Jazz - Sanitized, or A Tale of Three CDs
One thing I have noticed recently, is that a lot of music, new jazz that is, almost too clean, too pretty, and consequently, too cold, with little personality, and no rough edges. A lot of it is very classy, with great musicianship, perfect time/pitch, impeccable recording, but ultimately boring, lacks personality, and most often, any presence of the blues. This is nothing new, there has long been a tension between those who prefer the polished versus those who prefer the "raw" approach. It goes all the way back to Paul Whiteman! But today, it seems to be all over the place, and I don't see many people comment on it.
Perhaps it's just a product of modern production methods in the studio. (a disturbing trend is the move to make live club recordings sound like studio sessions, totally robbing them of the unique ambiance of live performance). Now, technology allows the musician to make the "perfect take" truly perfect. Maybe it's the product of the demise of the club circuit, and the rise of the "jazz studies" major at hundreds of universities. We always talk about the lack of "innovators" but more frightening to me, is the lack of true "personalities" in the music. Now this is not to say that there's many fine musicians, even young ones, who "get it", who can play the blues, aren't afraid to use their imagination and try something that might not work, and just let it go. But all too often, it's the opposite.
For example, take three new female vocal cds I got this week. CD #1 is by Tierney Sutton, on Telarc records, a live date a Birdland (though it's not billed as one) titled "I'm With the Band". Icy is the first word that comes to mind when asked to describe the record. She's very talented, very sophisticated, sometimes almost too clever, but about as far from "earthy" or "bluesy" as you can get. This is also one of those live recordings, made to sound like a studio session. To her credit, I do hear Tierney taking a few more chances vocally on this session than her studio albums, though it hardly ever sounds like they're having fun performing this material. Someone needs to give them a copy of one of Sarah Vaughan's live albums, a live Monk record or something to simply loosen up! It is hard to fault music for doing what the artist intended it to do, so I hesitate to say it's bad or incorrect in some way, but it's not my cup of tea. I'll play it, because people will want to hear it, it's not a BAD record (like so many we get) and because I realize my tastes are not the end all/be all of all jazz fans. But it's not a record I would spend my money on.
CD #2 is by 23 year old vocalist Sara Gazarek. It's her debut recording, produced by the estimable John Clayton (one of the most under appreciated figures in jazz and a real nice guy too) and recorded by the brilliant Al Schmitt. It's called "Yours" and is on the Native Language label. I first heard about Sara in a full page ad in Downbeat, and became intrigued seeing John's name involved with her project. It turns out Sara was the winner of a Downbeat award for outstanding collegiate vocalist (with USC), and then suddenly wound up on the William Morris roster, and touring with Dianne Schuur, Karrin Allyson via the Concord Jazz Festival, etc. Sara sings a mix of standards and jazz lite originals, in the Norah Jones/Jamie Cullum style, which sometime I like, sometimes I don't. In this case, the whole album falls into that dreaded never never land that is neither hot nor cold. It's swings reasonably well, Sara has a nice voice for a young woman, maybe richer than you would expect, her equally young band (I assume of USC students or recent grads as well) is nothing to write home about, but they're talented. I suppose it would be cliche to say that she hasn't "lived enough" to be a really remarkable singer, but for whatever reason, she lacks that "certain something" that makes you really respond to an exceptional singer like Shirley Horn, Dianne Reeves, Abbey Lincoln, etc. It's all very pretty, warmer but less daring than Tierney's cd. Vocally reminds me a lot of Karrin Allyson, but with a little richer, fuller voice. Her approach is more like Jane Monheit's but without the killer musicians Jane had on her first couple of records (Kenny Barron, David Newman, Ron Carter, Lewis Nash, etc). A couple of the songs she sings (Cheek to Cheek, Too Young to Go Steady) are also ones recorded by Jane. Again, there's little if any blues feeling or any rough edges, all very polished perfect and pretty, as that's what William Morris knows will sell. It'll probably be a pretty good seller. She's a lovely young lady, it'll probably get plenty of airplay on jazz radio, and with the heavyweight pr effort, will get good print exposure. Interestingly enough Sara says in the liner notes, in reference to her version of Too Young to Go Steady, "In any realm of existence - love, politics, music, and life in general, - age has no bearing on life experience." Some of course would beg to differ, but it certainly has a bearing on musicianship! Most of the time musicians make a record due to financial situations, and I'm not going to blame ANYONE for getting paid to make music and record jazz and follow their dream. Clearly this is a situation where a business chose to invest in an artist and in today's world, that's great. But it doesn't change the situation that more "seasoning" might be necessary in order for the artist in question to live up to the "vocal sensation" (just quoting the ad in Downbeat!) hype. But we all know to take the hype we read with a grain of salt. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice cd, but nice, is just, well, nice. Not great.
CD #3 is by SF Bay area vocalist Joyce Randolph. It's called "Just a Little Blue" and features two top bay area musicians, pianist Bill Bell and drummer Jeff Chambers. It doesn't have fancy packaging, or Al Schmitt running the controls, and was probably recorded, mixed, edited, mastered and duplicated on a budget smaller than one full page ad for Sara Gazarek's cd. But Joyce, who is probably about thirty years older than Sara, has one thing Sara doesn't - that's SOUL. Joyce brings to mind Carmen McRae, Etta Jones, Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson - she has that artistic poise, that use of space, and all the little vocal subtleties that Gazarek lacks, with the warmth and soul that evades Sutton's cd. It's an intimate project, just bass and piano, and has the casual yet profound improvised feel that is missing in these highly arranged, highly stylized, "look how clever I am" records that are all too common today. And she knows something about the BLUES!!! Her contribution of Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow" is great, no fake Lady Day stuff, but a profound knowledge of both the blues and her instrument, which is aged like a fine wine. Joyce Randolph is not a "girl singer" she's a woman, and is a real pro, and so are her fellow musicians. THIS is what jazz is about to me. This is not to say that it's without fault. Sometimes she uses more vibrato than I'm comfortable with, but so what? That's just my effort to find something to criticize. "Old Folks" is not an easy song to pull off, and Joyce does it beautifully, something I couldn't imagine a 23 year old doing. Just listen to her sing the line "At the old livery stable, whenever he's able, pitching shoes with lord knows who." She embellishes the "lord knows" line in a way that just oozes soul. Her voice has a subtle edge to it, like Carmen's did late in her career, perfect time and a great rapport with her fellow musicians. She turns in a great performance of Sophisticated Lady, a song we rarely hear the lyric to these days, likely because of its difficulty. Joyce Randolph knows what it means to be a jazz singer. Her record likely won't sell as many as the other two, won't get the kind of press the others get, but when it comes to really being an example of jazz singing at its best, she's it down. It's not slick, or overproduced, not cold or clever, and CERTAINLY not sanitized! It's jazz.