The state of jazz vocals today (part one)

By Ted Gioia

How do we assess the current state of jazz singing? Of course, you can't judge a CD by its cover, but . . . well, let's just say that jazz vocalists have never looked better. Perusing the CD covers of releases by Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Roberta Gambarini, Madeleine Peyroux and others, I am overwhelmed by the sheer amount of pulchritude on display. Has Vogue magazine, perhaps, entered the jazz CD business?

             How to Sell Jazz CDs in the New Millennium

And the guys are providing as much eye candy as the ladies. Following in the footsteps of Harry Connick, newer faces such as Peter Cincotti, Matt Dusk and Michael Bublé seem to have stepped out of a Hollywood movie and into a recording studio. What a shame to keep such good looks hidden behind a grand piano. They should be on billboards, or selling their own brand of cologne, or (as they no doubt have at the top of their five year plans) stepping back inside that Hollywood film.

But these special effects do not come easily. The liner notes to Diana Krall's 2006 release From This Moment On include credits to two hairdressers, two makeup artists and one wardrobe assistant—all of them given higher ranking than Steinway (for the piano) and Krall's husband, Elvis Costello. Jane Monheit's record label, not to be outdone, points out in her official bio, the "indisputable fact" that Monheit is a "stunning, raven-haired beauty"—and then goes on to mention, almost as an after-thought, her singing.

No wonder the record companies hate downloading. How do you pitch a "stunning, raven-haired beauty" in a MP3 file? How do you get a return on your hairdo investment on iTunes? Ah, how times have changed . . . how did Billie Holiday get by with just that gardenia? Where was Ella's entourage? Bessie's beautician? Sarah's stylist?

Related Story: See Jazz Vocals in the New Millennium: Selected Listening for more than 60 reviews of tracks by artists mentioned in this essay.

And how do we deal with the plight of the aging female jazz singer in this environment? The jazz world has usually celebrated its elder statesmen (and statesladies). But things have changed. Diane Schuur was building a large Grammy collection back in the 1980s, but her 2006 Live in London finds her working for the GR2 Classics label. A check of the GR2 Classic web site—which is so well hidden even my well-honed Googling skills were almost stymied in my efforts to find it—indicated that Schuur is the only artist listed in their "classics" roster. The Amazon ranking for Live in London, the last time I checked, showed it sitting at number 133,997 on their charts—ouch! Schuur's new CD comes out in a few days, and let's hope it finds a larger audience. Or consider the case of Sheila Jordan, one of the most talented jazz singers of recent decades, who recently ranked among the top five female jazz singers in the Down Beat critics' poll. Yet her newest release sits at number 196,435 on the Amazon ranking. In comparison, Krall, Jones and several other younger jazz singers are firmly entrenched in the top 100.

Let us next consider Cassandra Wilson, who is now in her early 50s and continues to produce work of outstanding merit. Unlike many celebrated voices half her age, Wilson retains an experimental zeal and innovative spirit that keeps her music vital and pleasingly unpredictable. Wilson's collaborations with Canadian guitarist Colin Linden on her 2006 Thunderbird release deserve to be much more widely heard. Wilson and Linden are an effective songwriting team—check out their composition "Poet"—but they can also revamp traditional material, such as "Red River Valley" and "Easy Rider" into strange, new forms. Wilson has always been a great blues singer, and her "Easy Rider" is majestic and oceanic, a mini-miracle in twelve-bar form. It would be a shame if listeners missed out on this music because it didn't come packaged like a product from L'Oreal.

Don't get me wrong, I love displays of glamour on my CD rack, but I also admire the latest recordings of all-too-easily forgotten fifty-somethings like Dianne Reeves and Diane Schuur, sexagenarian Andy Bey, septuagenarians Abbey Lincoln, Mark Murphy, or that indefatigable octogenarian Tony Bennett. But even more to the point, I have suspicions. I am dismayed to think that record companies might be choosing artists on the basis of their looks. (In the words of Captain Renault, as the croupier hands him his winnings: "I'm shocked—shocked!—to find that gambling is going on in here.") This is worse than the Titanic, my friends. Not only are the aged and infirm left behind, but also less glamorous vocalists of the current generation, who are denied record contracts because they fail to live up to the A&R department's preconceptions of what a star looks like.

A few months ago, this was my hunch, a numb feeling in my gut as I walked down the jazz aisles at the local megachain. But now that I have sifted through a couple hundred recent CDs of jazz singers—even managing to make a dent in the growing mountain of obscure indie projects and self-produced releases that overwhelm even the best intentioned critic—my worst fears have been confirmed. Here's my verdict in a nutshell: the label execs may have an eye for talent, but they need to give their ears a workout too. How else do brilliant artists—such as Julia Dollison, Melissa Stylianou, Sara Jones or Susana Raya, to mention just four names—get lost in the shuffle, while lesser talents with a higher Q-score strut the big stage? And I am left to ponder what wonders we might be hearing, if the labels (like many symphony orchestras these days) conducted auditions with the performer hidden behind a screen, allowing the music, and only the music, to take center stage.

