Learning to Listen Bonus Cut: Bruno Mars loves the 80s! What’s next?...

Dear Riffs, Beats, & Codas reader: I wrote a review of Bruno Mars’s XXIVk Magic when it first came out in late 2016 but never published it. His recent victory at 2018's Grammys inspired me to dust if off and revisit my original sentiments, which remain the same. He was among the few nominees’ whose work I was familiar with so his wins validate my sense that he is an interesting musician. The wins also reiterate why he needs to try something new if he wants to become a great artist rather than a merely entertaining one.

After successfully channeling elements from Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown and The Police on his albums Bruno Mars scored his biggest hit in 2014 on the throwback Minneapolis funk of the Mark Ronson produced “Uptown Funk.” Sultry, danceable and melodic it’s one of those inevitable hits that’s simply undeniable. It topped the pop charts for 14 weeks and won Mars and Ronson two Grammys, including the main platter Record of the Year. Several weeks ago Mars built on this winning streak by winning six more including Record (“24 K Magic”), Song (“That’s What I Like”), Album (XXVk Magic), R&B Song (“That’s What I Like”),  R&B Vocal (“That’s What I Like”), and R&B Album (XXVk Magic).

Mars celebrates his passion for 1980s and 1990s R&B on his 2016 chart topping, Grammy winning album  XXIVk Magi c.

Mars celebrates his passion for 1980s and 1990s R&B on his 2016 chart topping, Grammy winning album XXIVk Magic.

Mars is smart enough to know how pop music works, hence he returns to the 1980s R&B well in full force (coincidentally, the name of a successful production group in the ‘80s and 90s!) on XXIVk Magic. If you are connoisseur of R&B circa 1986-89 this will take you back in time. But can Mars bring you forward into the present? Maybe, but let’s survey some of the musical evidence: 

On the top 10 hit title track he dips into the Roger Troutman & Zapp playbook with a funky bottom borrowed from 1990s hip-hop. “Perm” is pure James Brown funk. I hear traces of Bobby Brown style New Jack swing in “Straight Up & Down.” The torchy soul ballad “Too Good to Say Goodbye” is the kind of large scale vocal and emotional workout Peabo Bryson, Jeffrey Osborne and Freddie Jackson built their careers on.

From one listen, its clearly state-of-the art 1980s pop-funk dressed up in post-millennial production. As an album for cruising or for throwing on at a party album it ebbs and flows perfectly. Mars’s melodic gifts also place him at the forefront of today’s pop songwriters. You will definitely hum these tunes after hearing them once or twice. 

A few challenges could disrupt the non-stop Mars party. In playing to past strengths Mars risks pandering to his established audience. His love for funk styles of the past is admirable, but he has shown a broader stylistic range on his two previous albums. In the digital era, albums are often grab bags of styles.  The downloadable buffet approach takes pressure off artists to make coherent suites. Still, he has traded the stylistic playground for an entertaining but overly familiar set of grooves. Further, songs like 2010’s “Just the Way You Are” demonstrated a sweet side but the sour element sometimes threatens this balance in his lyrics. By intentionally writing songs aimed at players and party people (ostensibly male) he tends to write about little beyond partying and seduction.

Mars receiving one of six Grammy Awards on February 28, 2018. The music industry  celebrated his well-crafted  melodic pop, but is his music growing stale?

Mars receiving one of six Grammy Awards on February 28, 2018. The music industry  celebrated his well-crafted  melodic pop, but is his music growing stale?

He sings to a female suitor that it’s good they like the same things in “That’s What I Like.” Meaning…she would be screwed if they didn’t? The melody of “Versace on the Floor” is enchanting and the crooning is expert. But, the song is almost parodic in its one-dimensional focus on literally getting a woman’s clothes off. Love songs are de rigeur in pop but there is a lot of effort here for very thin ideas.

XXIVk Magic solidifies Mars as a master of funk pastiche, and as a nine-song album, he is wise enough to not overstay his welcome. Still, I sense there are deeper and more interesting stories he could tell especially with his encyclopedic musical knowledge. I hope that as he plans his next album he tunes out the retro hits and trusts his own groove more.



Learning to Listen Excerpt 16: "Pop" without apology: The soul of Holly Cole

Holly Cole (b. 1963) is an exemplary singer of superior popular songs. She is perhaps the quintessential model of what a modern interpreter of popular songs can achieve to appeal to contemporary ears and reach toward the vocal pantheon.  From the outset of her recording career (the Nova Scotia native debuted in Canada on 1990’s Girl Talk; her U.S. debut was 1992’s Blame it On My Youth) she has been the kind of singer critics seeking a quality pop experience long for. She is a jazz-oriented singer whose innovative style defies the fuddy-duddy image many young people have of jazz. Cole is also the kind of pop/rock-oriented singer that jazz folks and other discriminating audiences can embrace without embarrassment. Essentially everybody wins when listening to Holly Cole sing.

The cover of Holly Cole's 2007 masterpiece of swing and noir ballads.

The cover of Holly Cole's 2007 masterpiece of swing and noir ballads.

The shape of her recording career reveals her talent for drawing on jazz, cabaret, soul and rock elements deftly. She also continually defies the Peggy Lee/Julie London style “ingénue” tag lazy critics apply to any white female singer who sings standards. On Blame it on My Youth and 1993’s Don’t Smoke in Bed she demonstrates several core values including her ability to locate the best popular songs from various eras and her desire to interpret them freshly; the ability to swing; talent for singing a ballad tenderly; and most importantly, the ability to imbue songs with humor, flair, and emotional intelligence. These sensibilities culminate in a clear view of her as a modernist with classicist tendencies.

As a vocalist born in the mid-1960s Cole is part of a generation of musicians whose recordings more inclined toward sparseness than excess and more self-effacing than attention-hungry. On these initial albums, the billing is the Holly Cole Trio which provides room for pianist Aaron Davis, and bassist and percussionist David Piltch to share the spotlight. The tightness of their unit, augmented by guest soloists, makes it easier for the group to craft and sustain a voice as opposed to the more faceless big ticket production style that can easily overwhelm a new singer in the jazz/cabaret field.

Cole began her recording career as a band leader of Trio featuring piansit Aaron Davis and bassist/percusisonist David Piltch.

Cole began her recording career as a band leader of Trio featuring piansit Aaron Davis and bassist/percusisonist David Piltch.

1990’s Girl Talk is raw—there are times when she pushes her voice to explosive limits and needs to tone things down as on an overdramatic “Spring Can really Hang You Up the Most. ” But even when she overshoots you want to know what’s next. At her best moments, she is smart and poised. “Talk to Me Baby” is a delicate plea sung gently and tenderly; it is a remarkable display of control.  She wraps her sumptuous voice around a funky “Cruisin’ ”—Smokey Robinson has rarely sounded so slyly sexy.  “Girl Talk” is knowing and ironic; “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” breaks your heart.  At the outset, she establishes key aspects of her musical character and persona.

The attitude on Blame is openhearted, but emotionally firm. Cole avoids lazy nostalgia and brazen irony, which makes Blame It on My Youth consistently inviting. She has glorious fun with “If I Were a Bell,” possesses perfect timing for the bite of Lyle Lovett’s sardonic “God Will,” and gives a big hearted yearning rendition of Bob Telson’s “Calling You.” In the world of the Cole Trio Tom Waits (“Purple Avenue”) is on equal footing with Frank Loesser and each is song is a mini-statement interpreted with melodic respect and lyrical precision. There is also a refreshing mix of rhythmic variety and harmonic scope. “God Will” plays like a blues ballad in the Charles Brown mold. Cole voices a swinging “If I Were a Bell” with a sassy sexual forthrightness that updates the goofy lyrics, and the piquant violin solo (courtesy of Johnny Fringo) drives the tune home. “Honeysuckle Rose” has a stirring bounce that builds into double time climax. “Calling You” is sung with the intensity of a field holler—there’s a stirring rawness to her performance that convinces me that it is one of the best torch songs ever. It’s no coincidence that singers as diverse as George Michael, Jeff Buckley, Paul Young, Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand, Etta James , among others heard something worthwhile in the song. Holly Cole’s version might be the best yet.

