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Male Vocals – Mark Murphy, Theo Bleckmann, Gregory Porter, Jimmy Scott, Kurt Elling, Ron Boustead

C. Michael Bailey By

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What passes for male jazz vocals makes an interesting dichotomy with female jazz vocals. Judging by the number of female jazz vocal releases that come my way, I almost believe that every woman fancies that she can make a jazz recording. Interestingly, there are many good to great ones. Not so with men. I probably see only a fifth to a quarter the number of male vocal releases when compared to the female. Nothing scientific, and certainly anecdotal. And also, very curious. Another thing is the quality. A majority of male vocal releases I consider passible, but not provocative enough to attain escape velocity from the Frank Sinatra / Tony Bennett cyborg. That said, the past, present and future of male jazz vocals is represented in these five releases.

Mark Murphy
Live in Athens, Greece, featuring Spiros Exaras
Musical Theater Project
2016

Jazz vocalist Mark Murphy's death in October 2015 was an inevitable deep loss to the jazz community. In failing health, the latter part of his life, Murphy did continue to record. The present Live in Athens, Greece was recorded from a series of shows presented at the Gazarte Club on April 18-20, 2008, while the singer was in excellent voice. The recording was produced my guitarist Spiros Exaras, who also provided his talent for the performances. Murphy sticks to the standards, particularly those he became famous with. The disc opens with a strangely rollicking "My Funny Valentine" featuring Exaras and pianist Thomas Rueckert in solos as provocative as Murphy in his singing. He follows this with Oscar Brown's imagining of Miles Davis's "All Blues." Murphy sings freely and without governor, acting as his own master-of-ceremonies, moving seamlessly from one song to the next. Murphy raises "On Green Dolphin Street" into the Avant-Garde clouds in its introduction, eventually settling down into a nuclear samba that works very well.

Murphy's delivery is both relaxed and hip. He is conversational in his singing, interacting with an obviously receptive audience. His stage presence commanding, even at 76-years-of-age in these performances. Murphy presents a virile and sardonic "Summertime," in the introduction duetting with bassist George Georgiadis before the whole band breaks in. Murphy sings with an abandon and joy that is infectious. The bulk of this live recording Murphy covered on his 2004 release, Bop for Miles (Highnote). Recorded in 1990, this book remained with Murphy a longtime. His reprise of this material here is exemplary. "Milestones" and "On The Red Clay" are standouts with Murphy scatting to very great effect.

Theo Bleckmann
Elegy
ECM
2016

There is an enormous creative expanse between Las Vegas Rhapsody: The Night They Invented Champagne (Winter & Winter, 2006) and Twelve Songs by Charles Ives (Winter & Winter, 2008). And, this represents the most conservative of New York vocalist Theo Bleckmann's impressive output. This forays into wordless song and pure vocal expression push the realm of possibility. His recent recordings with pianist Julia Hulsmann: A Clear Midnight -Weill and America (ECM, 2015) shows Bleckmann digging deep and into a dense heritage while his ECM work with his closest performance peer, Meredith Monk: Impermanence (2008) and Mercy (2008) demonstrates that Bleckmann is equally committed to the experimental. Both of these spirits exist on the singer's ECM debut as a leader, Elegy.

Uncompromising in scope and delivery, Elegy is Bleckmann's homage to the wordless song and lofty sonics. Sonically, speaking, Bleckmann and ECM creator/producer Manfred Eicher are of one mind and one soul. This sound typifies that which has become known as the ECM sound. Bleckmann achieves this sound perfectly when fully accompanied by guitarist Ben Monder, with whom Bleckman recorded At Night (Songline Recordings, 2007) and interacted with in other settings. "Cortege" is a highlight. Pianist Shia Maestro plays over-the-top with his minimalist-quietly delicate approach (hear this on "Take My Life"). Bleckmann is fully established as the most artistic of jazz singers, if he can even be described as such.

Gregory Porter
Live in Berlin
Eagle Vision
2016

Gregory Porter has been on a fast track since his debut in 2010 with Water (Motema). He followed water with Be Good (Motema, 2012), Liquid Spirit (Blue Note, 2013), and Take Me to the Alley (Blue Note, 2016). Eagle Vision has released a live performance by Porter, presented in Berlin, may 18, 2016 at the Philharmonie Berlin. The resulting 2-CD set (with DVD) offers a fine representation of Porter's successful career to day. Supported by a saxophone fronted, quartet, Porter spins his most successful and accessible brand of adult contemporary jazz, perhaps the best representation of the genre.

Porter dispatches his better-known pieces with a piquant grace. "Holding On," "Take me to the Alley," and "Liquid Spirit," all are dynamically and dramatically presented. When Porter covers material, such as Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" or the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" he does so with gusto. Brio, that is how to describe Porter's overflowing, ebullient singing. He blows up Nate Adderley's "Work Song" among a Emanuel Harrold drum solo and completely tears off Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) coupled with "Free" from Liquid Spirit. Porter is a one of those artists who make it all sound easy. His quartet is crack and sharp and the concert is well-captured and mastered. This is a fun and exciting performance of what the future of one corner of jazz vocals looks (and sounds!) like.

