The Jazz.com Blog
April 08, 2009 · 4 comments
While the rest of the world is taking odds on who will win American Idol, jazz fans know where to look for the real star vocalists. And the competition is heating up here too. Cassandra Wilson’s compilation Closer to You was released yesterday. Diana Krall’s new CD Quiet Nights came out on March 31. Madeleine Peyroux’s Bare Bones was released on March 10.
Phone in now with your votes. Or text message your choice. . .
As I write, Krall’s release sits at the very top of Amazon’s “jazz vocals” sales chart. Peyroux is in the fourth spot. Cassandra Wilson shows up at number 27 on the list. Of course, if you judge singers on the basis of sales, Krall is clearly the queen of the cash register. Her releases hold eight of the top 25 slots.
If it wasn’t for the Norah Jones phenomenon—at one point earlier in the decade, Jones reportedly represented half of the jazz CDs being sold during some weeks—Krall wouldn’t even need to look over her shoulder to suss out the competition. In an era in which jazz music is disappearing from mainstream culture, Krall has somehow managed to overcome all the obstacles and reach a large audience. And it is not just because she married Elvis Costello—Krall was selling out concert halls long before that happened.
Sometimes it seems as if the jazz world hates success. CDs that would have been praised by critics and fans if they had sold five thousand copies, become subject to ridicule and abuse if they go gold. Krall’s very success inevitably produces a backlash, and we can already seen signs of it. (One of the first reviews on the Krall CD—published even before the disk was out –had the headline: “Krall delivers more elevator-ready jazz.”)
I am uneasy with the heavy-duty marketing and packaging that accompanies these releases—and Krall pulled out all the stops for this CD launch, even presenting a free noontime concert with full orchestra last week at The Winter Garden at the World Financial Center. But I give this singer her due. She gets deep inside the songs she sings, almost like a psychiatrist trying to unlock the hidden meaning of a patient’s dreams.
The great standards, event the tired old ones that we have heard too many times ("Body and Soul," "My Funny Valentine," and the other usual suspects), have something mysterious living inside them, but it takes a rare artist to cut through the surface level and reach that almost metaphysical element. Krall does this as well as any singer on the planet these days, and the other vocalists who insert “scootelly-ooteelly-dooh” in the middle of a song about broken hearts might learn a thing or two by studying her work.
Yet I must point out that Krall’s new CD, for all its virtues, takes no chances. She seems intent on recreating as closely as possible the sound and style of her 2001 release The Look of Love. She brings back Claus Ogerman, who is unlikely to surprise us at this point in his career. (Wouldn’t it be great if she shook things up with more provocative charts, as Joe Lovano did on his Symphonica CD last year?) Krall also relies on many of the same musicians, the same conductor, and the same types of songs and tempos here as on that earlier release. I cannot fault the individual tracks here, which are performed with loving care. But can you spell F-O-R-M-U-L-A?
There are more surprises on Madeleine Peyroux’s new CD, but far less jazz content. I have heard many critics attack Peyroux for imitating Billie Holiday. I think they miss the point. This singer wants to be the next Joni Mitchell, or at least Rickie Lee Jones, and has no interest in finding her own equivalent of Lester Young in order to create jazz masterpieces.
Yes, she has a languid delivery that is somewhat reminiscent of Lady Day, but I find this aspect of Peyroux's style rather appealing. She definitely knows how to deliver a phrase for maximum impact, yet barely raising her voice above a whisper. Even so, I’m not sure whether jazz fans will have much interest in her Bare Bones CD. However, I expect to hear it on the radio and at Starbucks. I wouldn’t be surprised to find some teenagers checking it out too, and that can’t be a bad thing, given the alternatives out there.
The Cassandra Wilson CD Closer to You: The Pop Side pulls together tracks from various releases and highlights this singer’s cover versions of hit songs. The range of material here is dauntingly wide, and includes the Monkee’s “Last Train to Clarksville,” Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Certainly the record label execs have crossover sales in mind. Yet even if there is a formula here too, Wilson’s versions of these songs are anything but formulaic. When they teach integrity in the jazz singing classes at Berklee, they should put her photo on the overhead projector. The real lesson from hearing all these interpretations of pop-rock hits is that a great jazz vocalist can take on any tune, no matter how schmaltzy or saccharine, and make it into art song.
Tierney Sutton is not as well known as Krall, Peyroux or Wilson, but we need to find a place for her in this survey of recent releases. Her new CD Desire is one of the best jazz vocal albums of the year. The arrangements are very smart, the band challenges and prods the singer (something that you will almost never hear on the high-profile projects by the grand crossover divas of our time), and Sutton responds with intensely creative interpretations of the old songs. This CD also is climbing the charts, and it certainly isn’t because of the PR campaign. There was no noontime concert with full orchestra to celebrate its release.
For more info, check out my reviews of the following tracks:
Diana Krall: Too Marvelous for Words
Madeleine Peyroux: Instead
Tierney Sutton: Cry Me a River
Tierney Sutton: It’s Only a Paper Moon
Cassandra Wilson: The Weight
This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.