What is a ‘jazz singer’ ?

June 30, 2016

Easy to forget, but not many years ago the term ‛jazz singer’ meant something very different from what it means today. Back then, such artists were admired by few, derided or dismissed by many. Many of these nay-sayers were not members of the general public (who were not the least bit interested), but people in or closely connected to the jazz world: instrumentalists, journalists, promoters, fans. Even some songwriters expressed outrage at the way jazz singers sang their songs. Yes; even the insiders didn’t like singers and what’s more, they didn’t care who knew it. A look at some of the early books on the history of jazz will quickly demonstrate that this is no exaggeration. Chapter upon chapter about instrumentalists, only a few paragraphs on singers.

As any singer will tell you there are still people in today’s jazz world who cling to those outdated (and unfair and unreasonable) ideas, but overall things are very different. Jazz singers of today can be numbered, quite literally, in thousands.Jazz singer-stretched Among the reasons for today’s picture is a matter of terminology. Quite simply, the definition of the term ‛jazz singer’ has been radically altered. In the past, the term’s definition was so narrow it is hard to stretch a list of those who fit the bill into double figures. During the past few years the term ‛jazz singer’ has been sanitized and artists so labelled have become admired, lauded even, and can sell millions of records. Among the results of this is that while artists of the past might have shied away from being labelled as a jazz singer, today many eager wannabes adopt the label regardless of their qualifications.

Looking behind the label, what is the reality? I suspect that if those few accepted jazz singers from long ago were brought back, the chances are they would not recognize many of these new singers as kindred artists and those newcomers they did recognize would be counted in similarly small numbers to those of far-off days. What they would recognize, those past mistresses of jazz song (then, as now, women greatly outnumber men), is that they themselves were seriously influential on the careers of the newcomers either directly or channeled through singers of the in-between generations.

tina mayellen j cdRene-Marie-CD2-150x150It is not at all surprising that the term ‛jazz singer’ means something different today. After all, the same can be said of jazz itself. During the second half of its 100-year history the word jazz has stretched to cover an enormous range, one so wide that surely no one can like everything. Consider that range for a moment: Early jazz with its primitive style and technique yet shot through with the flawless musical jewels heard on the first records made by Louis Armstrong that remain as vivid today as they were ninety years ago; the swing era, when jazz first became commercial; the revolution of bebop; and then there is west coast cool, hard bop, mainstream, jazz-rock and other fusions, all the way through to today’s cutting edge improvised music. And then there are those many wonderful side turnings into the realms of gospel and soul and r&b. As for the blues, well that’s more than merely a side turning, it’s a highway. And in all of these roots and branches of jazz there have been and still are singers who are as stylistically different from one another as are the instrumentalists. Significantly though, many of today’s singers have succeeded in doing something achieved by only a handful of jazz musicians (singers and instrumentalists) of the past. They are commercial. And just as commercial success during the swing era was frowned upon by purists, popularity today is viewed with suspicion if not downright hostility. It shouldn’t be this way. Popularity might not be a condition of quality but the two are not mutually exclusive. To steal a comment from Duke Ellington: “There are two kinds of music. Good and bad.”

These thoughts started with a question: What is a jazz singer? If that is what drew you in then it might irritate you if this piece ends without attempting an answer. That said, as should be clear by now, there will not be a categorical answer. Readers of the two books written many years ago by myself and Mike Pinfold are unlikely to have learned a hard and fast definition. In one of these books, The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave (1986), we sought to recount the history of the form, while in the other, Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles (1997), we looked at the subject through the lives and careers and words of several singers. Definitions were not an objective, but reading them might cast a little light and maybe open a few doors. Although long out of print, second-hand copies can be found in dusty corners of cyberspace, while the most recent of these titles can now be bought as a Kindle e-book.singing jazz 1

Through the vast resource of the Internet it is possible to see and hear musicians perform and get to know them through interviews or simply read the thoughts and opinions of others. Among many on-line sources, two excellent sites that have much to offer on jazz singers are those of Marc Meyers and Anton Garcia Fernandez. Marc writes for The Wall Street Journal and his countless interviews and essays can be seen on his JazzWax. Anton teaches Spanish at the University of Tennessee in Martin and his musical interests are pursued on two sites: Vintage Bandstand and Jazz Flashes. Both of these writers deal extensively and knowledgeably with singers and it is possible to learn a lot from their work.

