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Eclectic singers often get lost in the cracks separating musical genres. Record labels don’t know how to promote them. Retailers can’t figure out whether to store their CDs in pop, jazz, cabaret, folk, or (shudder) easy-listening bins. Club and concert bookers have difficulty finding appropriate venues for their live performances. Newspaper and magazine reviewers toss these artists around like beanbags, reluctant to poach on each other’s turf. The late Eva Cassidy’s career was hampered by her versatility; her multifarious repertoire, which encompassed soul, jazz, blues, folk, standards, and gospel, perplexed merchandisers who recognized her talent but lacked the ingenuity to come up with a plan to promote it. Cassidy’s death early last month made me think about some other singers whose work defies easy categorization.
Baby Jane Dexter is not an acquired taste. If you don’t immediately respond to her raw, passionate, in-your-face singing, you’re never going to get her message. The just-released Big, Bad & Blue—Live!, a 14-song recital taped in May at Eighty Eight’s in Manhattan, where she has been appearing for over a year, captures Dexter in peak form. Backed only by Ross Patterson’s hard-driving piano and occasional vocals, she explores the full spectrum of emotions with an intensity that few vocalists dare.
Abbey Lincoln’s “Painted Lady,” a song depicting what it’s like to expose one’s deepest feelings on stage, segues into the gospel standard “(I’m Going to) Live the Life I Sing About in My Song,” establishing the confessional tone of what follows. Dexter has programmed her performance as a study in contrasts. The assertive “Do Right Woman” is juxtaposed with “Throw It Away” another Lincoln composition exploring the paradoxical nature of love. A trio of songs about loneliness, indifference, and humiliation (“Take a Look,” “One Meat Ball,” and “Wish Somebody Would Care”) prefaces another trilogy expressing bitterness and outrage (“Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” “Damn Your Eyes,” and “Dirty Man”). Catharsis and self-affirmation arrive in the final selections—the wistful Ellington-Strayhorn “Something to Live For,” Eric Hansen’s “Big Bodied Woman,” and a breathtaking encore, “More.” Weaving a new melody over the song’s chords and interpreting its lyric with exquisite conviction, Dexter transforms this canned-marinara-sauce-and-overcooked-spaghetti war horse into a heartfelt profession of devotion.
Although Dexter occasionally slips into mannerisms she’d be wise to eschew—affecting a “black” sound, unleashing a wide tremolo—her fearless, naked interpretations are stirring and, at times, overwhelming. Like vocalists as varied as Sheila Jordan, Marianne Faithfull, and Little Jimmy Scott, she sings as though her existence depends on it, as indeed it probably does. By turns angry, frivolous, defiant, despairing, and tender, Big, Bad & Blue—Live! is what communication is all about. Released on a small, upstart label, the CD should be appearing in local shops soon. If you’re too impatient to wait, it can be obtained by calling toll-free 1-888-666-DIVA.
Singer-pianist-composer William Roy’s career began in the 1940s, when as a child performer he appeared on radio (The Green Hornet), acted in movies (The Corn Is Green, Passage to Marseilles), and dubbed Joan Fontaine’s singing in The Constant Nymph. When his voice changed, he established himself as an accompanist (Sylvia Syms, Margaret Whiting, Rosemary Clooney, and for the past decade, cabaret chanteuse Julie Wilson), composer (the short-lived 1951 Broadway musical Maggie), and musical director of Julius Monk’s breezy revues at Manhattan’s Upstairs at the Downstairs. He resumed singing in the mid-’70s and in 1985 recorded his first (and to date, only) vocal album, When I Sing Alone. Audiophile has coaxed Roy back to the studio to record an additional six songs for the CD version of this unjustly overlooked collection.
Roy discriminatingly hand-picks his repertoire from a variety of sources: evergreens (the 1916 “Poor Butterfly”), Broadway scores (Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Sondheim, Kander and Ebb), Hollywood movies (the sprightly Richard Whiting-Johnny Mercer “Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?”), and the catalogs of other singer-songwriters (Dave Frishberg, Peter Allen), topping off the melange with four of his own compositions. He delivers lyrics with subtlety and insight, underscoring but never overselling their content, and his orchestral piano settings are thoughtful and harmonically elegant. His voice, like that of his frequent collaborator Wilson, isn’t a lustrous instrument, but he employs it with such sensitivity that even familiar songs shimmer with fresh meaning. On the more recent tracks, his singing is huskier and a bit less assured, which only enhances the vulnerability of his interpretations. Roy’s performances are so consistently polished it’s difficult to single out the CD’s highlights. At the moment, I’m partial to Kander and Ebb’s self-assertive “My Own Best Friend,” Frishberg’s satirical “Another Song About Paris,” and, above all, Roy’s own title song, which offers a privileged glimpse of the soul behind the performer’s mask.
Roy also appears, as piano soloist and accompanist, on the first aboveground release of a collector’s item, Cole Porter: Sung by Hubbell Pierce, Played by William Roy. The late Pierce was something of a Renaissance man: In addition to performing in European and American nightclubs, he designed clothes for Jacques Fath, illustrated children’s books, created collages for Tiffany’s windows, and marketed his own line of wallpapers. In 1973, to celebrate his 50th birthday, he recorded 10 obscure Porter songs and pressed a limited edition LP, which he circulated among his friends. Audiophile has just reissued the album, augmented by five new Roy instrumental tracks of Porter compositions.