1992's Blame it On My Youth is an eclectic masterpiece featuring sterling interpretation from writers as varied as Frank Loesser and Lyle Lovett.

1992's Blame it On My Youth is an eclectic masterpiece featuring sterling interpretation from writers as varied as Frank Loesser and Lyle Lovett.

Don’t Smoke in Bed is also a Trio record with standards and new pop, but is even bolder in many respects. She and her Trio transform Johnny Nash’s sunny “I Can see Clearly Now” from a light pop song to a stunning anthem of optimism. As the song builds from blue skies to clear skies the harmonies soar and so does Cole—it may be her most transcendent vocal moment. “So and So,” which I was unfamiliar with previously, is a swinging bass driven number sung with believable anger and resignation, and has a unique moment where Cole chants indecipherably to herself over finger snaps. She renders “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday,” a ‘70s Philly Soul hit, as a secular gospel song. She and her bandmates make it strut as a mid-tempo soul-torch song, with sizzling Joe Henderson sax solos and gospel piano, rife with layers of yearning and glee that unfold bar-by-bar to the point of nearly exploding.

It is notable that this was released in the same year Cassandra Wilson’s classic Blue Light Til’ Dawn featured a radically haunting interpretation of the Philly Soul song “Children of the Night.” Wilson’s chief interpretive tool was to place songs under a blanket of blue harmonies with African-inspired chanting and percussion and slow tempos. Comparatively, Cole favors a gradual accumulation of small gestures that sweeps you up into a big emotional build. Cole did not receive the same level of acclaim, but what she achieves is as sublime and surprising.

Cole delves deeper into the chanteuse mold recording the bittersweet Willard Robison penned Peggy Lee vehicle “Don’t Smoke in Bed”  and Kurt Weill’s “Je Ne T’Aime Pas.” She sings them as hauntingly beautiful as you expect, but they are conventional compared with some of the odder songs.  More memorable are her takes on curios like “Que Sera Sera” and “The Tennessee Waltz” which she sings with an adult sensibility beyond their hit versions by Doris Day and Patti Page respectively. On a whole the production is bigger, including a few string arrangements and more guests, and the repertoire is a bit more traditional (including Cole Porter’s “Get out of Town” and “Blame it On my Youth”), but it confirms the Trio’s fresh approach to pop of many stripes.

Some critics frame Cole as a jazz singer; others view her as a kind of postmodern cabaret singer. In truth her choices suggested a greater loyalty to her developing hybrid of contemporary and classic pop than a particular genre. 1995’sTemptaiton, a Tom Waits songbook album solidifies the translation of her unique language. The choice of Waits is interesting for being the first of its kind in the jazz world and for anticipating a generational reverence for Waits that eventually came in the 2000s. Like Cole, Waits draws careful flecks from the past—notably blues and jazz—to color his self-portrait.  He also experiments relentlessly, avoiding genre, which make he and Cole a logical match.

Rather than approaching Waits’s songs as pop songs in need of obvious swing elements or “jazzing up,” the Trio continues to approach songs sparsely treating each song as a unique artifact whose content should dictate the approach.  Waits’s songs tend to be character sketches representing aspects of his persona and can be melodically slight. Cole, however, does for him what Jennifer Warnes did for Leonard Cohen—she renders them as melodically interesting songs with enough meat for a skilled vocalist to go to new places.  The most successful performances draw on Cole’s honed sense of phrasing and the Trio’s impressive arranging choices. Waits’s songs require a certain mastery of tone and a sense of character to work, and Cole understands these qualities.

“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” is a tender lullaby on the terror of adulthood sung from a child’s point of view. Cole is a reliable narrator who walks you through a kind of general lament to the overwhelming depiction of instability and anger the lyrics portray. “Jersey Girl” has a trashy slant with overdubbed “sha-la-las.” Cole makes for a convincing waitress in “Invitation to the Blues” and projects just the right amount of world weariness on “Tango Til They Sore” and “The Heart of Saturday Night.” Not everything sticks out from the set, but it’s notable nonetheless for solidifying a kind of experimental approach to interpretation that’s modern but undefinable. Temptation has rock-ish elements but I would hardly call it rock or modern rock; there is a moodiness with cabaret overtones, but there is a viscerality here traditionally lacking in cabaret. Jazz elements surface here and there, but the rhythms are only tangentially related.  I raise this only because this is one of the few albums I can think of that a die-hard fan of any of these genres could enjoy without a second thought.

Cole’s turn toward rock occurred ostensibly on 1997’s Dark Dear Heart. Cole interprets material by the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Sheryl Crow, and works with Larry Klein, a pop/rock producer previously married to Mitchell. The instrumentation has a traditional rock rhythm section with electric guitar, drums, electric bass, and modern touches like drum loops. This may sound like pandering or selling out to pop. However, these are not radio-friendly tunes and Cole always defies your expectations. Temptation freed Cole from the cabaret and jazz tags, and this album probably felt freeing as well given her clear awareness and affinity for contemporary songs.

I am not sure if it would immediately catch the attention of a traditional jazz or cabaret listener, but it would certainly draw a rock fan to Cole’s catalog. This is a moody album with a torchy undercurrent. The pained ballad “Make It Go Away” and the waltz “Onion Girl” are great cry-in-your-cocktail songs that work on their own terms. Mitchell’s “River” can lapse into simpiness in the wrong hands, but Cole rises above sentimentality giving it a tough yet tender reading. Many of the songs revolve around the need for heartache to be heard and consoled, and sustain a haunted, melancholic mood leavened by glints of humor and irony. Cole gradually builds from a menacing and seductive version of Lennon and McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face” to a series of eclectic laments including “Onion”’s waltz, the funk inflected mid-tempo ballads “World Seems to Come and Go” and “Hold On,” and moody midnight ballads like the vampish “Timbuktu” and a trumpet spiked “All the Pretty Little Horses.”  This is a progressive, entrancing recording that defies easy categorization—much like its interpreter.   

On  this 2000 album Cole digs into the songbooks of The Shirelles, Paul Simon, and Frank Sinatra brilliantly.

On  this 2000 album Cole digs into the songbooks of The Shirelles, Paul Simon, and Frank Sinatra brilliantly.

2000’s Romantically Helpless is a seamless fusion of her catholic music interests. Its rock instrumentation resembles Dark Dear Heart, but conceptually it completes the virtual trilogy begun by Temptation. The way she employs Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Randy Newman, the Shirelles, Stephen Sondheim, and Paul Simon to tell her tale may make her one of the most resourceful and genuinely versatile singers in pop music. Her ability to draw these together to convey the promise and disappointment of love is a masterstroke. For example, “Come Fly with Me” is not played as the breezy invite Sinatra offered. Cole sings it as a plea for a lover to live a little, but also to give her a last chance emotionally. In slowing the tempo and brushing the song in a bluer vocal shade, she treats it as a living text worthy of a fresh take.

2003’s Shade (rare but available as an import) is Cole’s most fully realized vision of interpreting standards in a contemporary vein. Jazz-oriented, but not beholden to jazz technique, Cole sores (or rather shimmers) as a vocalist, arranger, and musician, playing xylophone and glockenspiel on a few tunes.  Thematically speaking her tone is cool but she emits sizzling sensuality throughout building the tensions on tunes like “Too Darn Hot” and “Heat Wave.” In addition to these blistering efforts Cole conveys immense tenderness in a deep reading of “God Only Knows” (the only rock era standard here) and a mystical, hushed performance of “We Kiss in a Shadow.”  The fresh arrangements, mastery of tone and Cole’s overall emotional command make this a genuine masterpiece of jazz-based expression.

