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Repertoire Rebellion: Whatís a contemporary vocalist to sing?

By Published: May 27, 2005
Even when pop/rock would-be torch singers, like Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart etc. fail to illuminate the musical and lyrical nuances of the Great American Songbook their often inadequate approaches do not distort the fundamental excellence of the material they're singing. If such attempts will never erase anyone's memories of benchmark performers like Fitzgerald and Sinatra, it is always evident why interpretative singers are attracted to such melodically rich, harmonically complex, and narratively intricate material. There has been much justified critical carping about rock singers foolishly plunging into the milieu of jazz-oriented singing with abundant will and limited grace. The seemingly obvious alternatives to this phenomenon include rock singers sticking with what they know best, writing contemporary jazz-styled songs (which Simon and Manilow have attempted) or searching for interpretive depth in unusual places. Several recent attempts illustrate the potential and pitfalls of such approaches.

For example Telarc Records recently released actress, singer, comedienne, and gay and lesbian activist Lea DeLaria's Double Standards, where she interprets punk and rock oriented songs in jazz settings. Recorded in 2003, the follow-up to 2001's Play It Cool, which offered jazz interpretations of classic and contemporary showtunes, is a bold but ultimately unsatisfying recording with significant critical ramifications. The key measure of an album comprised largely of cult songs, in this case songs popular among youth and punk subcultures from bands like Green Day and Jane's Addiction, is if listeners who are unfamiliar can engage with the material even if they are outsiders. Whereas the appeal of classic songs has shone through even the weakest of recordings by rock torchers, punk and rock songs are sometimes too limited to warrant a stretch. DeLaria is a confident vocalist with a warm tone and spirited sense of rhythm. However many of the songs are so repetitive in structure and content, they are either boring such as Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun or her scat solos feel more like ornamental noodling rather than bold rhythmic statements, such as Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot. Unlike rock torchers DeLaria is not a mainstream pop/rock singer but a singing actress from the musical theatre world with a background in comedy and clear jazz chops. Her ability to swing is evident and the musicians are first-rate. The problem is the songs, many of which only stretch so far before sounding parodic. DeLaria seems very well-intentioned and is quite appealing as a musician but Double Standards sounds more like an experimental curiosity than a step forward for the American popular music interpretive tradition. An upcoming Paul Anka release on Verve (Rock Swings due to be released June 7, 2005) where he offers orchestral interpretations of Billy Idol, Oasis The Cure and . . . Soundgarden gives further cause for concern.

While I hesitate to say the songs are beneath her they don't give her much to work with and are ultimately too limited in theme and music to encourage one to seek out the originals. Over the years a handful of rock era tunes have entered into jazz vocal repertoire including "Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell), "Still Crazy After All These Years (Paul Simon) and "New York State of Mind (Billy Joel). But these are more traditional melodic tunes by singer-songwriters on the more refined side of rock than typical punk or rock tunes. This may partially explain why Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Karrin Allyson and Curtis Stigers' jazz styled recordings featuring 60s and 70s pop, Belly of the Sun, That Day, Wild For You and You Inspire Me, seem more a natural evolution than a radical departure given the broadly romantic, melodic nature of the material. In contrast jazz-oriented interpretive singers rarely record 50s era rock 'n' roll or 70s-90s punk songs.

One of the distinguishing factors between pre-rock pop and rock songs is that most standards were written with intention of being interpreted thus a broad romanticism and sturdy yet infinitely flexible melodies and rhythms define the best of songs from Ellington to Porter. Singing actors, swing-based pop singers, and amateur musicians were expected to translate this material for their environments, such as theatres, concerts and home settings. Though swing-oriented singers arguably authored most of the definitive versions of pop standards, even the most radical alterations revel in the songs' integrity and unearth emotional and structural truths. Such possibilities are limited in typical rock songs which, even if more than the proverbial three chords, are usually written for radio airplay and to accommodate albums and videos. Because rock and punk grew out of the shift of the music industry toward youth-oriented subculture consumerism, they were intentionally written for younger listeners, pitched toward a youth audience and existed as part of a continuum with fashion, magazines and other consumer items. Such constraints instantly date many songs in these genres because they are written in genres defined more by trendiness and ephemerality than endurance. I recognize the existence or appeal of rock and punk but question their translation to jazz.

Fortunately, bold interpreters in the DeLaria vein do not have to entirely abandon contemporary pop. Several well-established pop songwriters like Brenda Russell and Julia Fordham have been writing great songs for years just itching for jazz interpretations. Recently the Manhattan Transfer recorded a Russell and Ivan Lins' (another great contemporary writer) composition and two Rufus Wainwright songs on Vibrate. Many jazz singers have established themselves as formidable songwriters including Blossom Dearie, Abbey Lincoln and Patricia Barber. Diane Schuur's recent album recorded with the Caribbean Jazz Project, Schuur Fire, arranges a number of pop songs including Stevie Wonder's "As and Duran Duran's "Ordinary World (!) in a Latin jazz rhythms and the transition is seamless and refreshing. Great contemporary popular songs are out there, they simply need great singers to illuminate their essence and establish them as vehicles worthy of exploration.

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