Roy’s lyrical renditions of Porter’s soaring melodies (“Dream Dancing,” “All Through the Night”) prove that his music remains as fresh as ever. But Porter’s lyrics haven’t aged as well as those of other Golden Age American songwriters. His effete naughtiness about sexual matters sounds sniggery in our unbridled era; with a few exceptions (“I Concentrate on You,” “Easy to Love”), the sentiments expressed in his love songs seem hollowly extravagant; and the topical references in his celebrated “catalog songs” (Mabel Webb, Father Harkness, Park and Tilford) have grown so obscure one needs a social historian to footnote them. Nevertheless, the whiskey-voiced Pierce, a collector of first-edition sheet music, photographs, cigarette cases, and other Porterana, renders these lyrics with the chi-chi archness they deserve and, indeed, require. Listening to “Let’s Not Talk About Love,” “A Picture of Me Without You” and “My Cozy Little Corner in the Ritz” (“Where I wander each afternoon for tea/Cause I like to see the kings/And let the queens see me”), it’s difficult not to imagine yourself sipping a sidecar surrounded by decadent night creatures in an art deco penthouse.
In the mid-’50s, vocalist Barbara Lea made three memorable recordings (now available on CD), then abandoned singing for an acting career. In the late ’70s, she returned to music and has since recorded nearly a dozen collections of standards. Although favoring jazz accompaniment, she, like Rosemary Clooney and Jo Stafford, straightforwardly addresses her material with respect for melodies and lyrics. Fine and Dandy, her latest release, pays tribute to women songwriters. Backed by mainstream jazz pianist Keith Ingham, Lea interprets 19 songs spanning seven decades, including obscurities (African-American composer-lyricist Lily Strickland’s 1920 “Mah Lindy Lou,” Tot Seymour and Vee Lawnhurst’s 1937 “I’d Rather Call You Baby,” Lora Lee’s 1948 novelty tune “Pettin’ and Pokin’”) along with classics by lyricist Dorothy Fields (“Pick Yourself Up”) and composer Nancy Hamilton (“How High the Moon”).
Lea’s vocal production, inevitably, sounds more deliberate than it did four decades ago, and her approach to lyrics has always tended to be somewhat dry. She’s as much a music archivist as performer, unearthing long-forgotten verses and alternate sets of lyrics; the academic tone of her interpretations is underlined by Ingham’s fluent but rather chilly accompaniment. Fine and Dandy is unlikely to move you, but it offers a panoramic survey of the considerable contributions made by the dauntless women who managed to scale the walls of the men’s club of American songwriting. Lea’s witty, knowledgeable liner notes complement an informative and smoothly executed project.
Boston singer-pianist Paul Broadnax is another musician straddling the pop-jazz barricade. Here’s to Joe pays tribute to the great blues and ballad master Joe Williams. Backed by a jazz sextet augmented by French horn and a small string ensemble, Broadnax’s warm baritone caresses 13 songs associated with Williams, including “The Comeback” and “I Should Have Kissed Her More.” The result is an agreeable, middle-of-the-road CD that, unfortunately, suffers from its structural hook. Broadnax lacks Williams’ distinctive timbre and heartfelt approach to lyrics; although, in the liner notes, the veteran singer is quoted as saying, after hearing the album, “I feel like I’m passing the torch,” he risks no serious competition from his younger admirer. Pleasantly bland and polished, Here’s to Joe is unmemorable apart from Broadnax’s hilariously inappropriate version of Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s rueful ballad “I Only Miss Her (When I Think of Her),” which he inexplicably recasts as an up-tempo swinger complete with scat chorus.
Whatever his limitations, Broadnax has the taste and good sense not to imitate Williams’ style. Other singers aren’t as swift. In 1957, Marilyn Moore, then married to saxophonist Al Cohn, was so obsessed with Billie Holiday that she cut a controversial Bethlehem LP on which she sounded like Billie’s twin sister. A friend brought the album to Lady’s apartment and, while the singer was cooking dinner, slipped it on the turntable. Billie was heard to mutter from the kitchen, “If that ain’t me, she’s dead.”
It’s difficult to imagine the fury of Holiday’s reaction to Dreamland, the debut CD by singer-guitarist Madeleine Peyroux, a young performer who has been rapturously received by reviewers in Time and our own Morning Paper. With Rich Little precision, Peyroux apes the ’30s Holiday sound, and the result, particularly on Lady’s cynical classic “Getting Some Fun Out of Life,” goes beyond ludicrous to ghoulish. The effect is weirder when she does her Holiday impersonation on two Bessie Smith tunes, “Reckless Blues” and “Lovesick Blues,” and even Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” becomes a hillbilly holiday. Mysteriously, Lady’s specter is replaced by Edith Piaf’s on “La Vie en Rose” and Peyroux almost risks sounding like herself—which, at this early stage of her career, means nobody in particular—on her lackluster original title composition.
One wonders how Peyroux’s hip backup musicians—among them pianist Cyrus Chestnut, guitarist Marc Ribot, and trumpeter Marcus Printup—managed to keep from cracking up during the recording sessions, and how Atlantic, once the launching pad for uncompromising artists like Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin, and John Coltrane, summoned the temerity to foist the result on the public. Peyroux would be well advised to crawl into a crack and remain there until she exorcises the ghosts that possess her and forges an artistic identity of her own.