On Giants' Shoulders

On Giants' Shoulders

This past spring, singers Urszula Dudziak, Michele Hendricks, Jay Clayton, and Norma Winstone reconvened their 1980s free improv a cappella group, Vocal Summit, for a European tour. Besides these four singers, at various times the ensemble has included Jeanne Lee, Bobby McFerrin, Lauren Newton, Leon Thomas, and Bob Stoloff. Only two recordings of these historic collaborations exist: Live at Willisau: Conference of the Birds (ITM Pacific) and Sorrow Is Not Forever—Love Is (Moers Music). But two of the ensemble’s core members—Clayton and Winstone—just happen to be Sunnyside artists, and of late Sunnyside has been reissuing some key titles from its catalogue, some Clayton and Winstone records among them.

Last month Sunnyside re-released three of Winstone’s albums from the 1990s: First, from 1993, is Well Kept Secret, a handful of lesser-done standards featuring pianist Jimmy Rowles on piano, bassist George Mraz, drummer Joe La Barbera, and Rowles daughter Stacy on flugelhorn. On this landmark album Winstone first presented her lyrics to Rowles’ most well-known instrumental composition, “The Peacocks,” which she renamed “A Timeless Place”—a beseeching ballad that captures Winstone at her most expressive and heart-wrenching. (This year Jazzmeia Horn, 2013 winner of the Sarah Vaughan Competition, included this tune on her debut album, A Social Call, for Prestige Records.) Next, from 1996, a duo album with Winstone’s longtime collaborator, pianist John Taylor, Like Song, Like Weather. Winstone and Taylor had been key figures in the free improv movement of the 1970s; their interpretations of the standards on this disc play subtly with rhythm and texture as they move effortlessly in and out of the known musical structures of the tunes. Last, Manhattan In The Rain, a warm, straight-ahead Songbook recording from 1997 with simple piano, bass, and horn accompaniment, demonstrates Winstone’s ease with traditional jazz idioms. Taken together, these three albums offer a tantalizing taste of this influential singer’s almost five decades of composing, performing, and recording. Some more, please.

Clayton’s output is no less impressive. On the heel’s of Sunnyside’s re-release of her 1994 album with pianist Fred Hersch, Beautiful Love (reviewed in the October VoxNews column), this month the label is launching Clayton’s Unraveling Emily, a duo album with composer/pianist Kirk Nurock. On this recording the pair uses improvisation, spoken word, avant-garde vocalizations, and electronic effects as a setting for the poetry of Emily Dickinson; notably, Clayton offers up a new interpretation of the poem “I’m Nobody,” originally one of the seven tunes on Vocal Summit’s Conference of the Birds. The recent incarnation of the piece, this time by Nurock, is more compact and stylized, speaking both to changes in recording technology and Clayton’s talent for innovation.

Almost 10 years after Clayton, Winstone also recorded a duo album with Hersch for Sunnyside: Songs & Lullabies in 2003. Julie Benko, whose pianist/co-producer Jason Yeager studied with Hersch at New England Conservatory of Music, so loved one of Hersch’s tunes from this album that she added it to her regular repertoire. Her touching rendition of the moody ballad “A Wish,” with lyrics by Winstone, is only one of 11 standout performances on her recently released debut jazz CD, Introducing Julie Benko (s/p). Benko, a Broadway actor and singer, won first place in the American Traditions Competition in Savannah, Georgia, this year in part on the strength of five tunes from this album, including “A Wish.” The album contains several surprising turns, not the least of which is Benko’s talented songwriting on three originals.

In 2015, Nicole Zuraitis also put in a good showing at the ATC, placing as a finalist, and later that year she ranked as a second runner-up in the Sarah Vaughan Competition. Zuraitis is the rare singer who can give just about any genre its due technically; she sings an operatic role with the same apparent ease that she digs into a complicated scat solo. This month she releases her latest album, Hive Mind (Dot Time), a stunning collection of nine powerful pop-jazz originals and a lone covera jazz version of "Jolene," one of her winning ATC numbers. Zuraitis will present Hive Mind at Drom on Nov. 12, at the same time that this year's Sarah Vaughan Competition will be happening across the Hudson River at NJPAC.

(Reprinted from the November 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Fascinating Things

Fascinating Things

Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant’s illustrations are whimsical and charming, her handwriting round and neat. Both grace the cover of her new album, Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue), revealing yet another dimension of Salvant’s artistic self. Whether with a song or a pen, Salvant is a master at conjuring up captivating images.

Salvant recorded just over half of the new album at Village Vanguard about a year ago with the same team that played on her 2016 Grammy-winning album, For One To Love (Mack Avenue)—pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist/arranger Paul Sikivie, and drummer Laurence Leathers. The rest of the album is a studio recording with the Catalyst Quartet providing strings on—most notably—the four originals to which Salvant contributed either music, lyrics, or both.

Each luscious moment on the two-disk recording moves unerringly into the next; if it weren’t for the applause and cheers from the audience on the live sections you’d never notice that Salvant had changed rooms. (Then again, given Salvant’s riveting performance on this album, you probably wouldn’t notice if the room were on fire.) Some standout moments: her tongue-in-cheek delivery on “If A Girl Ain’t Pretty”; a rambunctious version of Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now”; and Salvant’s gut-wrenching musical adaptation of Langston Hughes’ “Fascination.” Salvant will launch the CD on Sept 26-Oct 1 at Village Vanguard from the same stage where she recorded it last year.

As a child, New York Voices member Lauren Kinhan developed her own fascination with singer Nancy Wilson, listening again and again to Wilson’s 1961 collaboration with pianist Cannonball Adderly, Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderly (Capitol). Five of the tunes from this iconic recording inspired Kinhan to record A Sleeping Bee (Dotted i), her unique take on 10 tunes that Wilson popularized from 1961-64. Even though this is Kinhan’s first all-standards album, her approach to the material is anything but conventional: with her big, flexible voice, Kinhan brings the passion of a soul singer to the improvisatory reach of a jazz diva. This powerful combination transforms classics like “Never Will I Marry” and “Save Your Love For Me” from charming tunes into Kinhan’s personal declarations of creative independence. A Sleeping Bee drops on Oct 6.

Listening to Benny Benack III’s originals it’s easy to forget that they were written in the 21st century, and his fiery trumpet sections come as a surprise after his crooning baritone lays down a gently swinging melody. Yet these Songbook-ish originals, lyric vocals, and effervescent horn solos do indeed emanate from the same contemporary jazz musician. Benack’s debut CD, One Of A Kind (BB3 Productions) features eight of his own originals, some with vocals, some without, each one a close cousin to the Tin Pan Alley favorites that inspired Benack’s musicianship. Emmet Cohen, Bernack’s pianist, also contributes one piece—“You Already Know,” the hardest swinging tune on the album and a showcase for Benack’s tandem playing with guest player, saxophonist Joel Frahm. It would be tempting to compare Benack to other singer/trumpeters like Chet Baker or Louie Armstrong, but such comparisons would miss the mark. Benack is simply his own thing. He’ll be at Smoke on Oct 26 to launch One Of A Kind.

In 1994 singer Jay Clayton went into the studio with pianist Fred Hersch to record a duo album of love songs for the Sunnyside label. Last month Sunnyside released the remastered version of this vintage album—Beautiful Love, a decade of songs that fully plumb the musical depth of these two artists. What distinguishes Clayton and Hersch from others—and makes them such a perfect pairing—is their shared musical vision: spacious, meditative improvisation as a medium of connection and loss. This month Clayton, a leader in the free vocal improv movement in 1970s New York City, joins the faculty of Princeton University’s music department.

In 2010 singer Fay Victor attended a workshop for musicians in upstate New York, where she met Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik and UK bassist Dominic Lash. These musicians, inspired by the wildlife outside their door each day, formed the ensemble ReDDeer Trio, which just released New York – St. Johann (Evil Rabbit), a live recording their improvised performances in Austria and New York City. The trio is rarely in the same city at the same time, so they don’t get much opportunity to perform together. However, you can catch Victor this month at Spectrum Loft Space on Oct 6, Roulette on Oct 12, and 55 Bar on Oct 26.

(Reprinted from the October issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Song of Silver Geese

Song of Silver Geese

The first scene in composer Jen Shyu’s latest work, the jazz fantasia Song of Silver Geese, opens with a string quartet quietly stirring. These sounds recall a darkened expanse of road in Java, Indonesia. On this road the audience meets Shyu’s protagonist, a young girl suddenly orphaned in a late-night automobile accident. The real-life event that spurred Shyu to create Silver Geese was a fatality that in 2014 claimed the life of her friend and collaborator, Javanese puppeteer Sri Joko Raharjo. “I was imagining the terror of Nala, his [6-year-old] daughter, right after the accident” as she waited alone for help, Shyu says. Nala was the only survivor of the crash.

This image haunted Shyu during the nearly two years it took her to create the composition. Its first incarnation was a through-composed piece for her regular jazz ensemble Jade Tongue and the Mivos Quartet, with Shyu on vocals, moon lute, gayageum, and piano. Japanese dancer Satoshi Haga served as co-director and choreographer, and a grant from New Music USA afforded the two the time and space to develop the production’s many moving parts. In March 2016 Shyu presented sections of the new work as part of the first Met Breuer series (curated by fellow composer/pianist Vijay Iyer) and debuted the completed, full-length piece at Roulette. Later, Shyu transformed the ensemble piece into a solo work, Nine Doors, which premiered at National Sawdust in Brooklyn this past June.

The next evolutionary step for this ground-breaking composition is the release of a studio album on November 10 through Pi Recordings. Each of the nine tracks contains one of Shyu’s “nine doors,” the musical openings that lead us through her story. Along the way, the protagonist (and the audience) encounters three catalyzing figures: the Taiwanese folk hero Chen Da, a virtuosic player of the moon lute; Timorese female warrier Ho’a Nahak Samane Oan, who rises out of enslavement to rout a king; and Bari-degi, known in Korea as the “abandoned princess” and the first shaman. Through the words and music of these characters, Shyu offers comfort to the grief-stricken and a way of processing tragedy. “Everyone experiences the loss of a loved one—death is a fact of life,” she reminds us.

As something of a de facto cultural anthropologist and an accomplished polyglot (Shyu is a Fulbright scholar whose studies have brought her to East Timor, Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, China, Cuba, and Brazil), Shyu moves fluidly in and out of different cultural and artistic contexts. She uses languages as if they were instruments. Her staging is at once theatrical and ceremonial, an invocation of the sacred. And she draws from both Eastern and Western musical traditions without grinding any gears. Above all, though, her lingua franca is experimental jazz—music that not only breaks from known musical conventions but offers up innovative structures on which to build some new ones.

It’s through this syncretic process that Shyu presents a successful template for artistic works that bridge cultural divides. For instance, on her 2011 album Synastry (Pi) with avant garde bassist Mark Dresser, she synthesizes Chinese and English words, classical vocal technique, and melodies indigenous to the Asian countries of her travels to create dramatic vocals that move unerringly against a solo bass line. On her 2015 release, Sounds and Cries of the World (Pi), she played several Korean folk instruments not usually (if ever) used in American jazz performances—lutes, gongs, and zithers—alongside skilled improvisers on trumpet, bass, drums, and viola. The effect is mesmerizing.

It was Indonesian film director Garin Nugroho who first encouraged Shyu to write and play music for herself alone. Following his advice, Shyu wrote (and Nugroho directed) Solo Rites: Seven Breaths, a one-woman show in which Shyu shares the personal insights of her real-world journeys through Asia. Shifting from ensemble to solo work “was a big moment creatively for me,” she says. “I recognized the rewards of taking huge leaps of faith.”

Shyu’s rewards are also due in large measure to her tireless dedication to craft. Born in Illinois, the daughter of a Taiwanese father and a Timorese mother, Shyu spent her youth studying ballet, violin, and classical piano and was so precocious that at age 13 she soloed on piano with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. Later, after graduating from Stanford University with a degree in opera, she met Asian American jazz pianist Jon Jang and sax player Francis Wong, the mentors who helped her to emerge as a jazz artist grounded in multiple cultures.  

