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Angels on Earth: Best Living Jazz Chanteuses

Nathan Holaway By

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Let's begin by saying that jazz has definitely been swarmed by a plethora of female vocalists. Just because they can sing a Cole Porter or a George Gershwin tune, and remember all the words... does that make them great? No. Just because they look terrific, does that mean that they'll be the next Billie Holiday? Absolutely not! This may work in pop music, but most jazz fans can tell if a female jazz vocalist has hope or is just hype. These ten selections were made on the criteria of musicality and musicality only. These divine divas will put goosebumps on top of your goosebumps.

Shirley Horn
I Remember Miles (Verve, 1998)

A living legend, Horn is one of the few greats who can play the piano with a dazzling quality and sing with simplicity and beauty, and seems one of the names forgotten in this world consumed with the "next new thing." Here she delivers a haunting and poignantly accurate portrayal of her longtime friend. Outstanding tracks include "My Funny Valentine," "Summertime," "I Fall in Love Too Easily," and "Blue in Green." An outstanding album by an outstanding lady, this is a terrific introduction to the wonderfully talented Horn.
Rene Marie
Vertigo (Max Jazz, 2001)

Wow. That's all one can say after hearing this album, if anything at all! Features a breakneck version of "Them There Eyes" in which her little nuances add the perfect pizzaz to a tune that she makes her own. With her take on Lennon and McCartney's "Blackbird," you'd never guess that such a wayward interpretation could sound so perfect. She also delivers a tribal version of the title song, but the diamond in this collection is "Strange Fruit" that starts with an accapella intro of "Dixie" and then goes straight into "Strange Fruit," making the tune even more troublesome and deep. The ending vocals float like an apparition ascending into the heavens...and that is why Rene Marie is on this list!
Abbey Lincoln
You Gotta Pay the Band (Verve, 1991)

Backing Ms. Lincoln on this stellar album is the incomparable Hank Jones and the all-too-lyrical Stan Getz on one of his last sessions. One of her best and more memorable sessions, with untimely takes on "Up Jumped Spring," "Bird Alone," "I'm in Love," and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" With a voice unlike any other, Ms. Lincoln deserves respect as a true individual and deserves not to be forgotten. An excellent testimony to her grace, and her gift to her jazz audience.
Madeleine Peyroux
Careless Love (Rounder, 2004)

Probably the newest, but certainly not the least, of these ten angels, Peyroux is a godsend to jazz aficionados worldwide. Comparisons can be made between her voice and Billie Holiday's, and rightfully so, but there's a definite individuality about Peyroux. She has that "something" that you can't put a finger on but "you just know" is something special. Careless Love features her interpretations of songs written by Hank Williams, Elliot Smith, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, W.C. Handy, and even a number written by Ms. Peyroux herself. The best way to describe Peyroux is to say that she has a voice like that warm, mesmerizing glass of merlot that absolutely beckons you to have glass, after glass, after tantalizing glass.
Karrin Allyson
In Blue (Concord Jazz, 2002)

Allyson loves all music but is one of the few who can be called a true jazz singer. Here her rendition of Art Blakey's famous "Moanin'" (written by Bobby Timmons)is absolutely jaw dropping. She also covers Mose Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy" as well as Joni Mitchell's "Blue Motel Room" and Wes Montgomery's "West Coast Blues," not to mention her insatiable interpretations of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "Angel Eyes." She's not afraid to take risks, and possesses a wonderful spirit. Karrin is a true master of jazz vocal interpretation, and will be one of the legends soon.
Diane Reeves
Diane Reeves (EMI, 1991)

What can you say about Diane Reeves that hasn't already been said? She's absolutely fantastic! Her self-titled album is the best place to start for people who haven't heard Reeves in all her majesty, with a sensational version of the standard "Yesterdays" as well as "That's All." You'll also find Herbie Hancock's "Chan's Song," featured in the motion picture Round Midnight. With a certain depth and earthiness to her voice, Reeves commands these tunes and makes them all her own. A contemporary legend, Reeves will continue to impress and astound the jazz world for years to come.
Patricia Barber
Live -A Fortnight in France (Blue Note, 2004)

Barber extracts the unexplainable out of every soul that hears her with her undeniable, inexplicable style. With that certain sophisticated swagger, she presents original compositions mixed among standards. Different than most, with a style can be angular at times, and yet very soothing, this collection presents her takes on the standards "Laura" and "Witchcraft," plus several of her own cunning compositions. Her voice possesses a quality like smoke or a thin fog that lingers around enough to create a certain mood or ambience, and then moves on to its next melancholy destination.
Anita O'Day
Anita O'Day's Finest Hour (Verve, 2000)

Anita is just Anita, with a style all her own. A living legend, Ms. O'Day still makes performing her life. With her characteristic charm and sensual scatting style, she has delivered for years with the likes of Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Billy May, and in the film Jazz on a Summer's Day. Includes her renditions of "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Peel Me a Grape," "Tea for Two," "Let Me Off Uptown," "Four Brothers," "Sing, Sing, Sing," "The Way You Look Tonight," and "The Party's Over." A perfect introduction to the legacy that Anita O'Day is still creating to this day.
Cassandra Wilson
Travelling Miles (Blue Note, 1999)

Wilson knows how to rope in a tune, command it, and reflect all of its possibilities with her one-of-a-kind husky-voiced delivery. This project interprets the music of Miles Davis —and does she ever! Her take on "Blue and Green" (here named "Sky and Sea")is melancholy magic. She also knows how to groove, evident on "Run the Voodoo Down" (from Bitches Brew). You'll also find Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" (which Miles covered in 1985), "Resurrection Blues (Tutu)," and "Seven Steps." One of the wonderful things about this album is that Cassandra didn't just focus on one particular era of Miles, but instead runs the full gammut. That takes a lot of guts and intestinal fortitude. A legend in her own time that will continue to amaze us for decades to come.
Tierney Sutton
Blue in Green (Telarc, 2001)

Song selection can reveal a lot about a person's taste. Here, Tierney tackles difficult tunes such as "We Will Meet Again," "Waltz For Debby/Tiffany," "Very Early," "Blue in Green," and "Turn Out the Stars." All but one of these tunes were either written by or associated with the incomparable Bill Evans; Tierney delivers them with logical and infallible competence, much like Evans' approach to piano. Her delivery and choice of tunes perfectly complement each other. A terrific introduction to Sutton and athoughtful, poignant, and haunting collection of tunes delivered by one of the finest vocalists in jazz today.


Next time you hear a female jazz vocalist, don't just settle for what's out there. Ask yourself if they are they really up to the mark that these ten women have made and are making. I hope this will stick in the minds of many jazz listeners who won't settle for anything but the best.

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