Vocalize Jazz!: New Jazz Vocal Releases

By Brian L. Knight

Jazz is always associated with instrumentals. With names like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Herbie Hancock dominating the idiom’s lexicon, it is not difficult to understand why. What is forgotten is that jazz finds its roots in singing. Without the vocal tradition that was initiated with the blues, jazz would have little foundation to stand on. In addition, during jazz’s earliest days, when the likes of Louis Armstrong were the big deal, vocals were an integral component of the jazz style. It was only during the post war era, and the subsequent advent of be-bop, that jazz lost its singing qualities. The Vermont Review will now embark on a quick mini-tour that highlights some of the best new releases that look at jazz from a lyrical point of view.


Mel Torme /The Best of the Concord Years

Mel Torme’s involvement with music and entertainment spanned close to seventy years – he first started singing during the late 1920s in Chicago at the age of four and continued performing right up till his death in the summer of 1999. Torme’s career included recording over sixty albums and singing with legends like Bing Crosby, Barbara Streisand and Artie Shaw. Many say that his voice reached a pinnacle during his later years as a recording artist for Concord Records. To prove the point, Concord released a 2 CD set consisting of 28 tunes that Torme recorded with the California label from 1982-1996. Many recordings feature longtime friend and pianist George Shearing who Torme first joined up with during the 1950s and they stayed together throughout the 1980s. Together the team up for classic songs like "Lullaby of Birdland" and "Stardust". For some tunes, like Mercer Ellington’s "This Time The Dreams On Me" was simply a duet between the two while "Day In-Day Out" and "Your Driving Me Crazy" featured a full blown orchestra. The album also features two Medleys – "New York Medley" and "Ellington Medley". The first features popular "New York" tunes like "Mack the Knife" while the latter was a fine collection of Duke’s best. Torme could do it all – swing with the best, croon a sweet ballad and provide a cool interpretation of a pop song and concord has it all in one package.


Rosemary Clooney/Songs from the Girl Singer – A Musical Biography

Like Mel Torme, singer Rosemary Clooney has had a long and illustrious career that spanned multiple decades and numerous duets with other famous singers. The Kentucky born Clooney first started singing at age 13 with her sister Betty in Cincinnati during the 1940s and during the 1950s, she was recruited individually by Columbia Records. In the 1970s, she joined Concord Records where she ended up recording 27 albums. In 1999, Clooney wrote an autobiography called Girl Singer and in the same year, Concord Records released a 2 CD accompanying retrospective that covers the entire career of the still active Clooney. The first track is 1946’s "Sooner or Later" which is her first recording from when she was age 17. There is also a one minute excerpt from "Straighten Up and Fly Right" , the song that Rosemary and Betty Clooney auditioned for the Tony Pastor band with. There is "Peach Tree Street", a 1951 Columbia recording featuring Frank Sinatra. There are other duets such as "On A Slow Boat to China" with Bing Crosby; "You’re Just In Love" with her then husband Jose Ferrer; a 1997 duet with her niece, Cathi Campo, for "The Coffee Song"; and her 1954 reunion with sister Betty on the appropriately titled tune "Sisters". Other album highlights including a lyric-less collaboration with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on 1956’s "Blue Rose" and a cover of James Taylor’s "Secret of Life" from her 70th Birthday celebration.


Michael Feinstein with the Maynard Ferguson Big Band/Big City Rhythms

Singer Michael Feinstein may be a relative new gun in the jazz world, but his heart and soul belongs with the veterans. Ever since Feinstein's arrival in the Mid 1970s, Feinstein has focussed his singing prowess on the classic tunes of the 1930s to 1950s. Feinstein gained most of his popularity by playing in clubs and hotels in the Los Angeles area but has now achieved greater fame with his collaboration with the big band of noted trumpeter and flugelhorn player, Maynard Ferguson. Ferguson, who first entered the jazz scene during the early 1950s as part of Stan Kenton’s Innovations Orchestra, has recently returned to the big band format that originally provided him with fame. Together, they trade off robust vocals and solos on sixteen different originals and classic covers. The album opens with a version of Bernice Peltkere’s "Close Your Eyes" which has seen beautiful instrumental interpretations by Oscar Peterson, Pat Martino and Coleman Hawkins in the past as well as vocal renditions by Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald. In the past, the tune has appealed to both the singers and the players, and this version is a great example of the two approaches coming together. Other great tunes are "Johnny One Note" from the musical Babes in Arms by Rodgers and Hart and Feinstein’s own "Rhythm of the Blues" and "Swing is Back in Style".


