions between Brazilian music and jazz are strictly academic.
CAN’T MISS PICKS
Alex LoRe and Weirdear – Evening Will Find Itself (May 2023, Whirlwind)
Alex LoRe is an alto saxophonist whose sound is light, beautiful, and fluid — virtues that may disguise the adventure and daring in his music. This quartet (with Glen Zaleski on piano, bassist Desmond White, and Alan Mednard on drums) engages in 21st-century New Jazz dialogue — complex and shifting time signatures criss-cross with written counterpoint and riveting surges of harmony. The music is pleasing but surprising. A tune like “Fauxlosophy” begins with a calm statement that sets up a jagging composition, with both of Zaleski’s hands spinning contrary piano lines with — and also against — the saxophone line, all as the rhythm section punches and counterpunches in counterpoint. As LoRe or Zaleski improvises, the same telepathic conversation is invented on the spot. You are dazzled, but the tone of the music is cool and beautiful, making it slippery and dangerous…but calm.
LoRe has been around for a while, paying dues by working with exceptional mentors (Lee Konitz, Bunky Green, Greg Osby) and appearing on some of my favorite recordings by other artists — notably Marta Sanchez’s Spanish American Art Museum from 2022. He is part of the collective quartet Kind Folk, which also released a stunner in 2022. Evening Will Find Itself is as superb as that recording — and as sharp as anything released on Blue Note recently. LoRe’s story (New England Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, classical and jazz training, you know this one) may not sell him, but the music is quietly and powerfully compelling.
“Face Unseen” is a restive ballad that retains its lovely contours even as it moves through different approaches to time. If you are used to the idea that a ballad is a “song” with a nice melody and chord changes that move across a regular cycle at a slow tempo, then this performance proves that ballads can be as rich in change and novelty as any modern jazz. Zaleski colors everything with impressionistic patterns, but White and Mednard keep things flinty and on edge. It is a pretty song that won’t settle down.
“Green”, by contrast, has a snaking melodic line that LoRe articulates in fluid jumps across unusual intervals. The trio cooks beneath the line, but the rhythmic patterns here are also shifting and restless — some bop, some funky, some craggy Latin polyrhythms, and a rat-a-tat-quick pattern beneath the half-time piano solo. The ground beneath this tune is as quicksilver as the line.
There are three versions of “Radiance” that suggest the fine ways in which LoRe’s music is the cousin of the music by Steve Coleman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Steve Lehman — three also saxophone innovators. These tracks contain swashbuckling modernity that pretzels up conventional tonal systems, yes, but this band spins this style with a fizzy joy. It’s not just that LoRe’s tone is so breezy, but that the whole band concept has a transparency to it. Even when the music is “busy”, this band leaves space for our ears to relax and follow it.
This, in short, is the kind of hard-edged New Jazz that also can seduce you. Nothing at all wrong with that!
Linda May Han Oh – The Glass Hours (June 2023, Anzic)
Oh is a bass player of choice, most famously for Pat Metheny, but her shine and sound are most spectacular on her own recordings, where she constructs bands and compositions that have a floating lyricism. The Glass Hours debuts a new band with the veteran Mark Turner employing his trademark fluidity on tenor saxophone, vocalist Sara Sherpa, Fabian Almazan on piano and electronics, and drummer Obed Calvaire. Oh moves them through a series of arrangements that use every voice in an expansive but gentle way.
On “Antiquity”, for example, Serpa both delivers poetic lyrics and sings wordlessly as an equal member of the ensemble, harmonizing with Turner or Almazan in a score that dances with swirling lyricism. Dance is the dominant sensation of the collection, with most of the songs built on pulsing repetitions that are found in folk dancing music. What Oh creates, however, is hardly “folk” music — she puts together complex but appealing patterns that have the daring of up-to-the-minute New Jazz along with heaping doses of tunefulness. When Turner and Almazan chase each other’s tails in a series of improvised trades on the title track, it is thrilling.
Oh solos with majesty on acoustic bass, but she adds drama with her orchestral-sounding electric. On “The Imperative”, she and Calvaire serve up the kind of rhythm section teamwork that makes a complicated structure sound grooving. It’s a fast tune, all fancy footwork, but they pop and bounce with so much joy that Turner’s fleet sax solo sounds easy. The leader’s solo on the same tune is one of the few acoustic bass solos you will hear that could have been twice as long and still be great.
Almazan is given plenty of room to shine, even as his piano ties together so many elements of the compositions. His improvisation on the herky-jerky tune“The Other Side” is an album highlight, threading inventive runs up and down the keyboard even as the form of the tunes keeps redirecting or interrupting him. He also cushions some of the arrangements with textured electronics — all employed like gauzy watercolors.
The ambition of Oh’s music doesn’t typically announce itself. A playful tune like “Hatchling” comes out of the gate with joyous dance patterns, but Oh shifts the composition to a layered, slow-tempo experiment within minutes. How will she bring it back around? What are the sonic possibilities when music is open to not following every rule? On The Glass Hours, Linda May Han Oh and her band answer that question in every performance.