February 15, 2016
Among guidelines offered to critics is the suggestion that they should not allow themselves to be affected by what they know but only what they see or read – or in the case of music – what they hear. Although there is something to be said for this, I’m not at all sure that this is a suggestion that should always be followed. Applying this might account for the fact that so many of those who write on jazz are somewhat dismissive of Billie Holiday’s final recordings. For me, the bone-deep weariness and drained emotions she exudes add immeasurably to her performance while knowing what she had undergone in the years before and how little time she had left add even more texture to her reading of the songs. These thoughts have been prompted by the two albums reviewed here. While not at the same level as Billie Holiday (and I am sure that they would never claim otherwise), these two singers have also undergone hard times brought on by serious illness but fought hard to sing their songs and in so doing produced very good and deeply moving albums.
Laura Perlman Precious Moments (Miles High MHR 8625)
Coming late to performing as a jazz singer, Laura Perlman first had a successful career working as a music editor in the motion picture business in Hollywood. That said, from early childhood she loved jazz and would sing along with records by artists such as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. It was not just singers she admired but also instrumentalists, including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. In 2002 grave illness caused her to reassess the direction in which she was traveling and she slowly recovered she decided to turn at last to her first love, jazz singing. This was far from easy because further problems arose, presenting her with even more serious health issues to surmount. By the time that she recorded Precious Moments Laura had faced and conquered these personal struggles, any one of which might well have floored most of us. The songs Laura has chosen are all standards and she looks into the heart of each song, interpreting the lyric with care and affection. Among these songs are I’ve Never Been In Love Before, But Beautiful, You Go To My Head, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, I’m Old Fashioned and My One And Only Love. Laura’s voice is warm and strong and is a delight to hear. Laura’s accompanists here are Bill Cunliffe, piano, Mark Sherman, vibraphone, Chris Colangelo, bass, and Joe LaBarbera, drums, and all have solo moments and are subtly supportive throughout. Two of the tracks are arranged by Bill, the other eight by Mark. All the emotions stirred by hearing these songs will be redoubled after reading the liner notes in which Laura and Mark reflect on her life before Precious Moments and in particular her personal battles in the past dozen years. Surely, Laura Perlman will bring us many more good albums in the future.
Jane Harvey Sings Ellington – One To One (Little Jazz Bird 1006)
This album was recorded when Jane Harvey was 88, was undergoing chemo-therapy, and had only a few months left to live. Despite this, reports suggested that this might be the best record she made in her long career. Could this really be so? After all, her past work is very good, including as it does recording Close As Pages In A Book with Benny Goodman in 1944, the 1959 album, Leave It to Jane, recorded by her then husband, Bob Thiele, a 1978 album of Fats Waller songs, You Fats … Me Jane, and more recently the critically-acclaimed Other Side Of Sondheim. So, were those reports exaggerated or is this new album exceptional? Happily, any wary preconceptions are completely unfounded as this album is an absolute delight. In 2013, with a career going back some seven decades and aware that her time was fast running out, Jane decided on a final recording date. For this, she turned to the songs of Duke Ellington, mainly choosing songs that are familiar (if not always in vocal versions) as well as some that are rarely heard. Referring again to the circumstances of the date, it would have been understandable had she decided to hide behind a large orchestra but she was having none of this. Each of these songs is sung with the accompaniment of just one instrumentalist thus creating an intimate atmosphere in which the musicians explore the heart and soul of the music. Jane’s accompanists here are pianist Mike Renzi and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli on tracks recorded in New York, to where she flew despite her extremely poor health, and guitarist Ron Eschete, on tracks recorded in Hollywood (closer to home and supervised by her son, Bob Thiele Jr.). Given the pared-down format, there was no arranger, just Jane deciding with the accompanying instrumentalist what would be done. Among the songs are Sophisticated Lady, In A Sentimental Mood, (In My) Solitude, Prelude To A Kiss, The Sky Fell Down (a song for which Jane wrote the lyrics), What Am I Here For?, I Didn’t Know About You, I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), and Mood Indigo. The album is set out as a tribute to Duke Ellington but the reality is that it is a tribute to an immensely gifted singer whose work should be used as an obligatory teaching aid for singers not just of jazz but also those in any area of popular music. This album can be summed up in one word: Wonderful.