I never worried much about the appearance of jazz in the past, but today this is a matter crying out for a great critic to address. Some deep thinker needs to write a penetrating history of jazz as a symbol, as an image in our collective psyche. Ever since Fitzgerald (F. Scott, not Ella) appropriated the term "the Jazz Age" to denote a whole way of life, this music has been weighed down with multiple layers of meaning. When swing was the thing, jazz took on new symbolic resonance. When hip was hep, when cool was the school, when beats were worldbeaters, when retro was the rage --- jazz was always there, sanctioning lifestyles and casting a beneficent light on the proceedings.

And today? Judging by the jazz singers of our new millennium, the music is now the conduit for our fantasy life. Jazz has become the symbol of a glamorous sensuality. If jazz was once the seedy, disreputable music of an underclass, it is now the stylish, sexy soundtrack for the beautiful people. Or for the less-than-beautiful who want to plunge into an imaginary life that is cooler and more romantic, even if it is a little old-fashioned. Just look at the CD covers, with those fashions and hairstyles straight out of Hollywood movies from the Golden Age. The harsh and gritty, once part and parcel of jazz singing (think of Louis Armstrong's sandpapery voice or Billie Holiday's dark pathos) are now passé. In our age of "hooking up" and enjoying "friends with benefits," the jazz singers are prettified and dolled up as representatives of the lost era of chivalrous love, reminding us of a more romantic flirtatiousness, of an idealized view of 1940s and 1950s relationships, slightly modernized for 21st century tastes. The look and feel of the CDs, the packaging of the artists, the choice of songs, all tend toward this same "retro" end point.

     Jane Monheit, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

Someone should explain this to the aspiring singers of the next generation—perhaps distribute flyers at the American Idol tryouts. They are worrying about hitting the high notes, singing in tune, expanding their range, building up their lung power—when they should be talking to cosmetic surgeons, auditioning photographers, working on their "come hither" glances, and finding the right wardrobe. Singing is now only a small component of the vocalist's arsenal—maybe the least important from the perspective of the music industry—and just having Aretha's voice is not enough any more, if you also have Aretha's figure.

Don't get me wrong: the jazz vocal stars of the new millennium are, for the most part, talented singers—if you can turn away from their double dose of good looks long enough to pay attention to the music. Norah Jones and Diana Krall, to mention only two of the most celebrated jazz divas of our day, are a delight to hear. They never oversing—and this may be the one area in which the younger singers, especially the women, are better than the older generation. They take the emotional temperature of a song, and don't deviate it from it. They don't bastardize the meaning of a lyric with unnecessary theatrics or grand gestures. They don't confuse a misty-eyed torch song by interjecting inappropriate dittley-dattley-doo scat singing interludes. They never show off, never disrupt the suchness of a musicall interlude. Instead, the listeners are treated to nuanced performances where the music and lyrics are perfectly matched.

Norah Jones is our obvious starting point for our survey of jazz singers. But not just for her CD sales, which are extraordinary, or her good looks, but (especially) for her talent. If you don't pay attention, you may miss how well Jones sings, since so much of the activity happens at the microtonal level, with those subtle shifts within the note, within the phrase, in the linkages between the tones. Jazz singing is still an analog art form. Let the opera stars pride themselves on hitting the note spot on in the middle. Jazz vocalists, in contrast, are expected to play a sly game with the pitches, slipping and sliding around the tonal center. And they do the same with the beat, holding back or rushing ahead with the phrase, disrupting the rhythmic flow based on their inspiration of the moment.

Listen carefully to Jones' breakthrough hit "Don't Know Why" and savor how these delicate touches contribute to the emotional force of the song. Jones takes a simple, almost nursery-rhyme melody and infuses it with rich dimensions of feeling, the lazy, falling vocal traipsing wistfully after the descending bass-line. A little country twang, the calling card of Jones' Texas up-bringing, mixes effortlessly with her blues notes and jazz vocabulary—and do we even hear a touch of raga phrasing inherited from father Ravi Shankar? But the mixture is not too spicy, not too sweet, capturing a beautiful rightness. Critics with wooden ears have dismissed this as saccharine pop music, but they under-estimate the talent of this vocalist, who may eventually rank as the finest interpreter of songs of her generation.

Of course, she is already the best-selling. True, you cannot judge a jazz performance by shopping carts and ringing cash registers, but even a jaded jazz writer like me takes notice at the numbers racked up by Ms. Jones. Her debut CD, Come Away With Me, sold twenty million copies worldwide. (By comparison, many well known jazz performers have spent entire careers without having a single release sell more than 25,000 copies.) Her follow-up recording, Feels Like Home, moved a million copies in a single week! Her third CD, Not Too Late, may have fallen short of these dazzling totals, but it is hard to carp at a release that jumped to number one on the all the charts immediately upon release. To put these figures in perspective, there have been weeks in which the sales of this single chanteuse have accounted for more industry revenue than all of the other jazz releases on the market put together.

