THE DOZENS: 12 JAZZ DIVAS YOU NEED TO KNOW by Thomas Cunniffe

”Singer

       Singer in Red, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

“Jazz singer” used to be one of the most controversial terms in the jazz lexicon. Back in 1963, the British jazz historian Benny Green claimed that was no such thing as a jazz singer, and as late as the 1980s, the argument was being advanced by none other than Mel Tormé! Of course, jazz itself defies definition, and that makes defining a jazz singer difficult as well.

The argument is rarely heard these days, mostly due to the large influx of talented, schooled vocalists who prove their right to be called jazz singers by the quality and content of their performances. As in any group of artists, there are some that have gained popularity, and others who are just as talented who are not as well-known. So, without taking anything away from Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Madeline Peyroux, here are twelve other contemporary female jazz vocalists who you definitely should hear.


Ann Hampton Callaway: What Is This Thing Called Love

Track

What Is This Thing Called Love?

Artist

CD

At Last (Telarc 83665)

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Musicians:

Ann Hampton Callaway (vocals),

Ted Rosenthal (piano), Jay Leonhart (bass), Victor Lewis (drums)

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Composed by Cole Porter; arranged by Ann Hampton Callaway & Bill Mays.

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Recorded: New York, March 4-8, 2008

Ann_hampton_callaway_at_last

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Ann Hampton Callaway is a graceful performer equally at home in the worlds of jazz and cabaret. In addition to many classic pop songs, her repertoire includes several of her own compositions which reflect and expand on the legacy of American Popular Song. Originally, I had planned to discuss one of her original songs, but this version of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is a superb example of Callaway in a pure jazz vein.

Over a sinuous vamp figure, Callaway wraps her velvety alto voice around Cole Porter’s lyrics, making subtle variations to the melody. After the first chorus, Callaway yields to a piano solo, and one might think that the vocalist would be absent until the last chorus of the track. But Callaway keeps herself involved in the arrangement and after a chorus of piano, she’s back for a George Shearing-styled shout chorus which introduces short solos by bass and drums. Then, backed by only bass and drums, Callaway sings a bop-flavored scat solo that shows that she has learned equally from vocalists and instrumentalists alike. Indeed, Callaway is a pianist herself and like many of her contemporaries, her scatting is informed by her knowledge of chords and scales, and guided by her fine ear.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Jill Seifers: The Night We Called It A Day

Track

The Night We Called It A Day

Artist

Jill Seifers (vocals)

CD

Birdland Sessions (Koch Jazz 8574)

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Musicians:

Jill Seifers (vocals), Michael Kanan (piano).

Composed by Matt Dennis & Tom Adair

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Recorded: Birdland, New York, March 15 & 22, 1998

Jill_seifers--birdland_sessions

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Jill Seifers appeared on the New York scene a little more than a decade ago, made two wonderful albums on her own and appeared on recordings with Ingrid Jenson and Vincent Herring. She also worked in pop music, singing backups for Shawn Colvin and Jessica Simpson, and sang in a rock group called Yes Virginia. She’s now known as Jill Walsh, lives in Nashville, and has recorded several jazz duo albums with pianist Mika Pohjola.

Her remarkable reading of the Matt Dennis-Tom Adair standard “The Night We Called It A Day” should be required listening for any jazz vocalist. Seifers creates a personalized interpretation without changing a note of the original song! Instead, she uses a few well-placed downward slides (most notably on “the hoot of an owl”) and an exceptional control of dynamics to bring out the meaning of the words. Seifer’s pure soprano voice conveys a sense of innocence and that makes the song’s dramatic story even more effective. What makes the performance extra-special is that Seifers and Kanan include the verse to this song (Did you know this song had a verse—and in major?). Kanan plays the verse as an extended intro, then Seifers sings the whole thing through before moving to the chorus. Like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, the extended prelude is there because the performance of the chorus is so powerful that nothing else could follow.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Stacey Kent: Comes Love