 There is a fearlessness in these first six albums that makes her virtually unrivaled among other interpretive singers of her generation. As a Canada-based artist Cole has had far less visibility in the U.S. than many other acts, but her albums are easy to find and ripe for discovery.  She is comparable to singers like Janis Siegel, Diane Schuur, Patricia Barber, and Cassandra Wilson. She breaks stylistic boundaries and explores the ways jazz, rock, soul, and pop can speak to each other fluently in a contemporary interpretive language.

On 2007’s Holly Cole the singer records one of her most overtly jazz-oriented sets in years. Drawing songs mostly from American musical theater and film themes with a touch of Brazilian and American pop, she is really in her element. The performances are uniformly focused and convincing highlighted by her swinging rendition of “It’s All Right with Me,” lovingly romantic, delicately-paced versions of the 60’s film ballads “Charade” and the chanson “I Will Wait for You,” and her cinematic rendition of the obscure “The House is Haunted by the Echo of Your Last Goodbye.” Over 15 years into her recording career and Cole is still reaching toward her zenith. 

2011’s Steal the Night is a live concert featuring Cole classics like “Calling You” and “I Can See Clearly Now” sung with gusto and taste. She also mixes in cool tunes like “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” If anything, the set, at 40 minutes, is too short! For U.S. listeners it was actually a warm up for 2012’s Night a concept set featuring fresh takes on night themed songs. Cole has a perceptive concept of noir featuring a James Bond theme (“You Only Live Twice”), Gordon Lightfoot (“If You Could Read My Mind”), Elvis (“Viva Las Vegas”), and Jerome Kern (“I Only Have Eyes for You”) plus several originals. Only Cole could synthesize these into an entertaining romp through the shadows of night. Her ability to modernize these songs and reframe them to advance her theme is surprisingly coherent and satisfying.

On 2012's Night, Cole modernizes songs from pop musicals, an Elvis  movie, and Gordon Lightfoot, among other sources.

On 2012's Night, Cole modernizes songs from pop musicals, an Elvis  movie, and Gordon Lightfoot, among other sources.

Though Holly Cole is best appreciated as an album maker the Canadian pressing of her 2004 compilation The Holly Cole Collection Volume I is the best overview of the first few years of her career. The set provides obvious highlights and signatures such as the pulsating “I Can See Clearly Now,” the spare and wistful “Calling You,” and her brilliantly intimate take on “Come Fly With Me.” The collection also includes selections from Shade and rarities like her covers of Prince’s “The Question of U,” Tom Waits’s “Shiver Me Timbers” and the jazz classic “Humdrum Blues.” The Collection Vol. 1 presents her skill and range in exemplary fashion and makes you curious for the next volume.



Learning to Listen Excerpt 15: k.d. lang: vocal sculptor

“You know there’s um, a lot of great entertainers and artists in the world. So many wonderful artists. Every once in a while there’s certain performers that come along. That they’re just blessed with a destiny. The three that come to mind are Billie Holiday, and Edith Piaf, Hank Williams. It goes beyond success. It becomes immortal. And I really believe the minute I heard this person sing that this is one of the artists that will go up on the shelf with them. Please welcome k.d. lang!”—Tony Bennett, from MTV Unplugged


The first time I saw k. d. lang (b. 1961) sing live was on a Comedy Central rebroadcast of a Saturday Night Live performance with her band The Reclines. lang, dressed in a purple pant suit with a mustard yellow blouse and ankle cut boots with her cropped haircut, sang the hell out of an archaically sexist song “Johnny Get Angry” with its chorus “Johnny get angry, Johnny get mad/Give me the biggest lesson I’ve ever had/I want a brave man/I want a cave man/Show me that you care that you care for me.” lang sang it in full-throated fashion hitting notes directly with a fervent almost operatic sweep; of course she sang the song with tongue firmly planted in cheek, at once screaming “Johnny!” and point flinging herself tothe ground.  As she got up from her mock beat down she sang the song’s end in a faux operatic falsetto with her band chirping behind her “Go Johnny, Johnny!”

“Johnny” was originally sung by Joannie Sommers in 1962 with apparently less irony. Interestingly, though the song was a lang concert staple it was not featured on any of her albums so her performance seems more like a stunt and a statement than the usual promotional function of SNL performances. The stunning part of her performance is the tension between the robust quality of her voice—hearty, full-throated, controlled—and her cheekiness. Because she plays its straight she is able to sustain the “joke” and actually earns the histrionic coda. She knows that we as her audience are in on the joke. This allows her to underplay the song’s sexist abusive sentiments just enough that we can distance ourselves from the song, and mock it, while also confronting how sadly “ordinary” its misogynist premise was in the ‘60s—and perhaps in 1990 too.

Vocalist, writer, and interpreter extraordinaire k.d. lang. 

Vocalist, writer, and interpreter extraordinaire k.d. lang. 

Like many country and pop divas of the time lang was a potent vocalist. But she was also a dynamic performer, a kind of character unafraid to harness her voice to her worldview, rather than merely use it in service of the traditional romantic sentiments of diva pop. There’s a conceptual energy and political undercurrent to her “Johnny Get Angry” missing from much of the country milieu she was initially identified with at the time. During the 1980s she and Lyle Lovett injected country with some much needed irony, humor, and self-awareness that ultimately modernized it. Dwight Yoakam, K.T. Oslin (see chapter), Rosanne Cash, and Mary Chapin-Carpenter also modernized country. Among these artists lang is the one who has most successfully transcended genre and era.

Though lang’s androgynous appearance and gender neutral pronoun-laced love songs should have made it obvious that she was not a traditional country vixen, her Ingénue-era coming out as a lesbian freed her sexually and musically. In her earliest work she sounds like a gifted vocalist with more voice and concept than she can fully sort out; she initially presented herself as the reincarnation of Patsy Cline (hence her band’s name The Reclines) and sang more as a character than a singer. This was not a problem when lang was a cowpunk and neo honky-tonker, particularly in her interpretations which were often covers of light hearted, sentimental ballads and waltzes with a florid romanticism and precious imagery. But as a composer a natural sense of romantic melancholy, social empathy, and emotional unrest emerged in her writing that was too strong to be compartmentalized. 

Her first mature recording Shadowland is a lusciously textured mix of torch songs and corny, old-fashioned country tunes she manages to make palatable. It is an accomplished and often affecting album with singing, arrangements, and vocal quality easily placing it in the upper echelon of pop and country albums of 1988. At times, however, it feels more like a stunt or an experiment in its vacillations from serious ballads to novelty songs and lang’s elusive persona. She sings like a pro but almost never surrenders to her material maintaining a distance even in her most emotional and convincing performances. The one exception is the final song a “Honky Tonk Angels Medley” sung with country pioneers Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells where she plays more of a supporting role and sounds genuinely in the moment reveling in the impressive company. Here she is just one of the girls, but elsewhere she sounds suspended between giving the songs the technical acumen they require, including tonality, but I sometimes sense that she is more entranced by the style of emoting the songs represent than feeling deeply connected to them. 

 Her performances of “Shadowland,” “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So,” “Busy Being Blue,” and especially “Black Coffee,” are masterful ballad performances sung with an ache approaching her role model Cline, as well as torch bearers like Holiday and Sinatra. In these performances she masters the countrypolitan elements—lush strings, cooing choirs—producer/arranger Owen Bradley frames her with, but despite the seemingly old-fashioned settings she never sounds imitative. She actually finds her own sound within the generic style.  She also manages to sing cornball songs like “(Waltz Me) Once Again Around the Dance Floor” and “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” affectionately rather than mocking them; yet there is a clear sense of distance between her and them. lang sounds more intrigued and bemused by the innocence they possess than challenged or invigorated by the songs themselves.

Ultimately Shadowland is a successful recording in execution, but is limited by design. lang proves she has the voice and technique to capture the countrypolitan aesthetic—a juxtaposition of raw emotion with lush landscapes that cushion singer and listener, lest things get too raw. But it is precisely this boundary that she wants to break from. What’s missing from the album is any real sense of adult sexuality. lang sings with a sensuous throb, and devours melancholic lyrics but there is a sexlessness to the album that does not seem sustainable. The expert pastiche she and Bradley achieve is impressive not expressive in a personal sense; lang could have easily could duplicated this approach and become a lounge act or a postmodern country act in the way that neo-“swing” bands did in the late 1990s. Fortunately she began to break free from the amusing, but disconnected asexual character her recordings presented and moved closer to capturing the bold, sassy persona of “Johnny.”