Such success inevitably invites imitation, and I can safely predict that we will continue to find the CD racks cluttered with Norah-wannabes for at least the next twenty years (just as we are still feeling the second order effects of Harry Connick, twenty years after his appearance on the scene). Katie Melua has emerged as the leading European challenger in this competition, and might even pass for Norah in a blindfold test. Melua was still in her teens when a BBC radio producer mounted a campaign to push her single "The Closest Thing To Crazy" to the top of the charts. It never got higher than the tenth slot. But her second CD, Piece by Piece, established her as the top-selling vocalist in Europe. It sold three million copies—over one million in the UK alone. Yet Melua does not have Jones' depth of feeling in her singing; some critics have even carped that her vocals are emotionless and dull, which is perhaps too harsh. I trace the difference back, again, to phrasing: Norah hints and teases, while Katie just banters. (Forgive me, if it sounds like I am describing the action at the singles bar, but jazz vocals are also a type of preening and courtship, and the psychological intensity of song, so to speak, often derives from these minor details.)

Generally the clones and imitators drag down the jazz world, but Norah Jones may change this. The success of her recordings has already had one positive effect—it has encouraged other young jazz singers to develop original material, and not just rely on the same tired Gershwin and Porter songs that have been around since my grandfather's day. Back in 2002, when I played the seer and contributed some predictions to a little volume called The Future of Jazz, I offered advice to the new generation of jazz vocalists, who seemed trapped in a rut of recreating the 1930s and 1940s tunes ad nauseum. "Tap into new material," I suggested. "It is not enough to be a singer, you must also be a poet. If you are not able to write your own songs, find some one who has the creative vision to do this for you." Today the world of jazz vocals has embraced that vision with a vengeance, and almost every up-and-coming singer is tackling fresh and contemporary material. I wish I could take credit for all this. But the release of Norah Jones' first CD, almost at the same time that I wrote those words, was the overpowering force that changed all the rules. Jazz singing is merging with pop singing, and although some of the purists are offended (and, note, it is usually a healthy sign when these dour folks are offended), I welcome this refreshing development.

When Jones first hit the scene, more than a few arbiters of taste proclaimed that her music wasn't really jazz, and now we will inevitably hear the same about great young talent such as Amos Lee, Somi, Lizz Wright, Sasha Dobson, Anna Maria Jopek and Janita, among others. Their music defies categorization, but in an uplifting, devil-may-care way. The pop-rock world abandoned the singer-songwriter years ago—much to its detriment—so why shouldn't the jazz folks jump into the breach? This whole development is very promising and maybe the most exciting turn-of-events in jazz during the last decade. In the "Age of Norah," jazz singing may finally be moving beyond the confines of pre-WWII tunes and embracing new material, new attitudes with a vengeance.

But Jones is not the only megastar in our firmament. Ali needed Fraizer, Bird needed Magic, and Norah Jones needs Diana Krall—a challenger to the title of leading jazz diva of the new millennium, to keep the competition interesting and everyone on their toes. Krall can't match Jones' CD sales—her releases only sell in the millions, not the tens of millions. But when you get to that level, whose counting? Krall long ago established herself as a mega-draw in the jazz world, and her marriage to Elvis Costello means that, if they file joint tax returns, this talented couple more than keep up with Joneses in the adjusted gross income department.

     Diana Krall, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

Krall is more deeply rooted in the jazz tradition than Jones, and her repertoire is not much different than what Ella or Sarah were singing a generation ago. This may sound like the safe choice, but it isn't. A thousand vocalists have ended up on the boulevard of broken dreams by trying to resuscitate "'S Wonderful" or "Let's Fall in Love." These songs have been so picked over that there is hardly any meat left on their bones. But Krall avoids all the traps here. She doesn't lapse into imitation of her predecessors. She doesn't try to out-scat Ella or hit higher notes than Sarah. She doesn't get cutesy or treat the song with museum-like reverence. Instead she does just what we want her to do—namely probe the emotional insides of these melodies. She lives the song, and does it with such honesty and immediacy, that we forget whether the song was written in 1938 or 1968. It sounds like she composed it on the piano this afternoon before showing up at the gig.

I would like to go further, and tell you how hard it is for a singer to get the old tunes to sound so fresh, to revivify their inner lives for the MySpace generation. But Krall makes it seem so simple. Yes, there is technique here, although not the obvious kind you see celebrated on American Idol. Take a metronome and measure the tempo on Krall's version of "I'm Through With Love" (from her All for You CD) and you will find . . . ah, you will find that you can't do it because your metronome doesn't have a setting for tempos that slow. (My son has just pointed out to me that I need to double the tempo on the metronome and divide by two to determine the pulse. Where's that calculator?) The jazzcats who play fast and furious get all the attention, but achieving the "flow state" (to borrow the terminology of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) at a pulse of 35 beats per minute is far more challenging. Krall is marvelous at these tempos. The song breathes, takes on a supple spaciousness as natural and uncluttered as a wide open horizon. Searching for comparisons, I am tempted to mention Carmen McRae or Betty Carter or Shirley Horn, who each demonstrated supple rhythmic phrasing when singing ballads. Or Mark Murphy, who has was always achieved Csikszentmihalyi's flow state in his performances, but has gotten better with the passing years—his recent all-ballads CD Once to Every Heart is a virtual textbook in loose, unfettered phrasing over slow tempos . But ultimately such comparisons are unfair to Ms. Krall who has established a distinctive voice of her own. She has already earned her own wing in the pantheon of ballad singers.

