One of my weekly highlights is reading Frank Bruni’s columns in the New York Times. Perceptive, compassionate, and good-humored he is a remarkable writer with a great ear for language and a sensible lens on social issues, especially education, religion, and politics. Recently I completed his 2009 memoir Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite, a memoir I purchased at Pomfret Street Books, a fabulous used bookstore in the south west quadrant of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
As someone who loves food and food memoirs, à la Ruth Reichl, I was really taken by Bruni’s ruminations on his lifelong struggle with food. Growing up in an Italian-American family where an abundance of lovingly prepared food was a sign of love, and hosting large family gatherings was a prestigious annual tradition fostered a love for food that haunted Bruni’s self-image and esteem. Toward the book’s end Bruni recalls how in his early 40s his family began to see him differently once he took control of his life including balancing diet and exercise more discreetly. In an especially lovely passage he describes his brother Harry’s impressive growth into an erudite, culturally engaged, sartorially refined person “contagious in his enthusiasms” (335).
I love this phrase; it stirred me to think about the ways we translate personal passions into something useful for other people. Music is just one of my many “enthusiasms,” but it figures quite heavily into my everyday life as a source of entertainment and as a structure of meaning. Despite several kind requests I have resisted writing about Prince’s life and death, and Beyonce’s Lemonade album recently because a lot has already been written, and I have other things on my mind. For many people summer is a more optimal time to explore and bore deeper into our passions. There’s something about a gleaming sun and warm breeze that stimulates us more: We read, we listen, we play, we experiment, we discover. This led me to think about sharing personal thoughts on music I deem “essential,” particularly to understanding popular music of our time as well as aspects of our natural culture and character. Bruni’s memoir led me to trace some steps in my musical (as opposed to culinary) past to think through music that helped me to better understand certain eras and genres. I combed through my personal collection and came up with some cool finds. Happy summer listening!........
Though this is a fairly large list and listening to these recordings will provides a great understanding and feel for the style of music these are personal favorites. Notably, these are albums I listen to constantly that have personal resonance; it’s not meant to be a comprehensive list of every great artist in a particular period or genre.
Vocal jazz is the genre I listen to most commonly. Though people tend to associate jazz with pop music’s glorious past jazz is alive in the 21st century. Folks who have perceived jazz as dated or intimidating in the past should check out some of the recordings offered by contemporary jazz singers below like Rene Marie, Gregory Porter and Tierney Sutton. Many singers are singing original material using the language of jazz, while others are reinventing the jazz repertoire by approaching classic songs with a fresh lens and/or integrating more contemporary songs. Jazz remains fun, inspiring and relevant music. Some of my favorite vocal jazz albums from the last 25 years or so:
1989: Short Stories (Janis Siegel): Siegel takes a break from Manhattan Transfer and creates a solo masterpiece with the elegant pianist Fred Hersch. The result is an enthralling program of classic ballad performances including songs by Judy Collins, Julia Fordham, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
1993: Blame it on My Youth (Holly Cole): A progressive blend of Broadway and pre-rock pop with songs by Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, etc. that gels into a thrilling whole. A benchmark of ‘90s cabaret-jazz.
1993: From Bessie to Brazil (Susannah McCorkle): Cabaret-jazz singer McCorkle surveys some of pop music’s most enduring songs from Bessie Smith, Paul Simon, and Johnny Mercer; includes the definitive English language version of“Waters of March.”
1994: Café Blue (Patricia Barber): Pianist-composer Barber found her stride here mixing her moody compositions with everything from a haunted take on Bobbi Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” to a Virginia Woolf poem.
1994: The Lady Wants to Know (Laura Fygi): A sumptuous suite of classic and neo-classic tunes rendered as bossa novas by the enchanting vocals of Dutch jazz singer Fygi and luscious orchestral arrangements.
1995: Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver (Dee Dee Bridgewater): The vocal album of Horace Silver’s signature bop tunes is a funky, bluesy, swinging affair with tender ballads and sizzling swingers by vocal jazz’s top vocal improviser.
2003: A Little Moonlight (Dianne Reeves): A lovely and buoyant 21st century jazz approach to popular standards highlighted by “Loads of Love,” “I’m All Smiles” and “What a little Moonlight Can Do.”
2003: Serene Renegade (René Marie): A soulful tour-de-force, -Marie takes you inside herself. She’s lusty on “Red Leather Shoes”; defiant on “The South is Mine”; and funky and swinging on “A Hard Day’s Night.”
2010: Blow Away (Janis Mann): Mann has a beautifully textured voice and well-honed jazz sensibilities; her hushed phrasing and lean sense of swing wrings out the nuances of her songs.
2011: American Road (Tierney Sutton Band): A daring feat of interpretation that stretches the boundaries of a uniquely American repertoire drawn from the folk, gospel, musical theater, and classic pop traditions.
2011: The Gathering (Diane Schuur): Only a boundary breaker like Schuur could transform a program of country classics into a soulful fusion of jazz improvisation and gospel passion. Like Ray Charles’s country recordings and Willie Nelson’s standards albums this is a genreless classic.
2012: Be Good (Gregory Porter): A near perfect synthesis of the soul and jazz aesthetics Porter reveals himself in a layered and eloquent fashion most notably on his brilliant original anthem “Painted on Canvas.”
Another listener’s dozen: These 12 recommendations provide a great sampler of some of the diverse and accomplished work happening in contemporary vocal jazz. Some other top-tier jazz singers doing exciting work include the following: Cyrille Aimee, Karrin Allyson, Dena De Rose, Kurt Elling, Roberta Gambarini, Kevin Mahogany, Karen Marguth, Catherine Russell, Jackie Ryan, Ian Shaw, Roseanna Vitro, and Cassandra Wilson.
I love eclectic pop singers because they embody the potential for different musical styles and cultures to intersect I have been exposed to a broad range of composers and styles listening to the artists listed below: Before pop music became overly balkanized artists had more opportunities to experiment and explore the music that interested them regardless of commercial expectations. Artists like Nina Simone, Aaron Neville, Maria Muldaur, and Eva Cassidy represent the aesthetic of artists who defy category and make great music without regard to genre. Below I highlight some key artists and the best albums to explore their styles:
Eva Cassidy: Born and raised in the D.C. area Cassidy was a regional star who died of melanoma in 1996. Posthumously national and international audiences discovered her far reaching talents. A great place to start is to listen to Live at Blues Alley (1996). She kicks off with a swinging soul drenched “Cheek to Cheek” and never lets up maintaining a similar level of poise and momentum throughout. One can only marvel at her versatility: She cooks on “Stormy Monday”; her “Autumn Leaves” will leave you in tears; and she takes you to church on “People Get Ready,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Oh Had I a Golden Thread.”
k.d. lang: lang is best known for her soaring pop ballad “Constant Craving” which became a Grammy winning pop hit in 1992, but it represents one dimension of her art. Born in Edmonton, Alberta lang began her professional career performing in country and country-punk groups. 1988’s Shadowland showcased her powerful voice and established her as contemporary student of the countrypolitan style perfected by Patsy Cline. 1989’s Grammy winner Absolute Torch and Twang was a progressive country album that revealed considerable songwriting prowess. lang took a stylistic turn toward what she termed “nouveau easy listening” music on her 1992 breakthrough Ingénue (1992) an eclectic suite of yearning songs unified by a mosaic-like quality that gives it an unusual integrity; it’s like block of melancholia rendered in the most sensuous of shades. In addition to “Craving” songs like “Miss Chatelaine” and “The Mind of Love” showcase her range and her luscious voice. lang followed up Ingénue with several albums of original material and made her mark as an interpreter of classic and modern pop songs.
Ronnie Milsap: If you only know Milsap for country hits like “Pure Love” “It was Almost Like a Song,” and “Stranger in My House” his first album Ronnie Milsap (1971) recorded on Warner Brothers will blow you away. The influence of R&B singers like Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland and fellow eclectic Charlie Rich is apparent. He blazes through the torchy “Dedicate the Blues to Me,” and “Not for the Love of a Woman.” He also tackles gospel (“Sanctified”), rock‘n’ roll (a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”), conceptual pop (“That Cat was a Junkie”), as well as country (Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the story Ends”) masterfully. He found his commercial niche in country but his debut, and the compilation Plain & Simple (1975) tell a fuller story.
Ella Mae Morse: Morse is an overlooked bridge figure whose style brought together country, jump blues, and swing. She is best thought of as a proto-rock ‘n’ roll singer. Morse was a popular singles artist throughout the 1940s recording hits like “Cow Cow Boogie” and “Mr. Five by Five.” Whoever thinks pop was chaste before rock ‘n’ roll needs to hear songs like “Rockin’ and Rollin,’” “Have Mercy Baby” and “Rock Me All Night Long” all featured on the wonderful collection Best of the Rockabilly Years (2013).
Maria Muldaur: Born in New York as Maria D’Amato, Muldaur enchanted by blues, jazz, and folk music. She began her career as a fiddler and singer in the Even Dozen Jug Band, then joined the Jim Kweskin & the Jug band, and recorded two albums with her husband Geoff Muldaur, before divorcing and going solo. Her 1973 debut single “Midnight at the Oasis” featured on her acclaimed solo debut Maria Muldaur put her on the map. She’s recorded over 30 albums. I highlight three albums to introduce you to her art: Waitress in a Donut Shop (1974) finds Muldaur recording swing jazz under the direction of jazz arranger Benny Carter, interpreting (then) contemporary songs by Kate McGarrigle, Allen Toussaint and Wendy Waldman, and exploring bluegrass and gospel tunes. By the early 1990s Muldaur focused more on roots music and southern music styles. Louisiana Love Call (1992) is a spirited love letter to the music of New Orleans, featuring NOLA legends Dr. John and Aaron Neville. Muldaur’s performances of the title track, “Creole Eyes,” “Best of Me” “Dem Dat Know” and “Southern Music” will make you want to dance, swoon, laugh and bask. Muldaur’s first full-fledged exploration of the blues comes on the Meet Me Where they Play the Blues (1999). Working with a quintet on most cuts, and a brass band, she brings out the blue in a mix of ballads, swingers, and gospel. In the 2000s she recorded the brilliant blues trilogy, Richland Woman Blues (2001), Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul (2005), and Naughty, Bawdy & Blue (2007).
Aaron Neville: Neville’s mellifluous tenor is one of the defining sounds of modern New Orleans music. Influenced by doo-wop and ‘50s R&B Neville was a regional favorite in the ‘60s who made his mark with 1966’s anthemic “Tell It Like It Is.” In the ‘70s Neville and his brothers performed together as the Neville Brothers and reignited his solo career in the 1980s. After recording two Grammy winning hit duets with Linda Ronstadt he released 1991’s Warm Your Heart. Neville summons a wide range of his influences including spiritual material like “Ave Maria” and the Caribbean gospel song “I Bid You Goodnight,” nods to idols like The Drifters (“Don’t Go, Please Stay”), material by New Orleans writers Allen Toussaint and Randy Newman, and contemporary pop and soul songs. He continued this eclectic approach on three follow-up albums in the 1990s, and has recorded albums focused on gospel, jazz standards, and classic soul and R&B.
Charlie Rich: Rich scored multiple hits in the early ‘60s at Sun Records, but gained his greatest fame singing polished country ballads like “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl” in the 1970s. Before he became a star he played in a jazz band and was shaped by blues and gospel music. Feel Like Going Home: Essential Charlie Rich (1997) comes closest to capturing his range. Soul singer, country singer, rock ‘n’ roller, swinger and gospel singer it showcases the breadth of his talents.
Linda Ronstadt: Ronstadt became the most popular singer of the 1970s by virtue of her powerful voice and mastery of song styles. Her fusion of classic pop, country, rock, and folk with contemporary songs reached an early peak on Heart Like a Wheel (1975) a classic and highly influential album featuring her renditions of songs popularized by The every Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Betty Everett, as well as newer songs by The McGarrigle Sisters, James Taylor and Little Feat. She successfully explored this approach for the remainder of the decade before exploring new wave, pre-rock pop, rancheras, and country. Winter Light (1993) which features covers ‘50s doo-wop and ‘60s pop-soul, as well as country, folk, and new age pop, is one of her finer mid-career efforts.
Nina Simone: The “High Priestess of Soul” was one of popular music’s fiercest talents. An accomplished classical pianist who fell into singing Simone initially began recording jazz-oriented music material but quickly expanded her repertoire to include bluegrass classics, Yiddish folk ballads, rock songs, gospel, and other forms. Her debut Little Girl Blue (1959) is a great introduction to her early years, as is Anthology: The Colpix Years (1996). But full Simone immersion requires purchasing Four Women: Nina Simone Philips Recordings (2003) a boxed set featuring all of her albums for Phillips. You get a dazzling array of tunes recorded during some of her most politically active years including signatures like “I Put a Spell on You,” “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Feeling Good,” “Four Women,” “Go Limp” plus songs from composers as varied as Chuck Berry and Duke Ellington.
Phoebe Snow: Snow’s voice had a fluid ethereal sound and quirky sensibility that made her stand out from her singer-songwriters in the mid-1970s thanks to originals like “Poetry Man” and “Harpo’s Blues,” and fresh interpretations of songs like “Teach Me Tonight” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” Her second and third albums Second Childhood (1975) and It Looks Like Snow (1976) are her most varied albums. For a fuller overview start with Very Best of Phoebe Snow (2001) which features some of her later work and some sizzling rare live cuts.
Jennifer Warnes: Warnes’s honeyed sound is best known to soundtrack fans for duets like “Up Where We Belong” and “I’ve Had the Time of my Life.” Warnes, whose sound has elements of Judy Collins and Linda Ronstadt is an exceptional interpretive singer with impeccable taste, solid musicianship and a broad range. She has had pop, country, and soft rock hits but her most acclaimed work is 1986’s Famous Blue Raincoat a Leonard Cohen songbook. The broadest showcase of her talents, however, is The Hunter (1992) where her gifts as a composer shine alongside her interpretations. There’s jazzy pop, rock ballads, and light R&B as well as a beautiful Acadian style waltz, a neo classical ballad, and other surprises.
Throughout adulthood I’ve developed an appreciation of popular music that preceded rock ‘n’ roll by listening to singers rooted in swing, bebop, big band and cabaret singing traditions. I was intimidated at first, but the more I listened the more I loved much of it and felt compelled to learn about the history of this era of pop music. Understanding 20th century popular music requires close listening to some of the titans, like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra, who redefined how singers approach music and the way we listen. Below are some of my favorite albums from some of the greats. Most are from cabaret, pre-rock pop or genres of vocal jazz including bop, swing, and the cool school. Since singers are often only as good as their material I also include an anthology that was pivotal to my growth as a listener, featuring a wide cross-section of classic vocalists that focuses on the evolution of American popular song. (I’ve arranged the 31 singers by the order in which they began recording).
Louis Armstrong (1925): Jazz’s Ur text is arguably the work of the Louis Armstrong. Armstrong mastered the cornet and trumpet, authored and perfected the jazz solo, pioneered scat singing, and was most responsible for translating jazz’s instrumental technique—swing rhythm, blues feeling, improvisation—into a vocal style defined by his distinctive gravelly timbre and personalized approach to lyrics. By applying jazz technique vocally and daring to personalize music, especially in his approach to lyrics, he revolutionized popular music. To understand his instrumental innovations, and hear a few vocal selections, I refer you to The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Sony 2000), recorded from 1925-29, which is regarded as the most important recordings of early jazz.
The Essential Louis Armstrong (Sony Legacy, 2004) tells his story as a vocalist beautifully and thoroughly. Armstrong’s 1945-69 recordings are summarized nicely on the three disc box set Louis Armstrong: An American Icon (Hip-O Records, 1998). You get a cross-section of vocal selections, instrumentals, live performances, a sample of his delightful duets with Ella Fitzgerald, and selections from his latter career including “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World.” Individual albums deserving your attention include Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (recorded 1954; Sony, 2008), Satch Plays Fats (recorded 1955; Sony 2008) and The Great Summit: The Master Takes featuring Armstrong and Duke Ellington (recorded 1961; 2001), and Best of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (Verve, 1997).
Helen Humes (1927): A delightful singer who began singing blues as a teenager in 1927 before graduating to singing with the Basie Orchestra in the 1940s. She has a light voice and an exuberant style. She is excellent at swing tunes, ballads and blues. Her best album, Songs I Like to Sing! (1960) includes some of her finest performances including her clever signature “Million Dollar Secret.”
Mildred Bailey (1928): The first female singer to tour with a big band. Trained as a pianist Bailey had a high, sweet voice and a very natural swinging sound. Adept at ballads, blues, and swing her prime material is on Complete Columbia Recordings Volumes 1 and Volumes 2 (Definitive Records, 2000).
Billie Holiday (1933): Holiday’s legacy as a musician’s singer and as a tragic figure looms large in American history across generational and genre boundaries. Holiday infused jazz singing with advanced rhythmic and melodic abilities, an adult interpretive sensibility, and keen emotional intelligence. Influenced by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, and certainly aware of singers like Ethel Waters she moved vocal jazz and popular music forward. The best way to explore Holiday is to listen to her at different phases.
Columbia’s Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (2007) explores her earliest work singing novelties and rhythm numbers and growing into a solo leader, as well as her chemistry with musicians like Teddy Wilson and Lester Young. The Commodore Master Takes (2000) capture her in 1939 and 1944 sessions when she recorded signatures like “Strange Fruit,” “Fine and Mellow,” and “I Cover the Waterfront.” Her recordings for Decca (1944-50), focused more on ballads and lusher pop settings, and included “Lover Man (Oh Where Can you Be?),” “Crazy He Calls Me,” and “Don’t Explain.” Among the flood of Holiday compilations either Billie Holiday’s Greatest Hits (Decca Jazz, 1995) or Priceless Jazz Collection: Billie Holiday (1997) provides a good single-disc overview. The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters (2009) also captures her middle period in three discs. Her last significant recordings were recorded on Verve from 1954-59. The label which has reissued the cream of the crop on Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years (1991) Completists will enjoy the six-CD The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes (2005).
Ella Fitzgerald (1936): Fitzgerald recorded her first sides with the Chick Webb orchestra in 1936. Fitzgerald was originally interested in dancing but she successfully performed a version of “Judy,” inspired by Connee Boswell and won over the audience at the Apollo Theatre amateur night jumpstarting a most distinguished career in jazz. Known for her silken voice, unfailing swing, legendary scat solos, and impeccable musicianship Fitzgerald was the definitive popular jazz singer. Her balanced interpretations made her a composer’s dream, and her warm persona appeal to generations of listeners. Fitzgerald’s career can be divided into phases: She was the band singer for the Webb Orchestra, taking the lead when he passed in 1939. Fitzgerald recorded prolifically for Decca Records from 1943-1954. She also absorbed the vocabulary of bebop showcased on virtuosic performances on 1945’s “Flying Home” and 1947’s “Oh Lady Be Good.” The Best of Ella Fitzgerald (GRP Records, 1995) provides a 20 song overview of the era. More detailed is 75th Birthday Celebration: The Original Decca Recordings (1993). During her time at Decca she perfected the mellow tone and flawless intonation that defined her later career in the 1950s. Two albums, a 1950 Gershwin set and a set of standards recorded in 1954, showcased her promise as a mature interpreter of standards. They are compiled together on Pure Ella (GRP Records, 1994).
Her manager Norman Granz helped Fitzgerald become an international star at Verve Records by encouraging her to record high quality material, which she did famously on a series of songbooks recorded from 1956-64 dedicated to the finest American popular composers (e.g. Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, etc.). Each can be purchased individually or as part of the 16 CD boxed set. Each is a fine album; my favorites: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (1956) is the most jazz-oriented songbook; Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959) is the best introduction to Gershwin’s’ superb melodies. She also recorded duet albums with Louis Armstrong, various albums with Nelson Riddle, live sets like 1960’s Ella in Berlin (featuring her hilarious improvised take on “Mack the Knife”), and collaborations with Count Basie and Duke Ellington among others. Among her non-songbook sets I recommend The Intimate Ella a beautiful voice and piano set; for a taste of Ella live I recommend Ella in Rome, Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin, and Ella in Japan; some of her more satisfying eclectic sets include Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie!; Ella Swings Gently with Nelson; and Whisper Not. After her stint at Verve she recorded middling country, pop, and holiday material at Capitol Records, and recorded various albums and concert sets for multiple labels to before recording prolifically for Granz’s independent jazz label Pablo Records in the 1970s and 1980s. Her finest showcase of this period is Ella and Oscar, recorded in 1975 with Oscar Peterson and bassist Ray Brown, and the four disc live set issued on Pablo called The Concert Years (Pablo, 1994), featuring her in her element, live settings, from the 1950s through early 1980s.
Maxine Sullivan (1937): Sullivan began her career in the mid-1930s and scored a hit with a swing version of the Scottish song “Loch Lomond.” After recording for about 20 years she took a hiatus from music and returned in the late 1960s. She thrived as a recording artist and performer until her death in 1987. Sullivan is a master swinger who interprets lyrics with understated emotion. She had a deft touch that has influenced generations of singers including Peggy Lee and Rebecca Kilgore. Two of her finest sets include the Harry Warren (“I Only have Eyes for You” “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me”) songbook, Spring Isn’t Everything (1986) and Together: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Jule Styne (1987).
Lee Wiley (1939): Known as “Southern Comfort” Wiley perfected a sultry, understated style you can hear in singers like Peggy Lee, Barbara Lea, and Julie London. She also composed several classics including “Time On My Hands.” Wiley is best known for being the first vocalist to record songbook albums dedicated to top composers, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers & Hart and Arlen, from 1939-43. Follow Your Heart (2005) (double-disc) is an excellent collection of her songbook recordings and other signature tunes. Wiley also recorded three albums for Columbia Records, and two fine standards albums for RCA in the 1950s, whose highlights are collected on As Time Goes By (/1991).
Frank Sinatra (1939): The quintessential saloon singer and consummate swinger, Sinatra’s discography spans from 1939-95. I find his Tommy Dorsey Orchestra recordings a bit dull; his Columbia recordings in the mid-1940s-early 1950s are more enchanting and Portrait of Sinatra is an excellent summation of this era. But his Capitol recordings are where he finds his voice as an albums artist. He excels at dour torch albums and spirited swing sets. Three albums capture him at his best: In the Wee Small Hours (1955): Recorded after a breakup with actress Ava Gardner Sinatra is at his most vulnerable and musical on this legendary suite of torch songs. Songs for Swinging Lovers (1956) is one of the most accomplished and influential swing albums ever. Many a singer has attempted to emulate Sinatra’s swinging versions of “I’ve Got You under My Skin,” “Anything Goes,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “You Make Me Feel So Young.” He repeated the torch and swing approach at Reprise Records, but one album that stands out is Frances Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967) where he and the Brazilian composer record standards and bossa novas in a spare hushed setting that results in one of Sinatra’s most tender and enjoyable performances.
Kay Starr (1939): Starr was a regional big band singer with a hearty voice and bluesy sound who became a popular singer in the late 1940s at Capitol records where she scored hits like Bonaparte’s Retreat Side by Side and Wheel of Fortune. Though these got her on the radio her gifts were showcased more fully on a series of albums recorded at Capitol from 1959-62. Movin’/Movin’ on Broadway (packaged together on CD downloadable separately) find are brassy swing sets. Movin’ (1959) has movement theme, and features a strong Count Basie flair especially on songs like “Goin’ to Chicago” and her take on “Sentimental Journey.” She applies this sultry Basie approach to musical theater classics on Broadway (1960) with jazz takes on songs like “On the street Where You Live” and “I Love Paris.” Jazz Singer (1960) is a fun mix of swing songs and ballads; I Cry By Night (1962) is a deliciously melancholic torch album with definitive versions of “More Than You Know” and superb versions of “Lover Man” and “Baby Won’t You please Come Home.”
Nat “King” Cole (1942): Cole was a pioneer who excelled as a bandleader and pianist in the Nat King Cole Trio, as a popular solo singer, and as a personality on TV and film. His recorded output is readily available. The best distillation of his years leading the Trio and a solo is the 1992 boxed set Nat King Cole. You get the full breadth of his talents as a bandleader, balladeer, and swing singer. As far as individual albums: You can sample his Trio work on The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio: Vocal Classics (1942-46) (1996); His best ballads album is The Very Thought of You (1958); Cole swings mightily on the small group jazz set After Midnight (1957), as well as the big band sets Just One of Those Things (1957), Welcome to the Club (1959), Tell Me All About Yourself (1960), and Let’s Face the Music and Dance (1964).
Dinah Washington (1943): Washington earned the title Queen of the Blues for inflecting all of her work with a blues sensibility. Sassy, funny, and dynamic she had a full life with seven husbands and a legendary reputation for being a no-nonsense performer. Washington’s recordings for Mercury Records and EmArcy are collected on a seven volume boxed set compiled in the 1980s, however a more direct route is the excellent First Issue: The Dinah Washington Story a double-disc compilation featuring ballads, blues, R&B and pop performances in a variety of arrangements. There are also several live cuts. Her entire recorded output for Roulette Records is also available for download. The single disc The Best of the Roulette Years (1993) is a great introduction to her 1961-63 output. Among her individual albums Dinah Jams (1954), recorded with drummer Max Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown is her most jazz-oriented performance; For Those in Love (1955) is full of gorgeously rendered ballads; her Roulette recordings are generally weaker but on Back to the Blues The Queen reminded everyone of her deep blues roots on this soulful, haunting, and sexy journey including her epic “Nobody Knows the Way I feel This Morning.”
Sarah Vaughan (1944): A few years before Fitzgerald began learning bebop from musicians in her band in the mid-1940s Sarah Vaughan had been introduced to the style, and by 1944 she was steeped in the innovative approach which emphasized harmonic improvisation, rapid tempos, and showcased a virtuosity based more in listening than dancing, which was more emphasized by swing. Vaughan was trained in piano and organ as a child, and after winning amateur night at the Apollo was recruited to play piano in Earl Hines’s band. Billy Eckstine recruited her to sing in his band where she perfected her mastery of the style. Interlude Early Recordings 1944-1947 (2000) and Complete Musicraft Master Takes (The Jazz Factory) introduces her earliest recordings. Interlude emphasizes jazz and features some of her work with Eckstine’s band, including players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; the Musicraft material is lusher and more pop-oriented. Vaughan’s stint at Columbia Records is well summarized on The Divine Sarah: The Columbia Years 1949-1953 (1990). Here her transition to a popular singer is complete as she bathes ballads like “Deep Purple,” “Black Coffee,” and “You’re Mine You” in her luscious vibrato atop soaring strings. Some relief is provided by the inclusion of selections from 1949-1950 sessions with jazz musicians.
Vaughan’s association with Mercury Records, which focused on pop and the jazz subsidiary EmArcy captures her peak. Sarah Vaughan, In the Land of Hi-Fi and Swingin’ Easy are three of the best vocal jazz albums ever recorded, and each showcases Vaughan’s talents as a balladeer, swinger and improviser flawlessly. They have been packed together with two live albums from the’50s as Sarah Vaughan: Divine: The Jazz Albums 1954-1958 (2013). For a sample of her pop side The George Gershwin Songbook (1957)and Sings Broadway: Great Songs from Hit Shows (1958) display her voice to full effect. Vaughan switched to Roulette Records in 1960. She recorded everything from lush mood albums to a set of light classical fare. Her best includes two voice-and-guitar albums, After Hours and Sarah + 2; a Benny Carter conducted swing set The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan; a Carter conducted torch set The Lonely Hours; and a moody jazz organ set Sarah Sings Soulfully.
Vaughan’s triumphant return to Mercury was the dynamic live set Sassy Swings the Tivoli. Mercury made various attempts to modernize Vaughan by having her record ‘60s pop songs with mixed results. She could sing anything and make it sound great but her best recording from this period was her last Mercury album, 1967’s Sassy Swings Again, a swinging big band set showing her as skillful and passionate as ever. Vaughan took a break from recording and then returned on Mainstream Records. Her best is Live in Japan a double-disc concert featuring her in total command. In the 1970s she signed with Norman Granz’s independent jazz label Pablo Records. Highlights were 1977’s I Love Brazil!, and the brilliant small group sets 1978’s How Long Has This Been Going On? And 1982’s Crazy & Mixed Up. After her death her estate released Soft & Sassy recorded for radio and showcasing her brilliance circa 1961. One cannot state how exciting Vaughan was live. Five live albums showcasing her in all her glory include Sassy at Ronnie’s; Live at the 1971 Monterey Jazz Festival; the Grammy winning Gershwin Live!; In the City of Lights; and Live at Rosy’s released in 2016.
