Musical ideas travel across global cultures these days as quickly as fire. Through any number of tech-dependent cultural exchanges, a musician can share an idea (a lick, a harmony, an arrangement, a groove) within seconds of its conception. Of all musicians, though, singers alone face a hurdle that limits their ability to participate in this rapid-fire sharing across cultures: barring singers who rely solely on vocal improvisation, all singers must make themselves understood verbally. Thus jazz singers are often limited by the languages they speak—or more accurately, by the ones they don’t. When a cultural exchange of vocal jazz music does happen, it’s almost always in English. Lately, however, a few multi-cultural jazz singers have begun to challenge the notion of English as the lingua franca of vocal jazz. These singers perform in several languages, they adapt lyrics from various literary traditions, they work with non-traditional instrumentation.  In these ways they’re opening up new frontiers in vocal jazz.

Antiquariat, a gypsy jazz band out of Germany, stands on the edge of this changing world order. The band follows the same configuration as Django Reinhardt’s—two guitars, violin, upright bass. But this isn’t a Django cover band. The group, fronted by singer Marion Preus, writes its own original tunes with lyrics in French, German and English; they interpret cabaret tunes like “Zuhälterballade” (“Tumblers’ Ballad”) by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and folk tunes like the Romani anthem “Djelem Djelem”; they adapt text by authors such as Rudyard Kipling (“If”).  The group takes the title of its latest recording, Vida de Carrusel (Acoustic Music Records), from their Spanish-language tune, “Carrusel,” with lyrics by guitarist Carlos Gabriel Klein Schindler. The tune likens life, with all of its comings and goings, rises and falls, to a carousel. On the tune Preus—vocally agile, rhythmically nimble—takes a circumspect, almost light-hearted approach to this universal theme of love and loss. Her work reminds us that Europe, too, has an ever-growing songbook tradition.       

The concept album Fugitive Beauté (Ignoring Gravity) features Dutch singer Vera Westera on several compositions that fuse poetry and spoken word with vocal solos, vocal harmonies and improvised instrumental solos. To create the recording, Serbian-born, German-raised composer/poet Bojan Vuletic took his inspiration from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (“The Flowers of Evil”), a reflection on the role of happiness in a troubled world. Vuletic had Westera and two avant garde musicians from the US—Zeena Perkins (harp) and Nate Wooley (trumpet) —riff on his musical and lyrical ideas in the studio. He then “relocated” pieces of the recording to build an impressive montage of impressionistic horn lines, percussive interjections, and poetry sung in English, German, French and Croatian. Suffice it to say that Vuletic’s vision is far cheerier than Baudelaire’s (not hard to accomplish). His words in Westera’s voice are actually quite lovely and life-affirming.

When London-based singer Stacey Kent visited Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2011 to participate in a concert celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado, she happened to meet Brazilian guitarist/composer Roberto Menescal, an early adopter of the bossa nova, backstage. This brief meeting has led to two musical collaborations so far, the most recent being Tenderly (Sony Music), which also features Jeremy Brown (bass) and Jim Tomlinson (sax/flute). The CD comprises 11 American standards in English and one of Menescal’s originals in Portuguese, the latter recalling the bossa nova tunes the two performed together on Kent’s initial foray into Brazilian jazz, The Changing Lights (Parlophone/Warner) in 2014. On both projects Menescal’s delicate, precise playing offsets Kent’s smooth, dulcet vocals to perfection and Kent’s ever-flawless diction in whatever language she’s singing (French, Portuguese, English) continues to delight.

Experimental jazz vocalist/composer Jen Shyu will present Song of Silver Geese, an informed mash-up of dance, drama, music and language that explores the cultures of Korea, Taiwan, East Timor and Indonesia at Roulette on March 28, Shyu’s birthday. Before this she’ll be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Relation: A Performance Residency by Vijay Iyer, curated by same, on March 18-31 (see museum website for details).

In memorium: On March 14 the Jazz Foundation and St. Peter’s Church will sponsor a concert in honor of singer Mark Murphy, who passed away last October. The day would have been Murphy’s 84th birthday. Among the 20+ musicians scheduled to appear are Sheila Jordan, Alan Broadbent, Kurt Elling, Jay Clayton and Annie Ross. A reception begins at 6, followed by the concert at 7. Admission is free. 

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