When I listen to Jones and Krall, I wonder whether these new stylists don't portend what jazz will sound like after all the modernist and post-modernist agendas fall out of fashion. We will then be left with the music itself, stripped of ideologies, left with songs staying to be true to their own emotional prerogatives. We will no longer debate whether an artist is progressive or reactionary—but instead immerse ourselves in the warmth of the music's inner glow. When that day comes, when we finally recognize that the history of music as a series of revolutionary developments is over, when song returns to the much richer responsibility of meeting human needs, we will look at these two artists as having been whispering this in our ears all along. At least, that is my dream and, indeed, my expectation.

But the experimental, progressive wing in jazz singing still has powerful advocates on its behalf. Patricia Barber may not have the crossover appeal of Krall or Jones but her work is every bit as creative, and often more surprising. She doesn't play the glamor game on her CD covers—her recent Mythologies release features a delicate image in acrylic and ink by Rachel Salomon—and I respect this choice, which seems to run counter to much that Blue Note stands for these days. But this is only one of many areas in which Barber rejects the conventional and expected. Her recordings tend to announce their alternative perspectives in the opening seconds. The first words on the first track of Mythologies are: "Should I leave Erebus to his own device, what Chaos when the curtain rises, and the houselights dim, with whitecake on my face . . ." Maybe not quite "riverrun past Eve and Adam's," but pretty out there for a jazz song. Her live recording in Paris kicks off: "Did you ever think a piano could fall on your head." (Let's hope the Parisians brought along their English phrase books that night.) And even when she plays someone else's hit song, Barber twists new meanings from it. The Patricia Barber Companion starts unexpectedly with a Sonny Bono song, and the vocalist intoning in the most blasé, world-weary voice, "and the beat goes on." I laughed out loud at that, still not quite sure why it was so funny, but it just was.

I am tempted to brand Barber as a performance artist who happens to work within a jazz framework— sort of a Laurie Anderson with syncopation. But that description, however apt in some regards, gives insufficient credit to her jazz roots. She is an outstanding jazz pianist, and could build a reputation on this alone. On the live recording in Paris, she sizzles through a seven minute instrumental, called "Crash," which features some of the freshest modal keyboard work I have heard in years. And she can sing a ballad straight—hear her work on "Laura"—and wring a tear from the audience, without resorting to any theatrics or contrivances. But these moments of reverence for the jazz tradition are always short-lived at a Barber performance. She is too focused on the here-and-now, and must have missed the nostalgia shots they give the other jazz singers at their annual check-up.

Why aren't more of our leading singers pushing the envelope like Barber? Let's be honest: jazz vocals never developed a vibrant experimental tradition. Jazz singing never had its Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler, never even had its Coltrane or Dolphy. No avant-garde singer has ever exerted strong influence on the music. While the rest of the jazz world was wrestling with the future, the singers were obsessed with the past. Even today, the most pressing issue for an aspiring jazz singer is how to deal with the tradition. Perhaps it would safer to say, how not to be overwhelmed by the tradition. Instead of wholesale experimentation, we find cautious delving into new ground, and sometimes quaint game-playing. Tierney Sutton strings together thirteen (the number is not a coincidence, I assure you) songs on happiness into a CD, and presents "Get Happy" as if it were a gloomy, funeral dirge. Kendra Shank takes Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away" and deconstructs it syllable by syllable, enunciating the lyrics as though her native language is Latvian, and she learned these new words by rote. Ann Dyer brings vocal twists and turns drawn from Indian traditions into a modern pop song, going from rock to raga in seconds flat. No, these are not revolutions, dear comrade—there are few revolutions to be heard in jazz singing—but rather a modest quest after the new and different. Sometimes they work, sometimes they fall short, but the quest itself is always noble.

Yet traditionalists still out-number the progressives in the world of jazz vocals by a five-to-one margin. Jane Monheit may have grown up in the 1980s and 1990s, but her stylistic development stopped short somewhere around VE-Day. She has a bright, perky delivery, a capacious range and good, clean intonation. There are no dark, emotional recesses in her songs—everything happens on the surface with no insides to probe. She is effervescent on up-tempo songs, and sweet-as-pie on ballads. This singer still has room to grow, but not in her technical command, which is already impressive, but rather in probing the psychological depths of her material. If she could add this to her already impressive arsenal of skills—not forgetting her "stunning, raven-haired beauty"—she might live up to the hype of her PR campaign.