Track

Comes Love

Artist

Stacey Kent (vocals)

CD

Love Is ... The Tender Trap (Chiaroscuro 217)

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Musicians:

Stacey Kent (vocals),

Jim Tomlinson (tenor sax), David Newton (piano), Colin Oxley (guitar), Dave Green (bass), Jeff Hamilton (drums)

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Composed by Lew Brown, Sammy Stept & Charles Tobias

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Recorded: London, February 1 or 2, 1998

Stacey_kent--tender_trap

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Born in New York, but based in London, Stacey Kent has spent much of her career singing with traditional and swing bands. She is beloved in those circles for her light voice, supple swing and attention to the melody. With her Blue Note CD, Breakfast On The Morning Tram, Kent has veered away from that base and into more challenging material. While it’s doubtful that she will ever completely leave the trad/swing audience behind, “Comes Love” was an early example of Kent’s willingness to take chances on a standard song. From her first entrance, Kent takes a joyous, sassy approach to the song. She starts changing the melody from the outset, as if to say she’ll get to the melody somewhere along the line, but not right now—she’s having too much fun. Kent’s husband, Jim Tomlinson takes the tenor solo in his best Getz-influenced style and even he leans toward Getz’s open-blowing jam session style rather than his cool school style. When Kent comes back for the last half-chorus, she turns on the heat with a pronounced rhythmic feel that works effectively against the straight-ahead swing style of the rhythm section.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Claire Martin: But Beautiful

Track

But Beautiful

Artist

Claire Martin (vocals)

CD

Secret Love (Linn 246)

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Musicians:

Claire Martin (vocals),

Nigel Hitchcock (soprano sax), Gareth Williams (piano, organ), Richard Cottle (organ), Jim Mullen (guitar), Lawrence Cottle (electric bass), Clark Tracey (drums), Miles Bould (percussion)

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Composed by Johnny Burke & Jimmy Van Heusen

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Recorded: London, June 2004

Claire_martin--secret_love_1

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Claire Martin is by far the most popular jazz singer in England. While her biography lists Betty Carter and Shirley Horn as primary influences, her voice carries the unmistakable smokiness of June Christy. Martin’s artistry extends further than Christy’s, with her soulful delivery and exquisitely-detailed melodic inventions.

“But Beautiful” is a challenging song: its primary motive is a simple rising and falling idea which repeats at several pitch levels. The motives culminate with sweeping melodies in the second and fourth eight-bar phrases. To maintain interest, the singer needs to either think of the song as two 16-bar segments, building through each one, or concentrate on the basic motive, making changes as the song progresses. Martin actually takes both approaches in this recording. In her opening chorus, she makes several variations to the motive, all quite different from one another in subtle ways. Jim Mullen’s guitar solo is in long meter and the double-time feel buoys Martin into her final half-chorus, where each statement of the motive builds on the last. However, she avoids the predictable big ending, relaxing with the rhythm as the feel goes back to straight time, offering a set of tasty variations on the penultimate phrase on a repeated tag ending.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Dena DeRose: All My Love

Track

All My Love

Artist

Dena DeRose (piano, vocals)

CD

A Walk In The Park (MaxJazz 502)

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Musicians:

Dena DeRose (piano, vocals),

Martin Wind (bass), Matt Wilson (drums)

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Composed by Al Jolson, Saul Chaplin & Harry Akst.

