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Underwhelming Understatement: A Plea for Persona in Jazz Vocals


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Pleasant, hushed and solid could just as easily describe any experience but jazz is not just any genre. Most notable jazz singers have signature characteristics signifying something vivid and humane.
—Vincent Stephens
Are “subtlety” and “understatement” toxic characteristics? Such critics’ buzzwords are overshadowing the centrality of persona among jazz singers. Critics often use these terms to compliment and contrast thus it is critical gospel to contrast vocal say Diana Krall’s restraint with Diane Schuur’s vocal pyrotechnics. In jazz singing this is particularly pertinent in an era where reserve, restraint and cool become prime virtues of jazz or jazz-associated singers such as Diana Krall, Norah Jones, etc. That such terms often arise during periods where vocal overkill sets the rule at least partially explains the critical reputation of what I term the “subtle-ists.” Whether sipping flavored coffee in some corporate coffee shop or cruising to the beach, “subtle-ists” are always a delicate whisper away.

However whether “history” will imbue the “subtle-ists” with virtue is an open-ended question. Some of jazz’s finest singers, notably Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Lee Wiley, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn, established minimalist melodic, rhythmic and harmonic variations as tools for interpretation adding up to an unusually vivid sound and style. Whereas McRae’s sharp sense of humor, Holiday’s playfulness or Horn’s dramatic tone are central to their appeal, they feel quite apart from the “subtle-ists.”

Several years ago based on a positive review in Jazztimes I purchased Krall’s 2002 release Live in Paris. After years of hearing and reading about her I decided to check out the fuss. Positive reviews, coupled with the fact that the album is a de-facto greatest hits of her repertoire made it a sensible purchase. I listened to the album several times and found myself impressed by several of Krall’s adventurous piano improvisations especially on “S’ Wonderful” and the blues in “Devil May Care” were refreshing for such a seeming stiff. At the same time the vocals left me cold. Krall sings in tune and never oversells any of the material. In fact she’s quite earnest even when she is mildly swinging. But there is a difference between earnest an endearing. With Krall there is little in the way of personality, drama, humor or investment. Her singing evokes no sense of a real person but a professional musician more concerned with getting it right than touching your heart. She sounds so afraid to overdo it that her vocals always feel tentative and undercooked.

Much has been written about Krall aping Horn and McRae in spots, but I would suggest that the difference is the very lack of their devil-may-care attitude. McRae fully acknowledged the limitations of her voice and is still comparable to divas with greater range such as Sarah Vaughan because they are individualistic. Horn seems defiantly content about her status as the queen of hushed balladeers rather than a hard-swinging, flash scatting shouter. But what is Krall’s legacy? What does she have to offer her audience besides hushed, easy going versions of over familiar songs? The question is not competence or skill but jouissance. Chops without charm is fine for formalists but what about those who want to feel passion not just contentment? This spring Krall released her first collection featuring self-penned songs, The Girl in the Other Room and time will tell if an aesthetic identity arises from this development.

Interestingly the same Jazztimes issue reviewing Krall included reviews Patricia Barber’s Verse and Natalie Cole’s Ask A Woman Who Knows. The reviewer lauded Barber, a skillful composer and pianist, and lamented Cole’s lack of subtlety. Barber easily polarizes those simply who want lush standards or eye-popping scats by virtue of her observant tone, and even abstract explorations of human behavior, including romantic angst, pretentiousness and peculiar human behavior. Lest she sound too academic, Barber has a sense of humor but is challenging for those accustomed to standards recitals or virtuoso displays. Regardless she has a point of view; she stands for something and possesses an aesthetic she steadfastly adheres to. It is unclear what “subtle-ists” stands for beyond singing love songs. Again, romantic subject matter is not unworthy of exploring nor must one compose to convey a persona but it is the lack of persona most troubling about the “subtle-ists.”

Cole, whom the reviewer mostly damns with faint praise, is unusual being an uptown R&B singer with credible jazz chops. She can croon, swing and scat and though she seems less obviously a “musician” because she sings rather than plays and because she is so associated with R&B, she brings something extra. If Barber is an atypical jazz singer, Cole is no pop simpleton. Even if her records are prone to overkill as the reviewer claims she adds a touch of R&B sass and showbiz glamour to her records unashamedly embracing her status as a real singer and a genuine entertainer. Again, she is not for every taste but she invokes passion.

Controversy should hardly be criteria for establishing personality, but it is undeniable that headstrong iconoclasts like Barber and giddy entertainers like Cole tend to challenge listeners and expand the genre more than performers content to merely fall into a role. Norah Jones is the most prominent “subtle-ist” and she has inherited the role of “Crooner Jr.” Unlike junior crooners Michael Bublè and Peter Cincotti, who obviously conform to the Sinatra archetype, there is no clear blueprint for Jones whose sales and coverage are stupefying for a jazz-associated singer on a jazz label. She’s too young, folky and reliant on modern songs to be a Krall wannabe but too conservative to be confused with adventurous up-and-comers like Rachelle Ferrell. Her records have the subdued, folk minimalist ambiance of Cassandra Wilson but lack Wilson’s blues feeling. Synthesizing a variety of textures and conventions from jazz, pop, and folk and projecting an “old soul” aura in her sound and image she is as confusing as she is talented. Her indifference to commit makes her compelling in such a niche-oriented world but her place is in flux because unlike Wilson or Krall she seems indifferent in relation to jazz. Neither jazzchanteuse, pop tart or a crunchy folkie Norah often stands for No-Thing, a comfortable but increasingly soggy place given the lack of buzz around her sophomore album. Her next album may be her most crucial statement of commitment.

Both Krall and Jones sing pleasant material in hushed tones and play solid, even soulful piano but their subtlety cannot mask their emotional vapidity. Pleasant, hushed and solid could just as easily describe any experience but jazz is not just any genre. Most notable jazz singers have signature characteristics signifying something vivid and humane. Diane Schuur is a fervent firecracker with a tender side, Dee Dee Bridgewater abounds in sexual heat and dramatic energy, Dianne Reeves sings with warmth, wisdom and stunning virtuosity, etc. There is some element of risk, something at stake that seems to motivate these singers beyond a display of chops or good taste. Less obvious but no less passionate are Shirley Horn’s measured drama, Abbey Lincoln’s aesthetic of inspiration, Jimmy Scott’s pathos, and Kurt Elling’s daring. These singers are not afraid to make a “mistake” or wrinkle a few feathers; they seemed most focused on forwarding their art. Without humor, sex, charm, heat, warmth, adventure, subtlety and understatement don’t leave one with very much substance. It is premature to write off the “subtle-ists,” a class that also includes the Jo Stafford-esque Jane Monheit. But they should start seeking an identity, lest they veer into a space where only the devoted coterie of folks committed to the parenthetically understated become their cult.

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