The Jazz.com Blog
February 18, 2008 · 1 comment
Below are some extracts from “The State of Jazz of Vocals Today,” focusing on male jazz singers. The second part of this long essay – almost nine thousand words – was published earlier today on jazz.com. The first part of this article, which focused mostly on female vocalists can be found here. Also check out the jazz vocal playlist, with more than sixty track reviews accompanying this essay.
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.
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.”
Mark Murphy 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 was recorded by an artist in his seventies.
When I heard Kurt 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.
Jamie Cullum, photo by Jos L. Knaepen
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 Sz?ke, 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.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia