In Conversation with Matthew Shipp

by Tom Greenland

Ever since his precocious beginnings in Wilmington, Delaware where he was inspired by local mentors, to his arrival in New York in the mid-80s, and throughout his extensive recording and performing career, Matthew Shipp has been a man to watch, a voice to listen to—an artist on the move. During a recent conversation in an East Village coffee shop close to his apartment, the outspoken pianist discussed his musical background, teachers, and artistic influences; how he discovered and developed his sound; the nature of creativity and its limits; and his relationships with fans and members of the jazz community.

       Matthew Shipp, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Hello. What do you want to talk about?


Everything? [laughs] Okay. Go ahead, tell me some stuff.

Okay, well, I mean, it’s 2008 right now and I’m in an interesting part of my career, meaning that I’ve done a lot in the past. I have a pretty long career by certain standards. I’ve been recording regularly since the early 90s and I’m at a point of assessing who I am, where I want to go to — if I want to go anywhere — and what the general environment that I’m operating in is. . . . So the whole thing is always process oriented, it’s always dealing with the language, who you are, and what it is. So any questions you have breaking any of that down makes it easier for me to talk.

Well, you said you’ve been in New York twenty-four years now?

Since 1984.

Where do you come from originally?

I’m from Wilmington, Delaware. I moved to New York in ’84. Prior to that, I had lived in Boston for a year because I attended New England Conservatory. Coming from Wilmington to Boston before you come to New York is a usual trajectory for a lot of musicians, going from their hometown to Boston and then New York. And basically, I didn’t want to go to school; I wanted to jump right in to the professional music world that New York had to offer. But yeah, I moved here in ’84.

What kind of background did you have musically? Did you start with classical piano, like Chopin?

Yeah, I started playing piano at the age of five, mainly inspired by a church organist in my parent’s church, which was Episcopalian—it wasn’t a gospel church, it was Episcopalian. And I started classical lessons and I became interested in jazz around the age of twelve. And my mother was friends with Clifford Brown when she was in high school. He was from Wilmington, Delaware. My parents weren’t actively into music, but they had a record collection around; you know, stuff like [Thelonious] Monk, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington—a lot of stuff: Jonah Jones, Ahmad Jamal; they had a whole vast array of LPs, and also a lot of pop piano LPs of people like Roger Williams, Liberace, or Don Shirley. They had a lot of stuff like that around the house, so I was ransacking their record collection and just checking everything out.

Related Article: "The Dozens: Twelve Essential Matthew Shipp Tracks" by Steve Greenlee

And you first got into jazz when you were twelve? Anything particular spark your…?

Yeah, I heard Ahmad Jamal on TV, then I heard Nina Simone on TV, and both of them rocked my world completely.

Really? What was it about the…?

Nina Simone? It was just this dark, dark ambiance she had that really attracted me. I was into horror films also, so it was almost like the musical equivalent of the horror films. I was really into it, and there was just something so dark but yet so resonant about her, and I really just enjoyed her touch on the piano, ’cause there was something about her. I didn’t, like, put this into words in my head, but when I do an archeology of what actually went through my mind, I think what fascinated me about it was when she played, it was just Nina Simone music. And I could tell that she had classical training, I could tell that she knew the blues, I could tell that she had an understanding of folk music because she covered some Bob Dylan songs or whatever. But whatever she played, it became her idiom; it was like—bam!—it was Nina Simone music, and it was almost like she transcended idioms and was just this strong personality in and of herself. So, without knowing that was what attracted me to it, I think that was what really drew me into her world, plus the actual physics of it, like the darkness of it.

And I was also really into Stevie Wonder, who has that same thing about him—not the darkness, ’cause his music is completely not dark—but he could cover anything and it instantly becomes the Stevie Wonder idiom. Because Stevie Wonder, like Nina Simone, had covered “Blowing in the Wind,” when he was younger, on an album. So he had covered a Bob Dylan song, or he could do anything, but it just became Stevie Wonder music.

With Ahmad Jamal, I think it was just some elegance that he had. It was something so spiritual. . . . It was an elegance and a spirituality that he reached. And, you know, his music is very black, but it’s never screaming on black. It just is elegant, and it’s just what it is. And I think that’s what hit me about Ahmad Jamal.

So I became fascinated with wanting to be a jazz musician. I think the first album I really, really started dissecting was a solo Phineas Newborn, Jr. album, and the only reason I started dissecting that was because I got it for free. My mother brought a Down Beat home for me when it was obvious that I was really into jazz. She was a nurse. She just passed away recently.

Oh, I’m sorry.

She was a nurse, and there were some Down Beats in the hospital sitting around so she brought them home; and I subscribed to it, and at the time you got a free record, so I got this Phineas Newborn solo album. So that was just like the first cool jazz piano album I sat down and really tried to dissect. I initially transcribed a couple solos from a Count Basie album that my parents had -- because it was very sparse and very easy to figure out. But as far as really sitting down with a dense piano album, this Phineas Newborn, Jr. album was the first one.

And then I started buying stuff: you know, whatever. I remember watching PBS and Andre Previn was with Oscar Peterson, so I went out and got a bunch of Oscar Peterson albums. And then from there I somehow got into Bill Evans; and then I discovered [John] Coltrane, so it was McCoy Tyner. And then the whole universe opened and I discovered everybody.

So you’re mostly self-taught then?

There’s an old Cecil Taylor quote that, “In jazz, every jazz pianist of worth is his own university,” so I think, basically, everybody’s self-taught. I mean, if you reach your own style you have to go deep into yourself and discover who you are, but in the meantime, you know, you go around to everybody and ask questions. Where I lived, in Wilmington, Delaware, was a guy, Dean Jenkins; and there was a guy named Daahoud, who Clifford Brown wrote the song “Daahoud” about, who was this old alcoholic who still played. I used to knock at these people’s doors and just go in and start asking questions. I used to hang out at a music store all day and people would come in; they would try out pianos—I was friends with the owner of the store—and a guy would sit down and start playing. I’d go over, just watch his hands, and then ask him questions.

I was just a kid, but I’d meet a lot of friends that way and people would sometimes teach you everything they knew. This one guy might come in and all he knew was two Elton John songs; another guy could come in, and he could play like Oscar Peterson, or whatever; and another guy came in and he might know some Chick Corea, you know what I mean? But you were just asking questions and people would show you stuff, so you’d learn a lot through osmosis. And I had a very active imagination, so I could take just a kernel of something that I’d learnt from somebody and make it into a whole thing, kind of like a mathematician: if you could show him the arc, he could figure out the whole figure, you know? So if somebody just showed me a little something, I could create exercises out of it -- and maybe, myself, figure out a whole universe from that. So, yes, I was self-taught as a jazz musician, but I was also very inquisitive and learned a lot from a lot of people. Then later I actually had two jazz teachers. One was a guy named Robert Lowery, who was Clifford Brown’s teacher, ’cause Clifford Brown was from my hometown, and then Dennis Sandole, who taught in Philly, which is twenty minutes away from Wilmington, Delaware; and Dennis Sandole had been Coltrane’s teacher.

When you got that Phineas Newborn album…?

I don’t remember the name of it; it was this solo album.

…did you try to emulate the solos exactly, or his voicings?

No, um, some of it.

…or was it more like you said: you get an idea and you…?

I got ideas and I ran with it. I actually learned a few of the solos that he played and I would kind of learn how he played his songs, but I wouldn’t copy his solos.

How about for the left hand voicings? Did you have any trouble figuring out what notes were in them? In transcribing, that’s the primary difficulty: the inner voices.

Yes, that’s very difficult. Yeah, I kind of just got the chord progressions and the melodies, and then I knew if he was playing closed harmonies or open harmonies, but I never tried to meticulously figure out every note of the chord and get it right; I would just get enough of it, where I got the quality of it, and then went on my own from there. I was doing that also with—I can’t remember that one McCoy Tyner solo album he did where he does “Naima” and “My Favorite Things” on it… Echoes of a Friend. I used to listen to that for hours and hours. I would sit, like, almost in meditation and listen to that for hours and hours at a time, and kind of carry in my head—and go to the piano and figure out things; and I would never, like, run back and make sure I got it exactly right, but I would get the essence of things, and then if I got a few measures or something, that would be enough, where I would automatically learn a bunch of other stuff by osmosis or go with it myself.

