The last singer to win an NEA Jazz Masters Award was Sheila Jordan in 2012. Women don’t receive this award, which accompanies a grant of $25,000, very often, but most of the female recipients have been singers. Of the 145 award recipients since 1982, the year of the jazz award’s inception, only 19 have been women, 13 of which were singers. But of the 145 recipients in total, 16 (men and women both) received the award in whole or in part for their work as vocalists. This means that more than 10% of all award-winners have been vocal artists—a pretty high percentage. Do what you will with these numbers, but the story they tell isn’t a bad one for singers. (It’s another matter for female instrumentalists, however.)

The NEA just announced that Dee Dee Bridgewater will be the next jazz artist to join the ranks of those 19 women/16 vocalists on April 3, 2017. Bridgewater, who will be spending this July in Europe promoting her 2015 CD Feathers (DDB Records and OKeh/Sony Masterworks), wins for her 50 years of concertizing and recording with jazz greats such as Ray Charles, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Max Roach. In acknowledgment for these efforts she’s received three Grammys awards, one Tony award, a Victoire de la Musique award in France, and a nomination for an Olivier award in the UK. One aspect of her career that has received less acknowledgment, however, is her work to raise awareness of hunger around the globe. In 1999 she was named the first Food and Agricultural (FAO) Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, a role that she continues to fill to this day; in addition she works with UNESCO and the State Department to spread jazz education abroad. Bridgewater’s example reminds us that great acts don’t always get noticed, though it’s awfully nice when they do.     

Not many singers take on Dave Brubeck’s compositions, probably because his melodies contain tricky intervals and are often written in odd time signatures that are not usual for vocal repertoire. Two German-born musicians have now set a standard for vocal interpretations of Brubeck’s work, however, with In Your Own Sweet Way: A Tribute to the Great Dave Brubeck (Double Moon Records/Challenge Records), the “heart project” of Sabine Külich (vocals, sax) and Laia Genç (piano). The pair approaches almost all of the tunes lightly and whimsically, whether it’s the usual suspects like “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk” or lesser known pieces like “Unsquare Dance” or “It’s a Raggy Waltz.” As with many horn players, Külich’s scatting is clever and effortless. Equally as impressive are the sections where the two improvise on their respective instruments, with Külich using a more traditional jazz vocabulary and Genç a more modernist one. Their improvised conversation is especially strong on “Blessed Are The Poor,” which offers some of the few somber moments on the disc.

Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed opened on Broadway in April 2016 and earned 10 Tony nominations (it lost to Hamilton for Best Musical). The current show is an adaptation of the original Shuffle Along from 1921, which launched the careers of several jazz-era stars, among them dancer Josephine Baker and singer Paul Robeson. Most importantly, it put composer Eubie Blake and singer Noble Sissle front and center among New York musicians of their era. Earlier this year The Musical Theater Project/Harbinger Records released Sissle and Blake Sing Shuffle Along, the demo tracks that the vaudeville duo recorded in 1950 in the hopes of launching a revival of the landmark show that year. Beyond the demo performances, the liner notes—an excerpt from a biography on Blake that authors Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom are crafting—provide important insight into the relationship between jazz and theater and the evolution of racial equality in the US.   

Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Gregory Porter just released Take Me To The Alley (Blue Note), a collection of 14 of Porter’s gospel/R&B-tinged jazz originals. While his voice is seductive as ever, his lyrics call for some consciousness-raising. Porter will be touring internationally before returning to NYC for one concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell on July 28 with saxophonist Marcus Strickland and Strickland’s powerhouse band, Twi-Life.  

Other free outdoor concerts in July: Superstar Dianne Reeves will give a Summerstage concert at Queensbridge Park on July 27, followed by the brilliant Brianna Thomas on July 31.

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