LOUD WOMEN: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop (Part 1)

Dear Riffs, Beats & Codas readers: I am drafting a new writing project called LOUD Women: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop. For many years, I have been drawn to female vocalists who are perceived as shrill, over-the-top and overly dramatic. I decided to interrogate the meaning of this notion in a series of vignettes. Please enjoy Part 1. Part 2 is coming in November! I would love your feedback on this work-in-progress.

Diane Schuur's Big Beautiful Mouth

Diane Schuur has a big, beautiful mouth, capable of buoyant swing, raunchy blues, stirring gospel, and silken ballads and this scares many people, especially music critics. When she emerged in the 1980s as the latest vocal jazz star few critics knew how to assess her properly because she had no direct precedent. The jazz goddesses who preceded her always had a blind spot that stood out precisely because they were so proficient in other arenas. Ella and Sarah’s indisputably beautiful sonic qualities and almost super human improvisational genius offset their ability inability to sing the blues convincingly. Dinah Washington’s confident mastery of the blues and exemplary musicianship were so potent it made it easy for her to passively blend in or blithely sing over bland arrangements, especially in her final years. Carmen McRae’s sharpness distinguished her but it eventually lapsed into a wryness that sometimes undercut the vulnerability of her material. Billie Holiday’s dark history and the physical effects of drug abuse sometimes made it difficult for audiences to hear her skillful musicianship rather than the poignancy of vulnerability. Betty Carter’s radical deconstructions were impressive feats of improvisation that sometimes stretched songs beyond recognition. A swinging interpreter like Maxine Sullivan was sometimes so low key in her laidback approach she could seem emotionally detached.

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I mention these figures because Schuur has a lesser critical profile, but is worthy of being mentioned with these legends. Schuur has a beautiful voice full of color, range, and flexibility. As a pianist and vocalist, she clearly understands the musical demands of her material. She is also a highly versatile singer comfortable singing romantic ballads, swing tunes, torch songs, Brazilian pop and blues oriented material. None of these qualities is especially controversial but what sets her apart is that she isnot “cool.” Schuur has an exuberant, infectious energy that crackles in concert especially in her absorption of gospel music. Schuur can tap into an almost otherworldly passion in her music that evokes greats like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. She, more than any jazz vocalist of her generation, exemplifies the notion of jazz as a form of soul music. Some of her most outstanding performances, including her interpretations of staples from the black pop music canon like “Amazing Grace,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” and a live version of Franklin’s “Climbing Higher Mountains,” exhibit a simultaneous command of gospel, blues, and R&B virtually unmatched by any singer of her generation.

Audiences have always reacted enthusiastically to her style but critics have dismissed her powerful style as shrill, over the top, and unsubtle.  Some even reframed her as a (mere) “pop” singer with jazz overtones rather than a true jazz singer. These kinds of responses reveal a deeply ingrained bias that women in jazz need to stay quiet and emotionally contained (e.g. the “cool” style of singers like Peggy Lee) or display a kind of athletic virtuosity (e.g. Carter). Both adhere to troubling patriarchal notions. Male critics often praise “cool” singers like June Christy, Chris Connor, Peggy Lee, Julie London, and Jo Stafford for being understated a rather coded term that often seems like shorthand for their ability to reign in an implied female emotionalism that makes critics uncomfortable. The inverse approach praises women for adhering to a highly prized form of overt improvisation critics tend to prize among male instrumentalists. In both instances, critics affirm vocalists who conform to narrow modes of expression.

I appreciate Schuur because she is disruptive. My Schuur conversion moment came in 1999 when she sang a stirring version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” during a live tribute to Wonder at the Kennedy Center. She rearranges the song entirely beginning in an acapella arrangement (backed by Take 6) and building toward a spine tingling climax laced with jazz and gospel inflections. A truly gifted and resourceful interpreter, she takes an ordinary pop song and uses a highly personal set of musical tools to get to the heart of the lyric and illuminate its musical contours. Her musical choices elevate the song into something more beautiful and resonant than ever and does so by balancing emotional intelligence with improvisation, while remaining true to herself and the song.