Mel Tormé (1944): Tormé is a major vocalist, as well as a skilled arranger and composer, and occasional actor, who never gained the fame of peers like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, but musically his accomplishments are comparable to the most elite voices in the jazz pantheon. Possessing a clear full voice, that seemed to grow in flexibility and range as he aged, a broad repertoire and a gift for epic improvisation he is best experienced on The Mel Tormé Collection 1944-1985 is a lovingly assembled boxed set featuring his early work in the Mel-Tones, and highlights from his solo singer at Bethlehem, Verve, Atlantic, Columbia, and Capitol Records. The set gives you a taste of him singing ballads, showtunes, swing, and bop; there are also great live performances and a highly informative book. His range and virtuosity are pretty stunning. The Best of the Concord Years captures some of his finest live and studio performances from 1983-96 and is worth hearing. But the boxed set is the place to start. Some of his best individual albums include Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley (1956) and Lulu’s Back in Town (1956), which rank among the best vocal albums of the 1950s and the 1990 live sets packaged together as Two Darn Hot that showcase him in his element.
Rosemary Clooney (1947): People associated Clooney with ephemeral ‘50s pop hits like “Come on a My House” and “Mambo Italiano” for decades until she released a string of jazz oriented albums for Concord Jazz from 1977-2002 that demonstrated her stunning maturity and rock solid musicality. Prior to Concord she recorded a classic album with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (Blue Rose) and recorded one of the finest ballad albums ever. 1963’s Love arranged by Nelson Riddle, with whom Clooney had an affair, is the height of rapturous orchestral pop. Riddle’s dramatic arrangements illuminate the lyrics of yearning ballads like “Invitation” and “Someone to watch Over Me” in grand fashion and Clooney’s singing is equally entrancing. Her Concord output is consistently strong and The Best of the Concord Years is an excellent survey of these recordings. Among her Concord recordings Rosemary Clooney Sings the Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (1987) and Do You Miss New York? (1993) are my favorites.
Johnny Hartman (1947): Hartman is an expert balladeer who sings in a sumptuous baritone. He recorded from 1947-83 and is well-respected by musicians and singers. His most famous album is John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963) the only collaboration between Coltrane and a vocalist. Though its only six songs it is a superb master class in the art of ballad singing. Hartman’s renditions of “Lush Life,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “My One and Only Love” have never been surpassed. 1980’s Once in Every Life is nearly in the same class. On this masterful set of intimate ballads, including “I Could Write a Book” and “Wave,” Hartman sings with disarming ease. Though its never been issued on CD you can re-create the album digitally by combining the Hartman selections are featured on the Bridges of Madison County soundtrack and the companion collection Remember Madison County into one.
Tony Bennett (1950): Since his early recordings at Columbia circa 1951 Bennett has had a national fame as popular singer. His endurance is a testament to robust talent, good management, and his commitment to his aesthetic. The best introductory survey to his career is the 1991 boxed set Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, which was supplanted in 2004 by Fifty Years of Bennett. Bennett signatures like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “I Wanna Be Around,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” are featured as are collaborations with Count Basie, Bill Evans and other jazz luminaries. Once you’ve mastered the basics of Bennett’s first three decades you’ll continue to be impressed by his growth as an interpreter. He experienced a major commercial and cultural resurgence in the 1990s. Almost every album he’s released since the 1990s is worthwhile, and he continues to thrive in the 2010s. On The Art of Romance (2004) his finest album Bennett, at the age of 78, masterfully interprets a repertoire of top tier songs (by composers like Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim) with a signature passion and precision. 2015’s The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, recorded at 89, is also one of his finest. He applies his still mighty voice and interpretive prowess to a suite of some of the most harmonically rich and challenging songs in the canon with aplomb.
Cleo Laine (1950): Laine established herself as a big band singer in the 1950s and a stage actress in England before making a U.S. impact with 1973’s Cleo Live at Carnegie Hall concert set. Laine is renowned for her ability to wield her multi-octave voice with absolute control and precision, especially in unison scats with her musical director and husband John Dankworth. Some of the best displays of her prowess include the superb songbook albums Cleo Laine Sings Sondheim (1988) and Solitude, recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (1995), and the dynamic Jazz (1991). Her two best all-around albums are more low-key displays that showcase her range with tenderness. These include the is a lovely voice and piano album That Old Feeling (1984) featuring sumptuous interpretations of classic ballads including the title track, “Tenderly,” and “Once in a While” and Blue and Sentimental (1994) an eclectic triumph with standards, classic blues, duets and contemporary ballads (“Afterglow,” “The Lies of Handsome Men”) that have become new standards.
Freddy Cole (1952): Nat King Cole’s gifted brother Freddy debuted in 1952 but didn’t find his stride as a recording artist until the early 1990s. He possesses a similar voice to Nat but with a huskier timbre and is also a skilled pianist. In the early 1990s Cole’s association with producer Todd Barkan led to an on ongoing series of excellent jazz albums. Cole is particularly charming live. The most well-rounded and representative sample of his style is The Dreamer in Me: Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (2009). He is a romantic who takes his time with ballads; he swings mightily on mid and up-tempo songs; and he is an excellent blues singer. My favorite track is his spirited hometown homage “On the Southside of Chicago.”
Carmen McRae (1954): As an interpreter of music and lyrics vocalist, pianist and composer McRae ranks in the top tier of jazz vocalists. Though she was trained classically she pursued her interest in jazz beginning as a pianist and becoming a singer. McRae idolized Billie Holiday, who recorded her song “Dream of Life” in 1939. McRae herself recorded prolifically at Decca Records in the 1950s and the cream of these is featured on the boxed set I’ll Be Seeing You: A Tribute to Carmen McRae (1995). Two excellent single disc overviews are Carmen McRae Sings Great American Songwriters (1993) and Here to Stay (1992). Each showcases McRae’s voice at its peak and is a marvel of sensible, subtle interpretation. From the 1960s-1980s she bounced around labels recording for Kapp, Columbia, Mainstream Atlantic, Concord Jazz and various independent labels. Her voice has a huskier tone and her interpretations take on a wry edge. The highlight of this period is the concert album The Great American Songbook (Atlantic, 1972) though almost all of her albums feature excellent performances. In her final years she recorded a set of lyricized Thelonious Monk songs and a Sarah Vaughan Tribute album at Novus Records. In 1993 Novus released two lively concert tributes to Billie Holiday, recorded in 1983 at the Blue Note and broadcast on WBGO, as For Lady Day Volumes 1 & 2. McRae is in good voice and she showcases her personality vividly getting bluesy on “Fine and Mellow,” interjecting hilarious asides in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and conveying the range of Holiday’s repertoire balancing well known tunes with obscurities.
Chis Connor (1954): Connor is associated with the cool jazz vocal style a minimalist approach emphasizing understated emotion associated with Anita O’ Day June Christy and Connor. Connor recorded with the Stan Kenton Orchestra before recording solo several sides for Bethlehem Records and switching to Atlantic from the mid-1950s-early 1960s. Some of her tirumphs included a Gerhswin songbook album and albums of torch songs. Like a lot of jazz oriented singers she struggled in the late 1960s and 1970s but had a bit more success in the 1980s-2000s recording for various labels including Highnote Records. 1963’s At the Village Gate is a thrilling live set in which the normally “cool” Connor, backed by a jazz band, sizzles. “A Lot of Livin to Do” and “Something’s Coming” have never been more exciting. The London Connection (1994) is an excellent compilation of live performances recorded in London in 1990 that finds her swinging hard and approaching ballads as tenderly as ever.
Etta James (1955): Though James was one of the most successful R&B singers of the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to classics like “All I Could Do is Cry,” “Tell Mama” and “At Last,” she was influenced by jazz and has always included standard material in her repertoire. In the 1990s James began periodically releasing jazz oriented albums that showcased her still powerful voice in more intimate settings. The best of these is Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (1994). James delivers poignant renditions of Holiday’s signature ballads in her own style. She infuses torch songs like “Don’t Explain,” “Body and Soul” and “These Foolish Things” with the kinds of nuances that come from a lifetime of hard living and lessons learned.
Bobby Short (1955): Short was the most accomplished and influential male cabaret singer ever. As a recording artist and the headliner at Café Carlyle for 35 years he developed an international following for his vast song knowledge and vibrant interpretive style. Among the many albums he recorded over 46 years 1987’s Guess Who’s in Town: Bobby Short Performs the Songs of Andy Razaf is his finest. Short is a perfect interpreter of the overlooked composer of classics like “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Black and Blue,” “S’posin,” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Short also sings some of his lesser known material and showcases his comfort with jazz and blues on numbers like “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town.”
Johnny Mathis (1956): Mathis pulled off a hat trick when he began his career in the mid-1950s by appealing to youngsters with his buoyant singles like “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” and drawing in adults with his lush moody albums, and distinctive tenor. Of all of his albums (he’s recorded over 70!) 1962’s Rapture and 1963’s Romantically, (which are packaged together on CD) are orchestral suites of ballads that provide the full Mathis experience. 1958’s Swing Softly (packaged with the 1958 ballads album Warm) is one of his most appealing sets. The balladeer lets loose and gently swings on several classics including “Love Walked In” and “Like Someone in Love.”
Ernie Andrews (1957): Andrews is probably jazz’s most underrated male singer. Soulful, funky and swinging he debuted in the mid-1940s as a teenager with a few singles, but his jazz career took off in 1957. Andrew is a legend of Los Angeles’s Central Avenue jazz scene thanks to his warm, personable approach. Though he has recorded for six decades his albums are hard to find. His 1965 concert with Cannonball Adderley, Live Session! (available digitally) is a masterful performance of funky jazz. It comes closer than any of his records to exposing his full range as an artist. Andrews has an excellent rapport with his audience and sings quite personably. His performance of “I’m a Born World Shaker” is sandwiched perfectly between boastfulness and confidence without sounding abrasively cocky. He mines “I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco” subtly which maximizes its ironic emotional impact. “Since I Fell for You” and “Work Song” receive gritty, confident performances, and he shows his lighter side swinging easily on “Big City.” This album gave Andrews anthems and established his combination of soul, funk, wit and swing. The intimacy and energy captured here makes this one of the finest small group jazz sessions of its day.
Antonio Carlos Jobim (1959): Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim composed sounds that became the bedrock of the bossa nova sound including “The Girl From Ipanema,” “So Danço Samba,” “Wave” and “The Waters of March” to name a few classic standards. Influenced by classical music, jazz and Brazilian musical traditions Jobim created songs with beautiful melodies, complex harmonies and poetic lyrics that were provided a second wave of songs for interpretive singers. The boxed set The Man from Ipanema is a lovingly assembled history of Brazil’s most influential composer featuring vocal and instrumental exemplars of saudade.