Carmen McRae / Ballad Essentials

Carmen McRae’s involvement in music covered four decades in which her unique jazz vocals set her apart from most of her contemporaries. The one defining characteristic was competency with singing a ballad. Her soft yet uniquely accented voice gave a song a whole new life. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, McCrae sang ballads with noted pianists Les McCann and David Brubeck as well as playing piano herself. During the 1980s, McCrae signed to the Concord label and in 1999, the company released the best of her ballads from those years. Like Mel Torme, McRae joined up with pianist George Shearing for some wonderful duets like Bing Crosby’s "I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You", "More Than You Know" (a tune popularized by Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Dinah Washington), and Alan Jay Lerner’s "Too Late Now". These songs arrived from their 1980 album together Two for the Road. Three tunes – "These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You", "It Will Have To Do", and "Fine and Mellow" – come from a 1987 live date at Birdland West with Hammond B-3 organist Jack McDuff. McDuff’s band is augmented by the guitar work of Phil Upchurch and tenor saxophonist Red Halloway. The remaining recordings arrive from a 192 recording session with vibist Carl Tjader ("The Visit", and "Besame Mucho") and 1983 Nat King Cole Tribute ("Come In out of the Rain" and You’re Looking At Me"). As one would expect from a collection of jazz ballads from Carmen McRae, the songs are soft subtle and enjoyable.


Kitty Brazelton’s Dadadah/ Love Not Love Lust Not Lust (Buzz Records, 1999)

While Mel Torme, Carmen McRae, Rosemary Clooney and Michael Feinstein represent the old school of jazz , then New York City’s Kitty Brazelton is the relentless visionary. Ever since launching onto the music scene in the acid rock band Phaedra in 1970, Brazelton has been involved in numerous musical projects that continuously push Brazelton to the top of the creative pack. She has composed countless works for the theater and opera, she has written pieces for brass, reeds and percussion and she has worked with chamber choirs, large ensembles, and rock and roll bands. Her latest effort is Dadadah, which is an experimental fusion band that combines elements of the avant-garde, chamber music and hard rock. Brazelton composed all of the Nonet’s complex songs as well as wrote the lyrics. On top of that, she sings all the songs on their release Love Not Love, Lust Not Lust. The end result is a punk-free-jazz-pop sound that puts Dadadah all by themselves. The band’s name arrived from many components from her life – the sound of a horn fanfare(dadada), the nickname of her great-grandmother (dadah) and from her favorite artist Jean Arp, who was a Dadaist. The music of Dadadah is called "comprovisational" as the extremely eclectic and experimental sounds constantly bridge the gap between total all out improv and complexly structured tunes. The music of Dadadah is so diverse that the band can get gigs at both the experimental jazz bastion of the Knitting Factory and the punk Mecca of CBGBs. Just like the venues suggest, Dadadah combine jazz-rock, art-rock and free jazz and completely define being categorized.


Carri Coltrane/ The First Time (Accurate Records, 1999 www.acuraterecords.com)

No, Carri Coltrane is not the long lost daughter to the great saxophone player, but she is a musician that possesses equal skill and fervor. Instead of using a range of saxophones, Carri Coltrane uses the range of her vocals for the 1999 re-release of The First Time. Born Carri Thompson, Coltrane collaborates with producer/lyricist Eugene McDaniels on The First Time, who provides words to popular Miles Davis tunes "Blue In Green" and "Freddie Freeloader" and five other non-Davis songs. McDaniels is also known for providing vocals and arrangements for both Les McCann and Roberta Flack. Just as McCann and Flack cover the spectrum between pop and jazz, so does The First Time. Coltrane herself writes the words and music to "Love Me Where I Live" and provides words to two of the remaining tunes. Overall, it is Coltrane’s voice that sets the mood for the album and brings the listener right into a smoky lounge through her sultry voice. Besides her powerful interpretations of two of his tunes, the Miles Davis is felt even further with the presence of longtime Davis bassist, Ron Carter, throughout the album.


Teri Thornton/ I’ll Be Easy To Find (Verve Records, 1999)

"The sound was full, rich, deep, rangy, powerful and simply gorgeous, but that was juts part of it. Her phrasing was so emotional and compelling that I started to cry. I was embarrassed until I looked around the room and realized that everyone’s eyes and ears were hanging one very notes, sitting riveted…" These are the words that producer Suzi Reynolds wrote in the liner notes for Teri Thornton’s 1999 album, I’ll Be Easy To Find, to describe the first time that she heard Ms. Thornton perform. Since that performance, little has changed as Ms. Thornton is still able to enthrall listeners with her captivating voice. On I’ll Be Easy To Find, one will discover twelve amazingly done songs such as Thornton's own "Wishing Well" which Thornton says "gives evidence to my appreciation of James Brown and his rock solid groove, screaming all the way" and her heartfelt title track tribute to Johnny Mathis. As Suzi Reynolds said in the quote, Thornton had a gift for being able to communicate with the audience and that gift is shown on three tunes – "Somewhere in the Night", "I Believe In You" and "Where Are You Running?" which Thornton describes as tunes that "are now vehicles through which I can share my life experiences with my audiences." Reynolds sums up the magnitude of this album best: " It is her time to stand among the true originals who came before her, each of whom recognized her as one of them – Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Dinah Washington, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole and Cannonball Adderley. Teri felt said she felt each of then tap her on the shoulder during the making of this record and if you will listen closely, you’ll know when."

This was just a quick sampling of jazz singing. If you are looking for more, there is always Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Diane Krall, Kurt Elling and Owen Bloedow to try out as well.