As her identity as a multi-cultural artist has evolved, Shyu has become a master at relating universal truths to general audiences around the world. Still, the challenge of translating the nuances of speech across cultures remains. While most performing artists who work in other languages rely on program notes or sous- and subtitles to help tell their stories, Shyu looks for a more immediate way of engaging with her audience. “How do you convey the meaning of [foreign-language] texts in a creative way that doesn’t distract from the performance?” she wonders.

Listeners may well regret any misunderstanding of Shyu’s intended meaning. For instance, while the poetry of the title Song of Silver Geese resonates in the ear, few listeners would know that Shyu’s Chinese name means “autumn goose” and that one of her nicknames in the East Timor language Fataluku is “lavan pitinu,” which means “silver.” This small piece of translation shows how deftly Shyu turns word play into metaphor and personal experience into something ecumenical.  

In keeping with her peripatetic life, Shyu will spend much of the rest of 2017 on the road. Australia, to play in two jazz festivals. Indonesia, to celebrate the Fulbright Commission there. And Europe, to introduce Silver Geese to new audiences. During this tour, Shyu will rarely perform her show in the same format twice in a row. What will remain unchanged, however, is the story and the heightened performance. “I try to carry some magic,” she says. Wherever she goes.

Photo: Steven Schrieber

(Reprinted from the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Visiting Soulsville

Visiting Soulsville

As a vocalist, Dee Dee Bridgewater is a master of reinterpretation. On Red Earth (EmArcy), in 2005, she invoked her Nigerian musical heritage through a baker’s dozen of contemporary jazz originals and rarely sung standards. Ten years later, she revamped the traditional New Orleans repertoire with contemporary feels and arrangements on Dee Dee’s Feathers (Sony/Okeh/DDB). And on Memphis...Yes, I’m Ready (Sony/Okeh/DDB), she reaches into the R&B soundtrack of her Tennessee birthplace circa the 1950s and pulls several landmark tunes into the current century. Nobody but Bridgewater could redo an Elvis classic like “Hound Dog”—with barking and growling against a slow reggae groove, no less—and make you forget the original.  

Through her music, Bridgewater often explores her feelings about the people and places she loves—mentoring musicians, Southern cities, Paris, Mali. These personal revelations in her work are always invitations to learn, and listeners usually end up loving her favorite people and places, too. In this case, it will be hard for listeners to resist Bridgewater’s grit and the rhythm section’s funk on B.B. King’s “Thrill Is Gone” or her beseeching wail against a burning horn section on Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness.” Bridgewater gives one of her most passionate performances on this album, and what a powerful tribute to Beale Street it is.  

This was Bridgewater’s intent. “I want to honor Memphis, which we call Soulsville, because it has brought joy to so many people around the world,” she says. To be sure, the joy continues. Bridgewater, who is touring internationally to promote the album, will release Memphis... in the U.S. on September 15.

Earlier this year singer/pianist Champian Fulton was touring Spain as part of a quartet (tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, bassist Ignasi Gonzalez, and drummer Esteve Pi) for Blau Records. Their first concert together, recorded live in April, became The Things We Did Last Summer, the group’s debut release for the label. In performance, Fulton is as much a pianist as a singer, and she takes the time on this recording to give each talent its due. Rather than dominating the tunes, her warm vocals frame the instrumental sections; she and Hamilton engage in an exciting musical repartee on standards like “I Cried For You” and “The Very Thought Of You.” Four of the tunes on the album, including the track that gives the album its name, are completely instrumental, underscoring Fulton’s impressive skills as an ensemble player. Fulton will join her New York quartet (with her father, Stephen Fulton, on flugelhorn, Dor Samoha on bass, and Fukushi Tainaka on drums) at Smoke on Sep. 7.

In 2005, melodically gifted pianist/composer Fred Hersch debuted one of his defining works, Leaves of Grass, a jazz setting of Walt Whitman’s stirring poetic masterpiece about the transcendence of nature. Hersch’s composition, originally funded by a 2003 Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, comprises an eight-piece ensemble plus two voices. Singers Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry will join Hersch in reprising their roles from the original production on Sep. 15-16 at JALC-Appel. These concerts will be the capstone on a banner week for Hersch: his 11th solo album, Open Book (Palmetto), drops on Sep. 8 and his memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz (Crown Archetype), releases on Sep. 12.

Katie Thiroux’s debut album, Introducing Katie Thiroux (BassKat Music), drew a flurry of attention in 2013 for the musician’s masterful way with a bass and her ease with a vocal line. Her second album promises to solidify her standing as a rising star. (Being the artist in residence for Quincy Jones’ new jazz club in Dubai doesn’t hurt, either.) Off Beat (Capri) includes tunes by bassist Ray Brown, Duke Ellington, Frank Loesser, and Benny Carter; the title track, a witty up-tempo borrowed from June Christie’s 1960 with the same title, shows off Thiroux’s vocal dexterity and strong rapport with her band. Thiroux and sax player Ken Peplowski will officially launch the CD in New York at Birdland on Sep. 10.

Berklee grad, American Idol finalist, winner of the Montreux Jazz Fest, and Postmodern Jukebox regular Aubrey Logan doesn’t fit neatly into any box. As a singer she’s more pop, but as a trombonist she’s more jazz. What’s for sure is that she’s a musical powerhouse. To figure it all out, you can see her live at Rockwood Music Hall on Sep. 9, when she unveils her new album Impossible (Fuel Music).

(Reprinted from the September issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)

The Dazzling Alexis Cole

The Dazzling Alexis Cole

Jazz singer Alexis Cole’s career has been anything but conventional. She’s done residencies in far-flung places like Ecuador, India, and Japan. She fronted the Army’s big band for several years as a soldier herself. And now she’s a faculty member in the jazz program at SUNY Purchase. With a dozen critically acclaimed albums under her belt, some big awards on her shelf, and more good stuff to come, Alexis distinguishes herself a leader in the ever-evolving world of vocal jazz.  Here are some of the highlights from a phone chat that Alexis had with Five Music Minutes (5MM) last month: 

5MM: In an interview with journalist Mark McKinley [mogswebsite.com] you talk about how music—singing in particular—is a way of channeling the divine. I find that a lot of singers talk about receiving inspiration from a “meta” place that could be called the divine, or spirit. What is your experience of this? 

 AC: Singing is a direct pathway to feel the power of the spirit. When I’m performing, I try to actively or subconsciously bring in that aspect. Moments [of spiritual inspiration] can happen in any situation where there are hungry hearts, and there is food in the music. As a capping thought, when Robin Williams committed suicide, I thought about all the roles that he played that were so full of humor and hope. It came to me then that we sing the songs we need to hear. When I hear a song of hope and of love, if I’m not feeling in a particularly hopeful or loving space, the song takes me with it—I can be ministered to by the works of art that I engage with in my singing. 

5MM: When you’re scatting, you’re clearly an inspired singer whose ideas are coming from somewhere. Where do think that somewhere is? 

AC: I do feel that it’s my most connected moments in general when I scat. Sometimes if I sing the head it’s kind of [ordinary], but then I take a scat solo and find the freedom I was looking for. That’s the moment when I have a very similar vibrational feeling to when I’m singing Kirtan [a form of sacred singing in Hinduism] or leading people in worship, when I can be in a more meditative place. I don’t scat on every song, so if I’m going to take a solo it’s because I feel inspired to take a solo. Why am I inspired? Because of the interplay with the musicians, the audience, the sound. And when you ask what am I tapping into—I feel like I’m drawing from my ancestors. My grandmother was a great singer, and her mother was a singer. My grandmother sang jazz, even though she called it pop music. And my father is such an inspired singer and pianist and composer—almost all of the music my dad writes is spiritual music. I see that spirit in him when he plays especially. It feels like some combination of my ancestors and divine coaxing. 

Also, I lived in India for a while, where it doesn’t sound so funny to say that, because [in India] you only really become a musician if you’re from a musician family. All the musicians are from musical families and they draw upon both the environment they were raised in, but they also build on the strength of their ancestors. 

5MM: What brought you to India?

AC: I had the opportunity to study Indian classical singing there through a program where you got room and board at a hotel in exchange for 10 hours a week of singing. Then you could go every day and take a lesson with your teacher. It was a two-month residency in Mumbai, in 1999. Roseanna Vitro and Leni Stern are two other singers you might know who did it. 

5MM: I’ve heard Roseanna and other singers like Debra Latz incorporate Indian classical singing into their scats. Do you?

AC: Yeah, I do it. You can’t help it once you have that sound in your ear. My Christmas CD [The Greatest Gift] is the only time when I’ve done a fusion thing with Indian instruments, though, on the song “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow.” At the end I do overtone singing, which I learned right before that recording session. I’m proud of that. 

5MM: How is Indian classical vocal technique different from Western classical technique?

AC: The main difference is the usage of head voice. They have that very forward, higher tone. I don’t even want to call it head voice, because it’s really quite seamless with the lower register. A lot of Western singers have a break in their voices, but I don’t think any Indian singers do because of the very forward way that they sing. It’s very nasal sometimes. But they don’t have two voices, like we have when we go into our covered or back head voice. If I have students who are having trouble with a break I teach them this technique to help them with it.

5MM: You’ve also spent a lot of time working in Japan. How did that come about?

AC: This is one of my favorite stories. I was on my way back from Ecuador, where I’d been teaching at the Berklee College of Music. I was visiting my parents in Miami, sitting around the pool with them, and my mom asked me what I was going to do with [a small inheritance I had just received]. Without having thought about it at all I said, “I’ll put half of it away to be frugal, and the other half I’m going to use to go to Japan.” I thought this would be a great time to go there and work on some musical projects. Then I went inside to check my email, and there was a message in my inbox from [bassist] Gene Perla asking me if I knew anybody who’d be available to sing in a lounge in Japan for three months, starting in three weeks. I just said that I’d love to do it…and I got the job. I did four three-month contracts in Japan over 2 ½ years. 

5MM: Things seem to happen very quickly in your life! You must trust your intuition a lot. 

AC: I do. I have some good friends to bounce things off of, too. But with things like the Japan gig and the Army gig, it was really amazing and random.

5MM: You were a singer in the Army for about seven years. Most jazz singers probably don’t know about these jobs. How did you hear about it?   

AC: [Jazz singer] Nancy Marano told me about that opening. So in 2009, while I was in Tokyo, I took the ASFAB exam, at Camp Zama, and the week that I got back from Tokyo I auditioned for the West Point Band. Then a few months later, I was in basic training, and I sang with the Army until October 2015. 

5MM: When you enlisted, did you know how long you’d be in the Army? 

AC: There’s a minimum of three to four years per enlistment, and you have the option to reenlist every couple of years. So, if I had a four-year enlistment, around year two and a half they’d start asking if I were going to reenlist. If you aren’t going to reenlist, they need to start advertising for your job and hire somebody and send them to basic training. So I enlisted the first time and reenlisted twice. When it came to the third reenlistment, I thought, “I really love this job, but maybe it’s time for me to take the next step with my career.” The military is kind of limiting. Even though it offers some great musical opportunities, my schedule was not my own. Now I have things on the calendar a year out, which absolutely wouldn’t have been copacetic when I was in the Army band.

5MM: You sang with the Army’s Jazz Ambassadors earlier this year, even though you’re no longer enlisted, right? 

AC: Yes. There’s a vocal position open now with Jazz Ambassadors Big Band in Washington, D.C. But they’ve had three rounds of auditions so far and they haven’t hired anybody.

5MM: That’s surprising, because a steady singing gig with great musicians, long-term benefits, and lots of travel sounds pretty appealing.  