Of the 12 songs on 1989’s Absolute Torch and Twang nine were originals, with eight co-written by lang and her collaborator Ben Mink, and one written by lang exclusively. Having mastered countrypolitan she returned to the cowpunk attitude of her earliest albums, A Truly Western Experience and Angel with a Lariat. The resulting album sounds like an extension of who she is rather than a representation of what she can do, and the results are liberating.

On the Bo Diddley-esque “Luck in My Eyes” she sounds emotionally and sexually invigorated; there’s steadiness to its backbeat, optimism in its harmonies and intrigue in her voice that feels completely unguarded. Her version of Willie Nelson’s “Three Days” swings and extends “Luck”’s optimistic theme in its propulsive rhythm and her involved vocal. Elsewhere she conveys a stinging gutsiness of persona in “Didn’t I” and the anthemic “Pullin’ Back the Reins.” It is usually a folly to interpret lyrics too deeply as pure autobiography, but there is a thematic consistency here that evokes the bold personae country predecessors like Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Wanda Jackson, Dolly Parton and Rosanne Cash previously authored in their lyrics. These songs quickly dispel any notion of lang as a closed book; she remained an impressive technician and a versatile stylist, but she was branching into a distinctive sound. Elsewhere she paints an affectionate portrait of an outsider who finds acceptance on “Big Boned Gal” appropriating the elements of country corn for more incisive purposes than sexual innocence or pastiche.

In addition to authoring her versions of torch balladry (“Trail of Broken Hearts,” “Wallflower Waltz”) lie two songs poignantly relevant to her eventual notoriety for gender ambiguity including her plaintive take on the illusion of star personae “It’s Me,” and a searing view of child abuse (aka “discipline”) on “Nowhere to Stand.”   On “It’s Me” she sings plainly “I am givin’ what I can” and “Might not be all you want/But it’s all you get it’s me,” in a sense indicating the sense that she will neither define herself in other’s terms nor apologize for the ambiguity she presents. This could be heard as a proto-coming out anthem, but its scope seems broader, a simple anthem exposing the tolls of public/private tensions and the resignation it can inspire. “Nowhere” unmasks the dark, buried elements of “small town” lore particularly questioning the common sense attitude toward “order”: “A family tradition/The strength of this land/Where what’s right and wrong/Is the back of a hand/Turns girls into women/a boy to a man.” By ending the set with this sobering look at a complacent mentality regarding man-made morality and the questionable social elements its props up, she manages to work within country music’s tradition of plaintiveness and to question the “values” it represents. Just as Shadowland demonstrated her finesse with countrypolitan and tacitly earned her the endorsement of established country figures, Absolute Torch and Twang allowed her to synthesize her mastery of various forms of country tradition and test her ability to contribute to it personally.

After years of postmodern cowpunk and country lang had a pop breakthrough with 1992's sumptuous suite of longing  Ingenue .  

After years of postmodern cowpunk and country lang had a pop breakthrough with 1992's sumptuous suite of longing Ingenue.  

Her move toward pop music on 1992’s Ingénue and 1995’sAll You Can Eat allowed her to expand on her growing confessional persona in different and possibly less constraining musical settings. Though country music is rife with subgenres (honky tonk, The Bakersfield Sound, countrypolitan, western swing, etc.) commercial momentum in the genre is increasingly dependent on artists’ ability to adapt to radio trends that homogenize their sound, but keeps them sounding “current.” Country lyrics and rhetoric may be big on tradition, but at any given moment the genre is rife with veteran artists who have resigned themselves to commercial obscurity. This became profoundly true in the early 1990s when Sound Scan digital retail technology revealed the wide commercial market for country, exemplified by Garth Brooks, and later solidified by Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and other contemporary country acts. With rare exceptions iconoclastic country acts mostly turned to the folk and “roots music” circuits (see Chapin-Carpenter, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Dolly Parton) or have been fortunate to have admirers in the rock world to boost their careers (i.e. Loretta Lynn’s 2004 comeback Van Lear Rose produced by the White Stripes’s Jack White).

lang avoided this by moving toward what could loosely be called the “adult contemporary” market—shorthand for well-heeled middle aged listeners who listen to the radio at home, or on their daily commutes, and are prone to buying albums. Though pop music and offshoots like “soft rock” and “adult contemporary” are usually derided pop’s elasticity allows it to be constantly redefined and reconfigured, making lang’s transition sensible. If she continued moving in the compositional direction reviewed on Absolute she would have eventually been steered toward the folk/roots music circuit so it’s fortunate that she chose to expand her sound, flying free of country genre conventions.

lang has redefined herself with each album. Her initial albums A Truly Western Experience, Angel with a Lariat and Shadowland were experiments that showcased lang in an array of country guises. Though each is enjoyable in its own way and more listenable than its predecessor, Absolute Torch and Twang was the fullest reach into her potential as a significant writer and personality in country. But her decision to disassociate from country almost seems inevitable; country is so steeped in tradition that even those most capable of pushing it forward may feel intimidated by their own potential. Additionally, the androgynous, unapologetically singular, avowedly unique lang has expressed a sense of rejection from industry figures in the genre in interviews which made her transition to adult pop music a charmed one. Since ending her country phase lang’s sound can be understood as emerging from a constant series of gradual shape shifting and resculpting, fostered by her chosen themes and arrangements.

The Great Melding: The Many Voices of k.d. lang

Ingénue: The Yearner

On Ingénue lang gets naked—exposing all of her desires, anxieties and insecurities in a seamless melding of styles that flow throughout her musical soul. Her singing is intimate and open hearted, and her songs allow her to wield her formidable voice in settings both flattering to her voice and revealing of the vulnerable soul within her. Though nominally viewed as a “pop” album it’s actually a “soul” album in the traditional sense of revelation.

In another vein, though, it could be viewed as a move toward “pop,” but not in the modern sense of disposable, trendy music manufactured for radio. Having spent her career dashing between country-flavored novelties and torch ballads, lang assimilated these conventions into a singular style. Ingénue sublimely fuses lang’s eclectic musical passions into a dense meditation on unrequited love. There are traces of country, cabaret, folk, jazz, and pre-rock pop but it never feels calculated or patchy. By allowing elements of these genres to color her writing and arranging process there is a mosaic-like quality that give it an unusual integrity; it’s like block of melancholia rendered in the most sensuous of shades.

She humorously questions her sanity (“Talking to myself dear/Is causing great concern for my health”). Yearns to be freed from the burden of desire (“Save Me”)…captures the giddy lift of love (“I can’t explain/ Why I become Miss Chatelaine”)…on “Constant Craving,” her biggest pop hit, she expresses a universal emotion with a sweep too impassioned and personal to feel ironic and too potent to lapse into sentimentality. Once she has finished singing and you have finished listening there is no turning back. Something has been opened and her progression feels inevitable. 

The open-throated “Constant Craving” is a fitting end for an album of such deep yearning. The song unleashes a virtual decade of bottled up emotions. It depicts a quintessential expression of her journey toward voicing her own truth. The album’s aesthetic achievement set the pace for her subsequent albums in terms of the diversity of styles and textures, the potency of her singing, and the soul revealed in her lyrics.

All You Can Eat: The Lover

If lang’s earliest country albums skirted desire by burying her emotions in skillful pastiche, and Ingénue articulated her profound hunger to be loved, she transitioned from yearner to lover on the tongue-in-cheek All You Can Eat. It is an emotional feast centered on embracing love and sex wholeheartedly. Favoring a sleeker, more modernized approach to arranging and production—drum loops, keyboards, and programmed funk grooves are quite prominent—she also streamlines her singing just enough to convey a cool remove, but potent enough to hint at a latent, simmering sensuality. Songs like “Sexuality” (“Release your sexuality/On meeeee”), and “Get Some” (“Go on/Get some/Take all that you’re given/Just go on/Get some/Get some of the love you’re giving someone”) have a casual erotic edge to them that fully ripens on the final track “I Want it All.” Whereas “Constant Craving” mapped the heartbeat of aspiration “All” is a throbbing, lustful statement that earns its climactic finish (“I want/I want/I-I-I-I want it allllll”).

