The Art Of The Song
Singing is possibly the most universal of the arts, certainly of the musical arts. The human voice is the most portable of instruments, always there, always available. It's also the most expressive of instruments: almost every instrument invented in history has at some time or other been used to mimic the voice; none have truly succeeded.
Ask most people to name a few great musical stars of the past 100 years and the chances are that the majority of those stars would be singersFrank Sinatra, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Michael Jacksonwhether or not they are also instrumentalists. If I am ever called upon to name my 100 favorite tunes, around 97 of them are likely to feature singers. Without wishing to create too patriotic an atmosphere, I am also convinced that the UK's current crop of singers is exceptional. Norma Winstone, Ian Shaw, Liane Carroll and Claire Martin are all world-class vocalists and all were name-checked by the interviewees in this article as inspirational figures: Emma Smith, Fini Bearman, Georgia Mancio, Clare Teal and Gwyneth Herbert, among others, are developing their own distinctive styles.
Despite (or perhaps because) of this popularity, jazz has an uneasy relationship with vocalists. In the Golden Age of Swing singers were secondary, getting the occasional 8 or 16 bars in the occasional song. The advent of effective amplification helped to change the pecking order, to make stars of the people who "just" sang, but there are still some musicians who put the art of singing well below the art of blowing, hitting, plucking or bowing an instrument.
So what's it like, trying to carve out a career as a singer in contemporary jazz? More specifically, given the title of this column, what's it like trying to develop a career as a singer on the British jazz scene? I asked three young vocalists, Theo Jackson, Kaz Simmons and Melissa James (pictured left), that very question. Jackson spoke to me over the phone, soon after returning from performing in New Zealand. Simmons and James met me in a Soho tea room.
Why those three? They are three of my personal favorites among a growing number of excellent young singers, they are all at or near the start of their careers and, most importantly, they have very different musical styles and very different approaches to career development. What they have in common is talent, enthusiasm and the ability to craft songs that are emotionally engaging and beautifully constructed.
Musician and educator Pete Churchill, Director of the London Vocal Project, provided another perspective. In his final year as a teacher at London's Guildhall School Of Music, in 2008, Churchill was responsible for, as he happily describes it, a "fantastic" group of vocalists enrolled on a post-graduate program. After graduating, group members asked Churchill to continue working with them and they started to meet every Monday night. Churchill's aim for this group, which became known as the London Vocal Project, was to create a meeting place and support network for singers from all the London jazz courses, both students and teachers.
Four or five years after its creation, the LVP now has around 24 members. Churchill calls it a "project choir" deliberately. A core repertoire, learned by ear and including "lots of groove stuff," is augmented by specific musical projects including Churchill's own compositions, work by other recognized composers including trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, folk music and an increasing amount of material written by the group's members (which include Bearman). At the start, says Churchill, "I didn't have a master plan; mostly we concentrated on making sure that we met every week." The LVP has since worked with leading musicians including bandleader Sir John Dankworth and singer Bobby McFerrin, but each member still pays a subscription of £5 (about $8) per week: their commitment to the LVP is strong.
The LVP's debut album, due in January 2013 on Edition Records, will be a recording of Wheeler's "Mirror Suite." Churchill has a long relationship with the Canadian musician and composer. He conducts the Kenny Wheeler Big Band and first sang the suite, with Winstone and Carroll, in Berlin in 1998.
Jackson released his self-produced debut, Jericho, in early 2012 just four or five years after graduating from Durham University. James' first recording, Day Dawns (Slickersounds), also came out in 2012. Simmons is the most experienced of the trio, releasing her debut recording, Take Me Home (33 Jazz) in 2004. Her follow up CD, Different Smile (2007) and third album, Dandelions (2011), both appeared on her own label, Fast Awake Records.