We see this same respect for the past in the works of many European vocalists, who show that they are careful students of jazz history. Roberta Gambarini may have made her reputation in Milan, Italy, but her sound is immersed in the musical vocabulary of Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O'Day. Silje Nergaard hails from Norway, but instead of building on the great jazz tradition of her native land, she is busy channeling Blossom Dearie. Janita from Finland (now a US resident) could be the second coming of Basia. Each of these three vocalists—Gambarini, Nergaard, Janita—is exceptionally talented and a delight to hear, but they are perhaps too respectful of the traditions they have inherited. I pay especial attention to singers from outside the United States, because I have (often dashed) hopes that they will bring fresh perspectives and a different musical vocabulary into their jazz music. Perhaps I hold them up to too high a standard. Perhaps I am expecting too much. But I can't help it, and I am thus all the more disappointed when I hear them maintaining strict allegiance to familiar role models from the old U. S. of A. I feel like I have traveled to Paris or Rome only to dine at an American chain restaurant.

Yet even in this environment, fresh voices can be heard . . . but only if you are persistent enough to search them out. I first encountered British vocalist Ian Shaw at Ronnie Scott's in London several years ago, where he was singing as a warm-up act. I was dazzled by his vocal pyrotechnics, his stage presence and the clever arrangements he brought to his material. I can hear the jazz tradition in Shaw's singing, but it does not obscure his fundamental originality. Shaw has worked hard to build up a reputation in the US, but he still remains under-appreciated. I am not sure who handles his publicity, but they are diffident to a fault. I once wrote his record label offering to send copies of his recordings to other jazz writers with hand-written testimonials, all free of charge, just for the sheer joy of spreading his music. (By the way, this is the only time I have ever offered to do this in some thirty years of writing about jazz—so if you're thinking about asking me to do this for your CD, think again.) I never even received a response—so I can take no credit (or blame) for Mr. Shaw's level of notoriety in the music world. But even in the Internet age, I find his recordings remarkably difficult to track down, and I finally had to splurge thirty dollars to get his 2006 release Drawn to All Things: The Songs of Joni Mitchell shipped to me from overseas. (Don't believe anyone who tells you that critics get all their CDs for free. My monthly Amazon bill could support a small Third World nation.) And I recommend that you track down his music, even if you have to pay the equivalent of six or seven lattes for the privilege.

Among current jazz vocalists, Madeleine Peyroux may present the most convoluted genealogy. Born in Georgia, raised in California and New York, coming of age in Paris, Peyroux was already exposed to the diverse musical crosscurrents of these setting before her rise to fame in her early twenties. Some have compared Peyroux to Billie Holiday, and I can hear a similarity in phrasing and temperament. Yet there are many elements in her singing that refuse to be reduced to a listing of influences. I am especially struck by the extraordinary relaxation in her delivery. In an age in which many jazz singers have caught the "Broadway disease," and try to belt it out to the back rows, offering a half-dozen flourishes and curlicues where even one is enough, Peyroux appreciates the power of under-statement. She is impressive because she never tries to impress. Her phrases take on a simple beauty, each small feint and pause given their proper attention. She has a delicious thickness to her voice, almost a whiskey slur, imparting depth to the lyrics of her songs. Even when she reaches for a high note—a rarity in itself, given this singer's penchant for lingering in the middle register—she floats up to it lazily, almost reluctantly. Above all, one gets a sense that Peyroux is singing to herself, or to her own muse, and that we are fortunate to be able to overhear the process.

Karrin Allyson, like Peyroux, refuses to get caught up in the theatrics of jazz singing, and instead prefers to probe into the inner life of her songs. Her repertoire is quirky in a beguiling way, and moves from John Coltrane to Jacques Brel to Cat Stevens to Caetano Veloso, with surprising ease. But Allyson is at her best singing love songs. This is her sweet spot, her specialty, her home turf. She brings across a fragility and vulnerability that almost runs counter to the jazz aesthetic. Yes, the jazz world is familiar with love, but it's almost always a tough love, wearing a thick protective layer of ribbed, rubber latex. Allyson cuts through to the soft underbelly of this music with a deftness and honesty that is impressive. I'm not sure what mental preparation she undergoes to achieve this. Can it be taught like method acting? But anyone who has heard her work reinterpreting John Coltrane's Ballads recording, or working her way through pop material on Wild for You will appreciate the end result.

Read Part Two of "The State of Jazz Vocals Today"—in which Ted focuses mostly on male jazz singers.


