Even though vocal jazz standards derive from the U.S. musical theater tradition of the early 20th century, very few stage musicals have featured a score for jazz singers. Two recent jazz musicals, both conceived and written by prominent jazz instrumentalists, chart fresh territory in this regard.
In their stage production A Bigger Show, jazz pianist/composer Mike Westbrook and lyricist Kate Westbrook put forth a wry, cynical view of life in the internet age. The piece portrays a carnival world where violence, sex, and cordon bleu are indistinguishable from freedom, tolerance, and jokes. Music—jazz specifically—offers deliverance from this dystopia; in the finale the Westbrooks urge listeners to “feel the beat of a heart…seize the gift of a life in flesh, blood and bone” and to “spin the waxeywork”—an allusion, one presumes, to the pre-digital age when folks listened to vinyl records and got to know each other face-to-face. Mike Westbrook and The Uncommon Orchestra performed the work at the Exeter Barnfield Theater in the U.K. in July 2015, and the recording of that performance, A Bigger Show: Live (Westbrook Records), launched in February of this year. The show demands tremendous versatility from its 21-piece big band and three actor/singers; the compositions include sections with structured vocal harmonies and free improvisations, rock numbers and jazz numbers, dialogue and spoken word, and both electronic and acoustic instrumentation. Ironically, the only way U.S. listeners can hear this exciting work at the moment is via the digital recording, ordered online. In the absence of a U.S. tour or waxeyworks, however, the CD will have to do.
Bassist William Parker has been working on a jazz musical for more than 20 years. The undertaking is ambitious and requires careful treatment: in the project Parker uses avant-garde song forms and poetry to explore the themes of death, sacredness, and healing. As with A Bigger Show, the protagonists find themselves in a crumbling world that the magic of music can save—in this case, through its power to spread joy. Parker collaborated with singer Lisa Sokolov and pianist Cooper-Moore on a recording of 19 of the 60 songs that Parker has written for the musical. The resultant CD, Stan’s Hat Flapping In The Wind (Centering Records), contains a mix of somber reflections (odes to deceased friends like Ornette Coleman, Jeanne Lee, David S. Ware) and palliatives to grief (the beauty of nature, compassion, life itself). Sokolov’s impassioned vocals serve as a strong vehicle for Parker’s message. When she sings “see what it is that makes the grass grow…makes the sun rise,” the lyric becomes a question that the listener must answer. Not everyone will agree with Parker’s conclusion or come up with an answer of their own, but there’s value in the asking.
Singer Jane Monheit has a new CD and a new label, her own Emerald City Records. The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald, which hits the street on April 8, reveals Monheit’s skills with free feels and out arrangements—a departure from her more traditional approaches to Songbook material and a fitting, modern tribute to the iconic Fitzgerald. One particularly intriguing twist is a medley of the Gershwins’ “I Was Doing All Right” with Amy Winehouse’s “Know You Now” as a slow, provocative Latin tune. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who arranged this tune and five others on the disc, engages with Monheit in charming musical banter on the brighter tunes (“Where or When”) and in shared pathos on the heart-breakers (“Ill Wind”). Their collaboration is a compelling one that promises to push Monheit into new directions as a recording artist, toward her own personal Oz perhaps.
This month, Jazz Appreciation Month, the U.S. Postal Service will issue a commemorative stamp in honor of singer Sarah Vaughn. The stamp takes its image of Vaughn—eyes closed, head back, lips parted slightly in song—from a painting by artist Bart Forbes. If you buy a sheet of the Vaughn stamps, you’ll find a list some of Vaughan's well-known Songbook tunes (“Body and Soul,” “Misty,” and “Autumn in New York”) printed on the back. A trip to the post office never sounded so good.
For a better world: Becca Stevens will be singing in the fifth annual Concert to Feed the Hungry, sponsored by Buddhist Global Relief, at Middle Collegiate Church on April 9. Also, registration is now open for Bobby McFerrin’s Circlesongs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., an August vocal improv workshop that offers participants “the freedom to play, sing, invent, and imagine.”
(Reprinted from the April 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)