Jimmy Scott
I Go Back Home: A Story About Hope and Dreaming
River Recordings
2016

Jimmy Scott, what a story. Touching the era of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, Scott's career as a leader did not start until 1992 with his recording, All the Way (Sire). He made up for lost time with nine more recordings, ending in 2004. The present recording was made in 2009 and was the brainchild of Scott and German producer Ralf Kemper. The mixes were produced by Phil Ramone. Scott shares the vocal stage with Dee Dee Bridgewater, Renee Olstead, and oddly enough, Joe Pesci, who is actually quite acceptable (though he would not have been my choice for a duet partner for Scott). Scott's coupling with musicians is far more effective: a staggeringly beautiful "Motherless Child" with organist Joey DeFrancesco, a sweetly Latin "Love Letters" with guitarist Oscar Castro Neves and harmonical player Gregoire Maret, and a pressing "Everybody is Somebody's Fool" with tenor saxophonist James Moody are all full of life and love.

It was the voice after all, that made Jimmy Scott so special. High and pure, well-balanced and singular. Nature played a trick on Scott, enabling him to sing like an angel at the expense of never growing up. Scott was born with Kallmann syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that prevented Scott from reaching puberty, depressing his height to four feet eleven inches until is late 30s, when he grew eight inches. It left him with effectively a jazz castrato's voice. And he knew how to use that voice. Scott's phrasing was hip and spot on, even on this late recording. But therein lies the rub. Scott was in poor health when these recordings were made and his voice bore the strain of his age and condition. That said, this music had to be made, Scott's beautiful treble cushioned on strings, full of courage and desire. This recording works in the same way that Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin (Columbia, ) works.

Branford Marsalis Quartet with Special Guest Kurt Elling
Upward Spiral
Okeh Records
2016

It is doubtless that I am one of the more conservative writers at AJJ (which is funny, because culturally and socially, I am one commie pinko). That said, my colleague and nearest soulmate in these electrons, Dan Bilawsky, beat me by a mile to reviewing this very finely conceived and realized recording, applying his typically delicate and informative touch to describing this meet-me-at-the-crossroads recording. Dan said,

"Whether on or off the bandstand, Marsalis doesn't mince words or ideas. Due to that fact, few vocalists are really up to the challenge of entering his orbit and thriving in such a climate. In Elling, however, Marsalis has found one who's every bit his match. The saxophonist and his quartet mates are able to telescope focus toward Elling's warm, strong, and pliant voice, and Elling is able to accentuate the inherently melodic and lyrical qualities in this group's work."

I don't know about the competitive spirit inferred here, but I do not that lesser talents could not have accomplished what is Upward Spiral. In this quartet/quintet recording (depending on how one sees the vocalist), Elling holds equal sway in the overall mix. Elling and Marsalis are two powerful and very different personalities that work synergistically to produce one of the finest recordings of the last year. Class, Grace, Aplomb, and Elan...these useless words might begin to reflect how fine this recording is.

Whether straight-ahead or experimental, pushing-the-envelope, this music is carefully considered and executed. The two masters did not get together and decide to drink a few beers and record a '60s-era Blue Note "Blowing Session." No. This is a piece of art that builds on the strengths of the components. I will point out the older pieces, a chipper "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' From New York," an elegant "Blue Gardenia," and a tone-perfect "Doxy" stand knee-to-knee with a sublime reading of Sting's "Practical Arrangement." That Elling replaces the late Mark Murphy at the male jazz vocalist is no surprise. "I'm a Fool to Want You" demonstrates accurate simpatico. Improve on that.

Marsalis and Co.? Well, he proves and equal soloist and a vocal accompanist beyond compare. The approach of congruence taken here between instrumentalist and vocalist sets a new standard in the relationship between the two arts. Whether soprano or tenor saxophone, Marsalis proves potent and provocative. I must wonder is we mere listeners are worthy of this music. But then, that is secular Grace, isn't it?

Ron Boustead
Unlikely Valentine
Art Rock Music
2017

Pittsburgh-native Ron Boustead is one of those singers whose career has been on simmer for the past 40 years. Regionally recognized, Boustead's talent is of the type deserves greater recognition. On Unlikely Valentine, the singer mixes originals with standards—some he reworked, some he left alone. His band backing is full-bore with a full horn section and a Hammond B-3. And who is on that B-3? Bill Cunliffe. Who is holding the tenor chair? Bob Sheppard. Well, that is a good start. Boustead kills on "Love Potion #9" and swings "Autumn Leaves" into a nosebleed. He may be best in the hard bop "Along Came Betty." We are wanting for male jazz vocalists to step up and it is time to hear more from Ron Boustead.

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