You will find much more to entertain and inform you on these sites:-
And Amazon is the place to go for these albums.
April 5, 2015
With more and more of us turning to e-books, this is a good time to note that some of my now out-of-print books are available in this format. They include:
Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles by Bruce Crowther & Mike Pinfold
This book explores the lives, words, and music of vocalists past and present to portray the diverse and stimulating world of the jazz singer. Singing Jazz examines the ups and downs of a tough profession: the learning process, on the road and in school; the problems of building a repertoire, finding work, traveling, performing in often difficult circumstances; and the struggle for recognition in the world of popular music, where talent and dedication are sometimes not enough.
Comments on this book (print edition):
“The text is enriched with extensive anecdotal material and an encyclopedic-styled biographical section.” – Don Heckman – Los Angeles Times
“. . . interviewed especially for Singing Jazz – some of today’s best performers illustrate the contemporary view of jazz singing. Kitty Margolis, Mark Murphy, Helen Merrill, Mark Porter, Christine Tyrrell, and many others discuss the influences and experiences that have shaped their singing careers, and share insights on how their art is still evolving today.” – goodreads.com
“In addition to biographies of jazz singers of yesterday and today, this is a how-to book for singers.” – JazzStandards.com
“(The world) where the voice itself is an instrument, and the art of improvisation and self-expression reigns–is explored in this illuminating book.” – Indigo.ca
“The scintillating story of a vibrant and exciting art form. Illuminating profiles of legendary artists, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Louis Armstrong, and many more.” – JazzScript.co.uk
Gene Krupa: His Life & Times by Bruce Crowther
With his handsome, overwrought, gesticulating presence both on-stage and on-screen, Gene Krupa (1909-1973) changed beyond recognition the role of the jazz drummer and provided a lasting visual image of the Swing Era. Despite his spectacular drumming with the Benny Goodman band, the drummer’s sensationalized, phony drug bust in California in the 1940s secured his reputation, in the public’s mind, as a drug addict. In fact, underneath his glamorous stage persona, he was a quiet, reflective, and deeply religious man, as well as a dedicated, professional musician. Bruce Crowther sheds new light on Krupa’s Polish immigrant background in Chicago, the places he lived and worked, and the musicians he learned from and played with. In exploring that background, the book evokes the inspiration Krupa provided for his own and succeeding generations of drummers.
Louis Armstrong: His Life & Times by Mike Pinfold
The most famous jazz trumpeter of all time, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) will also be remembered as a band leader, film star, comedian, and the first jazz personality to become an international celebrity. Born in New Orleans, he played in marching bands and on Mississippi riverboats but became famous with the Chicago band of ‛King’ Oliver. With his extraordinary instrumental range, gift for variations, distinctive ‛scat’ vocals and extroverted performance style, he succeeded in bringing jazz to audiences who had never before cared for the music. Mike Pinfold sheds new light on Armstrong’s New Orleans background and the unparalleled position he holds in American cultural history.
Bunk Johnson: His Life & Times by Christopher Hillman
Of all the figures to be associated with the revival of early New Orleans jazz in the 1940s, Bunk Johnson (1889-1949) was the most influential and the most controversial. A survivor of the pioneering days of jazz, and hailed in his last years as a ‛grand old man’, Bunk became the symbol of a primitive and simple style of music, with which his own strongly held views were at odds. Jazz critics and enthusiasts divided into those who hailed him as a sage, and those who dismissed him entirely. Christopher Hillman has sifted through the known facts about Bunk’s life, and a mass of documentary evidence, to produce this new account of Johnson’s career. The story which emerges, about the music and about Bunk’s own complicated personality, is a fascinating examination of one of the legends of jazz history.
(Interested in early jazz? Then visit Christopher Hillman’s website.)
Billie Holiday: Her Life & Times by John White
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was one of the greatest artists in the history of jazz, a legend in her own lifetime and, nearly thirty years after her untimely death, a persistent and profound influence on popular music. Frank Sinatra said of her in 1958, “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday . . . who was and still remains the greatest single musical influence on me.” Long before her death, she had achieved notoriety as a drug addict as well as a performer. Although the motion picture Lady Sings the Blues (1972), starring Diana Ross, presented a simplified, often distorted image of her life, it also aroused the continuing interest of a younger generation in her peerless recordings. This book examines her tumultuous life and career, and offers a new perspective on Holiday’s legend by focusing on the early years in Baltimore and her breakthrough role as the first black woman to sing with an all-white band in a segregated society.