February 13, 2008 · 29 comments

  • 1 Monica Taquez // Feb 13, 2008 at 10:25 PM
    Excelente la forma como el articulo describe a cada una de las estrellas mas veteranas y nacientes en el ambito del Jazz...Este estilo de musica es genial, y cada dia mejora con las innovaciones hechas por nuevos artistas.... Muchas gracias...
  • 2 Elisabeth Oei // Feb 14, 2008 at 03:43 AM
    Thank you for your exhaustive treatise on the state of female vocalists today. I agree wholeheartedly with your position that the general public places looks over substance, image over quality. By highlighting numerous female vocalists in your essay, you however have fallen into the same trap. You seem to have focused a lot on the current crop of white vocalists that cross over to the pop world while ignoring those that have pioneered the Jazz idiom, and more importantly, are propelling it forward. In particular, you've completely overlooked possibly the greatest living jazz vocalist AND COMPOSER in the world today - Carmen Lundy! She has just released her 10th CD called "Come Home" (which debuted at #22 on JazzWeek). She also brought forth a New Jazz Songbook by recently releasing the Carmen Lundy Songbook, Vol. 1 with 20 songs from her "Live at The Madrid" CD and DVD. To date, she has penned over 60 jazz compositions. She is beloved by fans and especially musicians the world over, and represents the best there is in jazz today. It's time we recognize and remember the roots of this wonderful idiom called Jazz, and celebrate those pioneers and visionaries that have been moving Jazz forward for the last 25 years or more, like Carmen Lundy. I'd love to have more discussion on why Jazz is stuck in the world of "standards", and why composers such as Ms. Lundy are overlooked and dismissed when they attempt to bring new music to the world. To experience the power and sheer beauty of this amazing vocalist and composer, you may visit
  • 3 kim myers // Feb 14, 2008 at 12:11 PM
    Kim Myers is a pianist / keyboard artist who has been serving the entertainment community for over thirty years. Whether performing solo or with his group, Kim is a professional musician who knows how to please his audience. Kim is an international performer who has toured throughout Japan and Canada. He is currently performing in Dubai. Past performances have included: corporate benefits with five hundred and more in attendance; Foxwoods Casino; many fairs and festivals; weddings and bar mitzvahs, as well as restaurants and clubs. Mr. Myers also has performed for various charitable organizations and local convalescent homes. Kim Myers' repertoire includes but is not limited to jazz, rock, soul, rhythm and blues, gospel. Standards, swing, Latin and fine dances can be requested. The group usually consists of Kim on keys, a lead guitar, bass guitar and drums. Prices for a solo date or the quartet are available upon request. Kim Myers, a talented and personable musician, can accommodate any size gathering or type of audience-anytime, anywhere. For more information or booking, please contact Skylight Music Productions at (860)794-8695 or email at You can also check out his website We look forward to servicing your music needs in the immediate future. Sincerely, Kim "Mr. Versatility" Myers
  • 4 Pete // Feb 14, 2008 at 02:52 PM
    Some good points here. Re Cassandra Wilson, though, I do believe she - in spite of slow (?) record sales - still is one the most commercial jazz singer acts on the planet - not meaning her music is commercial in a negative way - but CW and her band still, as far as I know, works frequently, and play to sizeable audiences getting sound salaries. That, of course, is because Miss Wilson is a good singer and also because she's a good bandleader with a tough regular group with an individual sound, in contrast to many other singers who just seem satisfied to use any pianotrio that can transpose changes from Real Book to the preferred key.
  • 5 HJ // Feb 17, 2008 at 08:04 AM
    Dear Ted, With all due respect, if you think for one moment that Norah Jones is a jazz singer, then you don't know your stuff as well as I thought you did. First, and foremost, jazz is a language. Either you speak it, or you don't. There's no in between. Most jazz artists learn their craft from the jazz masters that came before them, and there is a musical tree that links artists together. You'll find a link from Diana Krall to Ray Brown and Shirley Horne, but you wont find any links from Norah Jones to ANY jazz artist. Why, because she is not and never will be a jazz singer. Man, do you really think that all you have to do is have your record company market you as a jazz singer, and you magically are one? Jazz is a craft that it takes people at least 15 or 20 years to be good at. Norah has never played or sung a gig with any jazz artist. Why is that? I know about all of the politics that went down behind the scenes in the decision to market Norah Jones as a jazz singer, and it had NOTHING to do with her really being a jazz vocalist. I heard it straight from the mouth of a Blue Note exec. It's so disrespectful to jazz artists for people to claim that they have a jazz heritage when they don't. It's also easy to research the truth. And really, this doesn't fool jazz musicians. They ALL know that Norah Jones is no jazz singer, but the bigger question is, why doesn't someone like you? No, I disagree with you about your assessment of other jazz critics missing the boat on Norah Jones. Why don't they just call her what she is; a folky pop singer. The other jazz critics got it right; she is not, and is never going to be a jazz singer. You saying she is wont make it true. Especially to people who spend their lives actually playing and singing jazz.
  • 6 JackFrost // Feb 23, 2008 at 05:41 PM
    As usual, Ted nails it (I've read two of his books too). Yet, I recall (back when I was a DJ, some years back, in Phoenix's KXIV) glancing at a Kenny-G vinyl -- album credits included "makeup" presumably for the cover photo. Wanted to throw-up...
  • 7 Carol Sloane // Feb 23, 2008 at 11:32 PM
    I am so often referred to an "under-rated" singer, after working for over 50 years. And you know why? Because "critics" such as yourself will type and publish pages about female jazz singers while dismissing (or overlooking or deliberately omitting) my discography or the considerable respect I am consistently given by jazz musicians. I don't usually address such issues, but I'm getting old and pissed off about it. Write me if you wish. -Carol Sloane
  • 8 Alan Kurtz // Feb 24, 2008 at 07:00 AM
    Carol, I understand your frustration, but your comment is woefully off the mark. To accuse Ted Gioia, who runs, of "dismissing (or overlooking or deliberately omitting)" your discography itself dismisses (or overlooks or deliberately omits) the two highly favorable reviews of your work that Ted has published in just the two months that has been online. In reviewing "I Didn't Know About You," I rated it 96 out of 100, and called it "a warm and wise performance by a sensitive, mature artist." Here's the link:

    Scott Albin's review of "Let's Face the Music and Dance" gave you similar high marks, saying: "Sloane can indeed be called 'a singer's singer,' possessing a gorgeous vibrato, impeccable taste and keen interpretative ability." Here's that link:

    Lest anyone think we've suddenly posted these in response to your criticism, the first review has been on since our launch last December, and the second review appeared January 30--both, I remind you, under Ted Gioia's personal supervision.

    I'm sorry you're getting old, Carol--I myself am 62, and can testify that it happens to the best of us. But you're getting pissed off at the wrong people. As I read Ted's essay, he's conscientiously trying to clear away some of the deadwood that so clutters the landscape that deserving artists such as yourself can't be seen. It might be more productive for you to attack your enemies, not your friends.
  • 9 Annemarie Gallo // Feb 29, 2008 at 10:24 AM
    Have you ever heard Judy Niemack ? If you want to know what real jazz singing can be (but rarely is) listen to Judy.Her delivery of lyrics is full of emotion and elegance,while in her scat singing she is a consummate musician,exploring the music like a virtuoso horn player
  • 10 Steve // Mar 02, 2008 at 05:40 AM
    The link to this article promises Ted's "sometimes controversial assessments" of the vocalists. Seems to me more like a series of valentines praising, one after the other, each singer's abilities. Wringing one's hands about the packaging of CDs is hardly controversial, and should not be confused with real evaluation of the artists' abilities.
  • 11 JPFoley // Mar 07, 2008 at 11:36 PM
    Re: #14 - So Mr. Gioia should have found something to put down about each of the singers he mentions? This is your idea of a helpful evaluation? I believe his intention was to call attention to singers he deemed worthy of it. Certainly he doesn't think each one is perfect, but what would be the point of saying something negative about each singer? Each listener can determine on their own whether or not they agree with Ted's evaluations. As far as "controversial assessments," your post and #6 above prove that his assessments were indeed controversial. Finally, one who should have been mentioned: A few may equal, but nobody surpasses Kate McGarry as a jazz singer in the under-50 generation. She's the real deal. P.S. Carol Sloane was right.
  • 12 ali // Mar 08, 2008 at 11:52 AM
    this is very very nice veb in this world.
  • 13 Mr. Swing // Mar 10, 2008 at 07:56 PM
    This is a tremendously well-written essay on the state of jazz vocals. But for all Mr. Gioa's obvious erudition, he's not yet fully hip to the Filipina artist Charmaine Clamor, whom many (including me) believe is poised to enrich, enlarge, and transcend the jazz ghetto. It's a big wide world out there, and WORLD music is the future of our American experiment.
  • 14 Jimmy Scalise // Mar 10, 2008 at 10:41 PM
    Thanks for this article, Ted. Love the controversy and heated views. The subject is so subjective.
  • 15 Ann Jillian // Mar 19, 2008 at 08:23 PM
    Great site! I enjoy keeping up with jazz, especially with the fine singers. Thank you, Ann Jillian
  • 16 Jeannette Lambert // Mar 20, 2008 at 06:00 PM
    Re: "Why arent more of our leading singers pushing the envelope like Barber? Lets be honest: jazz vocals never developed a vibrant experimental tradition." This is a great question and one I wonder about everytime I hear a new singer re-hashing standards. I know that the free jazz scene can be even more relentlessly sexist than usual which may have something to do with it. Is it possible that more original singers have chosen to compose their material in other genres? Anyway, I do what I can to stick to my own background within improvised music and jazz but frankly I've been very disappointed by the unwillingness of music reviewers to even bother, first off with a vocal cd and then if it wasn't a cd of standards, forget it. Trying to reach a wider audience is very challenging. Thanks for a thoughtful article, Jeannette Lambert
  • 17 Nancy Kelly // Mar 20, 2008 at 06:13 PM
    Amen from this aging Jazz Singer.Check out my article in my blog on my site about the state of Jazz Singing. As I have said a thousand times Just singing jazz tunes does not make you a jazz singer.No Ideas. No Jazz.
  • 18 Penne Heaven // Mar 25, 2008 at 10:31 PM
    I'm not convinced that this is such an erudite article; there's too much carping and some of the observations are misguided. Where was Sarah Vaughan's stylist? You're kidding, right? Also, one of the "brilliant", lost-in-the-shuffle artists mentioned in the article (and I've heard her sing several times) possesses an unfortunate inability to swing. Even if you don't think that being able to swing is essential to jazz singing, surely you believe that a large rhythmic vocabulary is--and this artist is ratehr obviously lacking. A superb thinker and articulate, spot-on critic of jazz singing is Will Friedwald. Friedwald is a true authority worth trusting when it comes to knowledge and criticism of jazz singing. And btw, I love Carol Sloane and sing her praises.
