Female Jazz Vocalists

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Female Jazz Vocalists

In Issue 219 I wrote an overview of contemporary female jazz singers that bypassed the most well-known vocalists. Since that issue I’ve kept listening, and gradually a new list was created. Like last time, I searched for jazz singers whose work impressed me enough to strongly recommend them to TAS readers. During this process the rejects were many, and I don’t think that’s because I’m a tough sell. Being a good jazz vocalist isn’t easy, and simply releasing a CD doesn’t prove competence. More than some genres, a voice that’s technically good is almost a requirement. There are exceptions, but in this particular genre you don’t find too many Captain Beefhearts or Leonard Cohens. (Well, you don’t find too many of them anywhere—but you see my point.) Also, the idiom of jazz singing is demanding enough that some people never quite get a handle on it.

There’s also the question of material. When it comes to the Great American Songbook, it’s hard to give a fresh spin to tunes that were already popular in the first half of the 20th Century and never faded into obscurity. On the other hand, singers have mixed results when they look elsewhere. Let’s face it, incorporating post-Beatles pop music has produced its fair share of train wrecks in both vocal and instrumental jazz. Usually the fault lies in the interpretations rather than the choices, with musicians creating uninspired arrangements of obvious material in a sad effort to seem relevant. Writing your own songs also presents its own challenges, and my reject pile proves that not everyone is a songwriter. Even after a jazz singer has passed through all those hoops challenges await her.

Somehow she has to surround herself with good musicians, and there’s also the question of arrangements. Some are too safe while other strain for novelty.

So—believe me—I heard my fair share of duds, but that didn’t deter me from searching for what were in some cases less- than-obvious and emerging singers. While doing so I thought of all the less visible female jazz vocalists from the 50s and 60s whose records ended up becoming highly collectible. Often these singers worked in informal small group sessions that allowed the instrumental soloists to stretch out, and I much favor some of those obscure dates to the overly-arranged, gimmicky, and pop-oriented sessions that were sometimes imposed upon more famous singers. Fortunately a loose, wide-open spirit is still alive on many of the releases recommended in this article, giving the singer the spotlight...but sneaking in a mini-jam session as well. Something that impressed me about these recordings in general was the sound. Were I to critique sonics on each individual release, expressions like “intimate,” “life-like,” and “in-the-room sound” would keep getting repeated in order to say...I’m impressed.

NANCY KELLY
Early in her singing career Nancy Kelly performed regularly at a nightclub that was a magnet for Hammond B-3 heavy- weights. That was in Philly in the early 80s, and while listening to her BlueBay release BThatWay—whereshefindsherselfonce again heading an organ-based combo— the dues she paid during that period helped ensure that this project has the gusto that such a project demands. Nice backup, too: organist Dino Losito keeps things swing- ing while Peter Bernstein delivers some

tasty guitar licks and Jerry Weldon slips in some sweet tenor sax. Overall B That Way is an energetic set, but at times on this well-paced collection Kelly slows things way down and plunges deep into some moving ballads, as on “Don’t Explain” and “Don’t Go to Strangers.” Twice the winner of Down Beat’s best female jazz vocalist award, Nancy also impressed me with her deft handling of Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce,” an uptempo blast of be- bop that requires true dexterity.


HILARY GARDNER
“In literal and abstract ways, these songs form a narrative of life in New York City, replete with myriad contradictions, complexities, and moments of unexpected beauty,” Hilary Gardner writes in the liner notes to The Great City. While songs like “Brooklyn Bridge” and “Autumn in New York” contain explicit references to the Big Apple, this album is more about capturing thefeelofthecity,including(andinfact highlighting) its charm and romance. Recorded at Systems Two Recording Studio in Brooklyn, The Great City has a warm, intimate sound and benefits from tasteful and uncluttered arrangements that allow Gardner’s seductive voice to woo the listener with subtlety and grace. On “Brooklyn Bridge” her relaxed delivery and Jason Marshall’s breathy tenor sax obbligatos combine to set the mood. Released on Anzic Records, The Great City contains both common and lesser- known standards plus solid arrangements of pop songs, including interpretations of Leonard Cohen’s “No One After You” and Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” that are as convincing as the jazz standards.