I never wanted to become, like, an expert transcriber or something—I mean, that’s something for a musicologist or people writing method books—but as a player I wanted to learn enough just to get a flavor of stuff, and to kind of figure out what they were doing, and then by doing that I instantly just fill in the blanks with a lot of things. I did that with some Lennie Tristano stuff too. But I was always trying to . . . learn the basics of what these people are doing just to know where they’re coming from. But I always knew that I had my own thing I was pushing at. I was just doing this, biding time until I really bumped into myself. And that’s a very bizarre concept: that you have to do a lot of stuff to bump into yourself, ’cause presumably [laughing] yourself is there! I mean, it’s closer than any thing. But I guess that that’s just the business of how things work in this way of living.

Yeah, I guess it’s just giving you different choices, and then you sort of resonate with certain ones and they stay in your vocabulary.

Yeah, exactly, and that’s the proper way to put it, because anything that resonates with your mind is there because it ranks with you for some reason. I mean, it’s close to your personality or there’s something about it that is about you.

Can you talk about your language? Maybe some specifics, if possible, like some musical stuff: What do you do? or How do you approach music?

Right, right. Well, I don’t know what I do. My style fell together on September the 15th of 1984—I think that was the day. It was around that time—the 13th or the 14th. We were having a jam session with this duo, with this sax player. We were playing—all of a sudden, I was, like, “What did we just do?” when we listened back to the tape. Whereas before that I was kind of playing quasi-McCoy Tyner / Herbie Hancock / Bill Evans-ly, with a little dash of Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor. This whole new way of approaching space-time seemed so . . . . That year at New England Conservatory a teacher of mine—Hank Netsky was one of my teachers there—actually made me transcribe a whole solo of mine, and I just didn’t want to do it. I mean, I don’t want to know what I’m able to do—I just want to go with it. And, you know, it was kind of interesting to actually write down some of what I did and to see it. My style is kind of open-ended at the top, meaning that it can absorb a lot of things, break it down, and then reemerge as somehow me, even if I’m obviously hinting at something else. I want to leave it up to other people to actually say what I do. I know what distinguishes me from other pianists in my idiom, but I don’t really want to…

Well, I’m curious about your approach: do you have any/certain ideas that are strong ideas for you when you go to improvise or you go to compose? I’m looking for shop stuff. It’s interesting—I think—for people to read about the details of how someone’s process works. I know some of its intuitive and some of it’s just in you and you don’t think about it…

Yeah, right, right; that’s ninety-nine percent.

Ok, but if there are some elements that you’re conscious of, it might help people to understand you a lot better—I think. I know, that’s a hard question, but if you have anything…

Yeah. First of all, I would say that even though what I do is very intuitive, completely intuitive—and I’ve been told that by my teachers over the years, who are, like, “Wow, you’ve got this own thing!”, and this was even before it flowered. People, a lot of my teachers, could tell that I had a specific thing in mind and they were, like, “We don’t want to get in the way; we’re here to offer help and to maybe show you some things, but you’ve got this own, like, flower of yours and it’s going to burst forth at some point in your life.” And Sandole, Coltrane’s teacher, told me that; Clifford Brown’s teacher; a lot of people.

But, if I could say, I think implicit in the fact that it’s really intuitive, there is an understanding of the sweep of jazz piano history. And I think I am me, but I can absorb a lot of influences; and something goes on beneath the surface and they surface. But at any particular point in my playing, like maybe a record this year and a record from two years later, you can say, “Oh, at this point elements of, maybe, McCoy Tyner, or this or that, were more prominent, and two years later elements of something else,” even though if you listen to it, it doesn’t sound anything like them. So I guess what I’m saying is there’s kind of a quest for understanding the universality of the jazz piano continuum. And you hear that even though it never sounds like any of those things.

I think, drama-wise and harmonically-wise, and also maybe syntax-wise, Duke Ellington is a big thing there. Because he had a very colorful pianistic personality; there was a lot of drama in his choices of how he hit clusters, what notes he chose, what colors he chose, and even in putting together—the syntax of the music—there was always a colorful attempt at telling a certain type of story. And I think he’s a huge influence on me, even though none of my music sounds like him. And I think that’s there. I think the Monk iconoclasm, the iconoclastic mode of playing, is there; and I do certain things that might sound like I’m fooling around with certain aspects of Monk’s language, but I never really go deep with it. I mean, there’re certain people that go deep into that, but I think, implicit in the fact that I’m intuitive and I’m me, that the understanding of the jazz piano tradition is there. So, I think that’s—without getting into technical things—what I do, because I do a lot of different things and it’s hard to say. I mean, they’re all different.

Right, right. Well let me give you a specific example. I was talking to Harold Meiselman, a guy that comes out to a lot of shows. He was listening to a Horace Tapscott album, and he said, “Do you know what? I hear a lot of Horace in Matt Shipp’s playing”; and he said he asked you about that, and you said, “Well yeah, I am aware of that music; I won’t say that the influence isn’t there.” So, for example, that’s one person who heard you and heard some Horace Tapscott, and heard a connection between you.

Right. That’s interesting because I first heard him when I was around fifteen or sixteen, I think, and I remember checking out a couple of albums and really liking them; and I remember, around that time, I was at a jam session with some people, musicians in Wilmington, Delaware, playing “A Night in Tunisia” . . . and saying, “I want to play this for Horace Tapscott someday.” [laughs] I mean, he was never somebody that I sat down and listened to. But I think there’s a definite connection between somebody like Horace, who is a searching, open pianist, but never wants to be, like, avant-garde in the sense that, like, Cecil Taylor is avant-garde, and also, probably, the group of influences . . . I never met Horace and never talked to him — I mean, he’s not influenced by Monk; Horace Tapscott is his own guy — but the figure of Monk influenced the psyche of a lot of people in 60s music and on past that in the 70s and 80s. Which kind of opens up an interesting thing, ’cause I don’t think Monk was ever really that excited about the avant-garde. I think once he was played something by Ornette Coleman and I think he didn’t like [it], you know? So, I mean, the figure of Monk actually opened up a lot of things in people’s psyche and people could react to it and it opened up a lot of different reactions . . . . So anyway, Horace Tapscott is this iconoclastic figure on the West Coast, which makes him a little different than the East Coast musicians anyway ’cause there’s a whole different feel and a vibe out there, but he’s kind of working in a very interesting way. I mean, I guess the closest figure to Horace Tapscott is Sun Ra, ’cause they both had communal big bands where they fostered a lot of musicians, they both had access to the whole continuum of the music but had an open-ended, freer jazz approach to it. And Sun Ra was a big influence on me, so I guess Horace Tapscott, spiritually, being kind of the West Coast embodiment of that spirit, was also there too. And yes, I did check him out, I was aware of him, I loved him, but I never sat down and tried to figure out, like, what was he doing, blah-blah-blah, but I was very aware of him, yes. And he’s one of the things that went into the subconscious that influenced who I would later be.

Yeah. Maybe you’re the wrong person to ask; maybe I should ask everybody else but you, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs] Because it’s something so intuitive. Like, my wife’s going to know more about my mannerisms than I will.


It’s an interesting dilemma, you know? You sit down with someone and ask them, “What do you do?” “I don’t know what I do!” you know? You should just say, “Ask my wife. She’ll tell you what I do!” or, “Ask my fans.”


I wanted to follow up that idea about Monk. You said he’s an iconoclast…


…meaning a radical, or a new-traditionalist, or—I don’t know how you would say it—but you were saying he wasn’t necessarily avant-garde…


…but then there’s this idea of the avant-garde, which suggest, maybe, getting away from structure in tunes, or whatever that means. How do you see that role? For example, you might be considered a “downtown” pianist.

I’m considered—I’m considered a lot of things! [laughs]

I don’t want to try to put a category on it, but what I’m saying is: how do you see your role in…?

I’m just about me. And I don’t mean that I have a personality. I put music on discs that people call “CDs” and it’s about the flowering of, like, whoever I am, and whoever “I” am, those are the notes that that person would play. And that’s where it begins, that’s where it ends, and there’s no reason for the existence of what I do; it just is what it is. You know, there’s no need to put it in a specific bag: I happen to live in the Lower East Side and you can call me a “downtown” musician…

Actually, I’m not asking about the labeling so much as, more, the perceived freedom, or…

Right. Well, there is no freedom. I mean, there’re limitations to a human being physically. First of all, I play a piano; there’re certain limitations to playing any instrument. And then on top of that, even though the mind is an energy field that is essentially infinite—and it is—we as humans can’t flower into our infiniteness; while we’re here, we’re kind of bound by a lot of things, and a lot of them are the preconceptions that our society has, that the jazz industry has, and even—as crazy as it is—the preconceptions that the avant-garde community has.

Definitely; they have just as much as anybody else, maybe more.

Probably more finite, more finite, yeah. [Laughs] So all of that bounds me in my perceived freedom of sorts, and I’m fighting just to be able to be me, and to have the right to be me, and to have the right to make a living at being me. And, you know, all these things are infringing upon me, so I don’t know about what freedoms I have. And there are moments of pure freedom, but there are moments when eternity breaks into the finite—even though, obviously, the finite is bound to the infinite—that we really are kind of stuck here while we’re here. And there’re a lot of factors that both influence us and infringe upon us while we’re here, so whenever I think I might be, um, free at this moment, I’m just as bound as anybody else. And I’m not smart enough to separate when I’m truly me, when I’m truly free, when I truly burst away from all of this. I’m just here trying to do the best I can, and trying to completely be me and away from everything, but as a human being I want to fit in and be accepted also, and make money at what I’m doing, so I can’t separate—I don’t know, I’m just really trying to be me, hoping I can break free from a lot of these constraints.

You made an interesting allusion that, maybe, in some ways the avant-garde community could be more restrictive than a mainstream environment—you know, whatever those labels mean. Can you give me an example of a situation that’s supposedly open-ended and yet there’re unspoken conventions, when there are imposed expectations?

Right, right. Well, I think in every way. I mean, there’re people that, once you do an album a certain way, that’s their conception of you, and once you step outside of that they’re offended and they wanted you to repeat that pattern of being over and over and over again.

Have people ever said that to you, or…?

Well, they’ll never say it that way, but…

Well, how have you gotten feedback about that before? I’m wondering.

Well, I think that anybody who does a whole series of albums experiences that, where people accept a certain type of album from you and you do something else—that there are certain people who would give you the freedom to do that and there’re others that claim that you’re a traitor to the cause or—I mean, they won’t put it in that language.

Right, right; but you’ll get the feeling?

You’ll get the feeling they’re wondering why are you going this direction. And why should you be bound to anything? I mean, if the avant-garde is truly free, then I’m free to play a folk song with triads and not to improvise at all! [Laughs] — if it’s truly freedom.

What kind of feedback do you get from your fans or people that go to shows? Do they talk to you about your music?

If I happen to bump into them on the streets sometimes. I really move past—quickly move past—any performance or CD. When you first start out in this, you want a lot of feedback, because you’re wondering if you’re worthy of being a professional and making albums and getting good reviews. At first part of you is wondering: is it your imagination? So once you get enough feedback, I know I’m worthy of being here. So at this point I don’t really care what people think about anything, and even if something’s a complete failure, so what? [Laughs] I move past it, past to the next thing. And so I don’t really care about feedback, but I…

I’m just curious what they tell you. What sort of relations do you have with these people?

Well, the other thing is I sit around at night surfing the internet and I look at what people say on blogs a lot of times, especially on blogs where people don’t sign their names; people, you know, will say anything! [Llaughs] I see what people say about a lot of things and, like I said, I don’t really take into consideration what anybody says about anything, positive or negative. At this point, I do it and I move on to the next thing, because I know that I have a place in the music and I know that my work is going to be taken seriously by some community of people. There’re people that have disagreed with every course of action taken in human history. I mean, the only thing that’s ubiquitous out here is skepticism!

Right, cynicism.

Right. So I don’t really concern myself with that; I just do something and then move on.

Right. Um, but the other part of the question is just what motivates you; I’m curious about your relationships with fans: how aware you are of someone out there?

Very aware. [Laughs]

Do you have personal contacts with people? Or is it like you’re the artist over here, and “Here’s my work; you like it or you don’t”? Or are you in dialogue with your fan base?

Right, that’s the major way I position myself: “I’m the artist, this is the work, the work is of my nature, you either like it or you don’t.” Some people like roses, some people like other types of plants—tulips. If you like the rose, whatever.

What about active fan/artists like Steve Dalachinsky? Surely people like that are part of your…?

Yeah, yeah, right. Well, I mean, I have people that are friends, that come to gigs and they offer their opinions; and I sometimes just shut my ears, sometimes I listen, sometimes I just stop and I go, “I don’t really care that you thought it worked or that it didn’t work.” If it’s a work-in-progress that I just started, and I’m going to keep working on this thing, then I do listen because I want all feedback, in case some of it rings true to me and I might have to make some changes to something; and I take in everybody’s opinion on that.

I’ve had really close personal friendships with a lot of critics, and I’ve had critics call me at my house—as friends, not as critics. And they start, like, trying to tell me what I should do for a next project; and that’s a really dangerous. It’s one thing if they want to say, like, “I was at this gig; I didn’t think this worked.” I mean, if they’re offering that as friends, that’s that. But when—and I’ve had a lot of close relationships with a lot of critics—when they start really, really getting into it, and almost insinuating that you should drop this project, or “You shouldn’t do that for your next album.” And I had one instance where somebody who was a very close friend of mine, a noted critic, was calling me three to four times a day, and almost like he was going over the line of being a critic to becoming my manager; and there was a series of albums that I was going to do that he was adamantly against, like, “Don’t do that!” and it got to a point where I started slamming the phone down when he called. And that [laughs] got to be really interesting, you know?

Wow, that is interesting.


The Dozens: Twelve Essential Matthew Shipp Tracks by Steve Greenlee

February 29, 2008 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Regina Carter

by Andy Karp

Restlessly creative and musically adventurous, violinist Regina Carter has explored an unusually wide range of music during her two decades in jazz. Her eclectic musical vision spans swing, bebop and avant garde, while incorporating elements of classical music and rhythm and blues.

                                                                       Regina Carter

The pre-eminent jazz violinist of her generation, Carter is an impassioned improviser who has performed or recorded with jazz greats such as the late Max Roach and Ray Brown, Kenny Barron, Wynton Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson, as well as numerous pop and R&B artists. In 2001, she made history when she traveled to Genoa, Italy and became the first jazz artist and first African-American to play the legendary Guarneni del Gesu violin once owned by classical music virtuoso Nicolo Paganini. Less than a year later, she returned to Genoa to record her critically acclaimed Verve release, Paganini: After a Dream.

Her most recent recording, I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (Verve, 2006), was inspired by her late mother, Grace. It has been lauded for Carter’s inventive, lyrical interpretations of swing era classics, as well as for the imaginative arrangements contributed by John Clayton, Gil Goldstein and Xavier Davis.

During a recent break from touring and recording, Carter spoke with’s Andy Karp about her early musical influences, her recent MacArthur Fellowship, her interest in studying music therapy and upcoming projects.

One of the hallmarks of your style is smoothly integrating different musical genres such as swing, funk, classical and rhythm and blues. What are the unifying elements in your style that allow you to be stylistically diverse but still make a cohesive, musical statement?

When you’re bringing styles together, it’s easier if it’s music you’re very familiar with and has been a part of your life, as these styles have been. I usually don’t delve into music I’m not familiar with. Everything so far that I’ve recorded or touched on has been at some point an influence in my life. So it’s natural for me to play those different styles.

With anyone, what makes a unifying style, the common denominator, is the player himself. No matter what I’m playing, if it’s R&B or swing or whatever, you’re still going to hear that it’s me playing it. You’re not going to have to guess, because it’s a certain vocabulary or style that I have, or that any player has after a while.

Were you exposed to a lot of different music growing up?

Yes, through my family, my brothers. Just coming from Detroit, it was a very ethnically mixed and rich city when I was growing up, and so I was exposed to a lot of different cultures and music. I was very fortunate to be able to hear a lot of different music, more so than a lot of people might hear in an urban setting.

Was that both on the radio as well as live?

Yes, because the radio stations then -- there was no big mother station or parent station or corporation deciding what was going to be played. DJs just brought in what they liked listening to, so you got a whole array. We had a huge Chaldean and Greek community in Detroit, so you’d be able to go through and find stations playing music from their countries.

Of course, I’d go hear the symphony orchestra, and my brothers would be playing their Motown records in the house. My dad would listen to the easy listening stations. Then, when I was older and able to go out, there were community centers where you could go, such as the Chaldean-American community center. They’d sometimes have rehearsals there. So the music was available.

Also, every summer we’d have ethnic festivals. Each ethnic group living in Detroit would have a week where they would put on performances of dance music and serve their food and show their artwork. So even if you never went to their neighborhoods, you could educate yourself a little bit.

Who are some of the violinists who grabbed your ear?

I went to a settlement house in elementary school, and took a master class with Itzak Perlman. He came to the school pretty regularly. In high school I had a master class with Yehudi Menuhin. He was in town and our teacher got him to come by and coach us. That was very memorable. Not only because he was a great player and such a nice person, but because my teacher, who at the time hated the fact I wanted to play jazz, hoped Yehudi Menuhin would try to talk me out of it. But instead Menuhin said “Oh, leave her alone,” and picked up his violin and played a little blues lick. I felt like, “Yeah! Somebody that matters, somebody who has some clout, is in my corner.”

