The New Jazz Divas
Repertory is the problem and the answer. It bedevils jazz singers today more than ever. In the '30s and '40s, the jazz singers' complaint was that they got Tin Pan Alley dregs, while the big pop stars got the cream of Broadway. That wasn't entirely true, but it also wasn't really the issue. The jazz singer was renowned for nothing if not the ability to manufacture silk purses in quantity: ain't whatcha do, it's the way hotcha do it. Besides, numberless good songs were available for the picking. Besides besides, all those songs -- the good, the bad, and the novelty -- were in the language of the day. A singer in 1938 was a singer of 1938. True, singers then, like now, ventured beyond genre and contemporaneity. Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers weren't the only performers who husbanded assets by exercising the public domain. In the '40s, Sinatra demonstrated a marked affection for songs of the '20s. Raiding parties routinely returned from Nashville with country or cowboy songs; blues also were brightened for mass consumption. Spirituals were adapted and so were arias. But above and beyond all the exceptions was a songwriting factory that provided songs for singers, just as movies and plays provided roles for actors. That changed as the juggernaut of rock pushed through the entertainment world, crushing America's version of operetta and the freelance vocalist with it. Songs were now conceived for (often by) particular performers or particular performances. In the '30s, if a song like "The Music Goes Round and Round" made money for one performer, a dozen others took their turns. In the '50s, no one felt inclined to cover "Get a Job" (a far better song, and no less a cash cow novelty). Pop was transformed, but jazz singers were left out in the cold. What were the repertory choices? Jazz instrumentalists occasionally attempted to find material on the pop charts, but succeeded so infrequently -- Sonny Rollins covering Stevie Wonder, and Miles Davis, Cyndi Lauper -- that the result was more a hands-ringing news story (gentlemen, what stand shall we take on this?) than a casual assimilation. Singers could find even less inspiration in Weber or Springsteen. While instrumentalists were creating new music to define a given era, the singer was forced to return to the very songs of 40 and 50 years ago, and with such masters of that repertory as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Carmen McRae, Joe Williams, Peggy Lee, and Rosemary Clooney all active into the late '80s, there wasn't much of an entryway for newcomers to make a statement. The jazz singer in 1988 was not of 1988. Indeed, 10 years ago jazz singing was widely written off. The most prized singer of the '70s, Dee Dee Bridgewater, lived in Europe (still does), and none that followed her could really get started. The most stimulating singers of the past decade were all veterans -- albeit modernists -- who had created distinct books, two of the three combining standards and original songs. Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln emerged as the most provocative, inspired, and adventurous singers in a generation (of course, they'd been plugging since the '50s) -- Carter for her harmonic resourcefulness and improvisational flair, and Lincoln for her attitude of sage independence and her interpretive power; Shirley Horn, after a hiatus of decades, returned as a saloon crooner of exceptional warmth and grace. They no longer have the floor to themselves. In the last few years, several jazz singers have come along, and this time an audience has followed them into the arena. Yet repertoire remains the central issue. Cassandra Wilson leads the current pack by seniority and by the unexampled success of her first Blue Note album, Blue Light 'Til Dawn, a cagey amalgam of classic pop ("You Don't Know What Love Is"), modern pop ("Black Crow"), originals, and -- piece of resistance -- two Robert Johnson blues that Wilson sang as though she had written them. Brandon Ross's eerily affecting arrangements surrounded her with steel guitar, accordion, percussion groups, and violins, as well as more conventional instruments, but always with spare attentiveness, and Craig Street's production gave the whole package a glow of serene individuality. The album seemed to cap a decade's worth of work for Wilson, who had been knocking out a record a year since 1985. The 1988 Blue Skies, a collection of standards that she purportedly dislikes, was a critics' favorite, but subsequent indulgences in her own songs quelled their favor. Blue Light not only recaptured the strength of her trolling alto but showed, especially in the Johnson blues, that she could look beyond Tin Pan Alley. The new CD, New Moon Daughter (Blue Note) is essentially more of the same -- same basic instrumentation, producer, arranger, though this time Wilson herself assumed chief responsibility for the charts. On the whole, it's not as good an album. Always given to a back-of-the-beat nod time, Wilson is sometimes languorous, so much so that you may find your eyelids fluttering. But there are wonderful things here, some as good as anything on the predecessor, including Son House's "Death Letter," a characteristically plaintive "Skylark," an improbably