The Jazz.com Blog
March 25, 2008 · 1 comment
Below is the second part of Thierry Quénum commentary on the current state of jazz singing. For part one, click here. Quénum covers the jazz scene from his home base in Paris, and is a frequent contributor to these pages.
Jazz.com will be publishing additional commentaries on jazz singing in the coming weeks. To read the article that set this dialogue in motion, click here for "The State of Jazz Vocals Today".T.G.
How about male vocalists now? The new bestselling ones are all white – Jamie Cullum, Peter Cincotti and Michael Bublé, among others – and stand somewhere between jazz and pop. Older ones like Harry Connick Jr., rely on a similar breadth of repertoire, show their connections to the traditions of Sinatra, “King” Cole and Tormé. Others like Kurt Elling are more authentically jazz, but he recently changed labels, and his repertoire and way of singing have become closer to pop.
Black American singers have apparently a harder time getting famous or staying at the top, at least seen from Europe. Or is it that young African-American vocalists seem to want to sing anything but jazz? Do age and looks have the same impact with the male vocalists, as it does with the female? Obviously yes, if we observe the record covers: smiling young men dressed in fashionable attire, with a couple of more casual photos (loose clothes, uncombed hair) in the CD booklet, which sometimes mention the name of their hairdresser and the brand of the clothes they wear.
Jamie Cullum’s post-teenager look is an exception, and corresponds to the type of audience he attracts. As far as men are concerned, this is a rather new phenomenon. The still active older singers like Andy Bey, Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks or Tony Bennett never needed that type of grooming to establish their reputations. Unlike the female vocalists of their generation, they don’t try to look younger, and appear as the veterans they actually are.
Is it fair to accuse the few fashionable and successful male vocalists of the younger generation of diluting the essence of jazz singing? Few of them – the notable exception being Elling, who’s not that young anymore – scat or emphasize improvisation; and, just like the ladies, they build their image more through their looks than their voices. They also make few deep references to the tradition of vocal jazz and are appreciated by listeners who also have very little knowledge of this tradition.
In the meantime, continental European jazz singers don’t get the exposure of a Cincotti or Bublé, but you can’t blame the absence of media interest on any lack of talent. Belgian singer David Linx plays in festivals, clubs and concert halls all over the continent, but his audience is basically limited to the jazz aficionados. The same goes for Hungarian singer Gabor Winand. Both are considered as highly talented musicians by the specialist critics, but for mass media, radio and TV, only American male voices exist in the jazz idiom.
The exception in Europe is British-born Jamie Cullum. He has a great knowledge of jazz, both as a singer and as a pianist. He often pays homage to Mel Tormé in his arrangements of standards, and sometimes revives these vintage songs with provocative renderings. In doing so, he brings a popular audience – and even teenagers – back to songs like, “I Get a Kick Out of You.” This is great, and may even entice his fans to check out his sources. But his rock-star-like onstage behavior and the publicity around it are an important element in his success, while great British singers like Claire Martin and Ian Shaw – who helped, inspired and encouraged Cullum in his early years, but have a less flashy demeanor – don’t really benefit by their protégé’s fame.
Paradoxically this lane on the side, left for singers who will never make it on the big market, can become a road to creative freedom for those who renounce the rat race and keep polishing their own art. David Linx or Susanne Abbuehl are examples of that. The situation has been more difficult for French jazz singer Thierry Péala. He paid his dues singing standards in bars in Paris and London, before becoming a professional, earning a living both as a teacher and a performer. Over a period of five years he has recorded twice. The first time he played the repertoire of Kenny Wheeler, with original words, and Wheeler himself as a guest. The second time he was alone with only a piano and a tenor sax. Not the most popular choices if you want to get better known. But both records received critical acclaim, though neither will sell much. For the most part, word of mouth fills the places where Péala plays.
Yet how many artists recording on big labels have the freedom to develop and expose such a personal poetic universe? Isn’t it good, for the music at large, that this type of vision of jazz singing also finds a way to exist? Instead the marketing of jazz singers today, of both sexes, increasingly consists of creating stars who have similar stylistic characteristics. These tactics work in industrial production at large, while jazz singing has always been more of a handicraft, and should remain so.
Elisabeth Kontomanou, one of Europe’s major female jazz vocalists, told me that she once was asked to be part of the jury of a jazz singing exam in a conservatory in Sweden, where she lives. One of the contestants was technically adept, but rather shallow. When asked about her influences she quoted some recent fashionable names, but admitted that she had never listened to Ella Fitzgerald. The next day Kontomanou offered the young singer a rare Ella LP from her personal record collection. How can you study jazz singing if you know nothing about one of the greatest stylists of the genre? Why would you want to? Meanwhile this young “jazz” singer had all of the records by the fashionable (pseudo) jazz singers of the last 5 years. How can jazz singing evolve with wannabe singers without roots or culture?
The voice is everybody’s natural instrument. Does this mean that you can become a singer without absorbing knowledge and refining your art? And how can you do that without checking out the heritage of your art form or following what's currently being done by all the great stylists who are still active and have a right to live in the margins of the momentary mainstream?
It’s the duty of the press, of the web sites, of the small labels, of the local clubs… to help these artists who preserve the diversity of this art called vocal jazz. The art will thrive only if many talents bring their various approaches to it.
Most birds sing, for sure, but they don’t have to be birds of a feather.
This blog entry posted by Thierry Quénum. For part one of this article, click here.