The ’90s are shaping up as a golden age of jazz singing. Vocalists neglected for decades—Shirley Horn, Jimmy Scott, Sheila Jordan, Mark Murphy, Nancy King, Bob Dorough, Carol Sloane—have finally attracted audiences worthy of their remarkable talents. Legions of new jazz voices have emerged over the past few years. Some gifted younger artists, notably Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, have won critical and popular acclaim; others—Diane Schuur, Holly Cole, John Pizzarelli, Diana Krall—have cultivated enthusiastic followings for reasons I find somewhat baffling.
Not since the late ’50s, when hundreds of recordings by jazz and jazz-oriented vocalists were issued annually, has there been such an explosion of new voices. Major labels and the larger independents are developing and promoting new artists of varying degrees of accom plishment—Nnenna Freelon, Vanessa Rubin, Kurt Elling, Jeanie Bryson, Kevin Mahogany, Laverne Butler, and the remarkable Rachelle Ferrell. Scores of equally (and often more) promising singers are recording for tiny labels whose resources are too limited to obtain advertising, widespread distribution, and prominent airplay. Here are a few who deserve your attention.
Big-voiced, hard-swinging Rebecca Parris has been singing for more than 20 years, but her work remains little known outside the Boston area. Her early recordings were not distributed beyond New England, and a brace of recent CDs on national labels, Spring and It’s Another Day, were overproduced, misguided attempts to position her as a crossover artist. With A Beautiful Friendship, Parris returns to her jazz roots, backed by fellow Bostonian Kenny Hadley’s vibrant 17-piece band. Like Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, the singers she most admires, Parris has the chops, musicianship, and authority to transform overworked standards like “With a Song in My Heart” and “Falling in Love With Love” into fresh, bold statements, and to stamp her personal monogram on lesser-known pieces like the poignant Lalo Schifrin/Gene Lees ballad “The Right to Love.” If you enjoy Count Basie’s collaborations with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, you’ll find A Beautiful Friendship very much to your liking.
Another New Englander, Shawnn Monteiro, makes an impressive debut with Visit Me. The Rhode Island-based singer, daughter of Duke Ellington bassist Jimmy Woode, and stepdaughter of pianist Nat Pierce, has a narrower expressive range than Parris, but she’s a subtle, relaxed vocalist with an appealing sound somewhat reminiscent of the much-missed McRae. Her refreshingly unhackneyed 10-song program showcases six breezy compositions by West Coast pianist/singer/composer Howlett Smith, including “The Grass Is Greener,” “Seven Days Till Spring,” and the title tune. Monteiro is backed by a first-rate quintet, featuring arrangements by fleet-fingered pianist John Harrison III, who also served as producer. Visit Me might not bowl you over on first hearing, but you’ll probably find yourself listening to it long after more flamboyant CDs have been consigned to deep storage.
England’s Norma Winstone characterizes her new release, Well Kept Secret, as “the most straight-ahead stuff I’ve ever done.” Ever since her career began in the ’60s, she’s concentrated on wordless singing with trail-blazing British musicians, notably the new-ageish trio Azimuth. Recently, her infatuation with pianist/composer Jimmy Rowles’ jazz standard “The Peacocks,” memorably recorded by Stan Getz, Bill Evans, and other instrumentalists, inspired her to write a poetic lyric for Rowles’ flowing, intricate melody. The celebrated pianist, who has accompanied and recorded with Ella, Sarah, Peggy Lee, and Billie Holiday, approved the lyric and agreed to Winstone’s suggestion that they make an album together. They have assembled 10 gems, ranging from rarely performed standards like the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields tune “I Dream Too Much” to jazz compositions by Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Clifford Brown. Winstone’s crystalline voice, pinpoint intonation, and refined musicianship are enhanced by Rowles’ spare, thoughtful accompaniment, Joe La Barbera’s fastidious drumming, and George Mraz’s sympathetic, rich-toned basswork. The exquisite voice-bass duet “It Amazes Me” is arguably the highlight of a program that is consistently rewarding. You might have to special-order this English import, but it’s well worth the patience and expense.