DEBORAH LATZ
Maybe you’ve heard “Blue Skies” a thou- sand times, but not the way Deborah Latz sings it on the leadoff track to Fig Tree, a June Moon release. The rhythm section lays down an off-kilter funk beat while Latz, who sounds playful here, zigzags around the beat in a way that reminds me of Wayne Shorter’s soprano work with Weather Report. And she has a fine band behind her, as evinced by the serpentine guitar and piano solos during Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly.” I’m also impressed by Latz’s versatility. “É Luxo Só” and “Corcovado” are both bossa nova gems, and Orfeas Peridis’ “Fevgo” is equally memorable. Latz is accomplished enough that even with the most minimal accompaniment— on the bare bones “’S Wonderful” and “Ill Wind,” for example—the song feels complete. Her fans include Sheila Jordan, who knows a thing or two about singing.

FREDA PAYNE
Remember “Band of Gold,” that 70s soul classic that still sounds good today? That was sung by Freda Payne, whose jazz roots actually precede her soul hits (her 1962 debut on Impulse included renditions of Monk’s “’Round Midnight” and Ornette’s “Lonely Woman”). She remains in fine form on her new Mack Avenue release Come Back to Me, which includes such well- known standards as “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” “Haven’t We Met,” “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” With a strong, commanding voice, Payne seems totally at ease fronting a big band led by Grammy winner Bill Cunliffe. Eventually the more pop-sounding contemporary material in the middle of the CD gets monotonous, but there are plenty of solid performances of standards to make up for that.

YEAHWON SHIN
This is the second survey in a row where I’ve praised this Korean-born vocalist, whose debut Yeahwon focused on Brazilian music by composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim, Egberto Gismonti, and Milton Nascimento. On the surface her follow- up Lua ya is a radically different project. Where Yeahwon’s debut album featured elaborate arrangements and a full, rich sound, Lua ya primarily consists of duets inspired by a chance occurrence. While visiting pianist Aaron Parks at a recording session in in Massachusetts, Yeahwon fell in love with the acoustics of Mechanics Hall, and the two musicians later reunited to record on the same stage (accordionist Rob Curto also appears on some tracks). Although the music relies heavily on improvisation, many of the performances on this ECM release are based on simple motifs, including the melodies to some lullabies Yeahwon first heard as a child.


CATHERINE RUSSELL
There’s something old-fashioned about Catherine Russell’s new Harmonia Mundi release Bring It Back, and in a good way. Singing tunes written or performed by Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, and others, Russell leads a relaxed session that hearkens back to the days when swing, blues, and popular music were all intertwined. There’s some familiar material as well as some obscurities, including “Lucille,” a song written many decades ago by her father Luis Russell, who worked extensively with Louis Armstrong. The ten-piece band that accompanies Russell on much of this set boasts a swinging horn section that can be vigorous (check out the muted trumpet, clarinet, and trombone on “You Got to Swing and Sway”) or sweet as honey (“I Cover the Waterfront”) and receives a plush and richly-detailed recording. Russell’s ability to charm is evident by the time she finishes the first line of “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”—and also on the classic “Aged and Mellow,” where she spells out very clearly her ranking system for members of the opposite sex.

NATHALIE BLANC
Nathalie Blanc appears on Este Mundo as a special guest artist for a group led by Phillippe Petrucciani. The songs on this Harmonia Mundi release are a colorful blend of jazz and Brazilian music; at times you might be reminded of the Pat Metheny Group. Performing on electric, acoustic, and synth guitar, Petrucciani wrote the music for more than half the songs while Blanc penned the lyrics. Their compositions are ethereal, dreamy, and well-crafted, especially on “Este Mundo,” “Mike P.,” “Bania,” “Souvenirs D’Enfance,” and “May Be One Day.” Of the standards, the duet performance of “’Round Midnight” is the most memorable, Petrucciani’s nylon-string guitar and Blanc’s vocals breathing new life into Monk’s most-played song. The warm Jaco-like tone of electric bassist Dominique Di Piazza also stands out here. You’d think he was playing a fretless bass, but apparently his custom-made instrument just sounds like one; in any case, he has a nice touch both in a supportive role and as a soloist.