In between Ingenue’s much heralded success and All You Can Eat lang recorded two duets with Tony Bennett on his MTV Unplugged TV episode and album. lang had some experience collaborating in a country vein including her dynamic duet on Roy Orbison’s “Crying” with Orbison himself and a sassy cover of Gram Parson’s “Sin City” with Dwight Yoakam. But MTV Unplugged was the first indication of her promise as an interpreter of American Songbook material. 

lang delved more deeply into the joys of sensuality on 1995's  All You Can Eat .

lang delved more deeply into the joys of sensuality on 1995's All You Can Eat.

Drag: The Torch Singer

Whereas other popular singers like Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt, and Natalie Cole previously recorded “Songbook” style albums earnestly lang approached this collection of songs conceptually as a suite of “smoke” themed songs—love as a kind of unhealthy addiction. Hence she included established standards like “Don’t Smoke in Bed” and “Smoke Dreams,” as well as more modern fare like Jane Siberry’s “Hain’t It Funny” and her gender inverted version of Steve Miller’s “The Joker.” One of lang’s gifts as an interpreter is her manipulation of tone; she can sing in a straight, sincere manner and with a winking sense of irony in the same song, but never condescends to her material or her audience. The notion of love as a kind of trap we fall into and constantly climb out of only to return has an inherent absurdity and truth her performances uncover. By eschewing obvious torch material, sparsely employing strings —thanks to Craig Street known for his ascetic productions for Cassandra Wilson—and focusing on a penetrating ballad style she steers clear of rock torch clichés (i.e. bland mood albums, wan jazz pretenses) and creates something distinctly modern: a singer who has an acute sense of humor about love’s absurdities and a genuine sense of ache that never cancel each other out.

Invincible Summer: The Companion

In the midst of her burgeoning recording career lang cultivated a romantic relationship and took a break from recording. The emotional transformation experienced through companionship and domesticity permeates the blissed out vibe of Invincible Summer. Here lang salutes ‘60s surf music and light pop, with its focus is on buoyant, energetic songs and lushly harmonized balladry. Summer is among her more commercially obscure and least heralded albums; perhaps because it’s so casual and laidback its mellowness belies the intense emotionalism and torchy style that her listeners of have become accustomed to hearing. It is less compelling than her previous work, but still quite endearing as a listen particularly the cacophonous lead single “Summerfling” and the deliciously woozy “Consequences of Falling.” The album’s most enduring composition is “Simple” co-written with bassist David Piltch. Here the album’s core theme and lang’s discernible sense of contentment is at its most lucid. If anything this set reiterates the reach of her songwriting abilities as well as the immense flexibility of her voice. Further despite the lighter tone of the set it represents a shift in lang’s musical personae as it marked the last album of compositions for eight years, as she turned more fully toward interpretive singing.

Live By Request: The Stylist

By 2001 lang had attained enough of an audience, as well as sizable industry respect that A&E showcased her on its Live By Request series in which singers sing material from a list of rehearsed songs chosen by viewers. One does not need to be intrigued by the gimmick to appreciate the raw display of vocal refinement and personality exhibited on the album version. Having recorded country, pop, and rock standards, and written original pop and country flavored material lang had a sizable repertoire to choose from and this resonated with her fans. Nominally a de facto compilation it is highlighted by lang’s robust performances including her explosive solo version of “Crying,” and her wrenching interpretation of “Black Coffee.” On stage before her audience she duplicates the precision of her recordings, but infuses it with an effervescent presence—a sense of dynamics that makes each performance individually exciting and that presents her as one of modern pop’s most versatile stylists.

Though the term “stylist” sometimes refers to eclectic singers too lazy to delve deep into different genres beyond their surface, lang is a deeply musical, genuinely eclectic musician with a remarkable sense of flexibility. In addition to this lang projects a maturity that signals a new phase in her career as an adult entertainer. At worst the “adult” music label usually refers to gaudy, aging lounge lizards, but in this context lang wows you listener with her technical precision and emotional resonance, and her sense of space. For example on the TV special she dons a dress and wig and serenades the audience with a perfectly over-the-top version of “Macarthur Park” that goes just far enough to remind her audiences of her cheeky performance artist past before singing the next song.  There is a sense of balance, diversity, and pacing to the overall performance that makes her shift toward interpretive singing logical; in many ways she sounds like one of the few singers of her generation who could genuinely succeed the balladeers and torch singers of the pre-rock era—in terms of talent and refinement—but in a manner transcending nostalgia. Though swing is a minimal influence in lang’s recordings she sings with such poise and power she would not be out of place in such a setting.

A Wonderful World: The (Solo) Interpreter and Collaborator

Crooner and swinger Tony Bennett has been enjoying a much deserved commercial and artistic rebirth since 1992 and he has consciously shared his fortune with other vocalists, especially lang his most frequent duet partner. After duetting with her in 1994 and on his 2001 blues themed album Playin’ with my Friends (where lang demonstrated only a mild talent for the blues on their version of “Keep the Faith Baby”) they collaborated on A Wonderful World a tribute to Louis Armstrong featuring lang and Bennett’s renditions of signatures like “What a Wonderful World” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” Because Bennett has always been more of a singer influenced by swing than an improvising jazz singer he is most appealing when he works with jazz-oriented vocalists and/or arrangers who push him to take more risks. Because lang is primarily a balladeer they complement rather than challenge each other on this largely orchestral, slowly paced set which makes for a listen more enjoyable than emotionally penetrating. They have playful chemistry on the lightly swinging opener “Exactly Like You” and lang has some particularly radiant, playfully ethereal vocal moments on “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Both performances indicate that she could easily make a full-time career as an interpreter of “American Songbook” material if she chose.

Functionally lang—who performed a stirring “Skylark” on the Johnny Mercer-themed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil soundtrack—“proves” that she can sing romantic material in a straightforward and appealing manner over the course of an album. And that she can confidently and comfortably sing alongside an iconic voice like Bennett’s without embarrassment. This set was critically well-received and commercially successful—particularly for a “vocal pop” album. It also imbued her with credibility as an interpreter with a seemingly boundless musical scope and a sense of talent and taste that had attracted some of the industry’s most respected figures. Few popular singers in recent memory have blazed such a path from country to pop to traditional pop interpretation so seamlessly. By 2003 lang had earned Country Grammies for a duet with Roy Orbison (“Crying”) and Absolute Torch and Twang, a Pop Vocal Grammy for “Constant Craving” and a Traditional Pop Grammy with Bennett for A Wonderful World.  In a 15 year period she was one of the few singers of her generation who was widely respected for her ability to sing in almost any type of song successfully whether it was country, rock, or a pop standard. 

 Hymns of the 49th Parallel: The Progressive Interpreter

 lang oriented her promise as an interpreter of American songcraft toward the art songs of her native Canada on Hymns tackling pantheonic songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, alongside more recent writers like Jane Siberry and Ron Sexsmith among others. The result is an original collection of material indicating a progressive sense of interpretive repertoire in a vein parallel to recent developments among jazz singers looking toward rock era pop for suitable vehicles for interpretation. The set is ballad heavy and the orchestral settings are lethargic compared to Drag, but lang manages to find new life in some of pop’s most well-worn songs. Notably, she sings Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with stunning pacing building to an epic, but well-earned climax that completely uplifts the song. It has subsequently—and rightfully—become an anthem for lang who mesmerized audiences at the 2010 Winter Olympics with a dynamic full-throated live version. Comparatively she massages “A Case of You” with the intimacy of two lovers conversing, and reinterprets her original song “Simple” (originally recorded for Invincible Summer) placing it in a context that makes it sound more timeless than its 2000 vintage would suggest. She performs similar interpretive feats on her rendition of Young’s oft-covered “After the Gold Rush” which is performed with a clear eyed sense of wonder and bewilderment, laced more with shock and discovery than naïveté.….


lang exhibited strong rock roots on 2011's  Sing it Loud .

lang exhibited strong rock roots on 2011's Sing it Loud.


lang’s frequent stylistic shifts make her a delightfully unpredictable talent. In 2010 two collections, Reintarnation (country themed) and Recollection (more comprehensive), summarized the major highlights of her career, including special material recorded for soundtracks like the majestic “Calling All Angels” (from Until the End of the World soundtrack) harmonized with Jane Siberry and her smoldering version of Cole Porter’s “So In Love” (recorded for Red Hot + Blue). The total sum of these presents such a wide array of colors that her career could shift in any direction.

