Photo: Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Jazz’s Kandace Springs Pays Tribute to ‘The Women Who Raised Me’

Singer and pianist Kandace Springs tackles a dozen songs associated with her jazz vocal heroes, and the combination of simplicity and sincerity is winning.

The Women Who Raised Me
Kandace Springs
Blue Note
27 March 2020

Singer and pianist Kandace Springs is 31 years old, which means that she is young enough to count Norah Jones as a formative influence. Jones, of course, recorded an early album for Blue Note Records that, perhaps improbably, became a huge hit on the strength of the ubiquitous-as-Starbucks “Don’t Know Why”. Jones is only nine years older than her label mate Springs, and they both qualify as artists with legitimate chops and instincts that route their contemporary music through a jazz sensibility. While Jones has largely dialed back the jazz influences in her music lately, with The Women Who Raised Me, Springs is more aggressively claiming her spot as a jazz singer.

The core on these dozen tracks is a superb contemporary jazz group: Steve Cardenas on guitar, Scott Colley’s bass, and drummer Clarence Penn. They don’t get much room to improvise, what with special guests coming in for that work, including saxophonists Chris Potter and David Sanborn, bassist Christian McBride, Avishai Cohen on trumpet, and Elena Pinderhughes’ flute. Still, the band works well with the singer’s soul/jazz piano to create accompaniment that is hip and authentic, simple, and never schmaltzy. The quartet, without guests, tackles two jazz standards, but in no case does the arrangement leave room for a solo. “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life” is less interesting, perhaps, with Springs accompanying herself with just piano for much of the song’s built-in melodrama. “The Nearness of You” brings in the rhythm section on the second chorus, and they help Springs immeasurably, interacting with her vocal phrasing and pushing the ballad from sweetness to art.

As a pure singer, Springs is very, very good, with jazz phrasing, soul mannerisms that are rarely overdone, and a tone that moves between silk and whiskey, largely devoid of candy coating. She plays solo, backing herself along on Fender Rhodes, on Billie Holiday’s classic “Strange Fruit”, and it is one of the best things here. Springs isn’t trying in any way to imitate Billie but drawing instead from Nina Simone a bit, from Carmen McRae a bit, but mostly allowing a potent song to come through. Bravo to Springs for knowing it didn’t need any more than this.

The guests are used well in every case. Sanborn’s biting alto sax is the key ingredient on Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You”, which it’s hard to play in an original way, with its “Moonlight Sonata” piano part intact. Everything sounds great, but as Pen kicks in a backbeat and Sanborn squeezes out an economical solo that doesn’t try too hard, everything comes alive. Similarly, Cohen’s trumpet is a brilliant addition to Sade’s “Pearls”, the collection’s least obvious song selection. Cohen is woven into the vocal performance, making “Pearls” seem both like the pop song it used to be and the jazz performance it is becoming. Christian McBride’s feature on “Devil May Care” gives him a fleet solo at a swinging tempo with just Springs and Penn playing with him.

The guest who plays with the most up-to-date jazz voice is tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, who appears on the Luis Bonfa bossa nova “Gentle Rain” and on Ellington’s “Solitude”. Potter is given, by a significant margin, the most room to stretch out, and he elevates the session to its most interesting moments for listeners who want to hear Springs as a legit “jazz” singer. Her vocal interpretation of “Solitude” may not be innovative or wholly distinctive, but it is terrific. And her piano is intelligently spare, allowing Cardenas to peek through like sunlight on a cloudy day. When Potter finishes his 16 bars as a soloist, he and Springs share the final 16, deliciously slowing down at the end and dosing the tune with just enough gospel feel to triple your yearning.

The problem with millennial singers doing tributes to their elders is, of course, that we have—by definition—heard it all before. And in Springs’ case, we really heard it all before before. She is paying tribute to Diana Krall, but Krall’s versions of “The Nearness of You” or “Gentle Rain” were themselves indebted to earlier singers from the canon. These Tin Pan Alley classics and jazz standards have died in too many cocktail lounges and hotel lobbies across too many decades to be easily renewed. Springs does all of them well and some very well. But it remains refreshing to hear her nod to singers who are more contemporary or, themselves, more original.

In addition to “Pearls”, Springs offers a fresh version of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor”, which the band plays with an Ahmad Jamal vibe, though Springs is on electric piano. This song may have relied on a certain studio production in its original incarnation, but it works here for a “live” band, with the chorus blossoming harmonically. Even more surprising is Springs’ take on “Killing Me Softly with His Song”, which she surely first heard in its 1997 incarnation by the Fugees though that version was modeled so greatly on the 1973 classic by Roberta Flack. Springs’ arrangement is faithful to these two influences, but not overly so. Particularly, she adds to the chorus to stretch it out dramatically and organically, allowing Cardenas’ guitar and Colley’s upright bass to shift into the foreground in hip ways. The ending builds orchestrally using Pinderhughes’ flute to the fullest.

The best performance, however, is one that memorializes a cover we need to hear more of. According to lore, Springs performed “I Can’t Make You Love Me” for Blue Note’s Don Was, cementing her record deal. The song has hardly been ignored since it was a hit for Bonnie Raitt, covered by George Michael, Boyz II Men, and Adele, among others. But this is the first version that suggests that the song—written by Nashville songwriters Mike Reid and Alan Shamblin and associated with country music—should stand as a standard for jazz singers. Springs breaks your heart with the song all over again, keeping it simple while still adding extra power to it with soulful vocal elements inspired by, yes, the “women who raised” her, and fresh harmonies that elevate its sophistication. It’s a song Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae might have crushed, and Springs is here to show us how that might have gone.

How good is Kandace, stacked up against the other jazz-adjacent singers under, say, 45? Her songwriting isn’t as impressive as that of Becca Stevens. Her style isn’t as inimitable as that of Gretchen Parlato, and her instrumental prowess can’t touch that of Esperanza Spalding or Camila Meza. And how about that young hero of hers, Norah Jones? They duet on “Angel Eyes”, and Springs does not sound out of place. Jones, of course, is immediately recognizable, and her sound reminds you that Springs’ lovely and soulful voice is not yet defined and individual enough to dominate a track. She doesn’t sound generic or bland, but her professional excellence isn’t the same as stardom. Then again, she’s not afraid to sing next to a dominant stylist or several brilliant jazz soloists. You have to admire her guts.

Recordings by young jazz singers, modeling themselves on and singing the music of their elders, are not uncommon. They are aren’t usually quite this good, but there are plenty—and the dilemma usually is, Okay, but now what? With Kandace Springs, the good news is that her first couple of recordings contained mostly original music or more contemporary blends of jazz and modern soul. She already has a voice. The women who raised her inspired her to explore that as much as to copy them.

She’s not dazzling yet, or at least not blazing trails in a dazzling way. But, on the strength of this recording, it’s not hard to imagine a strong future for her talent.

RATING 7 / 10