You’ve cited Jean-Luc Ponty, Stuff Smith and Stephane Grappelli among your jazz influences. Are there others?

Noel Pointer was also very important. People tend to leave him out, but that’s because they don’t know him. I used to go and see him a lot, and I had the opportunity to speak with him. When I was older and moved to New York, I was able to call him at him at home. He made a huge impact on me.

I was introduced to jazz by Carla Cook, a jazz vocalist from Detroit. [Cook guests on I’ll Be Seeing You.] She was so taken by Eddie Jefferson, and she’d talk about all these people. She’s the one who turned me on to the music when we were about 14. It was a very, very slow process for me. Here was this very new music I was being introduced to, and then I had to figure it out on an instrument that people around me didn’t seem to realize has always been a part of the tradition of the music. They don’t really know what to do with me. So it made it even more difficult.

Classical musicians aren’t necessarily schooled in improvising, at least not in the way jazz musicians are. How did you bridge the two styles?

For classical musicians who are exposed to baroque music, the route is a little easier. For me, because I studied Suzuki method, where you learn to play by ear first before you learn how to read, I had a gift of being able to hear things and repeat them pretty much immediately as a very young child. I think I had an upper hand as far as hearing and being away from the [music] paper. I was nine or ten before I got my reading together.

Although your violin technique is formidable, you avoid showy displays of chops, at least on your recordings. You also tend not to dominate your recordings, like some star instrumentalists do. You give a lot of room to the other musicians. To what extent does that come from your being a woman?

I don’t know that it does. It’s not a conscious thing. I think a lot of things come into play. Maybe for some women, that’s a feminine trait. But with some singers, the guys in the band don’t even get that much space, so that rules that out. I like to share. I know it’s not all about me. When we’re playing a gig, I hate when people say, “Oh, they’re backup.” They’re not backup. We’re all equal. It just happens to be my name on the program, and it’s my band, and I get to make the last decision. But sometimes I like to share in the decision making. On road, I like to have a family kind of vibe. That’s apparent because I want everyone to share in the spotlight. Then the audience gets to enjoy everyone.

You’ve spoken about the power of music as a healing force. When you were awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, you expressed an interest about learning about music therapy. What area of music therapy are you interested in, and how are you planning to pursue this?

I’m not sure what area I’m interested in yet. I don’t necessarily want to be music therapist in the sense of what you usually see. I want to take what I learn and use it with what I already do. When I do my lecture-demonstrations, or go into a school where there might be special-needs children, or into a home or a hospital where people are terminally ill, having a little bit more knowledge [of music therapy] would be helpful.

I don’t want to belittle the feeling of going onstage and playing, but I’d like to take what I do to a smaller community of people that are really in need and give them something a little extra. I’m at a time in my life when I feel like I really need to do it.

How did you become interested in the therapeutic aspects of music?

My mom was dying. There was a point where she couldn’t communicate anymore. I knew she loved certain music, and I said, “You know what, while she can still hear music I wanted to play some music.” And I put it on and sometimes I would literally see her vital signs improve. So that was very intriguing to me. We always say music is very powerful. It’s almost a cliché until you really see the effect it can have on someone.

What are some upcoming projects you’re looking forward to? Do you have any recording dates planned?

I’ve asked trombonist Craig Harris to help me. I love the fact he’ll try anything, and it usually works. He’s gone to Paris and written some music that he’s put together with some Middle Eastern or African musicians. He worked a lot with one of my favorite poets, Sekou Sundiata. He’s not afraid to try to put things together. I’ve felt for a long time I’ve been so locked in. I’m ready to break out of that, and he’s the kind of person that can help me.

February 25, 2008 · 2 comments


The State of Jazz Vocals Today (Part Two)

The type of emotional immediacy we encounter with Karrin Allyson or Diana Krall or Norah Jones is much harder to find among the younger male jazz singers. I don't blame the guys so much as the record execs behind them, who seem fixated on a certain formula in selecting and presenting their talent. Here's the recipe: Take pretty boy looks and a tickling-the-ivories piano style, add material written before 1950 with arrangements that sound like slightly jazzier versions of Lawrence Welk charts, spice it with lots of posturing, stylish clothes and a self-absorbed, narcissus-on-the-bandstand attitude. Voila, you have a record contract!

                 Jamie Cullum - Not Just Another Pretty Face
                                 photo by Jos L. Knaepen

How do we evaluate these retro-cool singers? Do Peter Cincotti, Michael Bublé, Matt Dusk, Tony DeSare and the others of this school have genuine talent? It's hard to tell. It's like trying to guess the quality of ingredients that went into a frozen TV dinner. There is so much packaging and processing here, that what's really inside is anyone's guess. The handlers have prettified these young gentlemen with such zeal, that we hardly get a sense of the real person underneath. Just as Harry Connick was dubbed the next Sinatra when he arrived on his scene -- perhaps before he had earned the title, but Connick eventually proved his talent and staying power -- these newer aspirants aim to be the next Connick. But a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy never looks good, and these singers (and their handlers) should find something original to call their own.

Even more to the point, the essence of jazz singing is an intimate connection with the song, and the super-slickness of the presentation here, the look-at-me-I-am-so-cool attitude, the retro stylings all conspire against these artists. Jazz singing of this sort is no longer about the music, but is merely a spur to the fantasy life of the listener. This fantasy life, moreover, has almost nothing to do with the music itself. The fans don't want to enter into the song -- frankly, they don't give a hoot about "Blue Moon" or the "Summer Wind" - they want to live the private life of the glamorous idol on stage. The audience is not thinking about a lost love, a broken heart; instead they are imagining what it would be like to shine under the spotlights like the gods from Olympus with a microphone in hand. And the pretty boy vocalist must live up to this responsibility; he is forced to strut his hour on the stage like an actor in a movie. Nothing wrong with all this, but it has little to do with the jazz singing tradition we inherited from Louis, Billie, Sarah and others.

The younger pups in the kennel would do well to study the examples of the most successful of the older generation. Bobby McFerrin must have infuriated his record label in the early days by his refusal to jump on any bandwagons and his steadfast avoidance of all the commercial trends of the day. He steered clear of fusion music, even when its corrupting influence was pervasive. He insisted on recording solo vocals—a recipe, it would seem, for career disaster. Or, even worse, he would make whole albums of songs without words, just McFerrin's quirky sounds and effects. (I would call this scat-singing, yet avoid the term simply because McFerrin has a style that is so different from any other scat singer on the planet. So he really defines his own category, ne c'est pas?) Yet McFerrin became the biggest selling jazz singer of his generation, and not only built a grand career, but became a living legend in the process. He would have thrown that all away if he had pursued the fusion-pop sap-path that everyone prodded him to follow. He would have been just one more packaged good in the cold fusion section of the market, and his career would have peaked faster than you could say "Eumir Deodato." How many of the younger singers are willing to take those same chances today? How many even have a personal vision that is not tainted by commercial interests? How many would force their own vision against the wishes of the handlers? How many major labels would back them in their decisions?

This is part two of "The State of Jazz Vocals Today" by Ted Gioia. For part one, click here.

See also the Jazz Vocals Playlist, with links to more than 60 related track reviews.

As long as we are talking about positive role models, let's not forget the oldest vocalist on our list -- Tony Bennett, who was derided by jazz fans for most of his career, scorned because his singing lacked the fashionable dose of irony that permeated the pop culture atmosphere for a forty year period. Bennett wore his heart on his sleeve, and always sang the old songs with total commitment—so much so that it was easy to make fun of the old codger. I remember Woody Allen building a very funny film, Broadway Danny Rose, around a pathetic Italian-American cabaret singer, seemingly based on Bennett, who was laughable because he took his paltry songs so seriously. But in Bennett's case, his integrity and total honesty with his music eventually paid off in a surprising way.

                                           Tony Bennett
                                     photo by Jos L. Knaepen

When Allen's movie came out, Bennett was in the midst of a fifteen year dry spell without a record on the charts. He was dropped by Columbia, and for a time had no record contract, no manager, and virtually no gigs outside of Las Vegas. But Bennett was rediscovered by the MTV generation in the 1990s—who were clearly fascinated by his "real-ness," by his ability to sing a love song without a net, without irony or sarcasm to deflect the emotions. The very qualities that had made Bennett the odd-man-out in his fifties, brought him back into the limelight in his seventies and eighties. In my mind, he is still the touchstone of emotional integrity in singing the jazz repertoire. When Bennett visited American Idol last year, tears came to his eyes when he talked about how to interpret the old standard "Smile." Yes, it's easy to ridicule all this, but Bennett's greatness is derived precisely by his willingness to court ridicule for taking these sentimental tunes so seriously. I ask you, how many of the younger generation feel the inner life of American song tradition with such immediacy?