But will you learn what it is that makes a jazz singer? Perhaps an answer is impossible. Enough of this prevarication. For me, a jazz singer is one who can improvise upon yet remain respectful of a composer’s conception, can reach into the heart of a lyricist’s message and convey this to a listener, can perform with rhythmical assurance, sings in tune, sings a song with honesty and integrity, who brings originality to the music, and, perhaps, leaves something of themselves therein. Any singer who does all (or most) of these things might well earn a place alongside those few unquestioned jazz singers of the past.

ddr-jazzstandardclaire martinIf you want to hear singers like this, where might you start? Well, here are a few names to start you off, but these are offered with some trepidation because five minutes after this list is done and up for all to see, other names will be remembered. Also, in listing jazz singers of today who sit comfortably in my reckoning with those giants of the past I am guilty of omitting a few of earlier generations still working admirably today. So, with these caveats in mind here they are, among them some reviewed either in Jazz Journal or elsewhere on this site. Listening to their work will delight and enlighten you: Tony Adamo, Karrin Allyson, April Barrows, Theo Bleckmann, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Leanne Carroll, Dena DeRose, Madeleine Eastman, Sinne Eeg, Connie Evingson, Roberta Gambarini, Allan Harris, Ellen Johnson, Nancy Kelly, Stacey Kent, Chris McNulty, Kitty Margolis, René Marie, Claire Martin, Tina May, Catherine Russell, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Ian Shaw, Daryl Sherman, Judi Silvano, Carol Sloane, Clare Teal, Roseanne Vitro, Cassandra Wilson.

Albums by all of these artists can be found at Amazon.

Jazz CD Reviews – early June 2016

June 6, 2016

Compared to the countless alto and tenor saxophone players in jazz, many of them distinguished and spotlit, those musicians who chose other members of the saxophone family often play in the shadows. I suspect that most of us would have a hard time producing an off-the cuff list of baritone saxophonists that reached far into double figures, while listing those who played bass or C-Melody saxophone would certainly be much harder. (I managed only one of each – Harry Gold, who was not a jazz man but a dance band leader, and Frankie Trumbauer, who would be on everyone’s list.)

And then there is the soprano saxophone. Of course, many saxophonists have played soprano as a second instrument to their usual clarinet or alto or tenor but it has been principle instrument for very few. Even Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern, whose Soprano Summit brought such pleasure to the mainstream of the 1970s, at other times respectively played alto and clarinet extensively. But back to making lists – pretty nearly everyone reading this will instantly note the name of Sidney Bechet, the grand master of the soprano, but might well slow down a little after having added the names of Steve Lacy and Jane Ira Bloom. It is a new album by the last named that has prompted these thoughts, although references to other players of the soprano saxophone is unfair because her great skill and profound musicianship are virtually unparalleled as is the enormous contribution to jazz she has made, and continues to make, as performer, composer and educator.

Jane Ira Bloom Early Americans (Outline OTL 142)

On this new release Jane Ira Bloom performs twelve of her own compositions, themes that range widely, touching upon aspects of America’s history, geography and culture.jane ira b Among the performances heard here are a lively Song Patrol, the darkly dramatic Dangerous Times, the deeply introspective Other Eyes, an atmospheric Mind Gray River, and an adventurous and exciting Gateway To Progress. Throughout, the sound of Jane’s saxophone is rich, drawing from the instrument’s full range and is emotionally most satisfying. Jane’s collaborators here are bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bobby Previte, both of whom are wholly attuned to the leader’s intentions and provide superb support, blending where required, soloing with flair when called upon. The closing track, the only non-original, is Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Somewhere. Played by Jane alone, its spaciousness and hint of melancholy matches the atmosphere that imbues every moment of this set. Altogether, a lovely album that brings pleasure both intellectually and emotionally.

Lou Caputo Uh Oh! (Jazzcat 47 JC 1825)
The soprano saxophone is also heard on this album led by Lou Caputo
, who additionally plays flute, alto and mostly baritone saxophone. Leading his 12-piece New York-based Not So Big Band, on this, their third CD, Lou presents an admirable selection of compositions by several leading jazz artists.louiscaputo These include Wayne Shorter, Black Nile, Mary Lou Williams, Busy, Busy, Busy, Chick Corea, Guijira, Jack DeJohnette, Festival, Oliver Nelson, Stolen Moments, and Dexter Gordon, Fried Bananas. The arrangers are Geoffrey Burke, Jason Ingram, Mike Carubia, Chris White, Chris Rinaman, Ryan Krewer, Bill Crow, Lyn Welshman, Bill Whited and Virginia Mayhew and their spacious charts offer ample opportunities for the excellent soloists among those gathered for this date. The full band Lou directs comprises John Eckert, Dave Smith (trumpet and flugelhorn), Jason Ingram (trombone), Dale Turk (tuba), Geoffrey Burke (alto and flute) Virginia Mayhew (tenor), Don Stein (piano), Bill Crow (bass), Mike Campenni sharing with Rudy Petschauer (drums), Warren Smith (vibraphone), Eddie Montalvo (conga) and Leopoldo Fleming (percussion). The many solos are supported by crisp ensemble work, perhaps not too surprising given that Lou has had this band for about a decade. The mood is rich and varied, with a lively Latin jazz sound on Festival, an appropriately thoughtful Stolen Moments, Bill Crow’s irresistibly toe-tapping News From Blueport, and a romantic take on Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now. So much to enjoy here and lucky you if you should live in the New York area and catch Lou Caputo’s band live.