After about a decade of flirting with traditional pop and returning to songwriting on the subdued Watershed, lang is energized on 2011’s Sing It Loud whose rock-ish edge evokes her cowpunk roots.  Thanks to her new band Siss Boom Bang she has regained her voice. Sing features a beefier sound with revving guitars, thumping drum beats, big crescendos, and hearty crooning belting that balance pop and rock instincts astutely, with traces of country and even R&B. lang croons in a sensual, almost boozy manner. Her melodies are bolder and her lyrics are more visceral than they have been since 1995’s All You Can Eat. Highlights include the anthemic title track, the sensuous opener “I Confess,” and the closing shuffle, “Sorrow Nevermore” a memorable self-affirmation…. 

In between 2004’s Hymns lang released Watershed (Nonesuch Records, 2008), comprised of original highly reflective compositions in laidback acoustic settings. Her most recent album is 2016’s case/lang/veirs (Anti/Epitaph) a folk-rock set recorded with Neko Case and Laura Veirs.



Learning to Listen Excerpt 13: Osland: K.T. Oslin's Real Live Women

When I was a teenager I watched a 20/20 segment on K.T. Oslin (b. 1942) and found her fascinating. She was about my mother’s age and I was struck by her savvy and independence. Her style (white gloves on stage), attitude (sassy), and independence (unmarried and no kids) really defied my notions of what female country singers were and what they did. More importantly the fact that she was a middle aged singer who began her career at 45 and essentially wrote her own songs and designed her own stage show seemed very unusual to me. In retrospect she was one of the first icons of feminism I was exposed to, especially in the context of art. Without ever uttering the word feminism it was clear that she embodied its principles in her songs.

Oslin is unique for entering the recording industry as a seasoned performer armed with her own compositions and a distinct sense of who she was rather than the proverbially eager ingénue typical in pop music. As a young woman Oslin left her small town Arkansas roots for New York where she worked for decades as an actress. During the early 1980s a few of her songs were covered by other singers (Gail Davies, Sissy Spacek, etc.) but her initial recordings for Elektra Records received little support from the label or radio. The label was apparently indifferent to tongue-in-cheek feminist titles like “Clean Your Own Table.” After suffering from stifling depression and inertia she re-emerged in 1987 as a recording artist for RCA.

The cover of country singer-songwriter's 1988 masterpiece  This Woman .

The cover of country singer-songwriter's 1988 masterpiece This Woman.

Over a decade after the TV story I purchased her greatest hits collection Songs from An Aging Sex Bomb. The title in and of itself reminded me of why I enjoyed her originally. It takes a unique kind of intelligence and self-awareness to project that kind of self-deprecating humor. Upon pushing play on my CD player I was instantly pulled into K.T.’s World (I call it “Osland”) one populated by women who sounded like actual women not the sentimental female archetypes contrived by so many country songwriters. Hers is a world of characters who want to be loved and respected, who are resilient when love fails, and also reflective in nature. In other words she humanizes women in her songs. Further she manages to do so without sanitizing the kaleidoscope of emotional experiences (i.e. making women cartoonishly strong or turning them into flat heroes) women inhabit.

Her debut album 80’s Ladies is a mix of newly written songs and songs other performers had popularized including “‘Round the Clock Lovin’” (Gail Davies) and “Lonely But Only for You” (Sissy Spacek). Several titles were written in the early 80s but she had to wait before she was able to interpret many of them in her own voice such as the tongue-in-cheek “Younger Men.” Thematically it has no overt agenda but it subtly depicts the fallout of the post-1960s by depicting women with humor and sobriety about the emotional landscape. Its centerpiece is the title track, a warm fable about three women whose lives mirrored the kinds of changes women experienced between the 1950s-80s. The song is deceptively simple with its “A-My name is Alice…” ending. But a close listen reveals Oslin’s gift for efficient portraiture. The chorus: “We were the girls of the 50s/stone rock and rollersin the 60s/and more than our names got changed/as the 70s slipped on by/now we’re 80s ladies”  sketches out the way so many women’s lives transitioned from the vitality of the 60s to a domestication and conservatism that came with creating families. Rather than condemning marriage or child-raising she is ultimately mapping out the ways women’s lives had been so defined by shifting expectations of women’s roles.

At the bridge a more direct awareness of feminism emerges as she reflects on how: “We’ve been educated/we got liberated/and that’s complicated matters with men/Oh we said I do and we’ve signed I don’t/And we’ve sworn a we’d never do that again” and continues noting “Oh we burned our bras/and we burned our dinners/and we’ve burned our candles at both ends.” Burning bras and words like liberated might sound like caricaturized images of feminism, but her point is less travelogue than a shorthand look at the circularity of time hence women who realized: “And we’ve got some children who look just like/The way we did back then.” She’s really detailing a sense that the struggle for vitality and finding ones place between contentment and rebellion endures across ages in the modern era. That she accomplishes this through the lens of three friends amplifies the unique role of women in this matrix of expectations.

In many ways it’s a centerpiece that holds together the album’s more compelling chronicles of women. This includes the humorous “Younger Men,” a middle-aged woman’s cheeky expression of lust and her veiled frustration toward middle-aged men’s rejection of women their own age. Even stronger is “Do Ya’” in which she asks her lover “Do you still…” get a thrill, whisper my name and like the feel of my body lying next to yours, etc. In doing so she builds toward the larger question of love, but also asserts that she is still desirable physically and viscerally, rather than settling for generic affection.  One could argue that these themes could be inverted gender-wise, however,  such an argument ignores the social pressures that have confined women from viewing themselves as complex beings who seek physical and emotional pleasure. In her world women want to be loved but also desired and there is a difference. The surrounding material includes a convincing tale of emotional connection that avoids co-dependence, a few heartbreak ballads, an upbeat love song and a reflective ballad.

The set had a great balance of craft, brains, and heart. “Do Ya,’” “80’s Ladies,” and “I’ll Always come Back” were radio hits, the album became the most successful album by a female country singer since Loretta Lynn, and the title track earned Oslin numerous awards including the Grammy for Female Country Vocal Performance , Top New Female Vocalist and Video of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards and the award for Female Vocalist and Song of the Year (“80’s Ladies”) at the Country Music Association Awards, making her the first female composer to be recognized for her composing talent.

She followed this breakthrough with This Woman, one of the most overtly female centered albums released by any singer of her generation. Like 80’s Ladies she rarely sings anything overtly feminist rather it is a subtext that binds many of her songs together in a matter-of-fact manner regarding the 80s as a decade for assertive, self-assured women. The title track is a deceptively upbeat song that sounds like the tale of a woman madly in love but it reveals a woman more interested in passionate affairs than longstanding commitments :“But I feel it’s only fair to warn you/This woman don’t stay in love for long.” In two lines she gleefully lets you know who she is and what she wants without apology. This is followed by “Money” in which her well-heeled protagonist makes it clear that “money ain’t what I need” from a man. Such independence reverberates in various other song scenarios ranging from the straightforward lust of “Round the Clock Lovin’” to the rockabilly-ish kiss-off “Truly Blue.” Three highlights include “Hold Me” a tender dialogue between a married couple about their need to reconnect emotionally and physically, most notably the lyrics “Kiss me, kiss me a little harder/Don’t kiss me like we’re married/Kiss me like we’re lovers.” Few singers integrate lust so boldly and challenge the sanctity of marriage as deftly as Oslin.  Her perspective is less a rejection of marriage than an embrace of alternatives.