One could make similar claims for Mark Murphy, who originally emerged on the scene as a hip stylist sliding over the surface of songs, but has gotten deeper and deeper into the music with each passing decade. I can't recall another jazz singer who has aged so well. His recent CD Once to Every Heart is almost a textbook in how to sing the standard repertoire. Listen to him tackle "Skylark" or "I'm Through With Love," and you will find that almost every phrase, every line has been artfully reconfigured to uncover the beating heart within the song. It is hard to believe that such an intense celebration of romantic love was recorded by an artist in his seventies.

Can any of the younger male jazz singers eventually live up to the standards set by towering senior citizens such as Tony Bennett, Mark Murphy or JoĂŁo Gilberto? Looking at the forty-and-under crowd, I am perhaps most impressed with Kurt Elling, a charismatic Chicago-based vocalist who recently joined the Concord label after a half dozen stylish releases for Blue Note. Elling has crafted an intense and deeply personal style, and is perhaps best described as a beat generation bard for the new millennium. Others of his generation may have a wider vocal range or surer intonation, but Elling trumps them all through the sheer creativity and forcefulness of his performances. While other male singers seem interested in dusting off old Sinatra big band charts and mimicking them note-for-note, Elling re-works and re-configures all of the old songs into surprising new forms.

                  Kurt Elling, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

When I heard Elling's twelve minute version of "My Foolish Heart" on his Live in Chicago CD, I was so struck by its ingenuity that I needed to go back and immediately listen to it again, then one more time, trying to figure out the twists and turns in the arrangement. Of course, Elling's longtime musical director and pianist Laurence Hobgood must be lauded as a major contributor to these expansive re-workings. But Elling is the man on stage bringing them to vibrant life. Perhaps the only weakness here is the sheer power of Elling's confident delivery, which seems to run counter to the lyric. One can hardly believe that this singer suffers from a foolish heart. But if Elling does not sing love songs in the conventional way, he more than makes up for it by the transcendence of his persona. He sounds like a man who has found a higher love than the kind written about in pop songs, some sort of zen insight into human relations, a Plato's Symposium squeezed into a jazz standard. This is no small achievement.

The only male singer of recent vintage who impresses me as much is British-born Jamie Cullum, who started his career in virtual obscurity—only 500 copies were made of his 1999 debut CD. (Original copies have sold for a thousand dollars on eBay.) But Cullum followed it up with his celebrated sophomore efforts, Pointless Nostalgic, in 2002. This release showed Cullum at a crossroads, apparently undecided between becoming another retro jazz singer resuscitating a 1950s-era big band sound, or tackling, fresher material. Half of the CD went each way, and listeners were forced to decide which was the real Cullum: the one who grooved on Radiohead songs and wrote clever contemporary patter songs, or the one who sang "I Can't Get Started" without bothering to update the passé 1936 lyrics?

But the title of the CD must have given some hint at the direction Cullum would take. His 2004 release Twentysomething and Catching Tales from 2005 find Cullum giving up the nostalgic as a pointless exercise. He has emerged as a man of his own times, and delivered two of the most creative jazz CDs of the new millennium. His songwriting is also top-notch, and judging by his work on "Twentysomething" and "Next Year, Baby," Cullum could put down the microphone and make a living as a tunesmith, sort of a modern-day Dave Frishberg. But we hope that day will never come. Even when he takes on a moldy oldie, such as "Singin' in the Rain" or "Fascinating Rhythm," Cullum brings it up-to-date in fresh, inspiring ways. I especially like the unpredictability—sometimes bordering on sheer craziness—of his on-stage demeanor. Cullum dazzles the listeners with a singing style that is wry, sly and shy by turns, adapting his delivery to the mood of the moment. I expect great things from him; but—truth to tell— he has already delivered some grand recordings.

As the examples of Jamie Cullum, Ian Shaw, Roberta Gambarini and others make clear, jazz singing is very much a global marketplace. Not too long ago, Americans had a lock on all the top spots in the polls, but now even the divas need to worry about offshore competition—no different than factory workers and customer service reps. I must (sheepishly) admit that I am delighted by this state of affairs. I have always driven a Detroit car, and never drink beer during the National Anthem, but when it comes to music, I relish the competition from foreign lands.

Complacent fans who aren't visiting the House on Un-American Vocalizing are missing out on some of the finest jazz singers. And don't think you will pick up a tell-tale foreign accent from Belgian singer David Linx or Dutch vocalists Wouter Hamel and Ilse Huizinga, or Hungarian Nikoletta Szőke, or their peers. They have listened to the same role models and mastered the same techniques as their counterparts at Berklee or in Brooklyn. Then again, the borders are collapsing these days, and all geographical labels merely relative. The aforementioned Hamel may hail from the Netherlands, but he has enjoyed his biggest success in the Japanese market, where his song "Breezy" reached #36 on the Tokio Hot 100 Chart. The talented Stacey Kent is sometimes described as a British jazz singer, but she was born in South Orange, New Jersey, and didn't move to England until after graduating from Sarah Lawrence. The singer Janita, on the other, may take pride as the great Finnish success story, but she has called New York her home base for more than a decade. Jann Klose is building his career from the Bronx, but he hails from Mannheim, Germany and grew up in Africa. These artists provide a constant reminder that the jazz world is always a free trade zone, and the barriers and tariffs exist only in our heads.

The biggest challenge to Yankee supremacy comes (no surprise) from Brazil. Almost exactly fifty years ago, João Gilberto walked into a recording studio in Rio and the airwaves have never been the same since. His bossa nova sound was fresh and different, and soon so widely imitated that it even became, in some situations, a cliché. But Brazilian music has constantly reinvented itself, every few years introducing some new genetic twist into the pop-jazz DNA of our time. If you haven't experienced Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Ivan Lins, Djavan, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Jorge Ben . . . well, read no further. Go buy their music and settle in for a session of sonic bliss. You can catch up with more recent releases next year or next decade.

But if you already know basic Brazilian from A-to-(Tom)-ZĂ©, do not despair. Brazil produces new musical talent even faster than it comes up with single-named soccer stars. Indeed, the talent seems to run so deep, that we are hardly surprised when a Brazilian musician such as Eliane Elias starts her career as a top-tier jazz pianist, and then switches to singing, and proves to almost equally good as a vocalist. If this were baseball, I would be muttering about steroids right now. Rio is like the Yankees, always holding on to more talent than they deserve. But how do you get a chemical edge in music? It must be some secret ingredient that they slip into caparinhas down there that gives the Brazil contingent that extra edge.

The lineage in Rio is often familiar, even if the artists are relatively new arrivals. Bebel Gilberto's father João is, as mentioned, the greatest Brazilian singer of recent memory (I bow in the direction of Copacabana whenever his name is mentioned), and her mother Miúcha is also a performer of note, as is her maternal uncle Chico Buarque. I recall Stan Getz singing Bebel's praises in private conversations back in the early 1980s, when she was in her early teens, but her singing remained a secret to most listeners until the tremendous success of her 2000 release Tanto Tempo, which sold more than one million copies. Bebel stays true to the family tradition, with light, whispery vocals reminiscent of her father's oh-so-low-key work. But she subtly updates the bossa sound with occasional (and understated) electronic effects. Although the smooth, slick ambiance of her recordings is appealing, at times the sound veers dangerously close to background music. Perhaps she is happy with her niche in the market—music to chill out to, so to speak—and certainly she must be pleased with the popularity she has achieved during the last several years; but I would love to hear Bebel in more challenging musical settings, perhaps fronting a band of hot young jazz lions, or working with more adventurous material. She is an appealing singer today, but she could be a great one in the future.

CĂ©U, the attractive singer-and-eye-candy who shares Gilberto's US distributor (Six Degrees), has achieved an even more surprising commercial success. Not only has her eponymous CD been vended aggressively at Starbucks, but her photo has been placed on point-of-sale displays for the coffee chain's Brazilian Ipanema beans. Yes, other singers look like models, but CĂ©U actually gets called in for the photo shoot. Of course, this makes me (the ever cynical reviewer) suspicious that the songs must be robusta, when the looks are so Arabica. But I am happy to report that CĂ©U is a solid singer, and has collected some dynamite grooves for her CD. Her rhythm section is worth the price of admission alone.

