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As any singer will tell you there are still people in today’s jazz world who cling to those outdated (and unfair and unreasonable) ideas, but overall things are very different.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 & Other CD Reviews – March 2016

March 17, 2016

Daphna Levy Late Night Journey (independent)

Building upon a very wide range of musical genres, Daphna Levy is now enjoying a growing reputation in American jazz circles. Born in Tel Aviv, she studied classical music, playing bass, then began singing with an army band, later studying jazz piano, before embarking upon a career as a jazz singer. daphnaOn this album, Daphna draws her repertoire from pop and jazz standards and the blues, including I Got Rhythm, I Remember You, Day Dream, In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down and I Hear Music, two of her own compositions, Jazzland and Late Night Journey, as well as Buck Ram’s Only You, Ken Morrison’s Jazz Band In Heaven and Luiz Bonfá’s Gentle Rain. Throughout, the arrangements are by Daphna and her ideas are very well served by her accompanying musicians. The core trio is Tony Pancella, piano, Assaf Hakimi, bass, and Gasper Bertoncelj, drums, with tenor saxophonist Lew Tabackin appearing on eight tracks, while Merton Cahm plays tenor saxophone on one. Daphna has a fresh-sounding voice, sparklingly clear diction, and sings rhythmically and is alert to the lyricists’ intentions. Lew Tabackin is in very good form and his contributions are a key factor.

Dane Vannatter Give Me Something Real (independent)

Singing a pleasing selection of songs, award-winning vocalist Dane Vannatter performs in a relaxed and invitingly intimate manner. The songs he sings come from many areas of popular music including the great standards and jazz. On this album, he sings Lover Come Back To Me, But Beautiful, Blame It On My Youth and East Of The Sun, as well as two songs from the Duke Ellington book: Just Squeeze Me, by Ellington and Les Gaines, and Something To Live For, by Billy Strayhorn.dane van Dane’s interpretations delve deeply into the heart of the lyrics and his vocal sound is warm and appealing. On hand here to accompany Dane are two groups, the instrumentalists in one are keyboard player Daniel May, guitarist Eric Susoeff and bassist Jon Evans, while the other consists of Steve Ahern, trumpet, Bruce Abbot, saxophone and flute, Fred Boyle, piano, Ron Ormsby, bass, and Barry Weisman, drums. Clearly at home with the repertoire and in this setting it is readily apparent that Dane is a cabaret singer to seek out. Those not fortunate to live close enough to the Pittsburgh-New York-Boston axis to hear him in person will find this album an enjoyable alternative.

Renato Braz Saudade (Living Music LMU 48)

Highly acclaimed by fellow musicians, singer/guitarist Renato Braz draws almost entirely upon his artistic heritage when selecting songs to sing. Hailing from Brazil’s Matto Grosso, and raised in the country’s northeastern region, where African traditions are maintained, he is principally based in São Paulo, where he has soaked in some of the Portuguese elements that distinguish Brazilian music. Renato’s repertoire includes songs by masters of the genres in which he works, among them Acqua Marcia (by Ivan Lins), O Cantador and Desenredo (Dori Caymmi and Paulo César Pinheiro), Eu Não Existo Sem Você (Antònio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes), and Na Ilha De Lia (Chico Buarque and Edu Lobo). Renato’s singing voice is intense and lyrical, and his guitar playing is ideally suited to the vocal lines. Joining him on the album are different groups (the recording spanned about five years) and the instrumentalists include keyboardist Lins, guitarist Caymmi, soprano saxophonist Paul Winter, and pianist Don Grusin (whose The Last Train is heard). Most of the ballads here are romantic in origin and Renato’s singing voice captures this well, although it should be said that an understanding of Portuguese will allow listeners to get more from the songs.

Gabriela Martina No White Shoes (independent)

Born in Switzerland and now attracting attention on America’s east coast, Gabriela Martina draws her style from various sources, including jazz, pop and the music of her homeland. All but two of the songs heard here are Gabriela’s own, words and music, and some of them might well be picked up by other singers, carrying as they do echoes of music of earlier eras.gab mart The non-originals are Wayne Shorter’s Witch Hunt and Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night In Tunisia. Gabriela’s voice is attractively bright and clear and she succeeds in drawing the listener in to the tales told. Accompanying the singer on this, her debut album, are her regular Boston-based quartet, all of whom play with flair: pianist Jiri Nedoma, guitarist Jussi Reijonen, bassist Kyle Miles and drummer Alex Bailey. An enjoyable first encounter with a singer worth following.

