Monday, August 15, 2011

The Joy of Jazz

Critics sometimes talk about transcendent performances. I think that these happen when an artist is having fun. Everything else falls away, and the sheer pleasure of making music shines through. Jazz, with its freedom, lends itself to these kinds of performances. Here are some of them, from five jazz singers.

Mark Winkler: Sweet Spot (w Barbara Morrison)


I’ve talked here before about how I find it so difficult to find to find male jazz singers to feature. The model for many is the brat pack sound of Frank Sinatra and his cohorts. I find that sound heavy handed and overdone. Here’s why. Mark Winkler has all the emotion of any brat packer, but Winkler’s comes off as genuine, because he sings with a marvelous light touch. Sweet Spot the song has a bonus: Winkler is paired with Barbara Morrison, who has a great bluesy voice. Their voices are well matched, and this song sounds like it was a blast to record.

Incidentally, it may be a cliché, but Barbara Morrison is one of those great musicians who can’t afford emergency medical care. In researching her for this post. I learned that she recently had to have a leg amputated due to her diabetes. There is a fund drive on her website to raise money for her medical expenses, and you can donate here. Please help if you can.

Deborah Pearl: Doozy Blues


Deborah Pearl is one of those singers who uses her voice like a horn, in this case a tenor sax. On ballads, she skips around the beat but never loses it. She also has great dynamic control, going from loud to soft with the same emotional intensity. On the faster songs like Doozy Blues, Pearl is off and running, throwing in some scat singing along the way, and just completely celebrating the music. Souvenir of You is a tribute to Benny Carter, with Pearl’s original lyrics set to Carter’s tunes. Pearl knew Carter personally, and counted him as a friend. Souvenir of You then is a labor of love, and it sounds that way.

Audrey Silver: Exactly Like You


Where Deborah Pearl is a sax, Audrey Silver is a trumpet. There is a brashness in her delivery that gives her songs a bit of sass. I’ve heard this sort of thing taken too far, and it can really kill a performance. But Silver hits it just right, it pays off beautifully for her. Exactly Like You has both excitement and warmth as performed here. Silver likes to elongate her notes and phrases at times, pulling against the beat as laid down by her band; this creates a dramatic tension that works beautifully to get her point across.

Danielle Reich: This Year‘s Kisses


You have to listen for Danielle Reich’s voice above the band. She sings in a soft purr, caressing her songs. It seems at times that she is going to be overwhelmed by the band, but it never happens. Singers in this style can go off the rails if they are not precise about the rhythm. Reich has that down. At the end of the song This Year’s Kisses, she stops on a dime. Her voice has a quality of playful enticement, and she does a great job of finding songs that play to her strengths.

Cinzia Spata: Carlos


I started off by talking about the freedom of jazz, but singers are, of necessity, bound by the words they sing. However they do it, they must honor the emotion of their text. This is as true of Cinzia Spata as anyone else. Into the Moment is a mix of standards and more modern songs, But where the musical models for the other songs and singers in this set date from the swing era, Spata draws from bebop and the cool jazz of Miles Davis in her approach. The band is looser, and Spata has a playful quality in her voice to match. And then there is Carlos. There are no lyrics here. Spata sings scat throughout the song, and she can do whatever she wants. There is a middle section that is almost free jazz, and Spata gets some sounds in this section that a human voice should not be able to make. But she and her band never lose their sense of musicality, and they find their way back to the original melody in breathtaking fashion. In the end, this is one of the most exciting feats of vocal gymnastics I have ever heard.