Yet the more perspicuous fan will seek out some of the lesser known Brazilian talents, whose CDs never wake up and smell the coffee. Cássia Eller died in 2001, at the age of 39, so she just barely made it into our list of singers of the new millennium. But her Acústico CD ranks among the most potent Brazilian recordings of the last decade, and provides ample evidence that this fiery singer would have achieved crossover success in the US and other countries had she lived longer. Maria Rita is another star of the new generation, and boasts a lineage almost as dazzling as Bebel Gilberto's. Her mother was the late Elis Regina, a singer of legendary status in Brazil although with less name recognition in the US—but only because Regina died in 1982, before World Music had become such a powerful marketing category in the US. Maria Rita's father is pianist arranger Cesar Camargo Mariano and her brother is Pedro Mariano. This family tree alone is almost a guarantee of something spectacular, and Rita lives up to the expectations, proving once again that genetics trump music lessons six ways to Domingo. She is a lively, enchanting singer, and deserves her fair share of coffeehouse airplay.

But the most artistic jazz singer from Brazil is, hands down, Luciana Souza. While other vocalists rehash the same jazz standards, Souza has created an exciting repertoire of challenging new pieces, many of them drawing their lyrics from the writings of modern poets. Her 2000 release The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs was a work of the highest order, and set Souza apart from the crowd. But I am even more impressed with 2004 release Neruda, which presents Souza in invigorating settings of the great Chilean poet. The opening track captures a brilliant realization, in 7/4 time, of Neruda's poem "Casa" ("House")—a performance that I have listened to again and again with great delight—and the rest of the CD never disappoints. This is the type of unexpected, exciting music that once came from the jazz departments at the major labels, but today is the rare exception. Souza is proof positive that there are still untapped sounds out there for artists (and companies) willing to take some chances, and not get caught up in the MTV mind-set of evaluating music based on how it looks on a three minute video.

I have already gone through several dozen singers and eight thousand words, and I fear my readers' patience may be flagging. But I can't close my appraisal of the current state of jazz vocals, without giving the nod to a few more, lesser known singers, who might otherwise escape your notice. Sara Gazarek has a beautiful voice and though I am not a fan of everything she records, she has moments of greatness, especially when she sings ballads. On her Return to You CD, she takes a hokey Billy Joel song, "And So It Goes" and puts so much heart and soul into it that I am left breathless. Much the same goes for Claire Martin, who leaves me cold when she sings old standards, but grabs my attention when she attempts more contemporary material. With the right producer and supporting musicians, she could emerge as a major talent. Julia Dollison, in contrast, works wonders with the older songs, and makes me hope that readers will check out her self-produced CD Observatory—this a real undiscovered gem that deserves greater recognition. Melissa Stylianou also makes the standards sound shiny and new, and surprised me with her extraordinary working of "Them There Eyes" " a very silly song that Sylianou rebuilds and reconfigures into something special. And when will record labels give us more of Ann Dyer and Paula West and Eric Felten?. . . And I haven't even gotten to Jackie Ryan or Christine Capdeville or Jim Ferguson. Nnenna Freelon or Gretchen Lieberum or Otis Taylor. John Mayer or Kate McGary or Carmen Lundy. Anna Maria Jopek or John Pizzarelli or Giacomo Gates—who all deserve a hearing. But, honestly, I have to stop somewhere.

In short, jazz vocals are in good share in the new millennium. The sheer amount of music out there can be daunting (to critics and fans), and it doesn't help that radio airplay is almost non-existent for most of these artists. You won't learn about most of them unless someone tells you what's cookin'. (Yep, you can thank me in an email.) Moreover, the conflict between trends and traditions makes for a confusing landscape. But confusion is good. It is a sign of creative ferment. Some day, jazz singing might become like opera —a dying tradition where celebration of the past overwhelm newer efforts. When that happens, the confusion disappears and so do the surprises. But for the time being, the patient is still breathing, and even threatens to give us a good kick now and again. Who would have thought we would survive the 90s—when we lost Ella, Sarah, Carmen, Frank, and so many other greats? No, my friends, the Golden Age is not yet over. You just need to look beyond the glossy photos on the CD covers.

February 18, 2008 · 23 comments


In Conversation with Karrin Allyson

by Marissa Dodge

Editor’s Note: As part of's focus on jazz vocalists this month, we are delighted to present this interview with Karrin Allyson, conducted by Marissa Dodge. Dodge, a talented lyricist in her own right (check out her work with Phil Kelly and Lena Horne) is a connoisseur of the jazz vocal arts. She proved to be the perfect interlocutor for Allyson, who has made her mark through a series of outstanding - and often surprising - recordings for the Concord label. Allyson's newest offering, Imagina: Songs of Brazil, is scheduled for release next month, and will no doubt offer another interesting angle in a multi-faceted career that has encompassed everything from Cat (Stevens) to Caetano (Veloso). And if Allyson hasn't yet gone from Coltrane to Cobain, it's just a matter of time. Her music is marked not just by its eclectic range, but even more by its emotional authenticity. Few singers are more skilled at bringing a lyric to life than this talented lady. For more on Allyson, see the article ”The State of Jazz Vocals Today,” published earlier this week on T.G.

     Karrin Allyson, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Your recordings have become more like collections of works of art rather than CDs. What musicians and composers will you collect next?

Thank you. Our new album is coming out in March of 2008 and it’s Brazilian material; some of it’s Jobim, but not all of it. Rosa Passos - great singer from Brazil, wrote a beautiful song called, “Outono,” which means “Autumn,” and Paul Williams wrote the English lyric for it…

Paul Williams wrote lyrics for Ivan Lins’ music as well.

Yes, the same kind of collaboration, but the song is quite different. There are also two Edo Lobo and Vinicius de Moraes songs that my friend, Chris Caswell - the gentlemen who wrote many of the lyrics to the Footprints songs - wrote new English lyrics to, and there are two Jobim songs, “A Felicidade” and “Vivo Sonhando,” that Susannah McCorkle wrote English lyrics to. We recorded it at Sear Sound, NYC, where we did Footprints, Wild For You, and In Blue.

Sonically as well as musically, Footprints is a great recording; all astral tracks and your sound is so warm and in the room. It’s nice to hear the presence and quality of your voice rather than effects and overproduction.

Thank you. I’ve been using the same engineer, Josiah Gluck, since Ballads. My producer, Nick Phillips - who played trumpet on Footprints - has been with me since my third CD. We’ve built a strong studio relationship. Also, my partner, Bill McGlaughlin is extremely helpful in the studio.

Bill is a fount of musical knowledge and multi-talented like you. It’s great to have a trusted support system, then you can just fly.

Yes, and there’s a ton of work for me to do. I’m extremely involved with this recent project. I arranged some of the songs and co-arranged the rest. I always choose the material and the players, schedule what and when we record, and we just finished mixing it and I’m very involved in that too.

What makes you fall in love with songs?

That’s kind of a mysterious thing, I think, for everyone, but obviously if it’s a great melody or if the lyrics are happening - and maybe it’s not both - you’re lucky if it’s both. If it has a meaning, one that everyone can get, or if it has a meaning to you and you hope to portray it for others, also the storytelling qualities, and the messages.

Do you ever pick one because it just feels good to sing? Say, a melody that’s a great jumping off point that you can improvise on layer after layer?

Yes, that’s a good point - true. And maybe that’s a real ’live’ consideration, like you’re thinking about what tune you want to start with, which is very important to get you going and connecting with the audience and your players. That’s important throughout the performance, but especially that first song. So yes, you definitely think, “It’s not like I have to send a message and tell a story on this first song, I just want to get a flow going.”

I’ve seen you live a few times, and you’re a superb performer. What do you think about doing a live CD?

Thank you. We’ve thought about it, it’s in the future, it just hasn’t happened yet. Live recordings have their own sets of challenges.

A live studio CD with an audience would be cool…

…that would be very cool, I like that idea.

What tracks from Footprints are closest to your soul?

I like the title track a lot; I love that lyric and the treatment of that song. I love to groove around with “The Turnaround,” that’s fun, and I play both of those songs live on piano, so it’s also fun to connect that way. I think "Con Alma" is beautiful, the lyric and the treatment. Separating myself from it, I like doing those tracks ‘live.’ “A Tree And Me” is beautiful - Oscar Brown Jr.’s song - I play piano on that one ‘live’ too.

Your recording of “A Tree And Me” sounds exactly the way it should be - it’s a framed portrait. Like “Con Alma,” it also has classical shadings, a natural for you on piano.

We lovingly borrowed Oscar Brown Jr.’s version of that tune, it’s really his. His is also a vignette, he doesn’t take it out or improvise on it, it’s a poem. Bruce Barth plays on the recording, and I play it ‘live’ unless Bruce is on the gig, but I’ve lost him to Tony Bennett. With my guitar quartet - which I love - I play more piano, I also stand up and sing because I like that freedom.

