A relentless nod to the past

The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums

By Will Friedwald

Pantheon, 2017

I usually like Will Friedwald’s books more than I expect to. Friedwald is the author of Jazz Singing, Stardust Melodies, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, and the new book The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums. Friedwald is a highly opinionated journalist, a record producer, a frequent talking head in documentaries and a writer of liner notes. Through his writing, I learned about some of jazz’s finest vocalists including Mildred Bailey, The Boswell Sisters, Jackie Paris, and Kay Starr. I also enjoy the fact that he is one of the few active jazz oriented critics who appreciates vocal jazz, pre-rock pop music and cabaret. In an era where artists of advanced age struggle for support and attention, it is refreshing to read the work of someone who appreciates the past. Simply by valuing vocalists as artists, without excuses, he stands apart and has had the opportunity to write several books about jazz singing, jazz and pop repertoire, and vocalists.

My challenges with Friedwald’s writing are technical and ideological. He writes with the genuine enthusiasm of a fan and admirer, and does his homework on the backstories of his objects of study. But he frequently overburdens you with run on sentences loaded with lots of random details and written in an exhausting taxonomical style. For example, he loves to reveal the race and ethnicity of songwriters, or to explain the roots of a song, but this minutiae often feels superfluous, illuminating little about enjoying the recording itself. In addition to doing archival research, I get the sense that he has become chummy with many of his subjects and collected a trove of anecdotes about recording sessions and interpersonal relationships.  This gives his writing an insider’s feel, but is sometimes wearying. He discusses 57 albums recorded from 1950-2002 and almost every album is discussed track-by-track making the whole book feel like one long review.

Music critic Will Friedwald's book shares his perspective on 57 albums recorded from 1950-2002.

Music critic Will Friedwald's book shares his perspective on 57 albums recorded from 1950-2002.

More troubling is a tendency toward mean-spirited rants inappropriate in serious criticism. For example, since 1990’s Jazz Singing he has attacked Barbra Streisand’s persona in relation to other artists, as opposed to her work. While her recordings are not above criticism, his writing in 2011’s Biographical Guide is condescending, sexist, nasty, and features factual errors. These attacks on Streisand have surfaced in multiple places including liner notes for other singers’ recordings, and even as asides in The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums. The book does not include an entry on any of her recordings, which is ridiculous, so if he detests her so much why bother insulting her in this book, or featuring an entry in the previous book? As much as he wants readers to view him as a credible voice he cannot resist the urge to cater to tired old stereotypes and take cheap shots. 

My third issue is a matter of taste. As much as Friedwald professes to love vocal jazz, he seems mostly drawn to middle-of the road vocalists like Doris Day, who has three entries in his new book, and Jo Stafford, who has three. Taste is taste, but I find it strange in a book with the title’s pretense (The Great) that he could not make room for more innovative and challenging vocalists like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sheila Jordan, Bette Midler, Mark Murphy, or…Streisand. As talented as Day, Stafford, and other singers of this ilk are, he does not make a strong argument that their artistry advances pop or jazz singing. He just enjoys them and that is apparently sufficient. As such, the book is really an expression of his personal preferences rather than a serious book bound to influence future thinking on the topic of vocal jazz and pre-rock pop.

Though Friedwald frequently notes that jazz influenced pop was the mainstream before rock and roll and music overtly targeting youth, when given the choice between daring improvisational music and middle of the road romantic pop he almost always chooses the latter. He may respect Jordan and Murphy, or Carol Sloane (all included in Biographical Guide), but for him Peggy Lee and Margaret Whiting’s albums are superior album makers. The book may be enjoyable to his established fans and admirers but it squanders the opportunity for contemporary readers to recognize that great vocal jazz and cabaret singing did not stop in the late 1950's which is the era dominating his discussion. Among the 57 albums 51 were recorded from 1950-1969. Among the remaining sets, five are from the 1970's and two from the early 2000's. If people looking to learn more about the vocal fields read this book, they might wonder if anyone has recorded a quality album during the 1980-2002 period, or since 2002. Of course, many artists did record exceptional albums, from Sheila Jordan’s daring voice and bass albums of the 1970's to Gregory Porter’s excellent jazz and soul fused sets in the 2010's.  For Friedwald, however, the mid-to-late 1950's was the peak of album making. I must note that large record labels abandoned jazz decades ago, so there is a structural element to consider. Symbolically, however, the attitude that the best vocal jazz and pop happened in the past partially illustrates why younger people see jazz as old fashioned and out of-date.

