Accept the truth: The success of jazz in the marketplace is ultimately a booty thang. For example, when a jazz singer emerges with a sound that's moderately interesting, fine. But it's the look that really counts. That's what separates the big stars, dappled and diamond-studded, from dimmer lights.
Proof? Instead of listening, try looking at the jazz charts. In 2001, the bestselling CDs by singers were the un-ironically titled The Look of Love (Verve) by Diana Krall and Come Dream with Me (N-Coded Music) by Jane Monheit. Can either lady sing? Doesn't matter. Everybody's too busy going ga-ga over the twin "come-hither" goddesshead of Krall-Monheit--a Lady Clairol statuette dressed up in supermodel silk and a Wonderbra.
To be sure, both are beautiful young women. Check the fold-out airbrushed images contained within their respective CD booklets and you're surrounded by puffy lips, endless legs and perfectly mussed tresses. Is the public listening at all, I wonder, or merely sneaking the CDs under the pillow at night to inspire a lingerie-draped jazz fantasy?
Believe it or not, I do care whether Monheit and Krall can sing, and one can, while the other hasn't ... yet. According to writer Gary Giddins, "[Monheit] has the sort of large glowing voice, particularly bright in its upper reaches, that 30 years ago would have drawn her to 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore.'"
Hint: Giddins doesn't dig Jane Monheit.
Nor do I. In a world full of jazzy possibilities, Monheit's croon is characterized by anonymous tone and ho-hum phrasing. Like a fledgling actor reciting Shakespeare, she mouths the image-laden poetry of American popular song, but she doesn't inhabit its words, or fuel them with fire and brimstone. Wasting the support of world-class musicians who are more than willing to step it up and follow her anywhere, Dream lacks the spirit of adventure.
Krall, on the other hand, is a bona fide jazz singer, constantly exploring the elastic cadence of each phrase. A capable and playfully eccentric pianist, she's a born improviser and--as a vocalist--utterly unpredictable. At the age of 37, she's already placed an indelible sonic stamp upon the genre.
Sadly, The Look of Love is not her finest record, despite the delicious melancholy of veteran Claus Ogerman's string charts. All for You, her Verve debut, is better and 1999's When I Look in Your Eyes is better still. Twenty years from now, folks will seek out both of them--and not just for a cheap peek at Krall's spiked heels.
So what tops the 2001 10 Best in the jazz vocal category? Not the lackluster wax by the aforementioned pinups, but an intriguing disc that has nada to do with tangled fishnets and big hair.
Andy Bey--Tuesdays in Chinatown (N-Coded Music). Bodacious Bey is bald-headed. In lieu of a 'do, however, he possesses heaps of soul. Like Cassandra Wilson's groundbreaking Blue Light 'Til Dawn in '93, Bey's C-Town wiggles to an organic cadence of minimalist percussion and mahogany-toned acoustic guitars. The instrumentation varies slightly from cut to cut--add a clarinet, subtract Bey's bare-bones piano--yet the mood is unerringly exotic from start to finish.
Riding a tastefully understated repertoire that blends the global pop of Brazil's Milton Nascimento with good ol' American standards, Bey's delivery oozes the blues. His tone is sandpapered. He never rushes. The lyrics make sense because the listener believes that the singer understands every word. And Bey does.
Kurt Elling--Flirting with Twilight (Blue Note). Though this remarkable singer has chops that Pavarotti might envy, Elling performs with uncanny restraint on this disc, and that's exactly what this all-ballad program requires.
The disc frames burnt-orange sunsets that morph into ebony midnights. Elling's hypnotic nocturnes include, appropriately, "Moonlight Serenade," deftly transported from some Swing Era graveyard into the 21st century. Those who cherished the Glenn Miller standard in its original form will dig this resurrected version as well, with Elling eschewing easy sentimentality in favor of sophistication. And, perhaps for the first time, this song's thick harmonies and poignant storyline are allowed to move to the fore--an unforgettable rendition on an album that soars from Cut 1 to 12.
Lorraine Feather--New York City Drag (Rhombus). The daughter of late jazz critic Leonard Feather and godchild of Billie Holiday(!), Feather refurbishes the sprightly piano rags of Thomas "Fats" Waller with her own thoroughly modern words. Imagine an Off-B'way cabaret gig starring pianists Dick Hyman and Mike Lang as Fats' fingers and Feather as the voice, comedian and master of ceremonies. The summation: Jazz as adrenaline rush. Visit lorrainefeather.com for a nifty lyric sheet.
Mark Murphy--Links (HighNote). Wanna hear where Kurt Elling came from? MM is the original hipster, shooting off white-hot improvised poetry like a Kerouac hero come to life: ranting, careening, always swinging. Because he's such an unrepentant daredevil, not everything on the CD lands safely. One Murph' original, however, an exuberant jazz-samba titled "Breathing," exuberates like a blast of pure oxygen.
Lea DeLaria--Play It Cool (Warner Bros.). An incendiary new star and a contradiction, DeLaria's influences include Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman and David Clayton-Thomas--how's that for an un-holy trinity? Her sassy, trumpet-like delivery is a throwback to days gone by, but the inspired accompaniment by pianist Brad Mehldau and other young lions purrs with up-to-the-minute resonance.
Jimmy Scott--Over the Rainbow (Milestone). At age 76, this extraordinarily eclectic player is more prolific than any 20-something pretender you care to name. Since
his big comeback 15 years ago, Scott has been cranking out one funky CD after another. Like the rest of his recent discography, Rainbow is graced by tunes ranging from the familiar ("Pennies from Heaven") to blues numbers ("Everybody's Somebody's Fool") to shivering tributes ("Strange Fruit," for Billie Holiday).
Scott, whose tender rasp retains an eerily feminine quality, is an acquired taste. And everybody should acquire it.
Carol Sloane--I Never Went Away (HighNote). Like Mr. Scott, Ms. Sloane does not make bad records. This year's model is a quiet keeper that softly rings. Bill Easly's multi-reed tones and Paul Bollenback's bell-like guitar parts mimic a subdued horn section, but it's Sloane herself that provides the sparkle and surge. No lyric sheet necessary, because every syllable is understood. Capisce?
Billie Holiday--Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) (Columbia/Legacy). This is mecca, the holy place from which every other jazz singer springs. Along with the vintage vocal sides growled by Louis Armstrong, this 10-disc box set defines the art. For a retail price of $169.98, you get all the extras you'd would expect from a sonic Cadillac, including hardback cover with alligator grain(!), slick remastered sound and liner notes out the wazoo. No contest: Reissue of the year.
jazzsingers.com: This graphically hip Internet site is geared to both the neophyte and expert. Noteworthy features: a calendar where the singers themselves can post upcoming gigs; summaries of "the scene" in various U.S. cities; and--my fave--a comprehensive list of jazz Web pages (296 sites and counting) from Caudia Acuna to Nicole Yarling.
A special Top-10 award to singers Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, India.Arie, Angie Stone and Alicia Keys for smuggling a taste of jazz sensibility into the neo-soul mainstream. And what lies beyond the 10? Indy honorable-mention discs include Ballads--Remembering John Coltrane (Concord) by Karrin Allyson; Deja Blue (Koch) by Jeanie Bryson; Rio de Janeiro Blues (Telarc) by Freddy Cole; The Songs of Strayhorn (Love Productions) by Allan Harris; Carmen Sings Monk (BMG Bluebird reissue) by Carmen McRae; My Foolish Heart (Koch) by Rebecca Parris; and Brazilian Duos (Sunnyside) by Luciana Souza.