Cheryl Bentyne Sings the Winners
It is not so hard to sing jazz music, at least, if such is measured by the glut, deluge, plethora or superabundance of jazz vocal recordings released each season. Where bandleader and composer Duke Ellington once opined that that there are only two types of music, good and bad, you could say that some of this music is good and some is superior. The vast majority of jazz vocal recordings are good. Very few, necessarily, are superior. So, while it may not be hard to sing jazz, it is darn near impossible to sing it exceptionally.
In jazz singing, there are those vocalists that you can always count on for excellence, and Cheryl Bentyne is one of them. An active member of The Manhattan Transfer since 1979, with several solo projects to her credit, Bentyne has established herself with few if any peers in mainstream jazz singing. Most recently, Bentyne has had a bit of the human journey having been diagnosed and successfully treated for Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The treatment for such is unforgiving, even two generations away from the advent of chemotherapy (for which Hodgkin's Disease was the first to be successfully treated with combination chemotherapy). Her continued presence shouldn't be taken for granted.
Bentyne graceously made her experiences available via her personal blog and FaceBook, deftly using electronic media to make the world necessarily that much smaller with her personal courage and impeccable style. All the better to get closer to this titanic talent. Bentyne reveals herself as a woman, mom, patient, singer, almost "one of us." But we know better. Bentyne is something quite special and necessary. Here are three recent releases by Bentyne that illustrate what great jazz singing is. We are fortunate to live in Cheryl Bentyne's world.
New York Sessions
La de dah Records
Released abroad in 2004 for Japan's King Records under the title, Cheryl Bentyne Sings Waltz For Debby, New York Sessions took a long six years to become available in the United States. That is crazy, but allowing for the greater popularity of jazz abroad as compared to stateside, it is not surprising. Chronologically, New York Sessions falls between the US releases of Lights Still Burn (King, 2004) and Let Me Off Uptown (Telarc, 2005). It is characterized by its intimate setting and the musicians supporting Bentyne, pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Ray Drummond, who make a complete performance package.
This recording is not as carefully focused as her Anita O'Day album, Let Me Off Uptown (Telarc, 2005), or Gershwin, The Gershwin Songbook (ArtistShare, 2010) discs were, but she makes up for that with her musical company and intimacy of delivery. Barron is a marvel and a gift as is Drummond and the trio put together a bit of dark and stark magic on a dozen jazz standards worn smooth with age and interpretation. This is a format that Bentyne deserves, and while she has always had top-notch accompaniment, Barron and Drummond are incomparable. The total pack justifies well these fine interpretations.
Close and dusky, New York Sessions is a competent collection from the Great American Songbook. Bentyne caresses the ballads, "But Beautiful," "Easy Living" and "Waltz for Debbie," treating them gently while infusing them with a sophisticated and sensual grace. When she goes upbeat, as she does on a swinging "Stompin' at the Savoy," Bentyne shows her well-balanced command of her material. Pianist Barron provides the gravy for this feast, coaxing Bentyne here and there, but more often than not, providing her a perfect architecture within which to sing. New York Sessions is interesting in its crepuscular hue, which is deep and rich as dark chocolate.
The Gershwin Songbook
George and Ira Gershwin were the grand old men of the American stage. their compositions make up a large part to the Great American Songbook. The Gershwins' book makes for a great focused project of a singer and Cheryl Bentyne takes full advantage of its existence. Bentyne's instrument readily transforms these songs of the Gershwins into something quite special. Part of this transformation must be largely credited to pianist/arranger Corey Allen for his inventive arrangements (arranger Ted Howe does the honors on "But Not For Me," "Isn't It a Pity," "Fascinatin' Rhythm/I've Got Rhythm," and "S'wonderful," as well as playing piano). They provide Bentyne both the harmonic and rhythmic challenge to push her to exceptional performances.
Howe's arrangement of "Fascinatin' Rhythm/I've Got Rhythm" is an inspired one, opening with Ken Peplowski's clarinet quoting the opening of "Rhapsody in Blue," which Bentyne begins to sing over before taking things doubletime, weaving "Fascinatin' Rhythm" and "I've Got Rhythm" (melody played by Peplowski) into taut medley fabric. Then Bentyne reverses things, singing "I Got Rhythm" over Peplowski's "Fascinatin' Rhythm" for a verse. This is exceptional arranging. Similarly, the ballad "Our Love is Here to Stay" is taken at a rollicking roadhouse pace, Allen turning in his best Red Garland block chords and soloing.
