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Representing the Jazz Self in Song

By Published: July 18, 2006
In the nearly ten years since the revised edition of Will Friedwald's Jazz Singing (1996) and Bruce Crowther & Mike Pinfold's Singing Jazz (1997) "jazz singing has generated several familiar conversations among jazz critics. Generally these criticisms, discussed in the "Original Recipe Vs. Extra Crispy chapter of The Future of Jazz (2002) and Stuart Nicholson's Is Jazz Dead? (2005), urge contemporary singers to treat jazz as a living and dynamic genre. Searching for new material or obscure songs beyond obvious "standards, borrowing stylistic inspiration from cultures outside the United States, and asserting expressive individuality over empty virtuosity comprise the techniques critics suggest will combat the stifling nostalgia haunting commercial jazz singing. If contemporary jazz-oriented singers approach jazz as an expansive set of interpretive practices rather then a fixed genre with prefab songs and arrangement styles the art will advance. But, in the current musical economy can such pithy advice have much meaning?

In a compressed economic climate of increased label consolidation, narrowing promotional channels and the commercial embrace of nostalgic "nu crooners the commercial incentives for risk-taking seem minimal but could inspire a certain kind of perverse freedom. If improvisational singers are unlikely to record garner radio airplay, appear on talk shows, or be asked to hawk expensive consumer items experimenting seems incredibly salient. As one combs the racks for new singers it is increasingly evident that the song really is the thing. Repertoire alone does not make one a jazz singer but the dimensions of a song can inspire interpretive directions that affect the way we hear and understand jazz. Below I ruminate on some potential cures for repertoire fatigue beyond contemporary pop songs (a subject I previously explored in "Repertoire Rebellion ) :

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

Two of the best resolutions to repertoire fatigue are recordings of underappreciated songs and collections featuring original material. In the interpretive vein Dee Dee Bridgewater leads the way thanks to the fresh material and transcendent performances on her Horace Silver (Love & Peace), Kurt Weill (This is New) and chansons ( J'ai Deux Amours ) "songbook albums. Having established her virtuosity years ago she freely fuses her vocabulary with a mélange of languages. New is not simply showtunes with walking bass and brushed drums. It's a genuinely exciting fusion of music, theater, and improvisation bathed in eclectic arrangements with fresh rhythmic and percussive flair as opposed to a generic "world music tinge.

I was only half-convinced by Lea DeLaria's jazz-oriented foray into punk and rock on Double Standards but her interpretations of old and "New Broadway on Play it Cool are delicious. For singers who don't care for new pop songs and seek alternatives to 60s and 70s chestnuts, New Broadway is an untapped resource. Further, apart from Lee Wiley few singers have fully explored the Vincent Youmans' songbook. Cabaret legend Bobby Short championed the songs of Vernon Duke but jazz singers might illuminate new colors.

Crack Open a Book

From "Strange Fruit to Cleo Laine's musical adaptations of Shakespeare to Luciana Souza's musical recordings of Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda poems, the fusion of music with literature could be fruitful. Though not even a great jazz singer could invigorate some of the stinkers on the Timesbestsellers list and jazz oratorios seem more useful for instrumentalists than singers, a great lyricist, composer and singer could probably translate themes from a great novel like Philip Roth's American Pastoral into something worth hearing. Patricia Barber incorporates philosophers and mythology into her song lyrics and Fred Hersch adapted Whitman's Leaves of Grassso jazz musicians obviously read more than notes. If an operatic version of Morrison's Beloved and a Broadway version of Walker's The Color Purple can exist what are the possibilities for incorporating modern literary questions about identity, assimilation, and innocence into a jazz based—not operatic or musical theater oriented— musical form? Such efforts usually run the risk of being stiff and corny but as a character in Pastoral states, "Without transgression there is no knowledge. Might we have more to glean from the thematic paraphrasing and formal contours native to fusing modern literary and musical genres than the predictable dead ends of so much "jazz singing?

Seek your inner folkie or "Represent

The emergent folk aesthetic in jazz exemplifies the way singers can articulate themselves using new melodies and words that reflect their aesthetic and cultural context. If the Great American Songbook represented the musical and emotional sensibilities of the pre-WWII generation what emotional and tactile imprints represent contemporary sensibilities? Pre-rock jazz singers often wrote ephemeral songs (check out Dinah Washington's "Lingering ) or added lyrics to instrumentals (Ella Fitzgerald's "Shiny Stockings ) and there are plenty of well-established writer-performers whose songs are broadly performed (e. g. Mose Allison, Blossom Dearie, Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg) While some singers have translated rock-oriented material into jazz arrangements I see great promise in the Abbey Lincoln-inspired emergent songwriting aesthetic of Patricia Barber, Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, and folkish pupils like Norah Jones and Lizz Wright.

The romantic, escapist themes of Broadway, and the cheeky quirkiness of Allison, Frishberg, etc. is something quite apart from Lincoln's anthemic "Bird Alone, Reeves' "Endangered Species, and Barber's pointed "Whiteworld. A female songwriter overtly asserting her autonomy apart from a romantic relationship ("Bird ) or her status as an artist ("Species ) embodies decades of cultural change in compact, hummable form. Just as folk-rock expanded rock's focus from cars and courting, jazz is not immune to the emotional and social tenor of its singers. The modern language of "love in contemporary jazz songs is also a bellwether of the era especially in tone. Desire still seduces, allures and confounds but is no longer an omnipotent force—singers can be incredulous, ambivalent, or hostile without being read as "cold or sociopathic. The fact that few songs from the new jazz writers have become "hits or inspired interpretations is not inherently a mark of inferiority. Rather it might indicate the particularity of some contemporary songwriters whose work is intricate in ways that defy the logic of theater composing and other songwriting-for-hire. If rock ushered in an era of self-contained writers and performers, the folk-oriented singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s galvanized pop songwriting with urgent political anthems and highly personal (and often narcissistic) lyrics. Generally contemporary jazz songs often have a minimalist folk feel and their writers seem less interested in writing for radio, catalyzing a revolution or opening their diary.

To use Wilson as an example her original songs often have a ruminative, media res quality as though she is processing emotions and visions unavailable in the words and music of other composers. Lest this sound turgid the sensuality of 1995's "A Little Warm Death, the sly humor of 2002's "Drunk as Cooter Brown and the hip-hop elements on 2003's Glamoured and 2006's Thunderbird speak to changes in emotional perception and modern musical technology that emblazon the contemporariness of jazz. Listeners may not immediately detect or recognize the "jazz in her imagery, attitude or textures—but they can't help but recognize her in everything she does and what could be more "jazz than that?

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