For more on these artists go to their sites, highlighted above, and to Jazz Promo Services (for Daphna Levy, Renato Braz) and Braithwaite & Katz (for Gabriela Martina).

Other informative and entertaining sites you might like:-

Jazz JournalVintage BandstandJazz FlashesJazz WaxFrank GriffithJohn Robert Brown

And the place to go for albums is Amazon.

Jazz CD Reviews – September 2015

September 4, 2015

SINNE EEG EEG FONNESBÆK (Stunt STUCD 15082)

A thoroughly delightful album by an exceptionally good jazz singer, this must surely extend Sinne Eeg’s already glowing reputation still further. This reputation, forged in Denmark, was extended throughout Scandinavia and then the rest of Europe before reaching Japan and China. Now, she is making her mark in the USA and this album (her eighth, I think) will surely add to the acclaim with which she has been greeted. Sinne’s previous album, Face The Music, won awards in Denmark and France.sinne eeg Recently, there have been a select few singers who have chosen to record with accompaniment by only a bass player. Here Sinne is joined by Thomas Fonnesbæk and their musical empathy is apparent from the first notes heard. They open with a heartfelt performance of Willow Weep For Me, and all the promise suggested here is fulfilled as Sinne and Thomas deliver exceptional interpretations of standards, including Summertime, Body And Soul, Beautiful Love, Come Rain Or Shine, and You Don’t Know What Love Is. There are also pleasing versions of the rarely heard Evil Gal Blues, by Lionel Hampton and Leonard Feather, and Fellini’s Waltz, composed by Enrico Pieranunzi with lyrics by Lorraine Feather. Sinne’s vocal sound is rich, fluid and nowhere is there any hint that she is not singing in her own language. Thomas mostly plays acoustic bass, his sound full and resonant; he is also composer of Taking It Slow, with lyrics by Helle Hansen. This is an outstanding album, jazz singing at its very best and strongly recommended to all who love to hear good songs sung well.

Just in case you are wondering (and I was) Sinne’s name is pronounced sēe-neh . ēe.

For more information on Sinne, including booking arrangements, go to Mouthpiece Music.

JOE LOCKE LOVE IS A PENDULUM (Motéma 234041)

Although the vibraphone has become an established part of the jazz scene, even today there are still only relatively few outstanding performers on this instrument. Among these few, Joe Locke is a leading exponent of contemporary jazz and improvised music. In this genre, Joe plays with fiery verve and exceptional skill. This new release is also a showcase for his talent as a composer, a facet of his career that has become more prominent in the past dozen or so years. Central to this album is his five-part suite inspired by Love Is A Pendulum, a poem by eclectic New York singer Barbara Sfraga. Each of the movements takes its title from the first line of the poem’s five verses (printed in the liner notes) and the composer finding hauntingly evocative themes that reflect the source.locke Throughout, Joe’s writing and playing is richly melodic and he is aided by like-thinking collaborators not only in his core group, pianist Robert Rodriguez, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez and drummer Terreon Gully, which supports and drives the front line players, but also his guests. Of these, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, alto saxophonist Rosario Giuliani and guitarist Paul Bollenback contribute notable solos. Also heard are Victor Provost (steel pan) and Theo Bleckmann (voice). Individually and collectively, these musicians explore and develop concepts that are wholly attuned to today’s jazz and improvised music scene.

And two new self-produced Latin-leaning albums are:

CATINA DeLUNA BRAZILIAN PROJECT (own label CDLLB-01)

Singing here with her group, Lado B, Catina DeLuna has chosen music from her homeland for the aptly titled Brazilian Project. Among the songs she has chosen are some by Antônio Carlos Jobim (Garota De Ipanema, Chovendo Na Roseira, Fotografia), Milton Nascimento and Vinicíus de Moreira.deluna Catina is accompanied here by Otmaro Ruiz (keyboards), Larry Koonse (guitar), Edwin Livingston (bass), and Aaron Serafty (drums), along with several guests who include Bob Sheppard (flute). Catina’s voice is attractively rich and she interprets her repertoire with care and understanding.

 

HANNAH BURGÉ GREEN RIVER SESSIONS (own label)

This debut album by Hannah Burgé brings touches of Latin America, contemporary pop and jazz to World Music.Hannah-Burge-Green-River-Sessions1 This Canadian singer and musical collaborators deliver an album that will appeal to many. Among the instrumentalists allied with Hannah are Robi Botos (keyboards), Paco Luviano (bass) and Mark Kelso (drums), while guests include include Hendrik Muerkens (harmonica).

As always, these albums can be found at Amazon as well as many other on-line and walk-in stores.