     Karrin Allyson, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

When you accompany yourself on piano, do you sing differently? Do you feel more or less comfortable with a song?

I’ve been told I sing differently, from sound people, when I’m sitting vs. when I’m standing. I haven’t thought about it that much as far as the projection - hopefully, to a certain extent that’s the sound engineer’s job. I don’t think I approach it that differently, although I’m multitasking…

…and your attention is divided, yet, you’re the core of the music. Do you feel that grounding tonal center when you’re at the piano?

Yes, I do. When I sit down it’s a very comfortable feeling and it’s more challenging too, it just depends on the song, how complicated it is, and if I‘m just learning the song. For example, many of the songs I’ll end up playing piano on for performances though I wasn’t necessarily playing on the recording, so a lot of them are still new to me.

Would you like to record an entire CD with you playing piano and singing, whether solo, trio, or quartet, but essentially you as the nucleus?

That’s an interesting idea. You know, I already feel like the nucleus - but I know what you’re saying - and that happens more ‘live’ than in recording, so maybe someday, sure.

Most of my favorite vocalists play piano; Sarah, Carmen, Shirley Horn…do you feel that your piano background has given you a more complete, well-versed method of singing, especially in your impeccable improvisational skills?

Thank you. When I learn songs I sit down at the piano with them. Usually I do that, even if it’s something I never really plan on playing. Like if it’s a real up bebopper, that’s not my thing at the piano. I’ll still learn the melody on the piano and play around with it. But yes, I do feel that, especially when singers come up and ask, “What would you suggest I do if there’s just three things?” Number one is, do you play any piano? If you can, get some keyboard knowledge. It doesn’t mean you have to perform for people on the keyboard, but it certainly helps you as a musician.

It beats the sense of chords and harmony into you. More singers should play piano.

Yes. I’d like to eventually to take a more harmonic approach to my improvisation. I think it’s probably more melodic based up until now…

…I hear it all within your solos, and I also hear melodies that are ready-made compositions. How about writing music?

That’s a good point, my lyricist/composer friend, Chris Caswell, will say, “Just improvise into a tape recorder and let’s make a melody out of it.” So we do that already. Chris and I have songs that we’ve written together, and I have songs that I’ve written the music to. One blues tune is on a CD that we‘ve done, “Sweet Home Cookin’." That’s my tune, and there are a couple that I’ve written partial lyrics to and I wrote the lyric to “Jordu” on Footprints. But there are pieces that I do write music to, so that’s in the future.

It’s a natural progression because your improvs sound composed - still in the moment and not contrived, but composed. That’s a rare skill with vocalists, but the best ones do it. I’ve always loved the way Ella laid her solos out.

That’s true, she was the master.

She was, but you’re a master at it as well. I always get a kick out of listening to you scat.

That’s very kind, thank you, Marissa.

Speaking of “Life Is A Groove,” I dig that.

That’s a fun one.

And of course there’s not enough time to talk about how much we love Nancy King.

Oh gosh, yes!

She’s great. How did you come up with the lyric for “Life Is A Groove?”

I was driving to a gig from Kansas City to Minneapolis and listening to my favorite Clifford Brown, Max Roach offering of that song and “Joy Spring” and all that. So I thought, “I love this little tune,” and I just started writing that lyric. Sometimes it happens that way but usually it doesn’t! (laughs).

Yes, it’s sporadic at best. Did you feel more comfortable singing that lyric because you created it?

No, less. I feel it’s a very personal thing to sing your own lyrics. As a singer you’re already pretty naked out there, and if you’re singing your own lyrics - and music is one thing because it’s a little more ethereal, meaning the melody or the chords - but it’s different when you’re singing lyrics. Though sometimes as a singer/songwriter you’re kind of taking the role as an actress, and it’s not necessarily you you’re talking about.

It becomes conceptual, yet we always wonder if the writer lived the lyric. Though one of your gifts is interpretation - both lyrically and melodically. Your fluency in musical styles is your differentiator. It’s always Karrin, but you truly become the style, you don’t just imitate it.

That’s nice of you to say that, because that’s important to me.

I can tell it is because you excel at it. I’ve often wondered how much of it is innate, and how much of it is skill and work, but my theory is that the key to capturing styles from Brazilian to bop - everything you do so well - is feel. What is it for you and how do you apply it?

Good question. I do think a lot of it’s feel. Even when we can’t understand a language…say I’m singing in Portuguese, and I’m not fluent in Portuguese, like opera singers who know a language can both speak and sing in it. I do speak French, and I’m learning Portuguese, and I certainly can’t converse in it, but you sing like you can. You don’t have to understand the language to get the feel or the style down. People love Edith Piaf in this country, they don’t necessarily know what she’s singing, but she has so much heart, soul, and feel in it that you get it.

How to prepare for it? I get tutoring in the languages, I don’t take it lightly or simply sing it syllabically. I want to know as much of the meaning as I can and get the accent down as close as I can. It’s hard, but I love languages, so it’s a labor of love. Also, getting the grooves down - I think what really captures us at first with Brazilian music are those wonderful samba, bossa, and folk grooves. Brazilian music has become such a big part of the American songbook too - so many great Brazilian composers.

Yes, it’s ‘people’s’ music. On the Concord Voices of Jazz DVD, you nail the blues with “Moanin’” then slip right into a Brazilian groove with “My Little Boat.” When you’re swiftly switching styles, do you hear a piece of it in your head, feel the groove like a drummer would, get it into your body, and then walk into it, or?

Yes, because live you have to switch from style to style on a dime, and it’s not always successful, especially with bebop - time is everything, really. But say you’ve finished “Moanin’” and you’re going to do a bebop song, the tempo is important because if you’re spitting out words, like on “Joy Spring,” you want to be able to make your words understandable. Bebop has that continuum.

It’s rapid-fire.

It is, and you can’t look back, you have to keep moving forward.

That’s the fun and the fear of it.

Yes, bop is an amazing intellectual challenge.

It was a treat to hear you, Jon Hendricks and Nancy King on “Everybody’s Boppin’.” What a great trio! I smiled at your laugh on Jon’s solo, as if to say, “How’d you come up with those riffs, Jon!”

That’s so much fun to be in the same room as them, the energy is amazing! The laugh? Well, you know you try to as much real stuff in there as you possibly can.

Nancy is wonderful; I’m drawn in by everything she does.

Me too. When I first saw her live, I was on the edge of my seat crying and laughing.

Are there other art forms that inspire you musically; literature, visual arts, nature?

I’m nature girl. I love being outside and I’m an environmentalist. I love movies. I love to read biographies, novels, and nature magazines - almost anything.

Do you constantly hear music and rhythms in your surroundings?

I have pretty acute hearing and for what I do for a living that’s good, but when you’re living in the city it’s not so good. I’ve always been bothered by noise. I usually work it out in rhythms - not necessarily intentionally, it’s just percussive stuff.

How do you turn it down and find the peace and silence we need to refill the cup?

Getting outside, or trying to get enough sleep. I don’t listen to music constantly, I don’t always have my iPod in my ears when I’m out and about.

Do you dream about singing and playing?

Usually when I dream about singing or playing it’s that I can’t find the gig, (both laughing). It’s those incompetence dreams. I can’t find the stage or my clothes. . .

Field day for Freud.

Those are the dreams I have. I don’t have dreams of grandeur or anything like that. (laughs)

You live your dreams of grandeur.

That’s very nice…we certainly have reality, yes.

…sometimes too much. On that note, since reality can be in print, do you ever wish that reviewers who get caught up with your physical appearance would focus instead on your depth, brilliance, and musical accomplishments?

I don’t see that very much. I wish that they would, yes. They probably wouldn’t do that to a guy, but I don’t think they focus on my appearance as much as they do on a lot of other people. We just got a review recently from our Birdland performance from Stephen Holden (New York Times), and he wrote, “With Ms. Allyson there is never any nonsense. She doesn’t preen, flirt or act coy.” I liked that because I don’t try and draw attention to myself particularly, I try to draw attention to the song, the music, and my players.

Has it been a challenge to balance remaining true to yourself and the music vs. the business?

Not really, the challenge of it is to keep track of it all and to find a management team that has the same goals and vision as you. I want someone to show me the way too. I don’t always want to be the one to say, “Do this and do that.”

You don’t want to be preoccupied with it; you’re there for the music.

But, I’m constantly preoccupied with it, unfortunately, unless I’m singing or playing. I don’t travel with a road manager, I do the bulk of this day to day stuff on my own.

That’s a lot to carry and it takes you away from the music. Maybe it’s a bit off balance, you could be singing right now.