AC: It is. The military just changed the retirement structure, too, so that anybody who serves gets something. That’s going to be good for some people. With my seven years in, I could have gotten some pension [under the new structure]. But I have VA (Veterans Adminstration) healthcare for the rest of my life—everybody who serves at all gets that.

5MM: Did your teaching position at SUNY Purchase came in right after you left the Army? 

AC: They overlapped for a while. [Getting the SUNY Purchase position] was amazing, too, because I was living in Peekskill at the time, near West Point, and transitioning out of my role in the Army. As part of that they let me go one day a week to do the SUNY job, where I had about eight students that first year.

5MM: What’s the SUNY program like for singers and what is your role there? 

AC: At SUNY Purchase our vocal students are mainstreamed with the other jazz students, and my role there is just to teach the voice lessons. I have developed a curriculum for them over time, where I give them support for their other classes, too, like theory, ear training, and piano practice—giving each individual student what they need. But with my classical voice technique experience, all my students become good singers first. That’s really important to me. So we work on arias and vocal technique primarily, especially in the beginning.

 5MM: What do you see as the connection between classical and jazz vocal technique?

AC: Tone, resonance—these are universal things that are beautiful about singing. We put style on top of that. But what’s underneath should always be beautiful and resonant and full and easy and tensionless. 

5MM: It sounds like you have a pretty full schedule. Do you have any big projects coming up?  

AC: I’m going to be releasing two of my CDs on [Japan-based] Venus Records in the U.S. They were never released here. One of the CDs [with pianist John Di Martino] is called Close Your Eyes, The Sultry Sound Of Jazz, and the other is You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To, with the band One For All. I finally got them repackaged and have a thousand copies of those. I’m also working with Tetsuo Hara [owner of Venus Records] to produce a new Brazilian album. I’m hoping to go to Brazil to do it. After that, my next big artistic ambition is to produce a big band CD. I have all this material that was written for me while I was in the Army band, arranged by [pianist] Scott Arcangel. This project would be to document all the work that I’ve done over the last decade.

During the Dog Days

During the Dog Days

Fifty years ago, Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim recorded the landmark album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim (Reprise), a collection of seductive bossa novas that kept Sinatra musically relevant during the onslaught of British rock during the latter part of the 1960s. The album features lush arrangements by Claus Ogerman; Diana Krall would later rip a page from the Sinatra/Jobim playbook to record her own bossa album, Quiet Nights (Verve), with Ogerman in 2009. Earlier this year, Universal Music Enterprises dropped a luxe, remastered version of the classic album to commemorate this inspired collaboration—but they weren’t the only ones wanting to pay homage.  

Guitarist, singer, and producer John Pizzarelli met up digitally with Antonio Carlos’ Rio-based grandson, singer/pianist Daniel Jobim, this past January to record Sinatra & Jobim @ 50 for Concord Music Group. (According to the liner notes, Jobim recorded in Brazil, but it isn’t clear where Pizzarelli recorded. No matter.) Pizzarelli doesn’t include every tune from the original—he stays clear of “The Girl from Ipanema,” for instance—instead offering a nice mix of medleys and singles from the original, some other Antonio Carlos tunes, and a few originals. His arrangements feature a trio with occasional tenor sax rather than an orchestra, so right away his renditions are less formal, more open. And Daniel’s crisp vocals in luscious Portuguese feature more prominently than his grandfather’s vocals did on the original. In truth, the album is more Jobim than Sinatra, but it’s hard to imagine how more Jobim is a bad thing during the dog days of summer. Pizzarelli will appear at Birdland Aug 8-12.

Allegra Levy is the rare singer/songwriter who can channel the auteurs of the Great American Songbook. Her second album, Cities Between Us (SteepleChase Records) opens with “Cherry Blossom Song,” an engaging swing composition that shows off Levy’s talent for melding modern lyrics with a traditional jazz sonority, and closes with the title cut, an evocative poem set to a skyline-inspired soundscape. In between these two, Levy explores a panoply of emotions and jazz feels, strongly supported by trumpeter John McNeil’s dexterous arrangements. Levy also applies her considerable skills with a pen to two instrumental masterpieces: Duke Jordan’s haunting ballad “Lullaby of the Orient” and, in contrast, Dexter Gordon’s brisk and inviting “Soy Califa.” An auspicious talent.

TCB Music has discovered another unreleased beauty: Swiss Radio Days Vol 43—Zurich 1950: Nat King Cole Trio, which presents Nat King Cole as the headliner on vocals and piano, along with the unusual backing of a guitar, bass, and bongos. The lineup of tunes contains several of the jazz standards that you’d expect (“Body and Soul” and “How High The Moon”), some instrumentals that you wouldn’t (“Bop Kick” and “Bluesology”), and only one of his pop hits (“Route 66”). The live recording is full of charming impromptu moments and amusing improvisations; Cole was an exceptional jazz pianist, a truth that his pop stardom often obscured.  Among those that Cole inspired: Vocalist Sachal Vasandani will present a set honoring the life of Nat King Cole at JALC – Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola on Aug 1.

Producer Larry Klein was similarly inspired by Charlie Parker; so much so that he created “an impressionistic narrative” of Parker’s life using the sax virtuoso’s compositions, set with lyrics (by David Baerwald). An impressive array of vocal talent turned out to help create The Passion of Charlie Parker (Impulse/Verve): Madeleine Peyroux, Gregory Porter, Luciana Souza, Kurt Elling, and Melody Gardot among them.  As it happens, this year Summerstage will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. The uber-talented Charanee Wade will participate in the festival on Aug 26, followed by rising star Alicia Olatuja on Aug. 27.

Final notes: Vocalist/arranger MJ Territo will launch Ladies Day (Jollie Mollie), an album of tunes by female composers or lyricists, played by female instrumentalists, at Club Bonafide on Aug 17. Artists represented on the album include Iola Brubeck, Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams, Abbey Lincoln, Lorraine Feather, and Blossom Dearie, to single out just a handful. Territo reminds us that there are more where these came from. The VoxFest at Cornelia Street Underground promises an impressive lineup of singers again this year: Kelly Suttenfield, Peggy Chew, Anaïs Maviel, Leonid Galaganov, Alexis Marcelo, Vadim Neselovskyi, Aubrey Johnson, Júlia Karosi, and curator Deborah Latz, will explore the boundaries of vocal jazz Aug 21-23.

(Reprinted from August 2017  of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Being Sassy

Being Sassy

“I’m not a jazz singer. I’m a singer,” insisted Sarah Vaughan in a 1982 interview with Downbeat. Vaughan was even more than that. She was a businesswoman, an activist, and a mentor to young musicians of her day (Miles Davis and Chick Corea among them). In The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan: Queen of Bebop, author Elaine M. Hayes reveals Vaughan to be a powerful force of nature to those around her; this probing, heavily researched biography respectfully pulls back the curtain on the life of one of the most beloved—and private—singers of the 20th century. It’s a joy to read. Hayes loads the text with telling anecdotes, Vaughan quotes, and the observations of Vaughan’s close associates. The result is a gripping story that satisfies your craving even as it leaves you wanting more—just like a Vaughan tune.

The Sarah Vaughan vocal competition, held each November in Vaughan’s hometown of Newark, N.J., started accepting submissions for this year’s contest on May 15; the window closes on September 5. This year for the first time male vocalists will be allowed to compete, marking an evolutionary step in the life of the Sassy Awards that one can only imagine Vaughan smiling upon.

Camille Thurmon takes on a couple of classic showcases for sax players on Inside the Moment: Recorded Live at Rockwood Music Hall, her debut for the Chesky label and third album as a leader. On Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” and Miles Davis’ “Nefertiti,” for instance, Thurmon demonstrates the kind of horn chops that merit serious attention, but she doesn’t stop there. On Vaughan’s “Sassy’s Blues” and the Herb Ellis/Lou Carter tune “Detour Ahead” Thurmon establishes herself as an effortless, intuitive scatter (as horn players who sing often are) and as scary-good with a swing tune (as horn players who sing always are). Thurmon, a runner up in the Sarah Vaughan competition in 2013, will perform as part of the Caramoor Jazz Festival, presented in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center, in Katonah, N.Y., on Jul 15.

Many of us think of jazz primarily as a sophisticated urban phenomenon, often forgetting that its roots reach deep into the American countryside. Singer Dominique Eade and pianist Ran Blake remind us of jazz’s rich musical antecedent with Town and Country (Sunnyside), a collection of 18 tunes that explore the connection between jazz and the American folk tradition. This is not an Americana album, however. Eade and Blake share a Third Stream-infused sensitivity to musical form and grace, and in these tunes they find the sacred in the simple. Blake’s spare accompaniment to Eade’s feeling, minimally adorned vocals turns the otherwise straight-forward melodies (“Moon River,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “Moonlight In Vermont”) into art songs.

The front cover of Low Standards (Soundbrush) shows bassist David Finck as a young boy in a striped shirt, holding an old washboard almost as big as himself. The back cover shows him in a crisp suit and tie, bowing his upright. These back-to-back images suggest that somewhere inside this accomplished musician still resides that child fascinated with rhythm and percussive sounds. Over the years Finck’s toolbox has expanded to include other skills beyond the washboard and bass playing: he writes, arranges, produces, and, with this release, sings. Finck makes his vocal debut on the title cut, one of two originals on the disc, recalling Dave Frishberg’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics and matter-of-fact vocal delivery. Chesky recording artist Alexis Cole, a leading voice in contemporary jazz (and a finalist in the inaugural Sassy competition in 2012), sings the second original, “The Way He Captured Me,” a winsome love song perfectly suited to Cole’s warm contralto.     

Jazz/world singer Jocelyn Medina’s new album Common Ground (Running Tree Records) marries jazz idioms with Indian classical music to express eternal messages about the nature of existence. The outcome is a mesmerizing work that simultaneously challenges and soothes. Of note: Medina hosts the Sunday-night jam sessions at Rue B, which feature a different vocal headliner each week.

Catherine Russell, a Best Vocal Jazz Album Grammy nom this year for her engaging and charming recording, Harlem On My Mind (Jazz Village), will put in two showings in New York this month: First as part of the Central Park Summerstage series as a guest vocalist with Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks on Jul 1 and then at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with her regular quartet Jul 27-30. 

(Reprinted from the July 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Singing in Krakow

Singing in Krakow

I left Europe a week ago today after bopping back and forth between Paris and Krakow on a Euro-friendly budget airline.

Last time I was in Krakow, two years ago, I sang with my guitarist friend Wiesław Wilczkiewicz in Piwnica pod Baranami (Cellar under the Ram), one of the top jazz clubs there. PpB is a cluster of dark, subterranean rooms that accommodate performing arts groups of different sizes; we were in the one that had an array of 45s wallpapering the foot of the stage. The club sits at a corner of Rynek Główny, the main square, which dates back to the 13th century. Back then, jazz hadn't been thought up yet and PpB was probably just a regular cellar for root vegetables and beer. In the 1950s it would become a hangout for dissident artists.   

This time we were at Klub Zaczek, a large performance space around the corner from the library of Jagiellonian University. Klub Zaczek reminds me of the hip rock club Warsaw in Greenpoint, where I used to rehearse with The Polish Theater Group of New York back in the day. It wasn't called Warsaw then, it was just a big, not-so-often-used theater in The Polish National Home. If you were so inclined, you could get a shot of vodka for about three bucks at the bar.

Krakow has a thriving poster industry. Wandering about the old section of town I saw kiosks full of posters announcing that Wynton Marsalis and Kurt Elling would be in Krakow on July 11 this year. For a second I thought that Herbie Hancock and Dianne Reeves would be there, too, but soon realized that those were posters from last summer. Not too far away from these two spreads, I saw some posters with my own name on them. I don't usually--I mean, I don't ever--see my name displayed like that, so I was quite startled the first time I happened upon these pink adverts, three all in a row on a kiosk, still damp from a recent rain shower. Startled, but pleased. I almost just walked by. But vanity overcame me and I stopped and took a snap.