 Two pillars of this include the lustful “Hello Bobby” where she propositions “Bobby” by proposing to him that she pick him up in her new 4x4, a new take on Southern Gothic with an invitation “to come out in the country and play with me.” This flirtatious vibe is reversed on the torchy “Where is a Woman To Go” (covered by Dusty Springfield in 1995) a woman’s nearly existential search for a bar to drown her sorrows alone in “a little ol’ bar ‘cross town.” More hits and more awards (Female Vocal Performance and Country Song for “Hold Me” at the Grammys, Album of the Year and Female Vocalist at the ACM Awards) followed on this fuller exploration of the proto-feminist voice 80’s Ladies previewed.

Two years later Oslin the former stage actress and performance conceptualist took the character approach further with Love in a Small Town. Though it’s not a strict concept album Oslin embraces the concept from pop/rock to thread her diverse songs together.  It’s worth noting that by 1990 Oslin was one of the freshest new voices in country music even though her sound was not strictly country. 80’s Ladies is filled with keyboard tapestries, drum beats, and electronic textures more synonymous with new wave than country. Still there was enough twang in Arkansas-born Oslin’s voice and such a strong sense of storytelling that RCA marketed her successfully as a country act even if she really leans more toward a sleek adult contemporary/soft rock sound. This Woman similarly presents songs that are more convincing as Southern-tinged pop than stereotypical country, especially the torchy “Where…” and the ringing guitars on “Hey Bobby.” In this sense she resmbles Rosanne Cash and k. d. lang as progressive artists who expanded the sound and concept of country music in the ‘80s.

On Love Oslin flexes her eclecticism on a funky, spooky cover of “Love is Strange” and a lilting neo-country swing rendition of “You Call Everybody Darling” clear proof that her inspirations span across genre and era. As a composer she kicks things off with the jaunty “Come Next Monday” a smart litany of ways her character attempts to resist love’s temptations. The thumping beat and keyboard fills defy category as does her singing, filled with purposeful trills and layered background vocal commentaries. From there you get a couple who take the day off on the lightly swinging “OO-Wee” and then classic Oslin emerged on the well-drawn character(s) song “Mary and Willi.”  She outlines the fate of those whose loneliness stems from crippling delusions about beauty and perfection. Her perspective is empathetic but firm, and remarkably effective in the vivid picture it paints. Her eye for characters extends to what she identifies as her first composition 1980’s “Cornell Crawford” a charming tale of desire replete with a sing-along refrain reminiscent of a shanty or a bar song. In terms of topicality few of the songs center women overtly, it’s implied, but the narrator of “Momma Was a Dancer,” Nelda Jean Prudie, reflects on her past to her daughter with glee. She never puts down her married life but the song’s tone makes it clear that she loved her single life: “Your Momma was a real good dancer/ ‘Fore your daddy came along/That’s all your momma lived for.” Oslin’s ability to communicate emotional truths without delving into bitterness or settling for saccharine sentimentality is a unique balancing act especially considering her ambitious emotional themes. This quality comes through on several heavier ballads including “Still on My Mind,” “Two Hearts,” and the superlative “New Way Home” a sober but hopeful ballad of resilience.

Love had fewer radio hits than its predecessors, but it was a successful and well-reviewed album and an artistic peak for Oslin. Normally three hit albums are not necessarily enough to fill a compilation, but Oslin had enough accomplishments and enough stature (as well as hits) to make Songs from an Aging Sex Bomb an essential collection of recordings. Alongside the hits was a more up-tempo version of “New Way Home” and great new songs including a commentary on new social boundaries “You Can’t Do That,” a compassionate look at overeating. “Feeding a Hungry Heart,” and a signature character song on “Get Back in the Saddle.”  The fresh remake and the three new songs reveal Oslin’s enduring relevance circa 1993.

Between 1990 and the compilation country music’s blockbuster status was amplified by bombastic male hat acts like Garth Brooks. And many of country’s most interesting women were switching to other genres including Cash, who shifted toward singer-songwriter pop, lang whose Ingénue made her a pop star, and Emmylou Harris whose final mainstream country effort was followed by the genre buster Wrecking Ball. In essence the field for progressive female artists was shrinking and few performers, outside of Mary Chapin-Carpenter, were achieving artistic freedom and hovering in the country mainstream.

1996 saw the release of the cover set My Roots Are Showing, which featured a wildly eclectic array of songs that further revealed Oslin’s panoramic mix of influences. She’s always been an excellent interpreter and the set’s mix of folk, country, and obscure pop tunes showcase her gifts amply. The beefy arrangements add perfectly muscular touches to tunes like “Down in the Valley” and “Silver Tongued and Goldplated Lies.” She and her band have a gas on “I’ll See You in Cuba” and she approaches “Pathway of Teardrops” and “Miss the Mississippi and You” with a tenderness evocative of an earlier more contemplative era. Contemporary, but not trendy, and traditional, but never nostalgic, this is another achievement in her artistic crown.

Alas its reception was mild commercially, but by this point in her career seemed less driven by a desire to be in the mainstream than a desire to explore personal interests. Shortly before its release Oslin had chest pains and eventually had a bypass operation. Five years passed before releasing her final album Live Close by, Visit Often. It’s probably her least heralded recording, yet it’s full of Oslin’s unique charms. The title track, which features a muscular neo-rhumba beat, neatly sums up her romantic philosophy. “Drivin’ Cryin’ Missin’ You” is about as good as sad songs get and “Neva Sawyer” is a hysterical tale of a wronged women right up there with the characters in “80’s Ladies,” “Cornell Crawford,” and “Mary and Willi.” She ends with a charming medley of standards and a trance-like version of “Come-on-a-My-House.” Live Close By Visit Often performed moderately well in the country charts and Oslin subsequently retired from recording. She performs live occasionally and in 2015 she released an independent collection Simply featuring a few new songs and stripped down re-recordings of her signature songs.

The ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia waves of the ‘00s did not lead to an Oslin revival and to listener unawares the keyboard laden sounds might seem a bit dated today. But Oslin is a pioneering artist who pushed country music into the ‘80s and beyond. She, more than any other female composer and performer of country music during her time, exposed the inner lives of women in her songs by detailing their newfound access to a range of affective freedoms essentially undocumented in the emotional language unique to music.



Learning to Listen excerpt 12: From the shadows: Natalie Cole finds her soul

Riffs, Beats, & Codas celebrates the life of the accomplished singer Natalie Cole who sadly passed away on December 31, 2015 from congestive heart failure. Cole established herself as a fresh new voice in popular music in 1975. Her debut album Inseparable earned her two Grammy Awards as Best New Artist and Female R&B Vocal Performance.  She repeated a win in this category in 1976, and received two consecutive American Music Awards in 1977 and 1978 as Favorite Female Vocalist Soul/R&B. Cole remained a pop and R&B staple commercially through the late ‘70s-early ‘80s while navigating drug addiction. After a commercial downturn and time spent in rehabilitation she came back commercially in the late 1980s with hits like “Pink Cadillac,” “I Live for Your Love,” and “Miss You Like Crazy.” She redefined herself as a jazz-oriented interpreter on three Grammy winning sets 1991’s Unforgettable with Love, 1993’s Take a Look, and 1996’s Stardust. She continued exploring various songs in the pop, R&B, and jazz repertoire throughout the late 1990s and 2000s including 2002’s Ask a Woman Who Knows, 2006’s eclectic Leavin’  2008’s Still Unforgettable, which won the 2008 Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, and her final album 2013's Natalie Cole en Espanol. In addition to her recording career Cole was an active concert performer, acted in numerous television series, and appeared as herself in reality programs and performing music specials. Please enjoy this essay on Cole's unique legacy excerpted from my essay collection Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 great singers.


