Until recently, the jazz establishment looked upon singers as stepchildren. Instrumentalists and critics (mostly males) regarded vocalists (mostly females) as entertainers rather than artists, ornaments to dress up the bandstand. Only those who demonstrated that they could swing and improvise as fluently as instrumentalists were accepted as peers. Historically, the great jazz singers—Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Sheila Jordan—were initially championed by musicians, who then brought them to the attention of reviewers, club owners, and record companies.

Jazz singing has enjoyed an upsurge in popularity over the past decade. Major labels, eager to cash in, have launched media blitzes to create overnight jazz-oriented vocal stars. Singer-pianists Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall, whose recordings currently dominate jazz sales charts, trade on looks as much as talent. Prominently featured on talk shows and in magazine photo spreads, they have become pop icons as well as concert attractions. Musicians, however, have not embraced their work with much enthusiasm. Ask jazz instrumentalists to identify the upcoming singers they admire, and you’re likely to hear some unfamiliar names, artists who record for obscure independent labels and, as yet, are known only by insiders.

Dena DeRose, whose second CD, Another World, has just been released by Sharp Nine, became a singer by accident. A native of Binghamton, N.Y., DeRose studied classical piano and organ in her teens, then shifted her focus to jazz in college. She had begun to establish herself as an instrumentalist when problems with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis required several operations and derailed her career. One night, with her arm in a cast, she sat in as a singer with her piano teacher’s trio. The audience responded so favorably that she continued to perform as a vocalist for nearly two years. As she began recovering from her surgeries, she returned to the keyboard, initially supplementing her voice with spare chords. By the time she had regained full digital dexterity, singing had become an integral part of her creative vocabulary. As she commented in a recent interview, “It completely changed my piano playing, having sung for those years. I had never, ever listened to the words of any of those tunes. So it changed my whole concept of playing. It helped with the story, with the mood, and the whole interpretation and everything.”

In the past, most jazz singer-pianists have emphasized one or the other of their talents. Carmen McRae and Jeri Southern occasionally accompanied themselves; Barbara Carroll and Joyce Collins spiked their instrumental sets with a few vocals. Another World establishes DeRose as a member of that exclusive company of musicians (notably Nat Cole, Blossom Dearie, and Shirley Horn) able to sing and play piano with equal distinction.

DeRose’s music intriguingly fuses traditional and contemporary influences. With two exceptions—her original “Don’t Go” and Rob Bargad’s melancholy title composition—she chooses familiar standards: “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “More Than You Know,” and “In the Wee Small Hours.” She unpretentiously, and rather coolly, delivers lyrics in a high, clear, vibrato-free voice, with only slight embellishments, largely restricting improvisation to her keyboard solos. In these, and on two instrumental tracks, Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly” and Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not,” DeRose combines the harmonic sophistication of Marian McPartland and Bill Evans with a percussive attack reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal and Chick Corea.

Another World finds DeRose exploring an assortment of instrumental combinations, ranging from a touching voice-and-piano “You’ve Changed,” to piano trio performances, to sextet ensembles featuring trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Steve Wilson, and trombonist Steve Davis. “Spring Is Here,” the longest and most impressive track, begins with an assortment of mysterioso dissonances and percussion effects as a prelude to DeRose’s crisp, no-nonsense presentation of the Rodgers & Hart song. Several inspired, Latin-tinged piano choruses follow, building to spirited trumpet and trombone solos. DeRose then sings a second vocal chorus before the track dissolves into the abstract sounds from which it emerged. As a coda, producers Marc Edelman and Ken Mirsky append several seconds of DeRose and the musicians chuckling with deserved satisfaction over the music they’ve just created. It’s hard to resist joining them.

“Since I’ve been influenced as much by instrumentalists as singers, it never dawned on me that I didn’t have that same freedom,” says Detroit-born Carla Cook. Her debut CD, It’s All About Love, blends free-wheeling vocal improvisations with uncommon discipline, reflecting her roots in gospel singing and classical music. It would be difficult to name a contemporary jazz singer with an instrument as arresting as Cook’s rich, warm voice, or one with such meticulous intonation.

Now based in New York, Cook has worked in a variety of musical contexts, including big bands (Lionel Hampton, George Gee’s Make Believe Ballroom Orchestra) and trailblazing jazz ensembles (ESP, composed of former Miles Davis sidemen, and trombonist Craig Harris’ Nation of Imagination). Kids have heard her voice on the Sony PlayStation game Parappa the Rapper II.

It’s All About Love showcases Cook’s versatility. The album’s repertoire encompasses a broad range of material: standards, jazz compositions, contemporary pop songs, and originals, as well as a Brazilian piece and a spiritual. On eight of the 11 tracks, Cook performs with small groups led by powerhouse pianist Cyrus Chestnut, the Oscar Peterson of the current generation of keyboardists. On the remaining cuts, the accomplished but less virtuosic Andy Milne spells Chestnut at the piano.

The CD kicks off by juxtaposing jazz and Motown compositions—”Until I Met You,” a deftly swinging adaptation of the Count Basie signature instrumental, “Corner Pocket,” and a soulful reading of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Inner City Blues.” Next come the album’s highlights: an uptempo version of “The Way You Look Tonight” with an extended, thoughtfully structured scat interlude, and a tender “September Song” sparked by guest artist Regina Carter’s swooningly romantic violin obbligatos. Cook then proceeds to display additional facets of her talent, singing in Portuguese on Milton Nascimento’s “Cancao do Sal” and providing her own overdubbed choral backing on the reverent “Hold On to God’s Unchanging Hand.” The album’s only minor blemishes are Cook’s trite all-you-need-is-love lyric on her title composition, her repetitious lite-funk cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” and her inexplicable decision to take the achingly poignant “These Foolish Things” at an inappropriately bouncy clip.

MaxJazz, a new St. Louis-based label specializing in jazz vocalists, presents Cook’s album in a handsome foldout package and includes a seven-minute CD-ROM video of an alternate-take studio performance of “The Way You Look Tonight.” Watching this gifted young woman scat, to the beaming delight of bassist Darryl Hall, on your computer monitor is the next best thing to hiring her for an intimate musicale in your living room.

Ruth Cameron has been afforded the privilege of releasing her debut CD on Polygram’s Emarcy label. Those still wondering whether there’s any justice left in the world need look no further than her gruesome First Songs.

Cameron’s maiden effort arrives with all the trappings of a notable event: backing by a trio featuring poll-winning bassist Charlie Haden; fawning liner notes by talented West Coast vocalist Sue Raney; and Cameron’s dedication of the project to her late “mentor,” the gifted Jeri Southern. But closer examination sets off some warning signals. The seven-song album runs less than 26 minutes, and Haden, who co-produced the CD with Cameron, turns out to be the would-be vocalist’s spouse.

These ominous signs fail to prepare listeners for Cameron’s agonizing pitch problems and aphasic delivery of lyrics. Her slipshod intonation should preclude her from singing in any venue more public than a shower stall, and her lack of breath control forces her to fragment lyric lines into units as small as a single syllable. One can only conclude that Polygram agreed to release this less-than-amateur effort as a concession to Haden, one of Polygram/Verve’s best-selling artists.

First Songs provides proof that love can be deaf as well as blind. It might well be retitled Last Songs, for I doubt that we will be subjected to further recordings by Mrs. Haden. In a photograph on the back of the CD booklet, Cameron appears to be smirking as though she has just pulled a fast one. Indeed she has. CP