Also available as e-books are Bruce Crowther’s:
– stage play, The Colors Of Your Life
– the 1989 Edgar-nominated, Film Noir: Reflections In A Dark Mirror
– five new (2012-2014) crime novels, Dead Man Running, Dark Echoes, Penitence, Harlem Nocturne, All Cut Up
– and look out for the forthcoming sequel to Harlem Nocturne. Set four years later, Harlem Madness again features Black private detective Daniel Leland, this time pitting his wits against gangsters, Black and White, in the days and nights surrounding the 1943 Harlem riots.
March 17, 2013
Here are some thoughts on three female singers from countries that do not spring instantly to mind when talking about jazz. Yes, I know that jazz has long been an international form of music, but I would suggest that if the average jazz fan from the USA or UK were asked to make a list that reached double figures of musicians from Poland, Finland and Italy, they might well struggle. Why is that? It isn’t as if there are no Polish, Finnish or Italian musicians of the highest caliber and more than worthy of serious consideration by jazz fans around the world. I do not doubt that many readers of these words who live in Poland or Finland of Italy, countries that have lively jazz scenes, will be screaming out lists of names, but those from the USA and UK might be much quieter. Well, here are three names, one from each of the three named countries – all are seriously worth your attention. They are Deborah Latz, Sofia Laiti and Roberta Gambarini.
Deborah Latz is now well-established in New York City, and her latest release, Fig Tree, finds her again exploring the Great American Songbook, something that she did to considerable effect on an earlier album I enjoyed. This field of music is one that she clearly admires and respects and, indeed, performs very well; all of which might come as a surprise if a newcomer to her work had first read of her background. Before becoming known as a singer, Deborah built a career in acting and performed several one-woman shows, which embraced the popular culture and often dark history of Central Europe. One of these shows brought her Best Actress Award at the Jerzy Grotowski Theater Festival in Poland. Unafraid to confront historical issues that echo painfully through to the present day, Deborah also appeared in a one-woman performance, The Prisoner, which centers upon a Holocaust survivor. Ably composing words and music for her one-woman show, Travels With Ma Own Self, a career move towards working as a singer was perhaps inevitable, and it is a move that Deborah has accomplished with enormous skill.
Writing about an earlier album, Lifeline, I remarked that although billed as a jazz singer I thought that she really belongs in that large group of singers who bring jazz touches and thinking to the art of popular song. I felt that she did this very well, comfortably finding empathy with American song standards while also displaying rapport with songs better known to European audiences. On Lifeline Deborah is accompanied by her then regular trio of pianist Daniela Schächter, bassist Bob Bowen and drummer Elisabeth Keledjian (as well as guest tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm). Deborah and her collaborators deliver attractive and thoughtful interpretations of songs such as I Get Along Without You Very Well, Witchcraft, How Deep Is The Ocean, and I Didn’t Know What Time It Was and altogether this is a thoroughly entertaining CD.
Clearly, Deborah is at ease with the standards, especially ballads and on Fig Tree she sings Blue Skies, You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, Ill Wind, Embraceable You and Moon River. But she comfortably moves into the jazz arena, singing Hi-Fly, which is by Randy Weston and Jon Hendricks, and Alberta Hunter’s I’m Having A Good Time. There are also attractive examples of Deborah’s abilities as composer and lyricist:You Are, Fig Tree and She Was. On this album, Deborah is supported by the core trio of pianist Jon David, guitarist John Hart and drummer Willard Dyson, while saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum appears as guest soloist. Deborah’s vocal sound is light, delicate, yet her interpretation of lyrics is profound. She sings with springy joyousness that imparts to the listener the pleasure she clearly has in singing these songs.