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Recorded: Brooklyn, New York, September 25 or 26, 2004

Dena_derose--a_walk_in_the_park

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Dena DeRose is a gifted pianist and vocalist, and she has exceptional taste in songs. I'm forever beholden to her for re-discovering and recording “All My Love”, a gloriously beautiful song written by Al Jolson. Its simple melody sounds like an old Russian-Jewish folk song and its lyric, while straight-forward, contains marvelous word construction on the bridge. DeRose’s recording of the song is intense and passionate. Starting with a classically-styled piano introduction, the dramatic mood sets in with Wilson’s mallets on toms and cymbals over a stark vamp by DeRose and Wind. DeRose keeps her first vocal chorus simple, letting the song speak for itself. There is great conviction in her reading of the lyric, and it’s very clear that this song holds great personal meaning for her. Next, Wind plays a wondrous arco bass solo. At first listen, it sounds like he is having technical issues with his instrument as he jumps between the lower and higher octave, but it is more likely that he is doing this deliberately to evoke the sound of a Eastern European violinist. When DeRose returns, the big ending we may have anticipated starts to build. Yet, here DeRose uses the marvelous lyric of the bridge to protract the ending. The lyric reads “And our dreams untold that were so ideal/Will all fade as we make them real”. The turnaround of mood of fatalism to optimism is quite remarkable, and DeRose accentuates this on the word “fade”: as she holds the note, the buildup behind her suddenly dissipates. Then she starts the buildup again in the last eight bars. The final section of the recording is emotionally overwhelming with Wind’s arco bass returning in an improvised obbligato with DeRose before the performance winds down.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Nnenna Freelon (with Take 6): Straighten Up And Fly Right

Track

Straighten Up And Fly Right

Artist

Nnenna Freelon (vocals)

CD

Soulcall (Concord Jazz 4896)

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Musicians:

Nnenna Freelon (vocals),

Take 6: Alvin Chea, Cedric Dent, Joel Kibble, Mark Kibble, Claude McKnight, David Thomas (vocals).

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Composed by Nat King Cole

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Recorded: New York, April 20, 2000—April 23, 2000

Nnenna_freelon--soulcall

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Nnenna Freelon came to jazz singing after raising three children and working as a health care administrator. She was branded a Sarah Vaughan imitator when her first album came out in 1992, but her style evolved rapidly and her recordings over the last 10 years show her as a singer with a style all her own. “Straighten Up & Fly Right” is an apt song for a collaboration between Freelon and the gospel/jazz vocal ensemble Take 6. Nat King Cole based the lyrics on a sermon his father used to deliver. Both Freelon and the members of Take 6 are deeply religious, and so for them, the song implies more than just a story about a monkey and a buzzard. There are no instruments on this recording, but Take 6 sounds like a swinging big band with its wide range of voices and powerful riffs. Freelon sings the melody with a crystal clear sound to which she adds a little growl when hits the word “lie.” Freelon contributes a brief scat solo as Take 6 imitates trombones over the sung bass line. The ending is delightful, as Freelon slowly slides up to the top of the final chord, and then sings a final fall with the other voices.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Tierney Sutton: Sometime Ago

Track

Sometime Ago

Artist

Tierney Sutton (vocals)

CD

Blue In Green (Telarc 83522)

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Musicians:

Tierney Sutton (vocals),

Trey Henry, Ken Wild (basses), Ray Brinker (drums)

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Composed by Sergei Mihanovich

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Recorded: Los Angeles; November 14-16, 2000

Tierney_sutton--blue_in_green

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Tierney Sutton’s style pairs a cool vocal sound with an adventurous musical spirit, and she collaborates with her band to develop new approaches to classic songs. This recording of “Sometime Ago” comes from her CD tribute to Bill Evans, and features the unusual instrumentation of 2 basses and percussion. A pervasive bass figure in 6/8 time dominates the performance, while Brinker taps a Latin dance rhythm with his brushes on some sort of hard surface. While many vocalists would attempt to break out of such a tightly-woven background, Sutton works within it, becoming part of the band instead of the vocalist up front. The background figure continues through the solos by one of the basses and Sutton. Her scat solo sounds like a continuation of what has come before, and indeed, it would sound perfectly idiomatic on a bass. Only in the final chorus does Sutton start to break away from the pervasive rhythm, and then there is a subtle give-and-take between her rhythmic play and the bass ostinato.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Patricia Barber: I Could Eat Your Words