persuasive "Last Train to Clarksville," and a "Strange Fruit" that throbs with contained irony and releases the song from Billie Holiday's grip as no one else has ever done. Wilson bends notes as though they were made of shoe leather, and she nails them, especially low ones, with deft resolve. At times she grinds a phrase with the serrated cry of a Richie Havens. Other selections are moody and dull, including Hank Williams's great ballad "I'm So Lonesome I Could Die," in which she loses the melody, and the originals, except for "A Little Warm Death," which is sexy and funny -- qualities that have not appeared in her work in great quantity. Jeanie Bryson and Diana Krall have taken more conventional routes on their new CDs, focusing on the songbooks of legendary singers -- coincidentally, both honorees are rich superstars associated with Capitol Records and the pop charts. How mature we are to acknowledge their genius even if they failed to starve for it. In Bryson's case, the decision to pay homage to Peggy Lee was an inspired one that has produced a consistently warm and witty performance. Bryson's two earlier records for Telarc are, to put it bluntly, pedestrian, delivering little of the vitality she produces in live performance. The new Telarc, Some Cats Know, emits a sparkle from the first whimsical note of "I Don't Know Enough About You" -- a reminder, incidentally, that of the women singers who write their own songs, none was more accomplished than Lee. John Chiodini, Lee's music director and guitarist, was hired for authenticity, and so was a West Coast rhythm section, as well as tenor saxophonist Red Holloway and East Coast emissary Paquito D'Rivera, in John Snyder's savvy production. The ensemble is tight as Harold Jones's drum, and Bryson embellishes the tunes with a sangfreud that will remind you of Lee without in any way suggesting imitation. On the contrary, the more I listen to the disc the more impressed I am with the degree to which Bryson avoids the mannerisms that are so much associated with these marvelous songs -- including "You're Blase" (featuring the all-time worst rhyme: "You're like a chasm/You've no enthusiasm"). The album might have had a more vigorous kick if the tempos had been more diverse: "Lover" would have been a good choice with which to follow Lee through the roof, and "Fever" deserved a more primordial attack than it gets. Yet by and large, this record achieves everything it sets out to do. It repositions Bryson as a major talent, and it gives much pleasure. That can't be said of Diana Krall's Impulse debut, All for You, which explores the music of the Nat Cole Trio. Krall is so obviously a talent to watch -- she plays rigorous self-accompanying piano and knows enough about singing to phrase cleanly and avoid affectation -- that nothing is gained by making more of the inadequacies of this album than can be attributed to a maiden voyage that didn't get an optimal send-off. In short, the main problem is that this is the most humorless survey of Cole imaginable. After an agile start on "I'm An Errand Girl for Rhythm," she slogs through the other comical numbers -- "Frim Fram Source," "Hit That Jive Jack" -- as though they were Jerome Kern. They're novelties! The rest of the bill is sober, draggy, and frequently listless. The ballads show little of Cole's charm or whimsy, and none of his incomparable sense of tempo. Krall doesn't own the material to the degree that she makes you forget Cole altogether or think of him as an alternative -- as Bryson makes you think of Lee. (Both sing "Deed I Do": Bryson is seductive, Krall imperial.) Maybe the problem is producer Tommy LiPuma, the Warner hack who got George Benson to record Breezin'; the whole production is wanting, even the art direction -- the cover photo, chosen to show Krall's legs, looks as though her neck were broken. She'll recuperate. Finally, a singer who, like Cassandra Wilson, had a limited range of maybe 16 notes; like Jeanie Bryson, had a small voice; and, like Diana Krall, took light songs seriously. Yes, Billie Holiday has a new record. Called Love Songs (Columbia), it contains 16 selections from 1935-42, and one reason for its existence is to test the wonders of 20-bit digital remastering and make up for the dreadful sound on the Holiday series that came out in the '80s and early '90s. The selection is charming, if a bit odd. Her greatest love songs from the period -- "A Sailboat in the Moonlight" and "I Must Have That Man" -- are not included, and therefore neither is a fair representation of her greatest musical love affair, with Lester Young. Still, this is the best one-volume release of the Holiday Columbias since the incomparable Lady Day in the 1950s. (I know, I know, why not add four selections and release that?) And how is the sound? For the most part, it's great, at times startling. A fillip I thought was played on drums I can now hear unmistakably as a crushed chord in the bass of Teddy Wilson's piano. Three tracks, grouped together, have more surface noise than I've ever heard -- "The Very Thought of You," "Easy Living," "They Can't Take That Away From Me." But the rest brings Holiday into the present tense, where her repertoire of pop songs, old songs, and novelties continues to hold its own.