While I was in Krakow my friend Deborah Latz, the curator for the VoxEcstatic series at Cornelia Street Café in New York City, posted on Facebook that Kurt Elling would be singing in a special performance at CSC on July 2, right after I returned from Europe. I should go, I thought, and tell Kurt about the great little shop for Polish pottery that's right across the street from where our respective posters are hanging, just in case he or Wynton wants to buy some cute stuff. That was the jet lag talking. There are lots of things I'd love to talk to Kurt about, but Polish pottery, cute as it is, doesn't make the list when I'm properly rested.  (I did pick up a shop brochure for him. Later I thought better of giving it to him at the VoxEcstatic gig because how weird would that be, and I left it in the Airbnb. Touring is harsh, my reasoning went, and he probably wouldn't have time to go shopping anyway. Plus...it's just weird.)

The jet lag got worse. I was forgetting things and making spelling errors and never knew what time it was. While in this fog, I was reading author Elaine Hayes' book, Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah VaughanVaughan toured and performed constantly for decades, despite the slights, insults, rip-offs, and outright abuses. She was no stranger to jet lag. I like reading sympathetic biographies, especially those of singers. Even if the story has some awful parts (as most stories about singers do), I feel uplifted when singers prevail. Singing ain't easy, even for those who make it look that way.

I headed back to New York via Paris, with a one-day layover. The picture below is from the roof of the Galleries Lafayette the morning before my flight. I've never sung in Paris, but I'd like to. It takes a lot of singers to fill all of the rooms out there, and we all have to do our part.  

P.S. A big, warm shout-out to blues singer Kasia Miernik, who shared the bill with me at Klub Zaczek. What a voice!


Paris, the morning of 29 June 2017

Cute Polish coffee mugs

Jukebox Days

Jukebox Days

Singer/guitarist Allan Harris has been quietly gaining stature in the jazz world over the last three decades, but it wasn’t until 2015 that he claimed a spot in the Downbeat Critics Poll—remarkably, as a rising star vocalist. This accolade followed on the heels of his 2015 release Black Bar Jukebox (Love Production Records), his tenth album. Weaned on jazz at the knee of none other than Louis Armstrong, a family friend, Harris likes mixing it up on his albums; like Armstrong, he’ll cover a country/western tune with the same vocal alacrity as a jazz standard.

His new album, Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better (Black Bar Jukebox Redux) (Love Production Records), picks up where his last left off. Both albums showcase tunes from what Harris calls his “jukebox days” growing up in Harlem and Brooklyn, when the airwaves carried songs by artists like Steely Dan, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Jefferson, Spiral Starecase, and Ray Charles. Harris’ cover of tunes by these diverse artists is something of a revelation: it’s hard to imagine what the 1969 hit “More Today than Yesterday” and the 1952 vocalese standard “Moody’s Mood for Love” have in common until you hear the ardor in Harris’ silvery rich baritone as he sings them. Harris’s official album release party will happen at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on June 14-15.

Giacomo Gates’ new release, What Time Is It? (Savant/High Note), opens with an original spoken word piece on the ephemeral nature of time and segues into “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” This opener sets up Gates as a musical philosopher: in jazz standards he finds a gateway into something beyond mere romantic frippery. “Clocks on chains, so time won’t run away,” he muses. The opening track is the only oft-recorded vocal standard on the album; the remaining 10 tracks feature lesser-known tunes by Oscar Brown Jr., Tadd Dameron, Eddie Jefferson, and Artt Frank. In and about these tunes, Gates mixes in snippets of his own original verse, and the final track, “Too Many Things,” features one of his thought-provoking, full-length poems over improvised blues on piano and bass.

Gates uses classic jazz phrasing, laid-back bebop scats, and cool vocalese to get his message across; his deep, resonant instrument puts him in the same class as Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling, and Andy Bey (these singers toured Europe together as The Four Brothers in 2004). Gates’ voice in particular lends itself to the blues especially well, as on the Oscar Brown tune “Somebody Buy Me a Drink,” his raspy homage to the bottle. In pianist/arranger John Di Martino, sax player Jerry Weldon, guitarist Tony Lombardozzi, bassist Lonnie Plexico, and drummer Vincent Ector, Gates finds supportive fellow travelers in his quest to find musical answers to life’s perplexing questions. Gates will kick off What Time Is It? at West End Lounge on June 25.

By way of comparison, follow a listen of Gates’ album with one of Mark Murphy’s. Try Wild and Free: Live at the Keystone Korner (High Note), one of the many recent Mark Murphy discoveries. This live recording catalogues a 1980s gig when Murphy was at the height of his voice and career; on it you can hear the elder Murphy that Gates is channeling now. Also, a quick shout-out to journalist James Gavin for exceptionally well-researched, artfully written liner notes on this major figure in jazz history.

Young Canadian bandleader Quinn Bachand leapt into the foreground of mainstream jazz with his band Brishen’s 2014 eponymous release. This year the group adds to their success with Blue Verdun (Beacon Ridge), a sophomore effort that categorically upends Bachand’s newcomer status. With this record, Bachand earns his bona fides as a seasoned multi-instrumentalist and jazz singer in the modern gypsy jazz/vintage pop vein as he croons in a softly echoing voice and fiddles, picks, and strums his way into your grateful ear. He’s touring the Canadian festival circuit this summer, but surely a New York visit can’t be too far away.

Vocalist Sari Kessler, whose 2016 release Do Right (CD Baby) contains many a charming surprise, like “Walk on By” as a sultry mid-tempo and “Sunny” as a samba, will perform at Cornelia Street Café as part of the VoxEcstatic series on June 6. Kessler also sings once a month at The Society of Illustrators’ Sketch Night, where budding artists can sketch a model to Kessler’s jazz soundtrack—both live. This month’s jazz-and-drawing night is June 20.

(Reprinted from the June 2017 edition of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Heart Melodies

Heart Melodies

Dallas-born singer Jazzmeia Horn’s debut album is finally here. Horn first gained national attention when she won the Sarah Vaughan Competition in 2013, shortly after graduating from The New School’s vocal jazz program, but before winning the Thelonious Monk Competition in 2015. It’s been a long but worthwhile wait. With A Social Call (Prestige), Horn stands prepped to step into jazz stardom.  

The title A Social Call refers not to an afternoon tea but to a demand for change. Horn uses carefully chosen tunes, whip-smart arrangements, and strong words to challenge the societal status quo; her highly polished, golden voice is the weapon of choice. Her appeal (in both meanings of the word) is pretty hard to resist.

Beyond Horn’s fine instrument, she has a good ear for odd intervals, as on “The Peacocks,” a challenging Jimmy Rowles tune not so often heard with vocals (lyrics by Norma Winstone). Her improvs range from confident bebop scatting (“Moanin” and “I Remember You”) to out and free (“Medley”) to soul-driven R&B (“Up Above My Head” and “I’m Going Down”). Throughout all of these vocal transitions Horn remains deeply connected to her material—a tough thing to do when the musical ground is shifting under your feet. Horn will officially launch the album on May 15 at JALC Dizzy’s.

Author Langston Hughes published The Dream Keeper and Other Poems in 1932 as a book of children’s short verses. His words linger only briefly in the ear before they punch you in the gut: “…Bring me all your/Heart melodies/That I may wrap them/In a blue cloud-cloth/Away from the too-rough fingers/Of the world.” On The Dream Keeper (Avant/Mode Records) producer/guitarist Larry Simon brings together vocalist Eric Mingus, son of Charles, with pianist David Amram in recollection of an earlier context for Hughes’ poetry: Several decades ago, Charles Mingus, Hughes, and Amram helped start the nascent jazz poetry scene in Harlem. Today the musical setting is different—a digital recording of spoken word over improvised jazz blues—but Hughes’ words still reverberate meaningfully in the listener’s psyche. Most of the tracks feature Mingus and Amram as a duo, with Mingus speaking the text over Amram’s improvisations; on some tracks the guitar, woodwinds, and percussion join in. But on each track it’s Hughes’ words that ring the loudest, even when spoken softly.  

Fifty years ago Frank Sinatra recorded Sinatra at the Sands, a live album that set a high bar for crooners evermore: the foremost pop singer in the world, his biggest hits, the Count Basie Band, the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and Quincy Jones as arranger and conductor. On One More for the Road, Curtis Stiger’s ninth release for Concord Records and his first with the Danish Radio Big Band, the singer/instrumentalist set out to capture the ambiance of the Sinatra album if not Sinatra’s exact phrasing and sonority. Even so, Stiger’s performance easily conjures up images on an earlier era. He explains that despite having his own vocal style and a personal understanding of these tunes, “there’s no way that some Sinatra doesn’t get in there…Certain phrasings that he used worked so well with the arrangements that I couldn’t not use them.” A point well taken. Stiger hosts a CD release run at Birdland May 9-13.

On This and That (Arbor Records), Portland-based singer Rebecca Kilgore chose to make four of the 15 tracks Billy Strayhorn tunes—all gorgeous melodies that singers rarely cover. One of them, “Lotus Blossom,” was even one of Duke Ellington’s favorite songs. It’s a mystery as to why these vocal gems remain relatively obscure. What’s no mystery, though, is Kilgore’s expertise with a standard. She recorded this bright, satisfying album in Germany last year with pianist Bernd Lhotzky. Superb.

 A knock-out cast will offer up a tribute to Abbey Lincoln at the Apollo Theater on May 6 as part of the Women of the World (WOW) Festival. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, and Esperanza Spalding all on the same stage at the same time. Wow indeed. 

(Reprinted from the May 2017 edition of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Julie Benko: A Wish

Julie Benko: A Wish

Before NYC-based singer/actor Julie Benko took top honors in the American Traditions Competition in Savannah, Georgia, this past February, she’d already completed two Broadway contracts, two national tours, and several regional shows. In a recent phone call from her TheatreWorks Silicon Valley gig in California, Julie gave me the backstory on her winning performance and some news about her debut jazz CD, set to launch this fall.

Five Music Minutes (5MM): I learned a lot about how to apply vocal technique consistently across genres by listening to you perform in the competition.

JB: Coming from musical theater, flexibility across genres is a muscle that I have to keep in good shape. If you’re auditioning for Les Miz, you have to have a different vocal quality than if you’re auditioning for Grease or Spring Awakening. Sometimes in auditions you find that you’re using three or four different vocal styles in the same day.

5MM: How did you prepare for the many different styles in which you had to perform in the competition?

JB: The way I [prepared for] doing all of those switches was by listening to songs in the tradition of those genres and trying to sound as authentic as possible to what I heard. One of the main ways to accomplish that as a singer is to adjust your vibrato. It’s jarring if you are going to sing a jazz tune with the same vibrato that you’d bring to an opera. Your vibrato changes even within jazz traditions. What you can get away with singing in a crooner style like Rosemary Clooney or in a hot jazz style is different from what you can get away with in a contemporary bebop or post-bop style. Musical theater has a specific kind of vibrato, too, and in most pop genres you’re going to almost entirely eliminate your vibrato. When you’re in folk, in a kind of Joni Mitchell place, you can add it back in. So it’s really specific within subgenres, how much vibrato you’re going to use, when you’re going to use it, if you’re going to use it just as a shape at the end of a phrase or if you’re going to take it out completely. After that you can think about color and thickening or lightening your sound and deciding how much breathiness you want to use, and so forth.

5MM: What in your musical training has given you so much knowledge about how to approach the many different vocal styles that are out there?

JB: When I was 13, I started studying with Bill Hall in Westport, Connecticut, near where I grew up. I don’t know that he gave me a specific technique so much as he kept me out of bad habits. For instance, I came in at the beginning trying to emulate the vibrato that I had heard on albums. He said, “Don’t try to make it happen, it will happen on its own.” Then about six months later, it did, just by singing constantly and learning how to breathe correctly. But I didn’t have one teacher who gave me a specified singing pedagogy, so I was able to learn many styles of singing from various people who came from distinct musical worlds and had contrasting perspectives. There are still plenty of styles that totally escape me, though, and ways in which certain singers use their voices that are mind-boggling to me. I don’t know if I’ll ever learn, for example, how a punk singer makes that sound healthfully and consistently. And yet some do.