More clever arranging graces "Isn't It A Pity," which features vocalist Mark Winkler (as does a strolling "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off"). "Lady Be Good" begins with an extended quote from Dizzy Gillespie's "Groovin' High" again, featuring Peplowski on clarinet, dueling with Allan's walking left hand and Monk quotes. Peplowski adds a sepia touch to this otherwise modern interpretation, that swings hard. "Someone to Watch Over Me" is taken the straightest of all the performances. Bentyne's rich midrange gives these lyrics of innocence and exposure an informed emotional edge. "But Not for Me" is given an effective bossa nova treatment (somewhat a Bentyne specialty for standards). "Summertime" sports Bentyne's vocalese brilliance, vamping on the Gil Evans/Miles Davis interpretation from the trumpeter's Porgy and Bess (Columbia, 1958). An exceptional recording.
Let's Misbehave: The Cole Porter Song Book
Rich and creamy with a shot of Tabasco. That is the best way to describe the sophisticated composing of Cole Porter and the soprano voice necessary to make it real: that of Cheryl Bentyne. Focused collections like this accomplish two things. First, they present a concentration of given composer's work, bringing together a unified repertoire, and two, allow the performer to take all the necessary latitude to make the music new. The coupling of Porter and Bentyne is one perhaps even better than her tryst with Gershwin but gratefully, we don't have to say.
From the fragrant R&B of "Love for Sale" to the sassy "Let's Misbehave," Bentyne spins magic with the sharply defined arrangements of pianist/producer Corey Allen, whose sensitive accompaniment on "Just One of Those Things" mixed with Bentyne's broad midrange creates perfection. "What is This Thing Called Love" and "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" feature the late James Moody, whose breathy tenor summons Ben Webster by way of Stan Getz in a way only Moody could affect. Drummer Dave Tull is featured alone with Bentyne on a stunning "Begin The Beguine" duet. This is music making of intelligence and imagination.
Bentyne's finest moments are many. "It's Alright With Me" sports a brisk tempo and fine guitar solo by Larry Koonse. "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" is given a hard Latin rhythm that raises the temperature to a simmer, and simmer Bentyne does, delivering the lyrics with not mere coquettishness, but with sexy playfulness and experience. "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" is a ballad transformed by a faster tempo and clipped delivery, again giving evidence that with the proper arrangement, any song can be transmuted into something new. Yes, Bentyne is back and feeling better than ever.
In spite of all of the chicken-little-the-sky-is-falling reportage regarding recorded music in general and jazz in particular, there remains a flood of vocal jazz recordings released. Most of them are good. Some of them are very good. But the truly exceptional jazz singer is just that: truly exceptional. And you know them when you hear them, no matter how much you listen and no matter how low the signal-to-noise ratio gets. Cheryl Bentyne is the consummate jazz singer who will continue to remind us what exceptional jazz singing is. Welcome back, sister.
Tracks and Personnel:
New York Sessions
Tracks: Last Night When We Were Young; Blue Moon See All; Boy Next Door; I Must Have That Man; But Beautiful; Thou Swell; When Your Lover Has Gone; Easy Living; In A Sentimental Mood; Stompin' At The Savoy; I Get Along With You Very Well (Except Sometimes); Waltz For Debby.
Personnel: Cheryl Bentyne: vocals; Kenny Barron: piano; Ray Drummond: bass.
The Gershwin Songbook
Tracks: Fascinating Rhythm/I Got Rhythm; Love Is Here to Stay; Isn't It A Pity; Summertime; A Foggy Day; Lady Be Good; Someone To Watch Over Me; How Long Has This Been Going On; The Man I Love; I've Got A Crush On You; But Not For Me; Let's Call the Whole Thing Off; Nice Work If You Can Get It; S'Wonderful.
Personnel: Cheryl Bentyne: vocals; Corey Allen: piano; Ted Howe: piano; Kevin Axt: bass; Larry Koonse: guitar: Dave Tull: drums, background vocal; Ken Peplowski: clarinet; Peter Gordon: flute; Mark Winkler: vocalist.
Let's Misbehave: The Cole Porter Song Book
Tracks: Love For Sale; It's Delovely; My Heart Belongs to Daddy; It's Alright With Me; Night And Day; I Love Paris; All of You; I Concentrate On You; You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To; Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye; Begin The Beguine; What Is This Thing Called Love; Just One of Those Things; Let's Misbehave..
Personnel: Cheryl Bentyne: vocals; Tom McCauley: guitar, mandola, drums, percussion; Octavio Bailey, Larry Koonse: guitar; Corey Allen: banjo, piano, keyboards; Doug Webb: clarinet, saxophone; James Moody: saxophone; Chris Tedesco: trumpet; Kevin Axt: tuba; Dave Tull: drums, percussion.