Cleo Laine: Out of this World

Cleo Laine, a jazz-oriented singer of English and Jamaican heritage, captures you instantly with her colorful and flexible vocal instrument, and penchant for drama. She is not just a gifted singer, but a really compelling presence. Never just a vocalist, she gained fame in England singing big band jazz, setting Shakespeare sonnets to music, and performing in musical theatre. While it is true that she first crossed over in the United States through a highly successful series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1973 (released on 1974, 1976, 1985 and 20001 sets), her studio recordings from 1985-1995 interest me most. They solidify her as one of the more gifted and eclectic singers to emerge in the jazz field, yet she is strangely underrated. As a vocalist, actress, and performer she has never approached her music from a commercial pop or strictly jazz virtuosic improvisational perspective, nor confined her style to a musical theater based approach. Failing to fall easily into these categories speaks more to what makes her interesting than her limitations but critics have tended to praise her sound but dismiss her as too bombastic, stylized, and over the top. When Laine gets excited, she punctuates her renditions with coloratura style trills that amplify the emotion. She and her husband and bandleader saxophonist John Dankworth also performed note-perfect unison scats. Some people heard this as a gimmick; my rejoinder is that she uses this sparingly, and more importantly, I question why she must repress this aspect of her range? Why is trilling less expressive or sincere than other modes? Like Diane Schuur she does many things well and has few precedents, which makes her difficult to classify and easy to condemn. Similarly, her exuberance defies the edict that jazz women would either stay cool or perform radical deconstructions.

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Each Laine album from the 1984-95 period offers an interesting facet of her vocal persona. That Old Feeling is a sublime ballads album featuring voice and piano with occasional bass. She scales down her luminous voice to the setting and delivers consistently lovely intimate performances of popular standards. It is comparable to similar sets by Ella Fitzgerald (with Ellis Larkins and Paul Smith) and Tony Bennett (with Bill Evans). 1988 Cleo Sings Sondheim is one of the best showcases of his work in a more jazz-oriented context. Beyond perennials like “Send in the Clowns,” she does justice to “Ah But Underneath,” done in a brassy big band arrangement, perfectly capture the tension of “I’m Calm,” and masters “I’m Still Here.” She follows this fusion of Broadway and jazz on 1989’s Woman to Woman comprised exclusively of songs written by women. This was one of the first collections with this theme and she excels on a broad range of material composed by writers as disparate as Carol Bayer Sager, Billie Holiday and Flora Purim. While there is a jazz element, especially her sizzling take on “Fine and Mellow,” the set showcases a range of smart, melodic popular songs with an adult sensibility. In essence “good music” is not confined to jazz.

1991’s Jazz, featuring luminaires like Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, and Toots Thielemans, has my favorite version of Ellington’s “Just a Sittin and a Rockin’” in an exquisite duet with trumpeter Clark Terry, as well as fresh renditions of contemporary standards like “I Told you So” and a funky versionof “Lady Be Good” that somehow works. Some people think her brassy “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is too much; I hear a fine showcase for all the musicians involved. Blue and Sentimental from 1994 features yet another new standard in Francesca Blumenthal’s “The Lies of Handsome Men,” gets down and dirty on “Love Me” and “Soft Pedal Blues,” and generates serious heat on two superb duets with Joe Williams, including a sultry blues “A Cryin’ Shame” and a definitive rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do.” Though she has sung Ellington on multiple occasions 1995’s Solitude, performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra is one of her finest swing showcases. She and the Orchestra harmonize flawlessly on Shakespeare’s “Take All My Loves,” gallop through “Rocking in Rhythm” confidently, and simmer on the Adelaide Hall classic “Creole Love Call” both featuring smart lyrics by Lorraine Feather. I also enjoy her highly personal take on Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” retitled “Cleo’s A Train” which interpolates melodies from multiple Ellington standards into the song’s melodic framework. Laine the balladeer, musical theatre actress, pop song interpreter, blues interpreter, and swinger, emerges in a variety of settings.  These recordings represent some of the finest vocal artistry of their period and defy any singular characterization of Laine. Her artistry is comparable to legendary jazz divas for the rawness of her talent and her singularity.

