Monday, May 23, 2011

Jazz From Many Angles

Jazz is a musical form with certain strictures. And yet, with its emphasis on improvisation, jazz is a form that prizes individuality perhaps more than any other musical genre. So there is a natural tension there. The situation is even more interesting for the jazz singer. Not only must they observe the strictures of form, but their performance is also bounded by the need to serve the lyric. Actually, in an upcoming post, I have an example of a jazz singer who does not sing words, but that’s for later. For now, I will note that even with need to serve both form and text, jazz singers have a number of ways available to express themselves. Here are five who do it beautifully, each from a different angle.

Rachel Pearl: Hello, Officer


Hello, Officer is a Rachel Pearl original, but the song has a classic feel. Pearl uses a small group here, but it is easy to imagine a full big band treatment. The song is flirty and fun, with a mischievous wink. Here and on the other songs on Keepin’ It Old School, Pearl delivers performances that are just perfect for her material. My only gripe is that Old School is just four songs long. Hopefully, Pearl will have another full length album out soon.

Ezra Weiss (with Shirley Nanette): Shirley Horn‘s Sound of Love


Shirley Nanette is channeling Shirley Horn here, on an album-long tribute to Horn by Ezra Weiss. Horn was both a singer and a pianist, and Weiss the pianist is directing the show. Ezra Weiss would like everyone to look into Shirley Horn’s music after hearing this, and I must admit that that is what I had to do. I found that Weiss and Nanette both get Horn’s approach perfectly, but they also are their own artists. Weiss takes a delicate approach on Shirley Horn’s Sound of Love, opening with a single note line on the piano, and only expanding on it slightly as the song progresses. Nanette enters softly, and teases out of this delicate ballad all of the nostalgic yearning in the words. Nanette and Weiss both leave plenty of space in this music, and it works to deepen the mood. This is also a great lyric, using the most subtle of our senses, smell, as a metaphor for the passage of time. That may sound strange, but it really works. Nanette is a guest on this album, singing on about half the tracks. Both the delicate touch and the full emotion of the music prevail throughout the album as a whole.

Andrea Wood: Comes Love


I often single out a jazz singer for their work on a ballad, and Andrea Wood does fine with those. In particular, her version of Someday My Prince Will Come is a jaw dropper. But Wood and her band really shine on the uptempo songs as well. Comes Love is a standard, and it is a playful and flirty song. But Wood also renders it as a funky workout, and it really cooks. The rhythm section hits it hard, and Wood rides the wave on top, but she never has to shout. The band takes a flight of fancy in the solo section in the middle, and it all comes back together beautifully, so Wood can take it home. This is a great way to open an album, and varied pleasures follow. Wood also shows a fine feel for Brazilian-flavored songs.

Lisa Kirchner: Leila‘s Song


Lisa Kirchner sings songs from the American songbook. For other artists, that might mean Cole Porter, Lerner and Lowe, maybe even Stephen Sondheim for a stretch. I am quite sure Kirchner could do justice to any of those, and maybe she will in the future. But here, Kirchner’s American Songbook includes Charles Ives, Ned Rorem, and Samuel Barber, to name a few. Maybe these names are not even familiar to some of my readers. They were 20th century classical composers. So was Kirchner’s father, and some of these composers were visitors to her home in Kirchner’s childhood. So Something To Sing About is certainly a jazz album, but many of the songs were born as art songs. The album’s 18 songs also include two Lisa Kirchner originals that sound right at home in this company. Kirchner has a richly textured voice, and she purrs her way through Leila’s song. She moves around the beat, elongating or shortening notes to enhance the emotion of the piece, and she does this very well. Her use of dynamic shifts is very gradual and subtle, and all the more effective for it. The odd-sounding instrument you hear is an accordion, played in a way I have never heard before. Modern classical music can be intimidating to listen to, but don’t let yourself be scared off of this one. Something to Sing About is a treat from start to finish.

Eleanor Dubinsky: America


America is the only song in this set that has no bass part. Eleanor Dubinsky constructs her songs in efficient ways, with some parts implied but not played. Her voice is a low alto, but it floats like smoke. There is no lack of feeling here, but it has an almost deadpan quality, and the emotions get stronger with repeated listens. Some of the songs on Touch the Sky are in Spanish, and the Latin influence is clear even on the songs that are in English. Dubinsky’s songs build slowly, with America being a fine example of this. Dubinsky enters singing over just a single percussion line. Just when you think that’s it, the acoustic guitars enter, followed by additional percussion. The song comes apart differently at the end. Everything the song needs is here, and nothing else.