5MM: You made some great song choices for the competition. The pianist Hirsch/singer Winstone tune that you chose for the quarterfinal round was a very unusual choice—Norma Winstone is not a mainstream jazz singer—you have to go looking for her to find her.

JB: My boyfriend Jason Yeager is a jazz pianist, and he studied at New England Conservatory with Fred Hersch. [Jason and I] have been working on my album together—he’s been coproducing it. He wrote all of the arrangements and plays piano on the album as well. So he’s introduced me to a lot in the jazz world, including Fred. Fred loves that song, “A Wish,” and he plays it at a lot of his gigs. The first time I heard him play it at the Village Vanguard, after the show I said to him, “That song is incredible. It’s so beautiful.” And he said, “You know there are lyrics….” And he sent me the sheet music with the lyrics. So that’s how I came to that song.

5MM: How did you make your other selections?

JB: Actually, five of the nine songs I performed in the competition are songs that I’m doing on my album, and that includes “A Wish.” But I realized during the competition that all of my three repertoire choices for the quarterfinal round featured the low part of my range and lived in a jazz place. I had “I Love Paris,” the Cole Porter tune, and then “Wonderful, Wonderful Day” from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers which I re-imagined as a jazz burner, and “A Wish.” I am a soprano, but I wasn’t showing them any range in my voice or musical styling. So I moved “A Wish” up by a major third and asked Anastasia [Victory, the competition pianist] to interpret the accompaniment in a more classical way so that I could show more musical diversity, which is what that competition is all about.

[Besides the three from my quarterfinals], other songs I performed off my album included my jazz version of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” [from Fiddler on the Roof] for the semifinals and “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” for the finals. I’ve been working on the arrangements for those five songs [from the album] with Jason for a long time. The other four songs that I selected—there was “In Between,” which Judy Garland sang in Love Finds Andy Hardy. I love that vintage Hollywood sound and emulating that. The Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 song “No One Else”—I had auditioned for that [Broadway] show, so I knew and loved the material and was so thrilled at the prospect of performing it live. It’s so different—I don’t think it’s what people think of when they think of musical theater. It’s not corny, it’s not overly sentimental, it’s a really great piece where you can build an environment and make the audience feel that they’re there with you. And also it features that mix-belty vocal color that I hadn’t showcased in any of my other songs.

 [The opera song] was the hardest one for me to choose. I was so grateful that Kurt Weill’s “What Good Would the Moon Be” counted as opera. Even though Street Scene is an opera, it’s a light opera. I felt a little more comfortable knowing that the category could extend to musical theater in the way that Porgy & Bess does, even though I wouldn’t call it musical theater.

And then “Twisted,” which I put down as my blues. It was something that I always wanted to learn but I was intimidated by it, so I put it in my third round thinking, “I’ll never get there!”

5MM: And then you did make it into the third round. What was that like?

JB: I don’t know if I told you this at the competition, but I was an alternate. I didn’t get in at first. So I wrote “Twisted” down [on my application], thinking that if I got into the competition I’d learn it really well in advance. But then I didn’t get in until four weeks before, and I thought, “Oh, no—I have to learn this.” So every day for a month before the competition I’d sit at the piano playing all of those notes in “Twisted” because it’s very note-y.

Once I did make it into the third round, I was freaking about “What Good Would The Moon Be.” I didn’t feel comfortable doing it, and I mentioned that to some of the girls who sing opera. And they came over and coached me on it [that night]! It was so generous and sweet, and so helpful. Not only that, but I had brought along this long red gown for finals not thinking that I’d ever need to wear it; a button had fallen off and the hem was ripped. I mentioned that, too, and Grace [Field] said “I know how to sew!” and literally sewed it together for me at one o’clock in the morning. The contestants were so supportive. It was a really nice moment.

5MM: Why don’t you tell us more about your album?

JB: We just finished the rough mixes, and now we’re going to start the mixing and mastering process. My hope is that it will come out in September or October. It’s going to have 11 songs on it. Three of them are my own originals, which are written in the tradition of the Great American Songbook. In addition to the five from the competition and the three originals, I’m doing “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” and “Lonesome Polecat” (which is also from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, just like “Wonderful, Wonderful Day”). And last is “Love for Sale.” Because I come from a musical theater there’s a theatrical element to the album — I do “Love for Sale” as a tango with violin and bandoneón, as well as guitar, bass, and drums. So it sets the scene.

5MM: That sounds fantastic. What is the instrumentation like on the rest of the tunes?

JB: A few of the songs — “I Love Paris” and my original “Tomorrow Is A Day For You” — are inspired by hot jazz, with trumpet, trombone, and clarinet improvising together in a New Orleans style. We do “A Wish” with a trio of just voice, piano, and cello. And the other songs are mostly piano, bass, and drums with a horn feature. We used a clarinet on “Matchmaker” to bring out the klezmer flavor [of that tune].

5MM: What’s it called and how can people buy it?

JB: It’s titled Introducing Julie Benko — because it’s my debut album! It’s been a lot of fun to make all of the little decisions, everything from how I want each song to sound to the album design and artwork, to everything in between. And it’s taken a lot longer than I originally anticipated it would! [When it’s ready], it will be available on CD Baby and Amazon.

5MM: You’re already very successful in musical theater. With the launch of a jazz album, your career could move in a different direction. Will you be following one path over another?

JB: I hope I don’t have to choose. I love doing both. I would love to start doing more jazz gigs and concerts regularly. But I have to work them around my theater schedule, which is always kind of up in the air. If I book a show I may have to cancel a concert, and you don’t want to have to do that. I would love to keep doing both, with each informing the other.

5MM: Just out of curiosity, what appeals to you about these two different types of performing?

JB: One of my favorite things about singing jazz is that I feel like I’m finding my own niche and my own place, whereas with musical theater I have to stay within the parameters of whatever style the theater piece is in. So it’s nice to have a type of music that more and more becomes mine as I do it, that I can identify with as an artist. I do think of myself first and foremost as an actor who sings. If I couldn’t act I would get so depressed. But it’s the same with singing. I love them both, so I want to be able to do them both and make each one help grow the other.

 5MM: Can you reveal anything about your appearance with the Savannah Philharmonic in the holiday concert next December?

JB: All I can say is that they may arrange a piece or two for me with the symphony, which is really exciting! I have made some suggestions for songs I’d like to perform, but we’re in the discussion stages of building the repertoire.

Visit Julie’s website to get updates on her performances near you and info about the release of her debut jazz album in fall 2017.

Additional music minutes!

Jazz Giants

Jazz Giants

If you listen to just the CD of The Big Wig (ACT), Swiss singer/composer Andreas Schaerer’s six-movement jazz composition for voice and orchestra, you might not catch how remarkably skilled Schaerer is at beatboxing and instrumental mimicry. When he sings, this pioneering vocalist’s wide-ranging, protean melodies seem to emanate from his entire body, and his “human trumpet” vocalizations are easy to mistake for the brass instrument itself. That’s why the DVD gives listeners more information than does the audio recording. The rhythmic drive of the composition seems stronger when punctuated with the visual of Schaerer’s engrossing performance of this unusual piece.

The CD/DVD package documents the world premiere of The Big Wig at the Lucerne Festival in September 2016. The film shows Schaerer backed by more than 65 musicians: Hildegard Lernt Fliegen (Hildegard Learns to Fly), his regular horn-based jazz band of more than a decade, and the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy. It’s a rare thing for a singer to compose for a symphonic orchestra of any size, but a symphonic composition that includes a jazz sextet with a beatboxing vocalist is unheard of. Schaerer credits the work of avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez as the inspiration for the composition; Boulez co-founded the Lucerne Festival Academy in 2003, when Schaerer was a music student at Bern University of the Arts.

In the liner notes, Schaerer says that he wondered how he’d bring these “two colossuses”—his sextet and the orchestra—together into an inspiring whole. In the video you can see that it’s Schaerer’s virtuosic vocalizations that provide the glue. Take the fourth movement, “Wig Alert,” for instance. While each of the movements offers its share of galloping excitement, “Wig Alert” stands out for its subdued moments (soft marimba in the open and the close) that defy its driving intensity (beseeching horns in crescendo). In this movement Schaerer’s vocal percussion is so furiously changing that at times it sounds like a forest of wild animals has joined him on stage. At this point in the composition one realizes that in fact The Big Wig features three colossuses and not two.    

Like Schaerer, German-born singer Theo Bleckmann likes to explore the outer reaches of vocally produced sound. His explorations yield different discoveries, however. On Elegy, his latest release for ECM and his first as a leader, Bleckmann feels his way through the grief process, pondering the mystery of death with an almost ritualistic affect. His vocal approach to the compositions recalls early monastic chants: pure, clean colors; droplets of unexpected sound; sinuous melodic lines. In contrast with Schaerer, whose vocals encourage reflection on what is primal in the human, Bleckmann’s vocals encourage reflection on what is transcendent.  

Most of the tracks on Elegy, including the title cut, are wordless originals, usually featuring Bleckmann’s haunting vocalese. When he does sing lyrics, they often belie the sober mood of the music. Stephen Sondheim’s farcical opener “Comedy Tonight” as a mournful ballad. Verses that hint at solitariness while the music intones connection. Or the lyric “it’s silly to be sad” set against a melancholic melody. In this way Bleckmann reminds us that comedy and tragedy are never far removed from each other. To bring this message full circle, Bleckmann closes the CD with “Alate” (“having wings”), a short, hopeful instrumental that rises ebulliently toward the heavens. 

This month some of the most prominent vocalists of our day are turning out to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald's birth. First, Thelonius Monk Competition finalist Charenée Wade will present her soulful interpretations of Ella tunes at the Apollo Music Café on April 7. On April 22, Patti Austin will offer selections from her 2002 Grammy-nominated album, For Ella (Playboy Jazz) in "Ella Then and Now: A Centennial Celebration of the First Lady of Song" at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. Jane Monheit will probably draw from her own Ella album, released last year, The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald (Emerald City Records), when she performs at Birdland April 25-29. And finally, Jazz at Lincoln Center kicks off five days of Ella tributes with its annual fundraising gala on April 26, the day after Ella's actual birthday. At the gala, a shimmering list of vocalists will salute the Queen of Song: Harry Connick, Jr. (host), Renée Fleming, Roberta Gambarini, Diana Krall, Alison Krauss, Marilyn Maye, Audra McDonald, Camille Thurman, Kenny Washington, and Cecile McLorin Salvant.

(Reprinted from the April 2017 edition of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Dara Tucker: Seed of the Divine

Dara Tucker: Seed of the Divine

Jazz singer and Tulsa native Dara Tucker won the silver medal in the American Traditions Competition in Savannah, Georgia, last month for her rich, emotive interpretations of nine tunes in nine different genres of American music. She’s currently putting the finishing touches on her fourth studio album, Oklahoma Rain (Watchman Music), slated to drop on April 28th. We recently had a phone chat about contemporary jazz, her songwriting, and where she’s headed. Keep reading to find out more about this rising jazz star. (At the end of the post there are some great clips of Dara performing live!)

SL: The American Traditions Competition celebrates the diversity of American music. How did you prepare for the competition, especially for the genres in which you don’t normally perform?

DT: I do sing in several genres, so that was the draw of the American Traditions Competition in the first place. I grew up singing gospel with my brothers and sisters—my dad was a minister and my mom was a singer in church. Then I moved on and discovered the Great American Songbook and all of the singers associated with that jazz canon. We also listened to a ton of singer-songwriter stuff from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. So my [musical] acclimation has been pretty broad. [For the competition], it was just a matter of choosing some of the songs that I connected with.

