Stacey Kent is singing jazz. She has that particular jazz singing tone, the one that is like a dry ice version of a little girl’s voice: cute and sophisticated at once. This is not the bourbon-sweet swing of Billie, or the bop-rich spring of Ella, or the soul-infused power of Carmen McRae or Sarah Vaughan. This is a variation on the legacy of Blossom Dearie, who whispered like a swinging mouse and made it work.
Stacey Kent adds just a dash of vinegar to Blossom’s style, and her sound is appealing, but paper thin. She sings with an almost nervous precision. Her body of work is artful, and you could do much worse than slipping Breakfast on the Morning Tram into the CD player at a sophisticated party, or a beachfront brunch, or a romantic tryst in a Paris hotel. That’s what your life is like, right?
My life is nothing like the lyrics to these songs, and my sense of where jazz singing might be going in 2007 is pretty far from Kent’s dry-as-gin take on standards, French chansons, pop covers, and — oddly enough — original tunes written just for her by her husband and novelist/Booker Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro. Though Kent was born in the US, she has lived and studied in France and currently lives in London. And it seems fair to say that the sensibility of Breakfast is definitely not “down home” — it is vaguely effete. You feel like it could be Prince Charles’s favorite jazz album of the year.
Kent’s band and vocal delivery are all clean-as-a-whistle. There is a folky swing to it all: jazz that is not going to get its hands dirty or the knees of its trousers worn. In this mode, Kent delivers fully legit takes on standards such as “Never Let Me Go” (a nod to Ishiguro, presumably, as this was the title of his recent novel), “So Many Stars”, and the saccharine “What a Wonderful World”. But this spic-n-span approach is no friend to her version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, which sounds both too much like the original (or is it too much like the recent Dixie Chicks’ cover?) and not nearly as soulful and authentic. This tune should be Exhibit A for the case that some folks make about how jazz can be boring and over-similar, draining all the twang and fingernail dirt out of otherwise cool American music. Once upon a time, of course, jazz was the dirty word. But all too often these days, and Kent personifies this, jazz is all politeness and teacakes.
I don’t have the context to judge her covers of two Serge Gainsborough tunes (sung in French), but I do know that they are as fussily polite as her other interpretations. Polite is what you would have expected from Kazuo Ishiguro’s famous butler, Mr. Stevens, but I didn’t expect the author’s lyrics to be quite so cute. On the album’s title track, the story is about, well, eating breakfast on your way to work, including the following couplet: “Just treat yourself to a cinnamon pancake / Very soon you’ll forget your heartache”. I promise not to tell the Booker Prize people about this if you’ll promise, too.
Not all of the Tomlinson/Ishiguro songs feel so thin. “So Romantic” has a nice old-fashioned feeling, but also accesses a blue tint to romance by referencing old movies. “The Ice Hotel” is the opener, and it does a good a job of straddling the line between Dave Frishberg wit and slight surrealism in describing a hotel of actual ice, where the temperature is always “Minus-five degrees / What ever place could serve our needs so well?” Ha!
Kent sounds great, purely as a singer, on nearly every song. But, a bit like the late singer Susannah McCorkle, Kent does not always know which songs are going to suit her. “Hard Hearted Hannah” tries to be either actually ballsy or faux-ballsy, and it just feels faux. Kent is better off singing about cinnamon pancakes than “the vamp of Savannah, the meanest gal in town”. Ray Charles Stacey Kent is not.
My favorite song on Breakfast is Kent’s version of “Samba Saravah”, a bossa tune I don’t know that apparently comes from a French film. The under-singing here truly suits the bossa nova style, and Tomlinson’s tenor playing obviously brings to mind Stan Getz, which is always terrific. Kent can sing like mad on the right songs, and the subtle polyrhythms of Brazilian music give her a touch of edge within the context of her very polite aesthetic. More bossas, Stacey! (Next time in Portuguese.)
This is Stacey Kent’s Blue Note debut — an achievement for anyone involved in jazz. It’s not going to be a bestselling Norah Jones recording, nor is it a jazz classic. But for folks who want a collection of super-easygoing jazz singing that is repertoire-diverse but also very same-sounding, Ms. Kent’s Booker Prize swing may be just the thing.