Jazz CD Reviews – August 2015

August 10, 2015

Ellen Johnson Form & Formless (Vocal Visions VV 3000)

The title displays the musical thinking behind Ellen Johnson’s new album. Some of the songs, those with “form” are by jazz masters, among whom are John Coltrane, Naima, Thelonious Monk, Round Midnight, Charles Mingus, Weird Nightmare, and Sonny Rollins, St Thomas, the last named having lyrics by Ellen herself. On most of these “form” songs, Ellen is accompanied by guitarist Larry Koonse (with trumpeter Nolan Shaheed contributing an evocative solo on the Monk song).ellen j The “formless” songs draw their description from the work of poet Lao Tzu while their style is that of free improvisation created in the moment by Ellen who is mostly accompanied here by guitarist John Stowell. Speaking of the latter group of songs, Ellen has said, “I love the challenge of free improvisation, so having the opportunity to be supported by two amazing guitarists who are at home in this element made the project an absolute delight.” Throughout all these songs, form and formless, Ellen’s ability to explore the inner workings of mind and heart are vividly displayed. So too is her skill in bringing an almost visual quality to a song through her use of aural imagery. This particular skill is especially apparent here because most of these songs do not have lyrics. Rather, Ellen uses her captivating vocal sound – throughout clear, rich and emotion-filled – as a musical instrument. While Ellen’s interpretations provide guidance, the listener can bring to the occasion personal feelings and memories and the whole experience becomes thoroughly rewarding and one that must surely appeal to audiences from all walks of jazz and contemporary improvised music.

Ellen’s talent extends beyond singing and lyric writing, ranging widely to include education – she presents courses at the California Jazz Conservatory. She is also an accomplished author and in this latter capacity has recently published Jazz Child: Portrait of Sheila Jordan, reviewed here a little while ago.

All of Ellen’s albums, and her book can be found at Amazon.

Mark Winkler JAZZ and Other Four Letter Words (Café Pacific CPCD 45125)

Those who like jazz singing that is very much in the moment yet recalls the hip and cool elements of its splendid past will like Mark Winkler a lot. His tough-edged light baritone vocal sound brings to the lyrics he sings an air of urban sophistication and understanding. Some of these lyrics are from the Great American Songbook, others are drawn from Mark’s extensive list of compositions. Examples here include I Chose The Moon (music by Bill Cantos), Stay Hip (Rich Eames) and My Idea Of A Good Time (Greg Gordon Smith). winklerMark is accompanied here by some excellent instrumentalists, notably two trios. One of these has Jamieson Trotter, piano, Dan Lutz, Bass, and Mike Shapiro, drums, while the other has Jamieson with John Clayton, bass, and Jeff Hamilton, drums. Joining Mark on two songs, I’m Hip and I Wish I Were In Love Again, is Cheryl Bentyne, long a driving force in vocal group Manhattan Transfer. It is good to see that Mark is helping ensure the future of his craft through jazz education, especially at UCLA Extension and the LA School of Songwriting with his course, “Creating Great Lyrics: A Songwriters Workshop”. This always swinging selection of songs is Mark’s 14th album as leader and will surely appeal to many.

Mark Christian Miller Crazy Moon (Sliding Jazz Door)

For many years Mark Christian Miller has been deeply involved in many aspects of the music business. After learning piano and baritone horn while still in childhood, he sang with light opera companies while extending his musical studies in both piano and voice and also performed as a solo act on the Los Angeles supper club circuit. He made his first own-name album around the turn of the century but for many years worked mainly as artist manager and booker as well as on the production side of music festivals. Encouraged to return to performing, Mark teamed up with pianist Josh Nelson to plan this album. Backed by the core trio of Josh, bassist Dave Robaire and drummer Sammy Miller, Mark presents an interesting selection of songs. While a couple of these, Wrap Your In Dreams and Cheek To Cheek, are familiar, mostly songs heard here are lesser-known works by major songwriters.mc miller Among these are Second Chance, by Andre and Dorothy Langdon Previn, Oh, You Crazy Moon, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, April Fooled Me, by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, and Almost In Your Arms, by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Mark’s voice is clear, tuneful and mature, while his interpretations of lyrics are insightful. Also heard here are instrumentalists Ron Stout, trumpet, Bob Sheppard, bass clarinet, Larry Koonse, guitar, and Billy Hulting, percussion, all of whom bring excellent solo and supportive touches to the occasion. Arrangements are by Mark and Josh and Jamieson Trotter.

For more information on Mark Winkler and Mark Christian Miller see their websites and that of Mouthpiece Music. These albums can be found through these sites and at Amazon.