NICKI PARROTT
Prior to releasing albums as a vocalist, Nicki Parrott had already built a reputation in jazz circles for her abilities on the bass, with a resume that included a lengthy stint as one-third of the Les Paul Trio during the legendary Monday night sessions at the Iridium in New York City. The guitarist encouraged her to sing, and a string of successful records confirms that this was good advice. Parrott, who grew up in Australia and continues to hold down the bass role while singing, has a slightly smoky voice that’s expressive in a cool, understated way. On Ooroo records, The Best of Venus Volume One is culled from tracks originally released on the Venus label from Japan, marking the first time that these tracks have been available in the US and Canada. Highlights include the sultry “I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart,” the bright and bubbly “C’est Si Bon,” the charming “They Say It’s Spring,” and the melancholy “Moon River.”

SARA SERPA
In my previous jazz vocal roundup I praised Camera Obscura, which paired Sara Serpa, a native of Portugal, with the pianist Ran Blake. The chemistry between Blake and Serpa was unique, combining the dissonant, angular, avant-garde veteran with a much younger vocalist who can project a vulnerable and almost childlike aura. That studio recording was memorable, and Aurora, the follow-up live set on Clean Feed, is even better. Partly that’s due to the way the concert unfolds. There’s no applause until the end, making the whole stronger than the sum of its parts and creating powerful transitions. Serpa’s haunting a cappella version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which would have been noteworthy in any case, has even more impact when preceded by such half-sunny fare as “Saturday” and “Moonride” (and leads dramatically into Blake’s ominous solo performance of “Mahler Noir”).

LISA FERRARO
Perhaps the most romantic record in this survey, Serenading the Moon kicks off with a version of “I Wished on the Moon” that’s slow and sparse, allowing Lisa Ferraro’s enticing voice to cast a seductive spell. That song sets the tone for a record inspired by and dedicated to the moon. The recording was produced by tenor veteran Houston Person, who also contributes high-quality obbligatos and solos; the band also includes John diMarino on piano, Ray Drummond on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums. There’s an undercurrent of the blues at times (“Teach Me Tonight,” “More Than You Know,” “Lucky So and So”) as well as a straightforward reading of “Skylark.” Note that this Pranavonic Universal release is currently only available on the singer’s website, lisaferraro.com.


GLAUCIA NASSER
Glaucia Nasser is a Brazilian singer, Sammy Figueroa a percussionist who has long been an important figure in the Latin jazz world; recently these musicians teamed up for the new Savant release Talisman. If the Latin rhythms on this album have a heavier than normal beat for Nasser, her strong, full-bodied, and sensual voice is nonetheless well-suited for fronting a smoking rhythm section. Likewise, Figueroa offers sensitive support on more lyrical material like “Abrigo” and “Passos.” Talisman also benefits from strong songwriting by such guest performers as Bianca Gismonti (“E Quando Quiero”) and Chico Pinheiro (“Encontro” and “Boca de Siri).”

MIKI PURNELL
On the Sweet and Lovely Music label, Swingin’ to the Sea has a light, airy, relaxed feel. Highlights include a warm reading of “Estate,” an Italian song made famous by the bossa nova icon João Gilberto. The slow, stripped-down version that appears here—with just voice, piano, bass, and drums—is a delight. When so inspired the band can also be frisky, as on the Toots Thielmans classic “Bluesette,” where dynamics, tempo changes, and aggressive flute and piano solos abruptly raise the energy level. On “The Nearness of You” it’s just Purnell and a piano, and the intimacy of that performance, the use of space, and Purnell’s smooth, silky voice make it another highlight of Swingin’ to the Sea. A holistic physician, Purnell believes that music “creates therapeutic harmony,” and I can hear why.


CHAMPIAN FULTON
Change Partners captures the excitement of a live club performance where Champian Fulton provides further evidence of her talents as pianist, burning through the changes on “Lover, Come Back to Me” and throwing in unexpected jabs during saxophonist Cory Weeds’ solos. As a vocalist, Fulton is most often compared to Dinah Washington, and you’ll also hear a trace of Billie Holiday. The resemblance never feels studied, however, and in fact Fulton comes across as one of the most distinctive singers on the scene. Fulton’s unique sense of phrasing and her coy manner of delivering lyrics to songs like “Change Partners,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” help assure her a place among today’s top vocalists.

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