Jazz singing is like the Supreme Court's definition of pornographyit can't be defined, but everyone knows what it is when they see (or hear) it. Most of the time, jazz singing falls into two categories: (1) scat singing, improvisatory vocalising, or (2) cabaret, Broadway-style singing. Carol Mennie definitely falls into the latter category. Her husband and musical collaborator, Dom Minasi, on the other hand, is a gifted and technically superb jazz guitarist who, like Joe Lovano, has an excellent reputation as a swinging, straight-ahead jazz musician as well as a mainstay among the non-swinging Knitting Factory demimonde. Simply put, this is a jazz vocal album that would have been much better if the vocal tracks had been omitted.
Not that Mennie is a bad singer. Most of the time her efforts are competent, although she is troubled by very wayward intonation. The problem is that Mennie is simply not in the same league as her husband and fellow musicians. To keep the baseball metaphor going, she was brought up from the minors way too soon.
Mennie, an actress, came to music late, and it shows. She has a good dramatic sense and can definitely "sell" a song, but, like most cabaret-style artists, her theatricality far outweighs her musicianship. To be fair to Mennie, she is certainly better than most actors-turned-singers, and she's worlds ahead of Mandy Patinkin and Andrea Marcovicci.
As a case in point, Mennie's rendition of the Mann/Hilliard classic "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" has theatricality in spades, but her emoting is obviated by faulty intonation. Sinatra's pitch-perfect recording of this tune was literally pitch perfect. He didn't need to oversell the song in order to cover up musical deficiencies.
There are, however, a number of very interesting arrangements on this CD. I was particularly struck by "Lover Man," in which the up-tempo 6/8 meter gives a feeling of a jazz waltz. And Minasi's always interesting guitar work is shown to great effect in his bluesy arrangement of "Willow Weep for Me," in which he manages to elicit a steel dobro sound from his electric guitar.
The supporting cast on this album is also quite good. Trumpeter Valery Ponomarev is, as usual, outstanding. His muted solo on the lugubrious Minasi original "Brown Eyes" is particularly haunting and affecting. Likewise, the tenor and soprano saxophones of Patience Higgins are superb. Higgins has one of the finest tones I've heard on the difficult-to-control soprano saxophone since the passing of Woody Herman. His solo on "Jazz, Jazz, Jazz" and obbligato on "You Don't Know What Love Is" are models of restraint and taste. Well known on the local scene, Higgins is a player who deserves far greater recognition outside the New York City metropolitan area.
In sum, this recording makes me want to hear much more of Minasi, Ponomarev, and Higgins and much, much less of Carol Mennie. Hopefully, an all-instrumental album will be in the works in the near future.
Personnel: Carol Mennie, vocals; Dom Minasi, guitar; Patience Higgins, reeds; Valery Ponomarev, trumpet; Michaal Stevens, piano; Tomas Ulrich, cello; Ken Filiano, bass; Jay Rosen, drums; Tom McGrath, percussion