More is the pity, because reissues by classic vocal artists like Armstrong, Fitzgerald, and Holiday, outsell contemporary singers so the book is more of a retread of the obvious than the groundbreaking exposé of daring and innovative work it could have been. For people who are genuinely concerned about the commercial obscurity of jazz and cabaret there is a compelling desire to position jazz as relevant. This does not mean we excise the past, but it seems possible to acknowledge influential canonical works and note how innovations continue to emerge from the vocal field, as the possibilities for repertoire, arrangement, and technique continue to evolve.

Mr. Friedwald’s own writing has had to brush against some of this reality, even reluctantly. Since the original publication of Jazz Singing in 1990 many of the acts he dismissed brashly at the time, such as Michael Feinstein, Harry Connick Jr., and Diane Schuur persisted and he has been forced to come around. Critics change their minds all the time, so some of his hastiness is forgivable. But it is supremely ironic that 20 years later Connick, Feinstein, and Mathis, and others he dismissed such as Any Williams, have entries in A Biographical Guide. He also wrote the liner notes for Schuur’s 2014 album I Remember You. Are these singers any better now than they were circa 1990 or has he run out of subjects to cover?

And so it goes in the divided music industry. The gap between youth and adult music has grown so wide that if Friedwald did not relent and reconsider even a little, he would have very few (living) people to write about. Though he has nodded to artists like Cassandra Wilson on previous occasions, most of the artists he champions are dead, or many have simply peaked artistically as the natural result of age and time. Thus, he is advocating for folks to listen to recordings more than people you can see and hear live. I appreciate his love for veterans like Tony Bennett and Marilyn Maye, but they will  retire eventually. Rather than becoming a preservationist, now probably seems like a good time for him to acknowledge the keepers of the pre-rock flame. He may already be too late.

As The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums hits virtual retailers and brick-and-mortar shelves, albums as a form, are losing relevance. The convenience of downloading and its implied customization might render the classic devotion of critics to the album form moot. CD sales were robust just over a decade ago when several artists could sell multiple millions of an album and have hit singles. In the 2010's album covers, liner notes, arrangement and production details and other symbols of the albums era feel downright nostalgic.

Friedwald’s willingness to stick with his aesthetic sensibilities indicates a certain integrity, but I doubt he will inspire future generations to seek out LPs by Day, Tiny Tim, and some of the other oddball entries in the book, however meaningful they are to him personally.   Despite the title, “Great” is highly subjective and Friedwald fails to define its meaning beyond what he likes personally. If he titled the book the Most Innovative vocal albums, or the Most Influential vocal albums, the book would have more gravity. That approach would have been more global and critically rigorous, and spoken directly to how these recordings affected other vocal artists and listeners. This book, more than any of his others, is a highly subjective personal expression. Imagine someone rifling through their record collection, choosing 50 or so favorites, and writing about them in an encyclopedic sense and you have the essence of the book. Friedwald vacillates between intimate and authoritative voices, but the book has a built-in insularity. Since he has chosen to write from a place of personal taste, it is hard not to address his taste in similar terms.

In terms of choices, Friedwald shares the universal, and understandable, admiration of most critics for canonical figures like Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Anita O’ Day, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington, so they have at least one entry. These include almost indisputable classics such as Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s Ella & Oscar and Sinatra’s Songs for Swinging Lovers. Other choices reflect one of Friedwald’s strengths as a writer for drawing renewed attention to overlooked greats and unearthing credible left-field choices.  He has championed overlooked singers like  Maye, Kay Starr, and Lee Wiley for many years so their inclusion is predictable and welcome. Less obvious choices range from recordings on the lighter side like Della Reese’s Della Loves to Cha Cha Cha and Steve Lawrence’s  & Eydie Gormé’s cover album of big band tunes Eydie and Steve Sing the Golden Hits, to more interesting entries on Blossom Dearie, Matt Dennis, and the English singer Barb Jungr, included for her take on the Bob Dylan songbook.