Track

I Could Eat Your Words

Artist

Patricia Barber (vocals, piano)

CD

Verse (Blue Note 39856)

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Musicians:

Patricia Barber (vocals, piano), Dave Douglas (trumpet),

Neal Alger (guitar), Michael Aronpol (bass), Joey Baron (drums)

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Composed by Patricia Barber

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Recorded: Chicago, February 10-14, 2002

Patricia_barber-verse

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

A Chicago native, Patricia Barber still lives and works in the Windy City, despite her worldwide critical acclaim. With a dark voice and a wit to match, Barber takes a minimalist approach to her style, letting words and meaning sink in the listener’s brain. “I Could Eat Your Words” is a Barber original which tells of a student seducing her English professor over dinner. The lyrics are an absolute delight with a few words that will send the listener running for a dictionary. Of course, they are perfect for the setting as the student uses the professor’s own vocabulary as a weapon of seduction. Further, Barber mixes the worlds of food and language as in the delicious phrase, “season reason with a transitive verb”. Barber’s cool (but not detached) vocal conveys a sense of total control. Dave Douglas provides a subtle contrast with his wry trumpet solo filled with intriguing ideas and astounding note choices. Then, Barber takes a short piano solo which takes a single idea and moves it into different places in the rhythmic structure. Barber then returns for a final half-chorus and a very interesting tag line: “Baby, teach me tonight”. It is as if the student has succeeded in the seduction and is now willing to cede the power back to the professor.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Luciana Souza: Never Let Me Go

Track

Never Let Me Go

Artist

Luciana Souza (vocals)

CD

North & South (Sunnyside 1112 )

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Musicians:

Luciana Souza (vocals),

Edward Simon (piano), Scott Colley (bass), Clarence Penn (drums)

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Composed by Jay Livingston & Ray Evans

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Recorded: New York, 2002

Luciana_souza--north___south

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Luciana Souza is a Brazilian vocalist with extraordinary range. As comfortable with the contemporary classical music of Osvaldo Golijov as she is with the sambas of Tom Jobim, she has composed music to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda, and sings astounding versions of American pop standards. Her recording of “Never Let Me Go” digs deep into the lyric’s theme of fear and loneliness in a very profound way. Souza stretches out the song’s phrases, moving them further and further away from where they usually fit in the harmony. The band never includes extra beats or bars to make up for this discrepancy, and there’s a great feeling of tension as we wonder how Souza will finish the song in time with the rhythm section. This technique focuses our attention on Souza and the words that she sings, and her intense, dramatic delivery sears into the heart. Exactly how does Souza catch up with the rhythm section? Well, I’ve listened to this recording several times, counting measures and listening for dropped lyrics and shortened phrases, and I’m still not sure how she did it. I can say that it’s an amazing extension of a similar technique used by Chris Connor on a famous live version of “Misty” from the Village Gate. But while Connor’s version seemed far off the melody, she always got caught up by the end of each 8-bar phrase; Souza’s “Never Let Me Go” stretches the idea further, going over and beyond the structure of the phrases to create her own unique—and unforgettable—interpretation.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Karrin Allyson (with Nancy King): Life Is A Groove (Jordu)

Track

Life Is A Groove (Jordu)

Artist

Karrin Allyson (vocals)

CD

Footprints (Concord Jazz 2291)

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Musicians:

Karrin Allyson (vocals), Nancy King (vocals),

Bruce Barth (piano), Peter Washington (bass), Todd Strait (drums)

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Composed by Duke Jordan, lyrics by Chris Caswell

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Recorded: New York, September 24-29, 2005

