The Jazz Singers: The Ultimate Guide

Jim Santella BY

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The Jazz Singers: The Ultimate Guide
Scott Yanow
Softcover; 280 pages
ISBN: 978-087930-825-4
Backbeat Books

Anyone ever asked you to list your favorite CDs for a desert island stayover? What would Tom Hanks and Wilson listen to if they had had the foresight to be prepared for their long vacation? The trouble with these desert island picks is that they can become out-of-date before they're even published. And that's the problem with Scott Yanow's book, which provides brief profiles of 521 great jazz singers.

Yanow started out with the idea that he'd tell the stories of 500 jazz singers. It's hard to do because, first, there are more than that and, second, who's to say which ones are really great? Go ahead. Try to draw the line. So, in separate chapters, the author provides another 198 jazz singers with mini-profiles, together with 55 noted musicians who sang in addition to playing an instrument, 30 jazz vocal groups, and the best of jazz singers on film.

In a smart move, Yanow defines three criteria for making the cut. A great jazz singer must have an interesting voice, a career that is significant to the jazz world, and the potential to be influential. He used his own CD reviews and in-person listening for a major part of the evaluations, did plenty of research, and received responses to his e-mail questionnaires from 300 of the 360 living singers written about.

There are problems with the book. The tiny print, the lack of an index and the subjective nature of Yanow's selection all deserve minor carps. On the plus side, the reference information provided for all the singers is of value. Black & white album cover photos also help the book considerably, and the author includes web site information as well as plenty of facts.

Many listeners would likely agree with Yanow's comment that Anita O'Day's Indestructible (Kayo Stereophonic, 2006) was not a good listen, and others that Rachelle Farrell goes over the top way too much. Foreign jazz singers from The Netherlands, Canada, Brazil, Austria and Scotland give the book a broad scope.

Yanow lists 30 of the greatest jazz singers in his introduction, along with the mention of Roberta Gambarini as the "best bet to enter the top 30 in the future."

Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Kurt Elling, Jon Hendricks and Carmen McRae make wise choices, although even here there is more than one opinion in the room. 521 is a large number, and many of those listed will be unknown to some readers.

There are some surprising omissions: Melba Joyce, Cris Barber, Sandra Booker, Jessica Molaskey, Frankie Laine and Aniya, to name a few. And there are quite a few profiles of singers who should probably never have been included. However, that's what makes Yanow's book interesting: there's controversy, there's reference material, and there is opinion.

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