The book’s omissions reflect ongoing blind spots in Friedwald’s taste. The album focuses almost exclusively on American singers, with the exception of Jungr. You could easily turn to Brazil for an abundance of gifted jazz singers who have recorded excellent albums including Lenny Andrade, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Elis Regina, and Milton Nascimento. Alas, he sticks with America and England. No albums based around songs outside of the English language are included, which is disappointing considering the important role songs in other languages, especially Spanish, French, and Portuguese, have played in the repertoire of U.S. vocalists. The only major American vocalist to emerge since the 1980's included in the collection is Cassandra Wilson. Though she is an excellent choice, there is no limit to the great singing happening among current active singers. Some of the finest recordings of the last 30 years emerged from contemporary vocalists such as Karrin Allyson, Patricia Barber, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Holly Cole, Kurt Elling, Kevin Mahogany, Rene Marie, Gregory Porter, Dianne Reeves, Diane Schuur, and Tierney Sutton. In their place are Doris Day and Robert Goulet’s version of Annie Get Your Gun and Tiny Tim’s God Bless Tiny Tim.

Friedwald has long struggled to reconcile his taste for musicals, pre-rock pop, and jazz with the rock world thus his “coming out” in Biographical as a fan of Dylan and Elvis. This might explain why few of the albums, aside from Jungr and Wilson’s Belly of the Sun (featuring several canonical blues and gospel songs alongside songs by The Band, Dylan, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb and herself), feature a repertoire reflecting the last 50 years of popular songwriting. Several albums, including The Tierney Sutton Band’s Sting Vriations (2016) and the Joni Mitchell set, 2014’s After Blue, Roseanna Vitro’s The Music of Randy Newman (2011), Holly Cole’s Tom Waits suite Temptation (1995), and multiple albums by Curtis Stigers recorded in the 2000s-2010s illustrate the value jazz vocalists have found in the rock canon. Related to this is scant attention to people outside of the jazz and cabaret field who have demonstrated excellent interpretive skill across genres, notably Willie Nelson’s classic 1978 standards album Stardust.  Again, given the opportunity to reflect a broad palette he has settled for either safe predictability or highly personal preferences that ignore large slices of the vocal interpretive world. 

The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums raises questions about the ethical role of music critics especially those writing in commercially obscure fields. In the past, critics wrote from their personal taste perspectives, but they frequently advocated for underdogs in the hope that positive reviews might lead to greater exposure for the artists and the art. In the case of vocal jazz, as well as cabaret and “traditional pop,” veteran singers with extensive catalogs (most of whom are dead) are actually sales leaders who outsell newer singers. Comparatively, contemporary vocalists in the jazz, cabaret and traditional pop vocal fields, are in genres that major record labels severed from the mainstream pop world decades ago with rare exception. Most of these artists record for smaller, independent labels and have fewer outlets for exposure. Though the digital age has ostensibly eased some distribution and promotional costs, the internet has not made very many jazz, cabaret or traditional pop singers stars. Critics such as Friedwald should have the freedom to write about whomever and whatever they choose, but the emphasis on the “good old days” has the tacit effect of conveying that very little music made today is worth hearing. He, and others like him,  may find few new singers to write about in the future.  

As such I appreciate the past masters, and Lord know my preferences are as strong as anyone’s, I wish there was more diversity among those who write about vocal jazz and cabaret. Mr. Friedwald is an often enjoyable and insightful writer, but the narrowing commercial possibilities for vocal jazz and pop and the narrowing of voices included in the canon elevates nostalgia and limits the contemporary audience’s attention to living contemporary vocalists. Talented, idiosyncratic vocalists like Kitty Margolis, Madeline Eastman, Lisa Sokolov and Theo Bleckmann were never going to be cross over commercial artists regardless of critical acclaim. However, their music takes risks and strives for improvisational and interpretive greatness in a way that makes them singular artists. In a book attempting to capture vocal art as captured on albums The Great is strangely conservative and anachronistic, and nods to Tiny Tim do little to curb this narrow view. Tellingly the book’s Discography lists LPs and CDs but does not indicate if the albums listed are available for downloading.