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Repertoire Rebellion: Whatís a contemporary vocalist to sing?

By Published: May 27, 2005

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.

Discuss Repertoire Rebellion at the AAJ Bulletin Board.

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