Jim Self ¡Yo! (Basset Hound BHR 114-2)

Long known as a studio musician in the film and television studios of Los Angeles, tuba player Jim Self has also made numerous albums as leader of jazz and Latin groups. The group he leads here, on his 13th album, is the Tricky Lix Latin Jazz Band, a name that hides neither its style or intentions. Much of the music of Latin America is for dancing and the forms heard here include mambo, For Charlie and Old Arrival, danzon cha cha, Poinciana, and bolero, Quiero Llegar. YoThe musicians joining Jim here are Ron Blake (trumpet, flugelhorn), Francisco Torres (trombone), Rob Hardt (tenor and soprano saxophones, flute), Andy Langham (piano), Rene Camacho (bass), and percussionists Joey De Leon, Giancarlo Anderson and George Ortiz, while the arrangements are the work of Jim, Francisco, who between them also wrote five originals, Curt Berg and Bill Cunliffe. There are numerous solos, notably Rob’s soprano on Sweetest Blue, Ron’s trumpet on Encognito and Cal’s Pals, Francisco’s trombone on Quiero Llegar on which Andy’s piano is also heard. Some of Jim’s solos are on tuba and others on the mellow-toned fluba, which looks rather like a Brobdingnagian flugelhorn. Propelled by a lively bass and percussion, the air of lightness and joy that pervades this set will bring pleasure to many.

Terceto Kali Terceto Kali (Jason McGuire Music)

Leading his dynamic trio, Terceto Kali, Jason McGuire “El Rubio” is not only a notable jazz guitarist, but also a master of flamenco. His combining of these two styles is marked both by its rarity in popular music and his striking skill and ingenuity.terceto An important aspect in much of flamenco is its dramatic intensity and that is especially notable here on pieces such as Zardoz and Ratones Ciegos, while the form’s inherent romanticism is presented on Romance. All of the music heard here is composed by Jason and reflects just a few of the numerous stylistic variations that lie within flamenco. Different dance styles are also heard with flamenco’s percussive nature apparent as drummer Marlon Aldana conveys the power of the flamenco dancer. Among the dance music heard are the tango, Ratones Ciegos, the rondeña (a form of fandango, Contratiempo, and the rumba, Mira Mira, Jason demonstrating in all of them his feeling for jazz. The third member of the trio, bassist Paul Martin Sounder, is similarly attuned to the wide stylistic range of the musical origins. Storytelling is a significant aspect of flamenco, not only through dance and the music of the guitar but also by way of a singer and this is displayed on some selections by José Cortés. Superb musicianship and always fascinating music make this an exceptional album, reflecting as it does the manner in which Jason McGuire, from Texas, has so thoroughly assimilated the traditions of Andalusia and it should appeal to lovers of music from many genres and countries.

Jocelyn Michelle Time To Play! (Chicken Coup CCP 7024)

The Hammond B3 organ has a much admired and respected place in jazz and Jocelyn Michelle, a relatively new name on this particular scene, is a valuable addition to the instrument’s roll of honor. Playing with verve and driving swing on mid- and up-tempo pieces and thoughtful depth on ballads, Jocelyn vividly displays her musical skills and a varied selection that includes six of her originals.jocelyn Playing piano from very early childhood, at the University of Miami School of Music she played guitar and also studied commercial aspects of the music business before concentrating on the organ and a career as a performer. Stylistically, there is here a wide range that encompasses Latin and gospel, rock and soul, all brought into jazz by Jocelyn and the front-rank artists with whom she collaborates. These are guitarists Bruce Forman on six tracks and John Rack on four (the latter being also Jocelyn’s life partner), saxophonists Doug Webb, five tracks, and Steve Mann, three, trumpeter Stan Martin, five, drummer Sammy K, all ten tracks, and percussionist Brad Dutz, three. Also heard on one track each is trumpeter Andrea Lindborg and vocalists Gina Saputo and Regina Leonard Smythe. The four non-original tracks are Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man, Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther Theme, Gato Barbieri’s Last Tango In Paris, and the Jay Livingston-Ray Evans standard Never Let Me Go. On one track, Sylvia’s Song, Jocelyn plays guitar and on another, The Loss, she plays piano but elsewhere it is the B3. Jocelyn Michelle is a jazz musician worthy of your attention and if you have the chance to see and hear her perform live you should certainly do so. She and John are now resident in Hawaii and if you cannot make dates there or the west coast of the mainland, then this album will be a lively alternative.

For more information on these musicians and albums see the sites highlighted above and also Jim Eigo’s Jazz Promo Services for Jane Ira Bloom, Lou Caputo and Jim Self and Mouthpiece Music for Jason McGuire/Terceto Kali and Jocelyn Michelle.

All albums are available at Amazon.

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