I learned about the competition and applied in the same day, just so that I would force myself to complete [the application] and not get distracted. The real challenge was stacking the sets in a way that would give me the best result. As far as the songs that I delivered, I have performed Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” before, and I love….classic country. But that’s probably the only style that I generally do not perform in. [Also,] the Stephen Sondheim song “Not While I’m Around,” which turned out to be the final song of the final round. I listen to tons of musical theater, but I don’t get to perform a lot of it. Preparing for that one was just a matter of contacting one of my pianists, Matt Endahl, who put together some charts for me.

SL: Nowadays many prominent singers like Cassandra Wilson and Lady Gaga are crossing over, making the idea of musical diversity quite mainstream. This is a departure from how singers have typically approached their careers. What are your thoughts on crossing over?

DT: Cassandra Wilson is one of my mentors and has been super supportive of my journey. I would consider her to be one of the standard bearers in terms of the crossing and mixing of genres.  I love the concept. I don’t know that the industry loves the concept as much as we creative people do, though. So I still identify myself as a jazz singer when asked simply because I just can’t see the benefit of not finding a landing place and saying “OK, this is what I do and it is also influenced by these other things.”  I’m a jazz singer, but I also mesh that with R&B and soul, and singer-songwriter elements, and Broadway and theater elements. I feel pretty comfortable calling it jazz, though it does deviate in many ways.

 SL: When it comes to the Great American Songbook, where would you put the line between traditional pop and jazz?

DT: I listened to a lot [of the traditional pop singers like Michael Bublé, Harry Connick Jr., and Michael Feinstein], before I met my manager Greg Bryant. Greg introduced me to the more straight-ahead jazz artists like Joe Henderson, Milt Jackson, and Sonny Stitt. But I feel that there’s room for everything. It really is just a matter of taste. I do appreciate it when a publication or an audience can understand the difference between [traditional pop and jazz], though. A jazz singer who is really more of an interpretive singer is different from a traditional pop singer. I think that too often when people say or hear the word “jazz” in a contemporary context, [traditional pop] is where their head goes. It’s been part of my mission with Greg to introduce audiences to what contemporary jazz is outside of the Great American Songbook. What does it mean to write your own music and interpret that in a way that’s relevant to 2017?

SL: The competition aside, how do approach the arrangement of a cover?

DT: When I do perform live and feel that covers are in order, I try to lean toward the material that I can connect with on a visceral level. I tend not to cover a lot of heartbreak songs. Every once in a while you may hear me cover something like “The Shadow of Your Smile,” which is one of my favorite songs to sing. But in general I don’t identify very deeply with the heart-on-the-sleeve-you-done- me-wrong torch songs that deal with having your heart broken again and again, because it’s not my inclination to put myself in those positions to have my heart broken! If I don’t identify with it I’m probably not going to sing it.

SL: Tell us about your songwriting. Do you write solo or do you have a songwriting partner?

DT: I almost exclusively write alone. Songwriting is a very internal, therapeutic exercise for me. I live in Nashville, which is very much a songwriting town. When someone identifies with your style of songwriting, the very first thing they’ll ask you is to co-write. But I’ve never jibed with that whole style of songwriting. I just need more of a sense of control—I need to feel that inspiration. It comes in various ways, but I need that inspiration. I would say that songwriting starts with the seed of the divine and [co-writing] doesn’t necessarily leave room for the divine. So with any of the songs that I have written that I’m proud of, they start with the seed, which is something within me that needs to be written or needs to be expressed. Then I slowly develop that over time.

SL: When did you start songwriting?

DT: In 2003 I lived in [Interlaken] Switzerland. I’d just recently graduated college, where I’d majored in international business and German studies. I really felt that I needed to get more comfortable with the German language, so I decided to au pair for a year in Switzerland. I found that to be a really isolating experience—I’d turn on the television and there were channels in German and Italian and French, and Al Jazeera. All I had [in English] was CNN International or the BBC. So that forced me to find other things to do. I really started to hone some of my songwriting muscles at that time. There was a little music shop in the city square, and I went and rented a keyboard for 30 francs a month. I just took it to my room—I stayed in a little hostel there. And I started to write and express some of the things that were going on in me. I found it to be a great mode of self-expression.  When I came back to the United States, I moved to Nashville with just a handful of songs that I had written. I was thinking, “Hey, are these any good?”

SL: Why did you choose Nashville?

DT: [In Switzerland] I was watching CNN International and an interview that Larry King did with Wynona Judd. He was asking her why she hadn’t put out an album in some time, and she said, “I can’t find the songs that I want. It seems that all the great songs are scooped up by other singers.” That just put the little seed in my head. Hmm. Nashville. An interesting spot to be immersed in a musical environment without it being too overwhelming.

SL: Gregory Porter is probably one of the most celebrated jazz singers today. You opened for him when he played Nashville last year. What was that like?

DT: Gregory Porter is my favorite living male singer. I knew he was coming [to town], and I said, “Greg, I think maybe we should reach out to the folks that are planning the show and see if maybe there’s a possibility for an opening spot.” We were having a back-and-forth conversation about should we do this, and right at that moment the promoter called Greg and asked if I could do that show. It was a Twilight Zone moment where you just gotta think that something else is at work.

I think [Gregory Porter] was partly responsible for helping me find my own writing voice in the contemporary jazz world. I didn’t understand where I fit in that landscape. I was checking some folks out and not feeling terribly inspired. And then—first it was Liz Wright and then Gregory Porter and, my goodness—they both come from that church background that I come from. You can hear that gritty gospel thing in what they’re doing. And of course the R&B and soul are there.

That music really spoke to me.  I love the message of “Liquid Spirit” (the title cut from Gregory Porter's Grammy-winning debut album for Blue Note). What [Porter is] really speaking about is, let the rivers break—the people are thirsty. The people are thirsty and they want to hear something that speaks to them, something outside of just the typical paint-by-numbers music that they’re being fed. The people actually want something that is risk-taking—like what we were talking about before—the mixing of genres. The industry types may not want it, but the people do. So I consider his success a victory for the people.

SL: What can you tell us about your upcoming album?

DT: This will be the first album I’ve done that features all original music. I’m super proud and excited about that. I told Greg that I don’t want to do a jazz album per se, I just want to write songs that feel right to me for this time in my life. And I want to put out an honest album full of music that’s produced in a way that serves the music. If that comes out as more of a jazz expression, or more R&B, or more singer-songwriter, or more musical theater, then so be it.  I’m comfortable with that.

It’s going to be called Oklahoma Rain. I lost my parents a couple of years ago within six months of each other, and that sparked a whole wave of songs where I was working through the grief, the loss, the healing. The songwriting process helped me to keep me from going too far under. Even during the times when I didn’t really know what was holding me up, I felt like I had that as a life raft that I could hold onto. If I couldn’t speak it, if I couldn’t see it, if I couldn’t talk about it, at least I could write it. [The album is] about loss and healing, but it still comes off as hopeful and wistful.

 SL: What’s next after Oklahoma Rain?

DT: I’ve got a whole other album written that’s ready to go after this one. The next album will be a more straight-forward jazz album, more in the spirit of what The Sun Season (Dara’s third studio album) is. I’ve been through such a personal shift these last several years with such a tremendous loss—I feel that it’s hugely impacted my songwriting. So I go back to The Sun Season now and I think it’s nice stylistically and right along the lines of what I see myself doing for the next [few] years. But that punch—that shakes you and wakes you up and forces you to make a decision—that element of my songwriting was not quite there yet in The Sun Season. So I’m really looking forward to being able to present these new songs, which have been written in a much more alive, awake feeling place.

Pre-order a copy of Oklahoma Rain here. You can also visit Dara online at her website, www.daratucker.com, or join her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/daratucker.

Here are the promised clips of Dara recording in the studio, prepping for the CD release, and performing with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra:

The Lady of Song and Her Retinue

The Lady of Song and Her Retinue

Last month Verve released several of the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook and Decca recordings as Mastered for iTunes (MFit) files. What this means, in simple terms, is that listeners can now hear remastered recordings of Ella’s voice that are more faithful to the original analog recordings than any digital recordings to date. Recent innovations in digital recording technology, driven by listeners’ preference for digital downloads over CDs, allow for this enhanced audio experience. Verve’s re-release of these historically important, technologically superior recordings arrives just in time.

Fitzgerald would have turned 100 on April 25 of this year. Already the tributes are in full swing mode: the Apollo Theater kicked off its commemorative series, 100: The Apollo Celebrates Ella, with a blockbuster concert featuring an array of stars back in October 2016. The series continues on Mar. 23 with Live Wire: Ella! A Centennial Celebration, a discussion on the life of the iconic singer at the theater where she got her start back in 1934. Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and African-American Studies at Columbia University, will moderate.

JALC also offers an Ella tribute this month with WeBop Family Jazz Party: Dizzy & Ella on Mar. 11. This interactive educational event will focus on the music that Fitzgerald created with bandleader Dizzy Gillespie and give the next generation of jazz listeners their first taste of tunes like “Salt Peanuts” and “A-Tisket A-Tasket.”  Kids get to move, sing, play instruments, and listen to stories during the 45-minute session.  

With their February release, Laughing At Life (Anzic Records), NYC-based Duchess solidifies their reputation as one of the most exciting (and whimsical) swing vocal groups to emerge in recent years. The three vocalists—Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou—are all known as solid solo performers in their own right yet are able to nail the sweet spot between individual expression and group harmony. Oded Lev-Ari’s carefully choreographed arrangements and the singers’ complementary vocal timbres help to establish the group dynamic; the singers joke easily together and willingly share the spotlight with each other. From the infectious drive of the first tune, “Swing Brother Swing” to the quiet charm of “Dawn,” a first-time recording of the little-known tune by singer Vet Boswell, each track is unfailingly engaging. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon puts in a star turn on one of the standout tracks on the recording—a sweet, slow rendition of “Stars Fell on Alabama”—and clarinetist Anat Cohen contributes some virtuosic solo lines to the relentless swing of “Everybody Loves My Baby.” The recording is full of tongue-in-cheek moments, but don’t be fooled. The talent here is serious.  

On March 24, Grammy-winner Eliane Elias will release her next CD, Dance of Time (Concord), a satisfying jumble of bossas and sambas that Elias sings sometimes in Portuguese, sometimes in English, sometimes in both. The Brazilian singer-pianist opens the album with the engaging classic “O Pato” (The Duck) played at a bright, syncopated clip, the smooth vocals standing in contrast to Elias’ high-energy piano soloing. The album contains some other intriguing twists: “You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me” as a sensuous, laid-back samba and “Speak Low” in a double-time feel with R&B backing vocals by singer Mark Kibble. To create this album, recorded in Brazil, Elias brought several impressive friends and mentors from both Brazil and the U.S. into the studio: pianist Amilton Godoy, singer-guitarists João Bosco and Toquinho, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri. Elias’ current tour takes her to Birdland March 26 through April 1.

Rome Neal’s Banana Puddin’ Jazz will present bassist/producer Kim Clarke’s Lady Got Chops Jazz Festival in honor of women’s history month. SIs-Stars, a group comprising singers Sheryl Renee, Patsy Grant, and Joy F. Brown are set to deliver an evening of powerhouse vocals on Mar. 4 at Nuyorican Poets Café.

Avant-garde pianist-composer Mara Rosenbloom will join with singer-percussionist Anais Maviel and bassist Adam Lane (together, the Mara Rosenbloom Flyways) to present a musical setting of “from Twenty-One Love Poems” by feminist writer Adrienne Rich at iBeam on March 10.  

Singer-songwriter Norah Jones will take time out from her Day Breaks (Blue Note) tour to give an intimate benefit concert on Mar. 22 at Bell House in Brooklyn. Proceeds go to The Child Life Program at the Brooklyn Hospital Center. Check Jones’ website for details.

(Reprinted from the March 2017 edition of The New York City Jazz Record.)