Jazz CD Reviews – June 2015

June 16, 2015

Connie Evingson All The Cats Join In (Minnehaha MM 2010)

Not many things in life come with a guarantee, but just seeing Connie Evingson’s name is an assurance of musical quality and this new album fulfills all expectations. The music is good, the instrumentalists with whom she is working are highly skilled, and the singer herself is superb. On my old website I listed three albums, two of them being Let It Be Jazz (Summit) and Gypsy In My Soul (Minnehaha). I mention these because the first included some Beatles’ hits while on the second Connie is accompanied by three different American bands all playing in the style of the QHCF. On this new release there are two songs by Paul McCartney, I’ll Follow The Sun and World Without Love, while the accompaniment throughout is by another band modeled upon the Quintette du Hot Club de France. This group is the John Jorgenson Quintet, the leader doubling on clarinet on some tracks but mostly heard on guitar where his extraordinarily fleet and inventive work vividly displays his admiration for Django Reinhardt, founder of the QHCF. This particular quality has brought John recognition at the Django Reinhardt Memorial Festival in France and he appeared on screen in 2004’s Head in The Clouds, playing the role of the master. With John in his quintet are Jason Anick, violin, Doug Martin, rhythm guitar, Simon Planting, bass, and Rick Reed, drums (and here and there John also adds attractive vocal touches harmonizing with Connie).connie e

Connie’s singing on this wholly admirable set is outstanding; her always true vocal sound is sinewy, poised, engaging and a joy to hear. Among the well-chosen songs are Solitude, by Duke Ellington and Eddie DeLange, Black Orpheus by Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Maria, All The Cats Join In by Eddie Sauter, Alec Wilder and Ray Gilbert, Tickle Toe by Lester Young and Jon Hendricks,The Jersey Bounce by Tiny Bradshaw, Eddie Johnson, Bobby Plater and Buddy Feyne, as well as several standards including Love Me Or Leave Me, Dream A Little Dream Of Me, Between The Devil And the Deep Blue Sea, and You’re Driving Me Crazy. Worth more than this passing mention, Connie is joined on All The Cats Join In/Tickle Toe by Jon Hendricks, 93 years old at the time and clearly enjoying himself enormously. A similar sense of enjoyment is always apparent in Connie’s work, whether she is fluently evoking the heart of a ballad or swinging lithely on mid- and up-tempo songs. A thoroughly delightful effervescence pervades everything that Connie does and this new release is something to savor. I don’t know how far and wide Connie travels from her Minneapolis base – I know she plays New York and Toronto – but club, concert and festival promoters the world over should be clamoring for her. If you are lucky enough to live in or near the Twin Cities do yourself a real favor and catch her live. If that’s not an option buy this album. It’s wonderful.

 

Deborah Latz Sur L’Instant (June Moon 40515)

I have remarked before on Deborah Latz’s ability to delve deeply into the lyrical heart of the songs she sings. Perhaps this is because of her highly successful career acting in various settings, most notably in one-woman performances. What matters here, is that Deborah’s interpretative skills are directed at a rich and varied repertoire of songs, many of which are familiar in the jazz world yet most often as instrumentals rather than vocals. The jazz works Deborah sings here are Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away, Dave and Iola Brubeck’s Weep No More, Miles Davis and Jon Hendricks’ Four, Thelonious Monk and Abbey Lincoln’s Blue Monk, and John Coltrane and Jon Hendricks’ Mr. P.C.latz There are also standards from the American Song Book: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s All The Things You Are, Eden Ahbez’s Nature Boy, and Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s Over The Rainbow, and the album opens with the Love Theme from Spartacus, by Alex North and Terry Callier. The singer is supported by the empathic instrumental duo of pianist Alain Jean-Marie and bassist Gilles Naturel, both of whom have fine solo moments. On this album, Deborah delivers a highly enjoyable set of music that appeals both to the intellect and the emotions.

 

Ken Greves Night People (Jazz Cat Productions)

An elegant, wee small hours presentation by New York nighttime singer Ken Greves of some classic songs that take an optimistic look at some outwardly dark emotions. Lost love, faded hopes, bruised feelings are all addressed here with care and understanding. Among the songs are One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),The Night We Called It A Day, Street Of Dreams, Let Me Down Easy, and I Keep Goin’ Back To Joe’s. Ken is accompanied with flair by pianist Frank Ponzio, bassist Peter Donovan and drummer Vito Lesczak. These comments are deliberately brief because I had the pleasure of writing the liner notes and that is where you can read my thoughts on the singer and the songs at length.

These albums are available at stores both walk-in and on-line, the latter including Amazon.

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