Rowles and Winstone’s composition provides the title for St. Louis-born Jeri Brown’s new CD, the first recording entirely devoted to vocal interpretations of Rowles’ songs. On A Timeless Place, Brown, who now resides in Nova Scotia, is backed by Rowles and bassist Eric Von Essen. Like Winstone, Brown is better-known for her wordless improvisations than more conventional singing. Although her dark, warm sound is appealing, her phrasing of lyrics is awkward, sometimes gauche, and her intonation frequently uncertain. No doubt Rowles’ admirers will relish owning a collection of his compositions, including four collaborations with lyricist Johnny Mercer, but Brown’s liabilities undermine the value of this ambitious project, and her weirdly deadpan delivery of “Fraser,” Mercer’s comic account of the amorous exploits of a geriatric lion, is something of an aberration. (Rowles aficionados should also look out for Lilac Time, a duo album with Von Essen, produced by flautist Herbie Mann. In this introspective 17- selection recital, the pianist’s austere, angular, piercingly intelligent style embraces an eclectic selection of material including two brief Ravel fragments, ’30s pop standards, swing and bebop tunes, movie and television themes, and three originals. He also raises his papery whiskey voice on several tracks, a self-indulgence that can be easily forgiven in light of the overall excellence of this intimate recital by one of the last surviving mainstream jazz giants.)
Saxophonist Ernie Krivda and singer Paula Owen take no prisoners on So Nice to Meet You, a free-wheeling program of uninhibited performances backed by pianist Joe Hunter and several bassists and drummers. Apart from two Owen originals, their repertoire is stale (“How High the Moon,” “Autumn Leaves”) and the singer badly needs a remedial course in lyric studies, but the energy and creativity of their interpretations make these lapses seem trivial. Krivda’s cascading solos combine a distinctive tone—something exceedingly rare in this neo-con era—with a keen appreciation of saxophone styles ranging from Coleman Hawkins to Charlie Parker to Sonny Rollins. Owen is a true jazz improviser, a vocal horn spinning out chorus after chorus of fertile melodic inventions with the brash, earthy confidence of Dinah Washington and Anita O’Day at their most inspired. So Nice to Meet You and the singer’s two previous Cadence Jazz recordings, are such nonpareil demonstrations of the art of jazz singing that it’s difficult to account for her continuing obscurity.
The daughter of trumpeter Bobby Bradford and singer/actress/songwriter Melba Joyce, Carmen Bradford learned her craft during a nine-year stint touring with Count Basie’s band. Her second CD, With Respect, provides the singer with intriguing material (songs by Marcus Valle, Chick Corea, Red Mitchell) and a stellar band sparked by pianist Cedar Walton, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, guitarist Dori Caymmi, and drummer Ralph Penland. A leather-lunged belter with faultless pitch and time that a Rolex watch might envy, Bradford’s major shortcoming is an excess of consistency. Perhaps as a consequence of so many years struggling to project her voice above Basie’s booting brass section, her steamroller style tends to make her diverse repertoire—ballads, bossa novas, blues, jazz originals, novelty tunes—sound interchangeable. Bradford needs to develop a subtler, more expressive range of dynamics and emotions to realize her full artistic potential.
Maryann Price has worked in a variety of musical contexts, most prominently as a lead voice in the irrepressible rock-jazz band Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, as well as briefer associations with the Kinks and the country band, Asleep at the Wheel. But her first love is jazz, which she vibrantly confirms on her first solo album, Etched in Swing. On this Texas-produced CD, her cool, clear, vibrato-free delivery illuminates an offbeat collection of feel-good tunes celebrating the pleasures of drinking, romance, and music-making. With its undercurrents of western swing and jump-band jive, this is a sunny, buoyant vocal collection in the nearly forgotten tradition of Nellie Lutcher, Martha Davis, and Ella Mae Morse. Price’s effervescent singing supplies a ginseng tonic for flagging spirits.
Katchie Cartwright’s Live at the Deer Head Inn was recorded at the Delaware Water Gap jazz club, a gathering place for the local musical community that includes Phil Woods and Bob Dorough, and the venue for memorable recordings by Keith Jarrett and John Coates Jr. Cartwright, who now resides in Manhattan, was raised in the Poconos and came home to record her first CD with a quintet featuring world-class bassist Cameron Brown, longtime Woods drummer Bill Goodwin, and her husband, saxophonist Richard Oppenheim. With the exception of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Cartwright draws her material from jazz sources—compositions by Dorough, Strayhorn, Parker, Ellington, Lee Morgan, Al Cohn, Jimmy Heath, and Charles Mingus. Although this repertoire risks pretentiousness and self-indulgence, Cartwright is an uncommonly disciplined, unaffected artist, scatting with accuracy and an impressive sense of structure on the vocalese selections, and addressing more traditional songs like “Just Squeeze Me” and “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” with disarming directness. Like the great Sheila Jordan, one of her major inspirations, Cartwright is a bebopper with an unexpected sense of humor, which she engagingly displays by encouraging the Deer Head audience to join her in a community-sing coda to Mingus’ daunting “Eclipse.”