  • 19 JazzHot // Mar 29, 2008 at 01:25 PM
    I read this article and although there is some credence to current state of jazz singing: focus on the physical and the yearning for the tried and true of newer vocalists, this article takes on a sinister slant by focusing on commercial successes and by practically omitting an important part of jazz vocal tradition. Mr. Gioa seems to attribute the entire jazz history to mainly white vocalists-beautiful or not. Cassandra Wilson is discussed and Dianne Reeves is barely mentioned.There's no mention of Carmen Lundy here either. Does he think that there aren't any vocalists of color worthy of this column or that no vocalists of color are putting out work you deem valid enough to be part "vocal jazz's past or future?" Moreover, as much as Mr. Goia heralds the new, I find his preference leaning toward the non-offensive. I like Patricia Barber but she is NOT the only experimental singer to ever grace jazz. With the exception of Cassandra Wilson, who hasn't been experimental since the 90's and whom he praises highly, what about ground-breaking vocalists Jeanne Lee or Betty Carter or Jay Clayton?
  • 20 Peteris Folkmanis(Mr.) // Apr 16, 2008 at 05:46 PM
    Yes, he should have mentioned Jeanne Lee, for sure.
  • 21 Peteris Folkmanis(Mr.) // Apr 16, 2008 at 06:05 PM
    still, he makes a good point.
  • 22 Angela Elliott // Jul 03, 2008 at 07:56 AM
    None of the singers you have cited in this article would be judged 'jazz' singers by the UK afficionados of jazz - those jazz muscians who regularly work the circuit in the UK and who believe that 'singing' as such is not jazz at all, but that 'speaking' the words is. That said many musicians I've spoken to don't like it when a singer scats either. In fact most instrumentalists don't like singers - full stop. I am constantly told not to 'sing' but to 'speak' the lyrics using different pitches to do so. I am told that cabaret and pop deliveries are not jazz. I am told that anything approximating 'real singing' is not jazz. Yet, clearly a lot of very pretty women have made careers for themselves singing 'jazz'. What's a girl to do?
  • 23 Steve // Sep 15, 2008 at 04:02 PM
    This is the most shallow article I've ever read. You actually used the word pulchritude.
  • 24 Fred // Dec 29, 2008 at 02:42 AM
    I enjoyed the article and appreciate the perspective and many of the insights. I have heard Jeannette Lambert (one of the commentators) live and have at least one cd and can testify from this with certainty that there is a tradition of vocal experimentals in jazz. I would have included in your article Tena Palmer during her Chelsea Bridge time. Her voice offers an implosion of sound. The most forceful example, for me, is Jeanne Lee. The discs with Ran Blake are radical and radical in a specific vocal;y deconstructive way. She is (was) a Derridean singer. Best wishes and thanks for the memories. Fred McGregor
  • 25 Alexis // Jan 15, 2009 at 01:45 AM
    He left out Denzal Sinclaire and Diane Nalini. Great young jazz singers writing their own stuff and still mixing in fresh covers of the classics too.
  • 26 Bren // Jan 31, 2009 at 12:29 AM
    I did not see Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure or Lambert/Hendricks/Ross mentioned; they all, in solo settings, made significant contributions to the traditions that inform singers like Mark Murphy and Kurt Elling. I don't think I saw Mel Torme in there either. Such omissions are pernicious issues when surveying so wide a landscape. Yet, this article raises interesting questions and will have me exploring online for some time-Thanks for writing!
  • 27 Ted // Feb 02, 2009 at 02:11 AM
    Bren, please note that this article is about the "state of jazz singing today." It only focuses on recordings released since the year 2000. So it is hard to understand your unhappiness over the exclusion of Eddie Jefferson (died in 1979), Mel Torm (died in 1999) and King Pleasure (died in 1981).
  • 28 Janet // Feb 07, 2009 at 01:41 PM
    Well said. As an "aging jazz singer", I almost felt it was time for me to stop singing because I saw so many younger singers with more beauty than talent making an impression. Unfortunately, it's a fact of life that some people (many of them men) will buy albums because they can imagine a beauty like Monheit singing to them. I'll never forget the spectacle of a friend's husband (who never much cared for vocalists) going ga-ga over a video of Diana Krall and playing it over and over again. It was pretty obvious that Krall's music was secondary.
  • 29 John Powell // Feb 12, 2009 at 08:36 PM
    Yep, some are talented, jazz-savvy, subtle, articulate musically and also hot-looking. Deal with it, people. I was a big fan of Michel Petrucianni, and his physical deformity never entered the picture, except as an afterthought.