Not singing, ideally I’d be practicing piano, I’d be singing a little or maybe trying to write or finish one of the ten songs I’ve started. But, that’s an excuse you can always use, “Well, if I didn‘t have to do this, I’d be sitting at that piano.” I’ve never been a very good “practicer.” I usually have to have a project to motivate me. I do enjoy sitting down and playing. Last summer, there was a rare lull in my schedule and I put together my sweet little classical book; stuff I like to play that’s challenging but not too challenging, and I started to play classical again, which was my first love.

I’d love to hear you play classical. If you hadn’t chosen music, what career might interest you?

I’ve thought about that lately… (both laughing) there are moments when I think, “Gee, what other options do I have?” (more laughter)

Man, do I know the feeling.

I’m sure you do. Everybody who is rather open minded goes that route sometimes. I feel that I’m a versatile person. As I’ve mentioned, I love being outside, I don’t know how I’d do that all the time, but I used to think that I’d be involved in a social cause - which I am peripherally, but something like joining the Peace Corps. I like working with older folks, I think they’re an undervalued part of our society and we have much to learn from them and cherish about them. So those two things, and I’d like to pursue languages more heavily; French was my minor in college and classical piano was my major, but languages and culture interest me.

We’ve covered alternative lives, how about the afterlife? It’s your first gig in Heaven, who’s on stage with you?

Heaven huh? You have high hopes for me! (laughs) I think musically I’d rather be in Hell - I’ll play with the folks in Hell . . no, just kidding. (laughter). Wow, let’s see, that’s a hard question because I have so many! Do they have to be dead? (laughs) Because I’d love to see Joni Mitchell live. If she were open to hanging with someone, it’d be fascinating to sing with her.

More among the living that you’d like to collaborate with? The first person who comes to mind is Kurt Elling. You, Nancy King, and Kurt are the hippest in the hemisphere, along with Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy and Sheila Jordan. You’re all innovators, while many vocalists tend to stagnate in rehash mode.

I did get a dream come true to work with and know Nancy, and I pursued that, so that’s a good point, and I love Kurt’s stuff, we’ve sat in together before, so I think that would be a really fun project. I admire Maria Schneider’s work very much, and Johnny Mandel as well. When I hire people for recordings they’re people I’ve always wanted to work with; Bruce Barth, I pursued him as a pianist, I think he’s a fantastic musician - great human being. All the people I’ve been working with forever; my drummer Todd Strait - everything I do he’s right in the pocket with, and talk about being versatile, I couldn’t do it unless my musicians were versatile too. My guitarist, Rod Fleeman, also pianist Gil Goldstein, both beautiful players. I’ve been working with vibist, Steve Nelson a lot, also Steve Wilson, a wonderful horn player. I love working with Laura Caviani because she’s a great piano player and collaborator, besides being a lovely person and one of my great friends. She’s written many big band charts for me, she’s so open and hard working. People who are good at what they do love what they do - if that makes sense. I mean in this business you have to work hard, especially if you’re a “side person” - even though I really don’t like that term, because it’s more of a collaborative thing - but my players have to get behind the music I’m doing. I love working with my long time guitarist Danny Embrey. Bob Bowman has been a huge influence on me. I loved working with Paul Smith (keys) because he was so joyful and swingin’. So it’s mostly closer to home, rather than thinking, “Oh… someday I’d like to work with, let’s say, Pat Metheny,” - although, that’d be fun!

Your piano is calling you. Last question: a wise old man once told me that one of the secrets of life is having things to look forward to. What do you look forward to?

Ah…time off - that’s always nice, although I do look forward to wonderful performing opportunities. I look forward to new beginnings but also take great comfort in old friends and my family. I look forward to a new democratic, fair administration.

Amen. Just a new set of problems…

I know it, anything’s better than this.

I look forward to what you’re going to come up with next. You’re one of my handful of inspiring current artists. You give me hope for this art.

That’s very nice of you, I appreciate that, and I’ve always loved what you do, Marissa, I love… (singing) ‘Big Moe was a catfish and he only had one wish…‘ I think that’s fantastic, I could never come up with something like that.

Thanks (laughing). But you sang it. I can write all day, but unless I have a Karrin to interpret it appropriately, songwriting can seem fruitless. Thank you for taking time away from making music to talk to me, Karrin. There are so many layers of you that I hoped to discover for myself and your listeners. You’re not only a vocalist, but an entire artist.

Well, that’s very kind of you, thank you. I feel like it, but you know you always feel like there’s so much more work to do; that this part of you needs to be developed and this and that. But every once in a while I guess we can say, “You know what, you did good today.”

Karrin’s “good“ is great - every day. A similar hopeful humbleness exists in each great artist I‘ve been fortunate to meet. Within them lives an unspoken pact to honor the art form they love and to create and contribute work that’s worthy of our jazz heritage. Once this more quixotic than gratifying quest takes hold, its like bop, there‘s no turning back. To quote Karrin’s lyric for “Jordu,” “I used to dream of playing jazz all night. So if you ask me nice, well I just might pick up my microphone and sing for you, only for you. And so my friend now you can plainly see this is the kind of thing that is for me, as long as we can play in harmony, life is a groove.” It’ll take the whole world a while to hear the harmony, but as long as Karrin sings and plays for us, life is a groove.

February 15, 2008 · 4 comments


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


Jazz Vocals in the New Millennium: Selected Listening

NOTE: Here are links to track reviews of a representative sampling of jazz vocal performances released since the start of the new millennium. Over and above my regular daily listening regime - based on a lifelong habit of checking out some new music every day - I also tracked down a couple hundred additional CDs to broaden my perspective of the current state of jazz vocals. These reviews encompass both well known stars and self-produced projects by little known vocalists.

Although there are a number of masterpieces here, my goal has been to offer a survey of the landscape rather than just a list of outstanding performances. In fact, some of the music here is rubbish - but rubbish that deserves to be put under the microscope and inspected. See my related essay on "The State of Jazz Vocals Today" for an ambitious attempt to synthesize this body of work and draw out some key trends and observations. T.G.

Karrin Allyson: All I Want
Karrin Allyson: Something Worth Waiting For (Con Alma)
Patricia Barber: Laura
Patricia Barber: Whiteworld
Michael Bublé: Summer Wind
CĂ©U: Rainha
Eugene Chadbourne: Eleanor Rigby
Peter Cincotti: I Changed the Rules
Harry Connick, Jr.: My Blue Heaven
Jamie Cullum: London Skies
Jamie Cullum: Singin' in the Rain
Sasha Dobson: Without You
Julia Dollison: Autumn in New York
Matt Dusk: The Best Is Yet to Come
Eliane Elias: Waltz for Debby
Cássia Eller: Partido Alto
Kurt Elling: Minuano
Kurt Elling: My Foolish Heart
Kurt Elling: A New Body and Soul
Eric Felten: I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
Nnenna Freelon (with James Moody): Just Squeeze Me
Roberta Gambarini: Lover Come Back to Me
Giacomo Gates: Summertime
Sara Gazarek: And So It Goes
Sara Gazarek & Josh Nelson: Leaving Here
Bebel Gilberto: Mais Feliz
Janita: No Words
Al Jarreau & George Benson: Four
Norah Jones (with Herbie Hancock): Court and Spark
Norah Jones: Don't Know Why
Norah Jones: The Nearness of You
Norah Jones: Wish I Could
Sara Jones: Skylark
Diana Krall: A Case of You
Diana Krall: I've Got You Under My Skin (live version)
Diana Krall: I Was Doing Alright
Diana Krall: S'Wonderful (studio version)
Abbey Lincoln: Throw It Away (2006 version)
David Linx & the Brussels Jazz Orchestra: Black Crow
Claire Martin: Slow Time
John Mayer (with Herbie Hancock): Stitched Up
Bobby McFerrin & Chick Corea: Windows
Kate McCarry: It Might As Well Be Spring
Katie Melua: Blues in the Night
Jane Monheit: In the Still of the Night
Mark Murphy: Skylark / You Don't Know What Love Is
Madeleine Peyroux: Don't Wait Too Long
Madeleine Peyroux: Once in a While
Corinne Bailey Rae (with Herbie Hancock): River
Dianne Reeves: Lullaby of Birdland
Maria Rita: A Festa
Kendra Shank: Incantation: Throw It Away
Ian Shaw: A Case of You
Somi: My Mother's Daughter
Luciana Souza: House
Melissa Stylianou: Them There Eyes
Tierney Sutton: Get Happy
Otis Taylor: My Soul's in Louisiana
Cassandra Wilson: Easy Rider
Cassandra Wilson: Honey Bee
Cassandra Wilson: Poet
Lizz Wright: Afro-Blue

February 13, 2008 · 0 comments