Shirley Horn (1960): A vocalist and pianist known for her cool measured approach to interpreting material, Horn had two distinct career phases. After performing in the Washington D.C. area, and gaining the respect of performers like Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, Horn gained enough national attention to release several fine swing and ballad sets in the early to mid-1960s. She then spent almost two decades focusing on her family. Though she recorded for Steeplechase and Audiophile Records in the 1980s, beginning in 1987 her Verve recordings made her a jazz superstar earning her acclaim, Grammy Award recognition, and a new audience. Arguably one of the most influential singers of the last few decades her albums are uniformly accomplished. 1987’s Close Enough for Love is particularly appealing. Songs like “I Got Lost in his Arms” and the title song have rarely been sung with such intimacy, and she swings like mad on “Get Out of Town” and “Come Fly with Me.”
Andy Bey (1961): Pianist and vocalist Bey debuted with two classic bop-oriented albums recorded with his siblings The Bey Sisters before going solo. After recording and performing only sporadically in the ‘70s Bey made a comeback in the mid-1990s and continues releasing albums every few years. A master of space and time, he is a sensualist and on American Song (2004) he luxuriates in the melodic and harmonic contours, taking his time redefining classics like “Lush Life” and “Prelude to a Kiss” into spacious arias.
Carol Sloane (1962): Sloane made a splash in the jazz world in the early 1960s substituting in Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and recording her acclaimed debut Out of the Blue. A superb singer with a lovely vocal tone, advanced rhythmic and improvisational skill, and a savvy understanding of lyrics she struggled to follow-up her initial success. Though she recorded some solid independent sets in the 1970s and early 1980s it was not until she released 1989’s Love you Madly and 1990’s The Real Thing on Contemporary Records that the mainstream jazz world took full notice of her gifts. On both she gives perfect performances of ballads, swings, and bebop tunes in a warm, swinging style. She followed these with several excellent albums recorded for Concord Jazz, DRG Records, Highnote and Arbors Records.
Sheila Jordan (1962): A longtime student of bebop’s masters, especially Charlie Parker, Jordan paid her dues as a singer learning her craft in the 1940s and 1950s and debuting with the influential 1962 vocal bop classic Portrait of Sheila. An improvisational risk taker, she pioneered the voice and bass format and became an in-demand jazz educators at jazz clinics. She is a thrilling live performer and fearless improviser who has dedicated her career to jazz. I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass (2000) a 1997 concert recorded with bassist Cameron Brown is a great distillation of her essence. She sings signatures, like her the “Bird/Tribute/Embraceable You” medley and her original “Sheila’s Blues.” More than a concert his is a beautiful extension of her storied life.
Lou Rawls (1962): Before Rawls burned up the R&B charts in the late ‘60s with songs like “Love is a Hurtin Thing” and “Dead End Street,” and crossed over in the ‘70s with sleek disco-soul songs like “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and “Groovy People” he recorded albums in the swinging blues sound perfected by singers like Joe Williams. Black & Blue/Tobacco Road, recorded in 1962 and 1963 respectively, and packed together, are superb displays of how the blues transcends decades. Black is a very blues-oriented set with Rawls’s modernized renditions of blues standards like “Everyday I Have the Blues” and “Kansas City” sung confidently. Tobacco Road is even bolder and more accomplished with contemporized versions of songs form the black song canon, like “Ol’ Man River” and “When it’s Sleepy Time Down South,” sung with a modern sensibility. He delivers wholly original versions of Southern themed material like Georgia on My mind, “Summertime” and “Tobacco Road” that are stunningly brilliant. Rawls went on to record pop and R&B for Capitol and Epic Records, before returning to more jazz oriented material at Blue Note in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Barbra Streisand (1963): Since beginning her recording career in 1963 Streisand has stood out for her big beautiful voice and fresh interpretive sensibility. She established herself with classic pop and showtunes in the ‘60s and integrated more contemporary singer-songwriter pop and film themes into her repertoire in the1970s. Three sets that showcase he talents best include her superb return to musical theater on The Broadway Album (1985) with distinctive contemporary performances of songs from the finest Broadway shows including Porgy & Bess, Showboat, Carousel, Westside Story, The King and I, Company and Sunday in the Park with George. 1987’s One Voice found Streisand returning to live performing with confidence and precision; a great career overview. Her best album is 2009’s Love is the Answer which can be purchased as a single discs with an orchestra or as a deluxe set with a quartet. The quartet is my favorite. 47 years into her recording career the legendary Streisand delivers her most subtle and intimate recording yet featuring lovely renditions of top tier ballads including bossa novas, chansons, pop ballads and classic theater songs.
American Popular Song: Six Decades of Songwriters and Singers: (CBS Special Products/Smithsonian 1984 (boxed set): A stunning, comprehensive five-CD set, focused on popular songs composed from 1910-55 performed by various singers from 1918-80 is one of the most ambitious collections of “The Great American Songbook.” The music is accompanied by a superb book, featuring profiles of most of the major voices in American pre-rock style popular singing including jazz influenced singers, cabaret singers, singing actors/actresses, etc. The songs, including major works by composers like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, are among the finest popular songs ever written and are represented by versions that emphasize their original melodies and lyrics. A partial list of the stellar featured artists includes the following: Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey, Tony Bennett, Connee Boswell, Rosemary Clooney, Nat “King” Cole, Barbra Cook, Bing Crosby, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McRae, Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Kay Starr, Barbra Streisand, Sophie Tucker, Sarah Vaughan, and Ethel Waters.
Other exemplary “classic” jazz/jazz-oriented voices: Lorez Alexandria, Ivie Anderson, Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks, Lambert Hendricks & Ross, Peggy Lee, Mabel Mercer, Mark Murphy, Anita O’Day, Ma Rainey, Annie Ross, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Scott, Bessie Smith, Dakota Staton, Ethel Waters, Joe Williams.
Riffs, Beat& Codas readers stay tuned for Part 2: I look forward to sharing my country, R&B, pop and rock favorites in July!
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