[JPL] Clive Davis article - The saviors of jazz may be hot
new singers, n...
Jazz Promo Services
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Thu Nov 16 14:27:03 EST 2006
SUNDAY TIMES, 12th Nov 2006
There is a story about Miles Davis that tells you something about the uneasy
relationship between musicians and singers. Many years ago, as Lorraine
Gordon, co-owner of that Manhattan landmark the Village Vanguard, recalls in
her memoirs, Davis was in the middle of a residency when Gordon¹s husband,
Max, asked if he would accompany a promising new vocalist. Davis, brusque as
ever, turned him down flat. ³I don¹t play behind no girl singers,² he
rasped. And that was that. The young woman whose name was Barbra Streisand
was left to search for other paths to glory.
In fact, Davis did make a point of championing the elegant singer-pianist
Shirley Horn. But, by and large, the division he evokes, between
serious-minded instrumentalists and decorative vocalists, still holds firm.
Jazz history is sold as a succession of towering soloists from Charlie
Parker to John Coltrane with most singers allotted the role of supplying
the fripperies for the 52nd Street equivalent of the tired businessman.
There are important exceptions to that broad-brush rule Billie Holiday
comes instantly to mind but the critical consensus has been that the heavy
lifting is done by the men with the horns and the pianos.
But is that really the case now? Coltrane, the last undisputed giant in the
instrumental field, has been dead for nearly 40 years. Since then, jazz has
stubbornly clung to its minority share of the listening public. Given the
dearth of radio airplay and its near invisibility on mainstream TV, it is
miraculous that the music has any public profile at all. Jazz musicians
rightly point the finger at our obsession with celebrity culture and X
Yet what if the players themselves are partly to blame? What if they are
failing to reach out to the potential audience? Such questions are seldom
raised in public, which was why recent comments by the saxophonist Branford
Marsalis in The New York Times made such fascinating reading. A member of
America¹s most famous jazz family the trumpeter Wynton is his younger
brother Marsalis has led a curious dual career, blowing molten choruses in
select clubs while also jamming with Sting and leading the house band on
that late-night American institution The Tonight Show.
He has always had a reputation for speaking his mind, yet his remarks were
astonishingly frank: ³Musicians are always talking about, Why isn¹t jazz
popular?¹,² he wrote. ³But musicians today are completely devoid of
charisma. People never really liked the music in the first place. So now you
have musicians who are proficient at playing instruments, and people sit
there, and it¹s just boring to them because they¹re trying to see
something or feel it.²
Sad but, in many cases, all too true. Which is where singers enjoy an
advantage. While the instrumentalists chase ever more abstruse combinations
of chords, vocalists are left to build meaning out of that most basic
element words. Instead of seeing them as somehow second-class citizens, we
need to encourage them to become the new avant-garde.
Look around the popular-music scene and there is an undeniable hunger for
the virtues of grown-up songs. Which explains Michael Parkinson¹s emergence
as one of the important new tastemakers in jazz. ³Will Parky play it on
Radio 2?² is the question bouncing around countless record-company offices.
The rise of Madeleine Peyroux, the American gamine with a gift for fusing
Lady Day phrases with sensual blues-jazz riffs, owes much to what you could
call the Parkinson effect. The broadcaster¹s gastropub, the Royal Oak, set
in the Berkshire countryside a few miles from his home, has become a kind of
home-counties answer to Ronnie Scott¹s, regularly playing host to hugely
promising performers, including Clare Teal and the gospel-inflected American
newcomer Lizz Wright.
Parkinson¹s endorsement is no guarantee of success: for instance, despite
all the airplay for the clean-cut American singer-pianist Peter Cincotti,
his last album achieved disappointing sales. A promising, if slightly
airbrushed talent, Cincotti had the misfortune to arrive on the scene at
roughly the same time as the more rumbustious Jamie Cullum. Most purists
loathe the young man from the West Country; much of his material, it has to
be said, is closer to pop than jazz. But, at his best, the mischievous
showman at least reminds us that, during its most productive years, jazz was
an integral part of the entertainment industry.
Parkinson¹s preferences reflect the tastes of the Saga generation, hence the
bias towards adept but anodyne entertainers such as the big-band pin-up
Michael Bublé, the Sinatra-style crooner Steve Tyrell and the technically
flawless Jane Monheit. But there are edgier performers out there. Gwyneth
Herbert and Lianne Carroll patrol the unmarked territory lying between pop
and jazz, while one of the best of the newcomers is Cormac Kenevey, a young
Irishman who bears the influence of Harry Connick Jr, yet possesses his own
brand of beatnik charisma as he proved during an imposing Soho club debut
earlier this year. His first album, This Is Living, was released on Candid,
the label that propelled Cullum into the limelight. The company¹s owner,
Alan Bates, a man with a shrewd eye, has also signed the mesmerising French
vocalist Mina Agossi, a kittenish nonconformist who has created her own
intelligent form of acoustic drum¹ n¹bass.
Agossi demonstrates that it¹s possible to combine innovation and respect for
the tradition, as does that rowdy, self-styled ³dyke² comedian turned bopper
Lea DeLaria. A DeLaria show is not for the faint-hearted: women sitting
close to the stage are in danger of being subjected to serious french
kissing. But beneath the burlesque exterior, there is an astute musical
mind. An improviser who cites Coltrane as her prime influence, DeLaria is a
long way from easy listening, yet on an album such as Double Standards, she
shows that it really is possible to turn Blondie¹s Call Me into an
A much cooler presence, Norway¹s Solveig Slettahjell has brought a pensive
Scandinavian aura to a repertoire that ranges from Tom Waits to Cole Porter
and John Hiatt. She plays the London Jazz Festival on Friday.
One of the biggest jazz acts in America, Cassandra Wilson, also appears at
the festival tomorrow. Wilson, though, has been treading water of late,
which is why I am much more excited about the arrival at Ronnie Scott¹s
later this month of that enigmatic, Chicago-based singer-pianist Patricia
Barber. While Diana Krall has been deservedly cleaning up on the romantic
front, Barber opts for much darker and more challenging material. (Gotcha,
perhaps her best song, is a fantasy about a cheated wife¹s thoughts of
revenge.) Barber¹s latest disc, Mythologies, is her most ambitious yet, a
song cycle inspired by Ovid¹s Metamorphoses. The notion sounds impossibly
pretentious; she and her band transform it into a funky, bluesy triumph.
Two other Americans are busily making nonsense of traditional categories.
Kurt Elling many critics¹ choice as the finest male singer around at the
moment blends poetry, urbane scat and laid-back standards. Meanwhile,
Curtis Stigers, a 1990s pop idol who has brilliantly reinvented himself in
the jazz-blues idiom, continues his mission to win over the more hidebound
A commercial background has always aroused the suspicion of the jazz police,
yet Stigers will, I suspect, win the battle in the long run.
None of this means that instrumentalists are redundant. Far from it. The
point, though, is that the music as a whole needs to strike a better balance
between self- expression and conservatory-level self-indulgence. Jazz is
good at shooting itself in the foot, but to continue underplaying the role
of vocalists would be the ultimate self-inflicted injury. Time, in short, to
stop sneering about girl singers and give artists their due.
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