There's no doubt that American Idol, that immensely popular TV vocal competition now in its eighth season as of this writing, has redefined the public's idea of what constitutes "great" singing. In many quarters, the old criteria of good pitch and time, pleasing tone and honest feeling are no longer sufficient, for why hold onto one long note when you can cram three octaves into every bar? Far too often, the meaning of a song is reduced to its melisma, as a singer's athletic ability to embellish a tone seems to trump any lyric attached to it.
So far the jazz world has been relatively immune from this virus, but the growing ease of technology is enabling every aspiring singer to make a CDjust pick some artwork, hire a publicist, and poof: you're in the game. This has resulted in a great uncensored flood of music, much of which is best appreciated by the parents, spouses, and friends of the singer.
But into this noisy climate comes a reminder of what true class and swing are all about: A Song for You, from veteran vocalist Ernestine Anderson. Here, backed by a fine and un-fussy quartet, she proves that her six-decade career could not diminish her rich, flexible voice, or her ability to mine the emotional truth in every song; if anything, both are deeper today. Anderson is joined in her explorations by the legendary tenor player Houston Person, whose bluesy obligatos are so empathic that they're practically verbal. During his thirty-year partnership with the late, also-wonderful Etta Jones, Person perfected the art of the voice/horn dialogue: consistently enhancing a singer's meaning without ever getting in her way. His comments are by turns supportive, witty or ironic, and his solos remain unmatched for their expressiveness and soul.
Anderson makes her musical intentions clear from the buoyant opener, "This Can't Be Love": she's going to use her singular phrasing and time to freshen every overplayed standard in the set, including the enthusiastic "Make Someone Happy," the R&B-inflected "Lovely Way to Spend an Evening," and the celebratory "Day by Day.". The CD's four ballads include a surprisingly slow and sexy "Candy," as well as the relatively-recent title tune, where Anderson makes the words so personal that it sounds like she just made them up. A word about "Skylark," that timeless beauty by Hoagy Carmichael: the equally great Johnny Mercer said it took him a whole year to get those lyrics right, and Anderson honors them with a kind of whispering wonder that suits them very well.
All told, A Song for You should be required listening for every singer, since Anderson provides such a rare and invaluable lesson: how to touch the listeners' hearts without having to fill up their ears.
This Can't be Love; A Song for You; Make Someone Happy; Skylark; A Lovely Way To Spend an Evening; Candy; Day by Day; For All We Know.
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Author of "The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius," now in its updated second edition,Dr. J combines her love of jazz and her fascination with psychology, focusing on where they overlap: in celebrating the individual spirit.