In Recognition

In Recognition

The U.S. first celebrated Negro History Week, the brainchild of historian Carter G. Woodson, in February 1926. Woodson started Negro History Week to fill some gaps in U.S. history as it was then written, absent any mention of the accomplishments of African Americans. Fifty years later, Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the sponsoring organization, expanded the weeklong commemoration to a month. Now, each February the federal government, employers, politicians, and civic leaders in the U.S. acknowledge the importance of African American History Month. This February, several singers—each a history-maker in her own right—will pay tribute to our country’s African American heritage.

As the daughter of trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s arranger/bandleader Luis Russell and singer/instrumentalist Carline Ray, Catherine Russell grew up in and amongst jazz nobility. This pedigree makes her the perfect host for Who Is Louis Armstrong?, an hour-long family concert at JALC Rose on Feb. 4. In the concert Russell will sing, tell stories, and play recordings as she walks the audience through the life of one of our greatest jazz musicians. Trumpeter Anthony Hervey, already an accomplished musician for his 19 years, will join Russell in recalling Armstrong’s legion contributions to American culture as a singer, musician, actor, and jazz innovator.

Russell’s own path as a musician has led her to collaborations outside of jazz with artists like David Bowie, Steely Dan, Cyndi Lauper, Jackson Browne, Michael Feinstein, and Paul Simon. But she’s received most of her acclaim for her work as a jazz singer. In 2012 she won a shared Grammy Award for her rolling rendition of “Crazy Blues,” which appeared on the soundtrack album for the hit TV show Boardwalk Empire. This year she’s nominated again—this time for Best Vocal Jazz Album. Harlem On My Mind (Jazz Village), released September 2016, is an elegant album that digs deep into the vocal jazz tradition and reveals Russell’s tremendous versatility as a singer. (See the September VoxNews column for a review.) Two days after the Grammy Awards broadcast on Feb. 12, Russell will be at Birdland for a Feb. 14-18 run.

The Code Noir was a nasty bit of legislation in the late 17th century that legitimized the horrifying treatment of slaves in the French colonies of the Caribbean and North America. Singer/composer Carmen Lundy borrows the title of her latest album from this oppressive code; in so doing she reclaims the power of the African diaspora and its influence on modern music. The 12 originals on Code Noir (Afrasia Productions) cut a swath through the musical genres that derive from African-based rhythms and styles—bossa nova, funk, the blues, swing, jazz, and the avant garde.  These songs “encompass the many emotions that are prevalent in the country right now,” writes Lundy on her website. “We are going through tough times, with a country that is sorely divided, and many of these tracks reflect the feelings that we...are going through on an individual level.”  Lundy will offer a preview of the album at Birdland Jan. 31-Feb. 4 before the release of the recording on Feb. 17.

One of Lundy’s followers is innovative singer Charenee Wade, who leapt into prominence with the release of her debut album, Love Walked In (s/p), in July 2010. Subsequent to this album, in October 2010, Wade placed for the second time in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition—something that no singer had done before. But it was with her 2015 album, Offering: The Music of Gil Scot-Heron & Brian Jackson (Motema) that Wade established herself as one of her generation’s finest arrangers of jazz compositions for voice. Wade, the first woman to record the music of Gil Scot-Heron, “represents the future,” says drummer Alvester Garnett, who worked with her on the album. On Feb. 18 Wade will appear with her regular band to perform in Monk in Motion, a program at Tribeca Performing Arts Center that showcases former Monk competition finalists.

The Count Basie Orchestra is one of the longest-living jazz institutions in the world. Basie started the jazz big band in 1935 in Kansas City, and it has stayed together in one form or another almost without interruption since then. The band has furthered the careers of some of the world's most iconic jazz singers—Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams, and Billy Eckstine among them; modern-day jazz icon Dee Dee Bridgewater will participate in this tradition when she fronts the band at Blue Note on Jan. 31-Feb. 5.

(Reprinted from the February 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Hoping & Dreaming

Hoping & Dreaming

Jimmy Scott, who got his start singing with Lionel Hampton’s band in the 1940s and 1950s, may be the only countertenor in the history of vocal jazz. After Scott’s initial success with Hampton, his career was hamstrung for decades, the casualty of legal wrangling over album releases. What a sorry loss for jazz listeners. Eden River Records and producer Ralf Kemper go a long way to remedy this loss with I Go Back Home—A Story about Hoping and Dreaming, Scott’s final album, recorded in 2009, five years before Scott’s death in 2014 at age 88. By the time Scott recorded the album, his voice had settled into a wide vibrato and its timbre had thinned, but his elongated phrases, uncanny feel for time, and deft back-phrasing remained as gripping as ever. Nobody sings like this.

On the album Scott re-creates some of his better-known numbers like “Everybody Is Somebody’s Fool” (his only charting tune), “Motherless Child,” and “If Ever I Lost You,” each song showcasing an impressive visiting talent. Across the dozen tunes on the recording, Scott sings duets with vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater, Monica Mancini, Joe Pesci, and Renee Olstead, and six of the tunes feature solos by instrumentalists Joey Defrancesco (organ), Kenny Barron (piano), Arturo Sandoval (trumpet), Till Brönner (trumpet), James Moody (sax) and Oscar Castro Neves (guitar). (Moody and Neves also passed on before the album’s release.) The collaborators’ appreciation for Scott as an artist and person is palpable on each track and stands as a fitting tribute to the underappreciated singer. The album releases in the U.S. on Jan. 27.

May 2016 was a big month for singer-songwriter Gregory Porter. Not only did he launch Take Me to the Alley (Blue Note), which went on to garner a Grammy nomination this year, but he performed at the Philharmonie Berlin in Germany. The live recording and DVD of this concert, Gregory Porter: Live in Berlin (Eagle Vision/Eagle Rock Films), came out only a few months later, an auditory and visual testament to Porter’s enormous popularity both within and outside of the U.S. The concert recapped most of the signature tunes from Porter’s three hugely successful albums—how thrilling it is to watch and hear Porter perform them live in the minimalist setting of a concert hall, his vibrant baritone ringing out like a church bell in the packed room. In introducing “Take Me to the Alley” on the DVD, Porter says that the song is about “those places that need illumination, elevation…and the people that live there.” He goes on to describe visiting those places with his mother to help minister to the needy. By the end of the first tune it’s clear that Porter is still working to illuminate and elevate—he’s just doing it in different alleys these days.  

Singer Kendra Shank and pianist Geoffrey Keezer named their new CD, Half Moon (Ride Symbol), after the globe lamp suspended above the grand piano at the house concert that spawned this live recording. The concert happened to be in the same apartment building where years before jazz legend Abbey Lincoln had given Shank the chart to “When Love Was You and Me,” a tune that Lincoln had written with trumpeter Thad Jones. That tune appears on the album, along with other similarly evocative compositions that lend themselves to the duo’s inspired improvisations. On “Life’s Mosaic” or “Alone Together,” for instance, Shank displays the imagination and expressiveness that earns her a spot alongside her mentors Lincoln, Shirley Horn, and Jay Clayton. The two will kick off the album at Mezzrow on Jan. 9.

Singer Rebecca Kilgore will be performing in town this month, providing New Yorkers with several opportunities to hear the Portland, Oregon-based Songbook specialist.  She plays both Midday Jazz Midtown at St. Peters and Mezzrow on Jan. 18, following this double-header with a show at Metropolitan Room on Jan. 19.

Kurt Elling will be touring with the Branford Marsalis Quartet during 2017 to promote Upward Spiral (Sony Masterworks), the first-time collaboration between the two jazz superstars. The tour comes to JALC on Jan. 20-21, with two shows and a free pre-concert discussion each night. Next month, Elling/Marsalis and Porter will square off for best vocal jazz album at the Grammy’s in Los Angeles.

The tip of the WinterJazz Fest iceberg: singers Amina Claudine Meyers and Dee Dee Bridgewater/Theo Bleckmann/Alicia Olatujan on Jan. 6, and Claudia Acuña and Becca Stevens on Jan. 7.

(Reprinted from the January 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Real Men

Real Men

In her book Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture (Duke University Press), author Allison McCracken posits that white male singers in the Jazz Age turned the social order of the day on its head by covertly challenging the existing hyper-masculine norms of guy behavior. These crooners “showed an unseemly degree of ardent emotion and vulnerability for white men, and they used microphones and amplifiers to enhance their soft, trembling, often sensually breathy sounds,” she writes. Male crooners wouldn’t have been a problem were they just a passing phase in American popular culture. But the rapid rise of home radios from 1920 onward allowed for private listening to these seductive male voices—and women loved them. To distraction. Hence the problem. McCracken contends that a groundswell of female fans made these jazz crooners the first pop idols ever, disrupting long-held notions of how men should relate to women and demonstrating just how socially transformative music can be.    

While McCracken’s book presents a case for how the singing voice transmits and sometimes upends social signifiers (race, class, gender, etc.), it also whispers the message that these things shouldn’t matter to begin with. Clearly, some here in America would take issue with this position. But perhaps we can all agree on this: The U.S. has given the world some superlative male vocalists.  

Grammy-winner Kurt Elling certainly qualifies as one of these. More than two decades into his career, Elling continues to define what jazz singing is and where it’s going. With his most recent release, The Beautiful Day—Kurt Elling Sings Christmas (OKeh/Sony Music Masterworks), Elling set out to make a secular Christmas album that captures the reverence of the holiday (for some) without triggering any unhappy associations (for others). In delivering this tall order, Elling relies on the sheer power of his magnificent voice, the artful arrangements that defy stereotypes of holiday music, and a humility that befits the season. “The human capacity for quiet transcendence, born within each of us, is a concept that…ought to resonate for people of every faith tradition,” writes jazz critic Neil Tesser in the liner notes. Even those without a faith tradition can appreciate the quiet transcendence of tunes like “The Michigan Farm (Cradle Song, Op. 41/1),” a contemporary setting of Edvard Grieg’s haunting lullaby featuring Elling’s own lyrics, and the medley “The Snow Is Deep On The Ground/Snowfall” by John Hollenbeck/Kenneth Patchen and Claude/Ruth Thornhill, respectively. Christmas is a dark time of year, Elling is quoted as saying, a time of pondering mysteries. This album can help with that.

Singer Kenny Washington recorded Moanin’: Live at Jazzhaus Montmartre Copenhagen (Storyville) a little over a year ago. This new recording gives the listener a mere glimpse into Washington’s enormous talent: just five tunes, each one a nonpareil. First up is the title track, a soul-charged gospel take on the Art Blakey hit. Next is “What Is This Thing Called Love,” full of engagingly dexterous scatting and littered with direct Ella references. Then “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good,” a fervid ballad that would give the best of the crooners pause, and “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay,” an R&B marvel that concludes with a virtuosic whistling solo. But for the final tune—just when you’re wondering if Washington can launch rockets with his voice—he sings “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” as simple and smooth as a warm brandy. It slays. Washington and Wynton Marsalis—both New Orleans natives—will perform in “Home For The Holidays” at JALC Dizzy’s on Dec. 9-11.    

Two bona fide crooners and regular fixtures on the New York vocal jazz scene will be offering yearend tidings of goodwill: Freddy Cole celebrates the holiday with his quartet at Birdland on Dec. 20-24, and Marcus Goldhaber presents “Mostly Marcus,” his regular duo-plus-guest-vocalist gig, at Symphony Space’s Bar Thalia on Dec. 4 and 11.

Breaking news: Judi Silvano and Bruce Arnold just dropped their latest recording, Listen To This (s/p), without much fanfare or advance notice. “It’s a spur-of-the-moment release,” Silvano says. “We finished recording it and thought, why not release it digitally? Does anyone release CDs anymore anyway?” An oft-heard question these days. The project pairs Silvano’s signature vocal improvs with Arnold’s expansive explorations on electric guitar. For digital downloads of one or more tracks, visit muse-eek.com.  

