Saturday, March 27, 2010

Spotlight Special: Jazz Singers

Once, a jazz musician, Duke Ellington I believe, was asked, what is jazz? “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know”, was his reply. And it’s true. The differences between Kid Ory and Ornette Coleman are extreme, and yet both are jazz. And this is also the case with jazz singers. Ella Fitzgerald and Cassandra Wilson are both jazz singers, but with very different styles and approaches.

This point was really driven home for me at a concert I attended quite a few years ago. My oldest brother was attending Berklee College of Music at the time, and the faculty and students presented a concert on the history of jazz. Different ensembles came and went from the stage all evening, and for me, connections were made. By putting different styles of jazz in chronological order, the performances went a ways towards explaining how one grew into the next.

I am fortunate to have a selection of jazz singers to present that somewhat allows me to do the same thing. All are contemporary artists, but each is working with a different style of jazz. It happens that all of the singers presented here are women. I am quite sure that there are also many great male jazz singers out there; I hope I will hear from them, and I would be happy to share the results another time.

Meanwhile, instead of a Spotlight Song this week, here is a whole set of them. Each of these artists is well deserving of a full album review, but most of these albums reached me too late for that. But I wanted to share their music with you nonetheless, so here they are.

Miss Tess: Saving All My Love


The Boston music scene has many artists who are exploring the sounds of music from the period prior to World War II. Miss Tess is one of these. On her album Darling Oh Darling, she performs songs in early country, blues and jazz styles. Many of these songs are originals, but the sound is from that earlier era. And Miss Tess has a wonderful brassy voice that is perfect for this music.

Remember that, in the pre-war era, the rules of music had not been formed yet. Small ensembles could include combinations of instruments that would seem odd today. The boundaries between musical genres that are so strict now did not exist then, and it was not unusual for an artist or group to cross these musical lines at will. For Miss Tess, this is worth celebrating, and she has the talent to back it up.

Nina Vox: Little Drop of Poison


As jazz music developed, Latin jazz became an important subgenre, one that many artists still draw on today. Nina Vox makes her debut with an album that draws heavily on this style. She has a sultry voice that recalls cabaret singers, and the combination really works.

Here she turns the Tom Waits song Little Drop of Poison into a tango, and all of the emotion of the piece survives nicely. I could tell you that Nina Vox hails from Brazil or Argentina, but no. She’s actually from Australia.

Debbie Cunningham: Overjoyed


Debbie Cunningham probably sounds most like what people think of when they hear the term “jazz singer”. She is backed by a trio with drums, bass, and piano, sometimes joined by other instruments. For her take on Stevie Wonder’s Overjoyed, she adds light touches which recall the fusion jazz of the late 70s. The key to this performance is that light touch. Cunningham’s arrangement pays tribute to the source, but I find her delivery of the vocal to be more believable than the original.

Laura Siersema: Talon of the Blackwater and Graces


Over a rhythm carried by the drums and guitar, Laura Siersema sings a beautiful duet with the fretless bass part. Siersema may not think of herself as a jazz singer at all, but this song and a few others on this album have a similar flavor to Joni Mitchell’s album Hejera. Siersema also stakes out plenty of her own territory, but the whole thing has a jazzy feel to it in my mind. And I mean that as a complement.

Joanna Chapman-Smith: Things Are Gonna Go Wrong


Finally, we have Joanna Chapman Smith. I’m pretty sure she will find her inclusion here surprising. And yet, her music contains many of the same elements the combined to form jazz. Here are cabaret, klezmer, some folk, and maybe even some classical references. And Chapman-Smith combines them all into a coherent whole, and makes music that sounds not quite like anything I’ve ever heard before.

Things Are Gonna Go Wrong starts with just Chapman-Smith’s voice and the bass, and it really does sound like jazz. But then, the accordion and clarinet join in. So the sound, and the combination of instruments is certainly unusual. But I still feel that this song belongs in this set, and makes musical sense.