Since 1989, Sofia Laiti has also been based in New York City. I first heard Sofia on her fourth CD, You Don’t Know Me, which was released in 2004. On this album, she ably demonstrated why she had gained an admiring following on the city’s jazz and contemporary pop scenes. Sofia sings in a mature contralto, comfortably displaying her mastery of her second language. On this CD, she is backed by an effective quartet: pianist Larry Ham, bassist Leon Lee Dorsey, drummer Vince Ector, and veteran tenor saxophonist Houston Person. Sofia performs a selection of mostly familiar songs, for some of which she finds a relaxed intimate mood. Others, such as La Vie En Rose and If You Go Away lend themselves to the dramatic interpretations that they receive.
On her 2011 release, Like A Road Leading Home, Sofia broadened her repertoire to include latterday pop and in particular the music of Bob Dylan. Only recently has Dylan’s work been taken up by singers in and on the edges of jazz and many listeners will not be surprised that his songs lend themselves to interpretation by contemporary singers. The songs have interesting melodies and meaningful lyrics that explore many topics not often touched upon by the writers of classic pop. Sofia’s interpretations reach to the heart of these songs and she delivers always fascinating variations on the originals, leaning in some instances towards country while the blues that Dylan so admires can also be heard. On this release, Sofia is joined by pianist James Weidman, bassist Marcus McLauren, guitarist Adam Lomeo, and drummer Vince Ector, while accordionist Mariel Berger and violinist Scott Tixier bring added colour to the basic ensemble sound. This is a very pleasing set that should appeal widely and should certainly extend this admirable singer’s audience.
Within days of her arrival in the USA in 1998, Roberta Gambarini won third prize in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, coming behind winner Teri Thornton and runner-up Jane Monheit. Her move to America came after she had established her name in her homeland as a jazz singer of exceptional promise, and she was now intent on studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. Some singers have seen the Monk contest open up a route to fame and fortune, but Roberta chose to remain solidly rooted in jazz, despite the inevitable absence of acclaim outside the genre. That she has fulfilled all her early promise, building a reputation not only with jazz audiences but also among jazz instrumentalists with whom she has worked, is a credit to her ability and perseverance. These include front-rank artists such as Benny Carter, Hank Jones, with whom she recorded an album, Michael Brecker and James Moody. The last named of these appears on two tracks on Easy To Love, and others appearing with her include pianist Tamir Hendleman and bassist John Clayton. The subtle support of front-rank players propels Roberta into plangent performances of songs that while familiar are by no means overdone. They include On The Sunny Side Of The Street, Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, Too Late Now, and Only Trust Your Heart. The charts here are by Roberta and are comfortably loose, allowing singer and instrumentalists to swing through exhilarating variations on familiar chords. Roberta has a mellow and mature sound, her phrasing is ideal and her interpretation of lyrics excellent.
On You Are There, Roberta is accompanied only by Hank Jones and the results are majestic. (Only Hank Jones? That’s a bit like saying my only car is a Rolls Royce.) Among the songs interpreted here with love and skill and genuine sincerity are Stardust, Deep Purple, When The Lights Are Low, Just Squeeze Me, and You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me. Throughout, the mature understanding for the material makes every song a delight to hear. Choice of tempo is not always obvious, and so much the better for this, and unlike many of the other younger generation of jazz singers, Roberta handles scat with considerable aplomb.
For Grammy-nominated So In Love, Roberta is again backed by front-rank instrumentalists, among them tenor saxophonist James Moody, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, pianist Gerald Clayton, and drummer Jake Hanna. Again, Roberta has made all the arrangements and again the response is exceptional, bringing new life to old favorites, such as Day In, Day Out, Get Out Of Town, That Old Black Magic, From This Moment On, and You Must Believe in Spring. Even Beatles music something not readily adaptable to jazz, gets a new lick of paint.
A final thought: although these singers were born far apart and grew up in very different cultures, they have some things in common. Obviously, all are hugely talented, all have great empathy with the Great American Songbook; less obvious, until you hear them that is, all have excellent linguistic skills. Nowhere is there a hint that English is not their first language. One other link they share, and the only one that is a little less sunny, is that in order to achieve their present stature in today’s world of jazz singing, they had to leave home. Is it only me that finds this sad? Again, maybe it’s only me, but I think that a closer look at artists still working in Poland and Finland and Italy – to say nothing of Sri Lanka and South Africa and New Zealand and China and, well, the list is endless – is something well worth taking.
Or do we all just sit and wait for them to come to us?