Los Angeles singer Gretje Angell’s debut …in any key (Grevlinto Records) comes as a surprise and a delight. A surprise because by her own admission she’s turned to jazz somewhat belatedly in her performing life and a delight because this debut is that good.
On the third night of her June run at Jazz Standard in New York City, singer Jazzmeia Horn leapt into her opener, the Betty Carter signature tune “Do Something,” with a fleet, peripatetic scat. As she progressed further into the improvised number, the references zipped by without pause—Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me.”
Jazz pianism today stands at an apex. There have been other moments in the music’s history when innovation rushed ahead of performers and listeners. But more than a century after jazz’s emergence, there are countless virtuosic pianists out there composing, recording and seeking a new vision for the genre.
(Elio Villafranca photo by Kasia Idzkowska)
Berlin-based singer-songwriter Céline Rudolph grew up immersed in multi-culturalism, surrounded by different languages, the grooves of several continents, and the tones of various instruments. “It’s a gift being raised with two languages because then your ear is very open to all different sounds,” Rudolph said in a recent trans-Atlantic phone call to discuss her latest release, Pearls, newly launched on her own label, Obsessions. “The ear is my tool—everything comes in through the ear.”
There’s a photo of Sam Rivers (1923-2011) at the White House, most likely from the so-called “White House Jazz Festival” on the South Lawn during Jimmy Carter’s administration. “That blue suit he had on? He made that,” recalled Monique Rivers Williams, daughter of the revered multi-instrumentalist. “He sewed all his own clothes...he wasn’t just a musician.”
First and foremost, Michael Janisch is a bassist. He’s about to drop his third solo album. He’s worked as a side player for dozens of A-list jazz artists. And he’s toured relentlessly with multiple bands. So, yes, a bassist first.
At the end of 2017, Verve Records unveiled Ella at Zardi’s, a previously unreleased live recording of an Ella Fitzgerald club date from February 1956. Excitement ran high over the album, believed to be Fitzgerald’s first live record ever. Until now.
The legacies of our classic jazz singers, once considered popular singers, have considerable reach. These early adopters of the American Songbook still define how these works are performed, even as modern jazz singers shape traditional vocal jazz to their own inspired ends. For this months’ vocal jazz issue, let’s take a look at how the influence of some beloved musical forebears as yet moves through singers today.
Free jazz percussionist Andrew Cyrille introduced tenor player Kidd Jordan from behind the kit at Roulette on June 11, the opening night of the 2019 Vision Festival in Brooklyn, NY. “We’re going to take you someplace else,” he said before jumping into a mesmeric repartee with the saxophonist and monster improviser.
The reason that world-renown clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera likes playing with Mark Walker is that the multiple Grammy-winning drummer “doesn’t play too loud.” D’Rivera says this with a laugh, but he’s more than serious about his appreciation of the rhythmic refinement that Walker has brought to their 30 years of collaboration. “Many musicians, especially drummers, lose their energy when you ask them to play soft,” he explained. “Mark can play with the same energy without raising the volume. That’s really hard to find.”
Violence. Brutality. Segregation. Exploitation. These are the words that singer/composer Sara Serpa uses when she talks about the family legacy that she inherited—a legacy that her latest musical projects tackle head on.
In 2016 Los Angeles-based vocalist Tierney Sutton and her eponymous band turned out a winning score for director Clint Eastwood’s film Scully. One of the tunes didn’t make the cut for the film but landed on the soundtrack; Sutton and co. reprise this uplifting song, “Arrow” on their latest release for BFM Jazz, Screenplay, a 15-song compilation culled from 80 years of Hollywood film-making.
Over the last decade, Tom Harrell has turned out about one HighNote album per year as a leader, trumpeter, and flugelhornist. A quintet of regular players usually serves as the core of these annual offerings, though not without deviations; sometimes he’ll double up his instruments, leave off a mainstay, like the piano, or add vocals or a guitar.
Traditionally, and with clear exceptions, the success of a jazz performance depends on the three musicians at the fulcrum of the sound—the pianist, bassist, and drummer. Whether as a standalone group or a rhythm section for a larger band, this unit conveys the values that the composing mind holds dear.
There’s a lot to learn from San Francisco-based vocalist Mary Stallings. The nuanced phrasing. The unswerving feel. The emotional connection to the text. And that voice—as buttery as ever, 60 years into her career.
In May 2018 drummer Antonio Sánchez was performing with pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill at the Fandango Fronterizo, a trans-border festival at the 18-foot-high fence that separates San Diego, California from Tijuana, Mexico. What impressed him was how people on both sides of the divide were singing and dancing together to son jarocho. For an instant the fence had disappeared.
The day before guitarist/composer Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen and her six-person band headlined at the 46th annual Vossa Jazz Festival (April 12-14), the group went hang-gliding in the mountains surrounding Voss, Norway. Voss, a small village on the train line between Bergen and Oslo, is a popular center for extreme sports—longboarding, dirt biking, BASE jumping—and the local delicacy is half a roasted sheep’s head, eye intact. Not a place for the faint of heart.
Linda May Han Oh has gotten used to carrying her double bass up the four flights of stairs to the Harlem walk-up that she shares with her husband, pianist Fabian Almazan. No doubt she’s had lots of practice of late.
In his intro to McCoy Tyner and Charles McPherson at 80, a tribute concert honoring these two jazz giants at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater April 5-6, saxophonist Sherman Irby summed up pianist/composer Tyner’s distinguished career in one sentence. “McCoy Tyner has presented the world with almost six decades of pure excellence,” he began.
Singer/pianist Bob Dorough (1923 to 2018) is best known for his work as musical director and composer for the children’s TV show, Schoolhouse Rock!, which aired from 1973 to 1985. Under his direction, millions of children learned about conjunctions, the magic number three, how a law becomes a bill, and the preamble to the Constitution (my personal favorite). But few know that Dorough collaborated with many jazz greats like trumpeter Miles Davis, singer Blossom Dearie, and pianist composer Dave Frishberg, and that he recorded for various labels, even turning out three (magic) albums for Blue Note Records in the late 1990s.