The tumultuous changes of the 1960s radically changed the American musical landscape. Jazz fell off the American cultural radar, nightclubs closed their doors and record companies moved on to rock. With few opportunities to work and little money to be made, jazz became a music played by the dedicated for the devoted. Jazz singers, who had always acted as a bridge between the jazz and non-jazz audience, found that the middle ground had disappeared.
As the 1970s got underway, most vocal jazz activity occurred on the comeback trail. Many singers found this road to be bumpy and the inhospitable environment forced many singers back into obscurity. By the end of the decade, a new generation of jazz singers slowly began to emerge. These neophytes were not drawn to jazz by dreams of fame or riches but by a passion for the music itself. They did not face an easy time. Commercially, there was no evidence that a jazz singing career was even viable and no infrastructure to help build that career. Artistically, they had to find ways to connect to a modern audience that was either disinterested in jazz or nostalgic for the music's past.
By the late 1980s, jazz singing found itself at the cusp of a remarkable resurgence. The early and late 1990s produced two mini-explosions of jazz vocalists, and by the year 2001 there were more active jazz singers than at any time since the pre-Beatles era. Even more encouraging, these new jazz singers turned out to be an eclectic mix of traditionalists and innovators reflecting a diversity of thought that bodes well for the future of the music.
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Maxine Sullivan: Close as Pages in a Book (1969)
Maxine Sullivan might have been a footnote in jazz history remembered primarily for her 1937 recording of "Loch Lomond." Fortunately, her late-in-life comeback resulted in wholesale reevaluation of her work and recognition of her rightful place in the pantheon of classic jazz vocalists. Along with her dry alto and unassailable time, Sullivan's singing was marked by her economy of phrasing: She never wasted a single note. She recorded many wonderful records before her death in 1987, and this is one of the best.
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Irene Kral: Where is Love? (1974)
A singer's singer known for her superb taste, Kral never mistook sentiment for emotion. A collection of duets with pianist Alan Broadbent, Where is Love? never falls victim to the monotony that often makes ballad albums more admirable than enjoyable. Broadbent plays with great warmth and attentiveness, and Kral's interpretations are as incisive as they are understated. This is one of those albums that stays with you long after the disc stops spinning.
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Betty Carter: The Audience With Betty Carter (1979)
The definitive recording by the most influential jazz singer of the last 30 years. Carter took jazz singing to the next level by demolishing the barriers between singers and instrumentalists. She did more than just improvise; she interacted. She also recruited and trained musicians, acted as her own arranger and wrote original material. Carter took fantastic risks with time and structure and while the results may not have always been easily accessible, they were never less than astonishing.
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Sarah Vaughan: Crazy and Mixed Up (1982)
As the years went by, Sassy's voice only seemed to grow stronger, wider, richer and more flexible. Unfortunately, she recorded infrequently in the decade before her death in 1990, a sad fact made all the more tragic because the self-produced Crazy and Mixed Up is one of the finest records of Vaughan's long career. Backed by a superb quartet, Vaughan dives into these eight standards with authority and abandon.
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Carmen McRae: Any Old Time (1986)
In the final decade of her remarkable career, McRae paid her musical respects to Nat Cole, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Sarah Vaughan. However, this relatively obscure and totally wonderful studio recording captured Carmen simply being Carmen. Whether cagily working behind the beat on "Tulip or Turnip" or deconstructing "Body and Soul," McRae displays all of the intelligence, vibrancy, spontaneity and wry humor that made her such an irreplaceable figure.
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Shirley Horn: You Won't Forget Me (1990)
Although many fans prefer the lush orchestral sounds of Here's to Life, You Won't Forget Me is arguably pianist-singer Shirley Horn's most well rounded artistic statement. Horn's famous time-stands-still ballad performances rely as much on her selection, placement and resolution of chords as they do on the hushed immediacy of her vocals. Although she will always be identified with the slowest of tempos, Horn knows how to swing hard. Here, Horn explores the full range of her gifts in the company of an impressive array of guest soloists including Miles Davis, Buck Hill, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, and Toots Thielemans.
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Abbey Lincoln: A Turtle's Dream (1994)
The very best jazz singers don't simply sing a song; they draw it into their own idiosyncratic universe. With her distinctive vocal timbre and unique conception of time, Abbey Lincoln's universe is perhaps more idiosyncratic than most. However, anyone willing to make the trip will hear singing of great subtlety and imagination.Lincoln has also distinguished herself as a songwriter and her impressive original compositions dominate this Dream, including her near-standard "Throw It Away."
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Cassandra Wilson: New Moon Daughter (1995)
For New Moon Daughter Wilson drew on a wide range of material including originals ("Until"), standards ("Skylark"), blues ("Death Letter"), country ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"), rock ("Harvest Moon") and pop ("Last Train to Clarksville"). Some critics cried "crossover," but they were missing the point. Rather than change styles, Wilson translates each song into a spacious, acoustic, string band format where she could explore the tune unconstrained by the rhythmic or harmonic conventions of its original genre. Wilson wasn't leaving jazz; she was redefining it.
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Sheila Jordan: Jazz Child (1999)
As one of the most creative singers in the history of jazz, Jordan should have a massive discography. Sadly, that is not the case, making the slightly more than a dozen albums she has recorded since 1962 all the more valuable. Jazz Child is an apt title for a vocalist who has never lost her youthful enthusiasm for this music. Whether scatting through "Art Deco" or sinking inside "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," Jordan transforms each song into a profoundly personal musical and emotional statement.
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Dianne Reeves: In the Moment (2000)
Throughout her career, Reeves has tried to reconcile her love for jazz with her interest in contemporary pop and world music. Unfortunately, despite her enormous talent, the results were often uneven and frustrating. Reeves stuck to her path and that perseverance finally paid off. On In the Moment, Reeves finally brings together the different aspects of her musical personality to make music that has its own distinct identity.
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Mark Murphy: Links (2001)
Murphy built his career out of diving in where angels (or at least other jazz singers) fear to tread. Recording prolifically since 1956, his albums, particularly since the 1970's, are often daring explorations of the art of jazz singing. Given that reputation, it is somewhat surprising that the real strength of Links lies not in Murphy's undiminished adventurousness but in his less often encountered restraint. He handles the fragile "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" with real subtlety, and finds precisely the right note of humor in "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee." Singing standards or originals, Murphy connects his improvisational flights to the emotional content of the song.
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Carol Sloane: I Never Went Away (2001)
The blueprint for a perfect vocal jazz CD: Take a collection of superb, seldom heard songs, recruit a group of world class jazz musicians, find a charismatic vocalist who is both an accomplished improviser and a master interpreter of lyrics, and have her sing with intelligence, wit, insight, creativity and heart. Or simply listen to this set, which could serve as a Ph.D. course in the art of jazz singing.