(Reprinted from the December 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Jazz Singer Zeitgeist

Jazz Singer Zeitgeist

Bebop pianist Horace Silver first released “Peace” on his 1959 record for Blue Note, Blowin’ the Blues Away. The lyrics of the beloved standard go like this: “When you find peace of mind….Life’s true meaning comes to you and freedom is won….Peace is for everyone.” Two prodigious young singers—one already famous and the other on her way—released albums on Oct. 7 that include this tune, along with other standards and some thoughtful, well-crafted originals. The message of the tune holds relevance for all times, but perhaps especially so when social conflict fills the headlines.  

Norah Jones added the tune to Day Breaks, her sixth solo CD for Blue Note, as a reprise to an earlier version; her very first recording for the label, a six-track EP called First Sessions in 2001 also contained Silver’s “Peace.” Fifteen years ago Jones heard the tune as a traditional, sweet-tempered ballad, but today she hears it as a sophisticated, introspective piece of commentary. The current album benefits from the firepower of some major players: saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, for example. Jones will present the new CD at the Beacon on Nov. 29.

The self-produced CD Out of the Blue is singer Alyssa Allgood’s debut solo album and an homage to the many Blue Note artists who have inspired the recent college grad. In addition to her positive, laid-back version of “Peace,” Allgood interprets songs by Hank Mobley, John Coltane, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, and Joe Chambers, contributing original lyrics for instrumental compositions that have none. Allgood is an astonishingly mature singer for her years; her comfort with scatting and bebop phrasing, the generous world view in her words, and her skillful arrangements all speak to an emerging talent of considerable strength.

Nina Simone, a force in her own right, challenged the status quo more with her presence than with her words, vocal as she was about the injustice that she experienced during her life. In performance, however, she was so commanding, so electric with feeling, that words seem almost secondary to the will behind that distinctive voice, that defiant stare. In September Eagle Rock Entertainment launched a DVD/CD package of the Oscar-nominated documentary about Simone’s life and work, What Happened, Miss Simone? The film contains footage of Simone both on- and off-stage and reveals many of the disappointments and abuses that that singer/pianist endured in her mission to raise awareness of civil rights. The CD portion of the package includes some tracks that don’t appear in the film, among them Simone’s iconic “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”

Also on Oct. 7, Varese-Sarabande officially launched Sully: Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture. Singer Tierney Sutton and her band joined director Clint Eastwood to write the soundtrack of Sully, the Warner Bros. film starring Tom Hanks that premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September. Sutton is at her best on these short tracks, which present a strong case for the use of vocalese to create mood and meaning in a visual medium. Sutton will perform selections from the album at Birdland Nov. 8-12.

Resonance Records often produces short videos to accompany its audio releases; for their recent release Shirley Horn: Live at the 4 Queens, however, the label deemed the subject of the video worthy of a longer treatment. Each minute of the half-hour documentary Shirley Horn: Reflecting and Reminiscing is packed with warm remembrances and the luscious sounds of the singer/pianist’s music. Horn’s mastery didn’t receive national attention until the 1990s, when she was in her 60s, so mainstream jazz listeners only had a few precious years in which to hear the singer live. Resonance Records’ CD and video provide some much-needed documentation on the life of this extraordinary jazz musician.  

Another Oct. 7 milestone: ENNARecords, whose stated mission is “to offer music that shares our human experience, generating community and trust,” released its first CD, Tell A Star, on this date. The album features nine gorgeous, impressionistic tunes by singer/composer/poet Maryanne de Prophetis and her band, trumpeter Ron Horton, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. The quartet will perform from the CD at Michiko on Nov. 12.

Poetry and jazz carouse on No Money In Art (Red Piano Records), by Frank Carlberg’s World Circus, with a street date of Nov. 10. Christine Correa rockets through the seven pieces on the disc like a singer seeing holy visions. A must-listen.

(Reprinted from the November 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)   

Starting Points

Starting Points

Most of the tunes on singer-pianist Amina Claudine Myers’ latest release, Sama Rou (Amina C Records), are African-American spirituals that Myers’ arranged. On these tunes, her church-inspired comping is at once strong and precise and her singing full of pathos and triumph. The spirituals are uplifting, with their drawn-out tempos, a cappella sections, and heavenly invocations. But the truly transporting moments on the disc are in Myers’ original composition, “Intro: Crossings Part I, II & III.” The piece lasts 19 minutes and shows off Myers’ sophistication as an avant garde jazz composer and pianist; the track contains very few vocals, but her eloquent playing sings.

Myers’ second original on the recording follows immediately after “Crossings,” with barely time for a breath; the intro almost sounds as if it’s part of the preceding tune. But in this way “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Hear Us?” serves as the musical segue between the eclecticism of “Crossings” and the familiarity of the traditional tunes that come after (“Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” and “Nobody Knows The Trouble I See”); the tune relies in equal measure on the avant garde, gospel, and R&B. Lyrically, though, it’s a contemporary spiritual of the highest order—honest, beseeching, challenging. At its core is a question that never seems to go away. Myers, one of the early member of The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, will release the CD at the New York campus of the AACM on Oct. 7.

Singer/pianist/composer Daniela Schächter hadn’t really noticed Jimmy Van Heusen’s “clever lyrics and intriguing harmonic progressions” until she was being interviewed for a documentary on the composer, she says. Her subsequent exploration of Van Heusen’s work led her to arrange several of his tunes and to pen one original, “Vanheusenism,” the cornerstone of her September release, Vanheusenism: A Tribute To Jimmy Van Heusen (Purple Butterfly Music). The title cut demonstrates how readily Schächter’s sweet-timbred voice lends itself to modern jazz; on the other tunes, all Van Heusen standards (“ But Beautiful,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”), her deftly executed performances remind us how winsome Van Heusen’s songs can be. Schächter will officially launch the CD at Kitano on Oct. 27.

For years now we’ve watched as jazz clubs and cabaret rooms turned dark and closed, so it’s heartening to report this month on a new performing opportunities for jazz singers. First, in June the Metropolitan Room initiated a Friday night jam for singers at its Piano Bar at the Underground Lounge. Accomplished pianist/composer Yasahiko Fukuoka hosts; $10 covers the entry fee and a drink. Then, in September, pianist David Budway and actress Brianne Higgins opened Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack, N.Y. in honor of Budway’s late sister, jazz singer Maureen Budway. Besides jazz singers, the club will present comics, instrumentalists, and Broadway/pop singers. Finally, across the river from Budway’s club (and a little south) in Hudson Heights, singer Louise Rogers, whose superpower is bebop scatting, will be curating the WaHi Vocal Jazz Series the first Thursday of each month in the back room at Le Cheile (also the site of the Wednesday night WaHi jazz jam), starting this month. Rogers has booked fellow Chelsky recording artist Alexis Cole for the series debut on Oct. 1, followed by Amy London on Nov. 3, and Deborah Latz, curator of the VoxEcstatic series at the Cornelia Street Café, on Dec. 1.

Three legendary singer/pianists have milestone birthdays this month. The parties are happening as follows: On Oct. 15, Freddy Cole will turn 85 during a celebratory run at Jazz Standard Oct. 13-16; Jay Clayton, 75 as of Oct. 28, will have a birthday bash at Kitano Oct. 28-29; and Johnny O’Neal will mark 60 with a concert at JALC on Oct. 10.

While we’re pondering the import of our many revolutions around the sun, we might consider the story of singer Masumi Ormandy, now 77. She was born in Japan during World War II, married an American, and taught English in Japan for more than four decades. Throughout those years she harbored a love of the Great American Songbook, largely unexpressed until she partnered with Grammy-nominated singer and educator Roseanna Vitro. Vitro produced the aspiring singer’s first album, Sunshine in Manhattan (Miles High), which benefits from Vitro’s expertise (superb band, tight arrangements, quality production) and Ormandy’s cheery vocals and crisp delivery. Ormandy will appear at Kitano on Oct. 19 to give the CD a proper sendoff. It’s a story that ends with a happy beginning.

(Reprinted from the October 2106 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)

From That Blue Heart

From That Blue Heart

With Harlem on My Mind (Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi) vocalist Catherine Russell has produced a sleek, winning album that exalts the works of composers like Clarence Williams, Ray Noble, and Fats Waller—tunes from the “blue heart of the great African American songbook,” the back cover says. From the period-specific arrangements to Russell’s sultry vocals to the vintage hats in the photos, the entire effort exudes soulfulness and authenticity. These early jazz tunes never sounded better. Some of them you’ll hear often enough (“The Very Thought of You,” “You’re My Thrill”), but others are special finds (“You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Keyhole,” “Blue Turning Grey over You”). For those who want to witness a second Harlem renaissance in person, Russell will release the CD officially with a concert at JALC Dizzy’s Coca-Cola on Sept. 29.

This past June a new jazz label, Harlem Jazz Records, launched its first album, Meet Me at Minton’s, a fantastic jumble of tunes featuring some of New York’s leading singers, both established and new: Andy Bey, Jon Hendricks, Alicia Olatuja, Kathy Sledge, Jazzmeia Horn, Queen Esther, Brianna Thomas, and Charles Turner. JC Hopkins Biggish Band—14 high-energy players, about half of them horns—surge through the 13 numbers on the disc, forming a powerful wave of music that the fortunate singers get to ride. Two of these singers, Thomas and Olatuja,  more fortunate still, will join recently crowned Jazz Master DeeDee Bridgewater at JALC Appel on Sept. 23-24 in Songs We Love, a concert celebrating 100 years’ worth of vocal jazz music. (Note: At the same time that we don’t envy the curator of this show, we do envy the curator of this show.)

Theo Bleckmann also appears on the bill for Songs We Love, in between his sold-out six-day intensive at the California Jazz Conservatory in August and his European touring in October and November. Earlier this year Bleckmann contributed to a CD with another splendid crush of singers; Answer July (Sony Japan UPC) features Bleckmann alongside his mentor Sheila Jordan and New York Voices’ Lauren Kinhan, rising star Becca Stevens, and talented rookie Dylan Pranuk. The compositions, by Japanese pianist/composer Senri Oe, explore such cheery themes as nature, romance, wine, and Christmas, but the sedate, introspective tone of the music might challenge the perennially happy associations that we have with these things. The lyrics—several sets each by Kinham and Jon Hendricks and one by Stevens—mostly question the ephemeral nature of the good stuff in life. Just why do things disappear as quickly as snow in July? Whatever the answer, recordings of timeless voices go a long way to dispel the angst that lies behind the question. Jordan, who contributes some whimsical, improvised lyrics of her own on “Mischievous Mouse”—will perform at Birdland on Sept. 2-3 as part of the birthday celebration in honor of her mentor, Charlie Parker.

This month vocalist Sara Serpa and guitarist André Matos will launch their second album together, All the Dreams (Sunnyside), a stunning follow-up to their 2014 debut, Primavera (Incm).  Matos’ restrained, impressionistic playing provides the ideal setting for Serpa’s voice, a clear siren call guiding the listener through each passage. All of the compositions on the recording are superbly written originals; two standouts are Matos’ composition, “Calma,” on which Serpa’s vocalese reaches northward to stop just this side of the stratosphere, and “Lisboa,” Serpa’s homage to her hometown, a piece full of intriguing harmonic shifts and lovely melodic complexities. The two take the title of their album from poems by Álvaro de Campos and Walt Whitman, who shared a love for the phrase, it seems; the title captures “the dreamlike state of mind” from which Serpa and Matos are able to create such beauty. The duo will kick off the CD with a show at Joe’s Pub on Sept. 15.

Mary Stallings, the gifted singer who toured with swing bands led by Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie in the '60s and 70s, will bring an organ trio to Smoke on Sept. 23-25. With Mike LeDonne on Hammond B organ, Ed Cherry on guitar, and Jason Brown on drums, Stalling will evoke the laid-back, R&B mood of the jazz era she grew up in. "I might ask them to add a horn," she said, musing a bit before talking excitedly about the convivial atmosphere she wants to create for her fans that night.

(Reprinted from the September issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)