Barbra Streisand: Reclaiming her legend

Barbra Streisand is the most successful and accomplished vocalist to emerge from the early 1960s and remain relevant. She is also divisive because she is loud, disruptive, and unceasing in her ambition. Though it has been over 20 years since she had a radio hit, her albums regularly top the charts. On average, the self-proclaimed “actress who sings” from Brooklyn, who is in her early 70s as I write this, sells more albums than younger, trendier, and more aggressively marketed acts.

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 Streisand’s legendary endurance is indisputable, but her critical reputation has always been fraught. Writers have frequently devoted more time evaluating her appearance, her psyche, and rumors about her behavior, than her artistry, which as a singer, actress, director, and producer, is formidable across multiple mediums. Musically, Streisand is important for disrupting the polite, demure, and emotionally repressed female pop that immediately preceded her and simultaneously forcing cabaret music to grow up.  Most of the hits that singers like Patti Page, Doris Day, and Jo Stafford popularized in the 1950s were either agreeable romantic ballads or cheesy novelty songs that belied their age and intelligence. Coming out of the big band era, they did not begin their recording careers thinking in terms of albums, but rather in “sides” (singles) thus they are more famous for individual songs than albums.

Streisand, comparatively, debuted in 1963 and her album gained significant critical and commercial attention. Rather than wowing you with double tracked vocals, winning you over with perky optimism, or fading into the background Streisand stood out. The wounded lover performance she delivers in “Cry Me a River” (where she belts “Come on! Come on”!) obliterates Julie London’s placid original performance. Similarly, the way she transforms “Happy Days are Here Again” from a cheery anthem into a dramatic ironic ballad of yearning is genius. In these two songs, she turned mainstream female pop singing on its ear demonstrating that female pop singers could make music that was powerful, subtle, and ironic and still sell. Her debut was a hit and won her the Album of the Year Grammy, one of eight she eventually received.

Streisand’s recording career paralleled her successful run on Broadway, which led to innovative TV specials, and a successful film career. In the musical theatre Streisand’s approach in I Can Get it for You Wholesale and Funny Girl were triumphant performances that provided an alternative toning down the sometimes literal histrionics of Ethel Merman. Though Judy Garland certainly influenced Streisand, she also managed to add some bite to Garland’s stylized vulnerability. Streisand was tough and modern; she secured creative control of her music and her actions suggest that she realized that women could not adhere to the old entertainment scripts of the 1940s and 1950s. Looking back it is not surprising that she emerged in the era of Sex and the Single Girl and The Feminine Mystique because her professional instincts and expressive choices are of a piece with these paradigm shifters.  Streisand’s highly modern feminine expression sustained her through the late 1960s. Though she defied her generation by not singing rock material initially, her ability to push certain elements of pre-rock culture in new directions was innovative making her as radical and enduring as any of the women who gained fame singing soul and acid rock. Though some of her attempts to modernize her sound in the 1970s were clumsy, Streisand singing Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, and Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs was more convincing than most of the attempts by pop, cabaret, and jazz singers trying to stay current. Further, Streisand originated several enduring standards from the 1970s including “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen,” something few interpretive singers accomplished at the time.

If the 1960s and 1970s were her most innovative and influential eras, she still managed to make impressive forays into post-disco pop (1980’s Guilty), modernize classic and contemporary Broadway songs, and bring a little class to the soft rock/adult contemporary field from the 1980s onward. She accomplished these while venturing into directing and producing films (Yentl, Prince of Tides, The Mirror Has Two Faces), staging acclaimed concerts, and producing successful TV concert specials.  Streisand’s individual ambitions have given her an enduring career, and inspired other artists including those of her generation, such as Diana Ross, and younger singers like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton.  There are generations of aspiring actors, singers, and perhaps director/producers, who view Streisand as a model, and she seems poised to remain the kind of performer younger audiences will continue to discover and share.

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