Albumcoverkarrinallyson-footprints

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Karrin Allyson and Nancy King are separated by a generation, but they have a symbiotic relationship. While each has a distinctive style and sound, they blend especially well when performing in a duet setting. On the chorus of “Life Is A Groove” (Chris Caswell’s lyricized version of “Jordu”), we hear Allyson and King separately before they join together at the bridge. While their blend at the bridge and final eight of the opening and closing choruses is quite good, they save the best for the end. Over a repeated tag, they scat and riff together with infectious joy. The listener’s focus shifts back and forth between the two singers, even though both vocalists are singing most of the time. The trade-offs are as an easy flow rather than in a preset plan of “you take 2 bars, then I’ll take the next 2”. Further, both Allyson and King move freely between scat and lyrics without destroying the balance. Unfortunately, we just don’t hear enough of it: the solo section between the theme choruses is all instrumental, and while those solos are superb, the coda gives us what we wanted to hear—two marvelous vocalists improvising over a great set of bop chord changes.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Roseanna Vitro: Do Something

Track

Do Something

Artist

Roseanna Vitro (vocals)

CD

Live At The Kennedy Center (Challenge 73252)

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Musicians:

Roseanna Vitro (vocals),

Kenny Werner (piano), Dean Johnson (bass), Tim Horner (drums)

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Composed by Bud Green and Sam Stept

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Recorded: Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, September 16 & 17, 2005

Roseanna_vitro--live_at_the_kennedy_center

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Roseanna Vitro is one of the most versatile singers working today. She has recorded album-length tributes to both Ray Charles and Bill Evans, and one of her performing groups melds jazz with Eastern Indian music. Her ballads have a great sense of immediacy, and her blues singing can rattle the foundations. “Please Do Something” shows off her delightful sense of humor. The song was written in 1929 by Bud Green and Sam Stept and resurrected by Betty Carter. The song deals with an after-hours tryst. In Carter’s rendition (which is much more explicit than the original), she is increasingly frustrated by her young companion’s inexperience. Vitro’s version--funneled through Carter's revision--is light-hearted and seductive, as she tries to convince a man to share her “king-sized, motorized” bed. Vitro’s scat solo is a miniature history of vocal jazz. Starting with ideas borrowed from swing style (including a quote from Lester Young’s “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid”), Vitro gradually adds bop phrases, and in a surprising--and apparently spontaneous-- twist, she ends the chorus with the free-jazz yodeling of Leon Thomas! Throughout the performance, Vitro sings with great spirit and captivating swing, and the overriding good humor of the piece even gets to her at the end.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Anita Wardell: My Shining Hour

Track

My Shining Hour

Artist

Anita Wardell (vocals)

CD

Until The Stars Fade (Symbol 20010101)

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Musicians:

Anita Wardell (vocals),

Robin Aspland (piano), Jeremy Brown (bass), Mark Taylor (drums)

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Composed by Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer

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Recorded: London, January 8 & 9, 2001

Anita_wardell--until_the_stars_fade

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Anita Wardell may be the best-kept secret in vocal jazz today. While she has a substantial following in the UK, she is virtually unknown in the United States. Her imported albums are pricey and sometimes difficult to find. But rest assured, she is well worth seeking out! Blessed with a pure straight vocal tone, remarkable agility and boundless imagination, she is not only one of the best scat singers in jazz today, but also a master of vocalese. One of her finest accomplishments is her lyricized version of Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo on “Moanin’” (see the video here), and while her CD version is wonderful, I’ve chosen her up-tempo version of “My Shining Hour” for her marvelous scat solo. Wardell approaches scatting in a purely instrumental manner, and her deep knowledge of chromatic harmony allows her to explore the nooks and crannies within the chord changes. In her three-chorus scat solo, she darts through the chords with ease, creating bop lines that would make an instrumentalist proud. She outlines chords particularly well, her note choices are surprising, and her phrase lengths are quite varied—all elements that are usually missing in scat solos. Her improvisations could—and should—change the way the jazz audience hears and appreciates vocal jazz. All that is necessary is for Anita Wardell to be heard.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


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