Source: www.allmusic.com.

Source: www.allmusic.com.

Natalie Cole (b. 1950) grew up in the shadows of two of popular music’s towering figures. Over time she has emerged as a distinctive vocal artist with a unique flair. Cole is of course the daughter of innovative pianist/bandleader and suave vocalist Nat “King” Cole who pioneered the jazz trio (piano-guitar-drum) format in the ‘40s, which became a staple of jazz, and transitioned into a stellar solo career. At Capitol he was a prolific recording artist whose LPs with arrangers like Gordon Jenkins, Billy May and Nelson Riddle parallel Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra’s innovative explorations of the album format during the 1950s.

In addition to his influence as a musician and popularity as a vocalist he was one of the first African-Americans to have a weekly television variety show, The Nat King Cole Show. Though the show ended because of objections by Southern television stations that he was too “controversial” (largely because he shared the stage with white singers) his musical and cultural prominence culminated in Cole’s immense iconicity as a representative of black cultural achievement. Musically gifted, eminently likable, and the embodiment of class and integrity, he was an icon whose death in 1965 from lung cancer devastated a public who embraced him as an icon. 

During her childhood Natalie was exposed to the music of her father and his peers, and developed her own musical talents. As she shares in the liner notes of 1991’s Unforgettable with Love she met many of popular music’s elite, including figures like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald whom she referred to as “uncle” and “aunt” respectively. In the liner notes there are also photos of her fronting a band of other teenage children from prominent California musicians’ families. She also occasionally made appearances as a singer with her father. Rather than presuming music was “in her blood” because of her lineage (her mother Maria sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and uncle Freddy Cole is a jazz pianist and vocalist) it is more accurate to note that she cultivated her musical talents at an early age. As Cole experienced her adolescence she witnessed the ascent of musicians of her generation reconfigure popular music’s past into styles reflecting their own musical influences and social perspectives.  Rock and soul music were central to this, and soul’s most prominent figure during the late ‘60s was Aretha Franklin.

Beginning as a blues and jazz flavored stylist Franklin had an uneven career at Columbia Records—which struggled to find the right settings for her talents—before recording for Atlantic Records from 1967-79. There she asserted a creative input into her recordings as an arranger and pianist (Franklin has noted her frustration at not being credited as a producer) injecting pop and R&B songs with a fusion of gospel singer’s sense of emotionalism, a jazz singer’s sense of swing,  and the interpretive perspective of the blues. She further propelled R&B into the mainstream building on the innovations of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Essentially she “gospelized” the secular song with a unique synthesis of influences, infused with a distinctly feminine outlook on sexuality and romance. There were many gifted female R&B singers who preceded Franklin including such notables as Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Etta James, Tina Turner, and Irma Thomas. But Franklin achieved an unheralded level of consistency in a genre often more notable for singles than great albums. She also achieved a stylistic balance; she could testify on “I Never Loved a Man,” coolly saunter through “Respect,” and tap into a vulnerable sensuality on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Even these landmarks only hinted at the versatility and adaptability she evinced in her prime.

After college Cole chose to become a recording artist and her 1975 debut effort Inseparable was critically well received and commercially embraced. Many noticed the clear influence of Franklin on Cole’s singing. Like Franklin she sang with a buoyant gospel inspired spirit and was also a credible ballad and torch song singer. The key recording linking Franklin to Cole is her 1968 rendition of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” particularly toward the end of the song where Franklin ends by double tracking her voice and harmonizing, singing several bursts of the refrain “You send me” “You thrill me” “You kill me” “Yeah yeah yeah yeah” like improvised vocal horn flourishes. On Cole’s similarly upbeat hit “This Will Be” a big part of its allure is the staccato, double-tracked chorus “This will be” (pause) “You and me” (pause) “Eternally” and then the rapid fire succession of phrases “So long as I’m living/True live I’ll be giving…”

Cole duplicated this double tracked single-voiced choral approach on subsequent singles like “Mr. Melody” and “Sophisticated Lady.” The Franklin influence on Cole is significant in the context of ‘70s R&B since the late 1960s/early 1970s was a very transitional period in R&B and black pop, reflecting broad changes in the industry. Singers were increasingly focusing more on albums than singles which afforded more room to sing longer and more elaborately arranged songs. Among black artists this shift also coincided with music more focused on mood and languor than funk. Roberta Flack’s First Take (originally released in 1969 but commercially unsuccessful until 1972) and its lead single “The First Time ever I Saw Your Face,” Isaac Hayes’s success with Hot Buttered Soul, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Donny Hathaway’s Extension of a Man, and Smokey Robinson’s Quiet Storm are key hallmarks of this progression in black music toward an almost symphonic conception of albums as coherent suites with a sustained mood rather than collections of singles.

What distinguished Cole is that she was a “modern” ‘70s artist whose image was that of a sophisticated stylist in the vein of Diana Ross, but musically she maintained the funky gospel aspect of ‘60s R&B. In a sense she updated the soul sound for a new decade recording albums replete with electric keyboards and strings, and featuring seemingly conventional romantic ballads that built to gospel style climaxes such as “I’ve Got Love on My Mind” and “Our Love.” A peculiar feature of her mid-70s LPs are touches of jazz including the brief scat interlude on “Mr. Melody” and her interpretation of “Good Morning Heartache” both on Natalie (1976); the swinging original composition “Lovers” on Thankful (1977); and the scat-laden interpretation of “Stairway to the Stars” on Don’t Look Back (1980). Though “jazzy” elements are common on many recordings by black female singers of the ‘70s, including stylists like Randy Crawford and Phyllis Hyman (discussed in the “Lost in the Mix” section), the consistent presence of these on Cole’s initial recordings hinted at a conversancy with swing jazz she eventually realized. As one might expect Cole was very protective of her father’s music and was understandably reserved and anxious about recording material that might invoke comparisons.

The promising fusion of ‘60s R&B, ‘70s quiet storm soul, and light jazz she initially presented in 1975 became increasingly compromised as Cole succumbed to drug addiction; her late ‘70s-mid-80s recording output (1979-1985) is notoriously inconsistent and these recordings made it easy to write her off as another fading rock music casualty of hard living. Then in 1987 after a stint at rehab she returned with a new vigor on Everlasting,  recording material that was memorable enough to reinvigorate her career as a contemporary interpreter of pop, R&B and adult contemporary material, a pattern that continued on 1989 ‘s Good to Be Back. Both albums established the singer’s commercial acumen and that her voice was still in fine shape. Listening to these albums her personality is more muted, the material is predictable and conservative, and in light of the success of emergent voices in R&B like Anita Baker, her ability to innovate seems in the distant past.

Interestingly, instead of mining the same adult contemporary sound she confronted her fears of recording her father’s music on 1991’s Unforgettable with Love. Cole was rightfully lauded for her sophisticated uptown soul sound in the mid-1970s, but for some observers the Franklin influence sometimes overshadowed her individuality. Further, the declining quality of her music in the 1980s inhibited the typical maturation into a distinct personality vocalists usually experience. Beyond restoring her commercial standing the ’87 and ’89 albums never quite revealed new colors on her palette beyond professionalism and adaptability. In an unexpected move Cole nurtured the jazz leanings she had into a full-length album of standards associated with her father spanning from his Trio days to his solo career of the early 1960s.

Though Linda Ronstadt had commercial successes with her trilogy of standards albums from 1983-86, Barbra Streisand topped the album chart with The Broadway Album, and Harry Connick Jr. was one of the few jazz-influenced vocalists to gain commercial acceptance, a standards album by an R&B singer was hardly a commercial proposition in 1991. Though a number of “retronuevo” R&B crooners and balladeers  achieved commercial success in the late 80s/early 90s, the commercial rise of New Jack swing and hip-hop soul were rapidly changing the sound of black pop. A standards album could have easily seemed anachronistic and reactionary.

Despite the climate Elektra Records “greenlit” the album; this term is more frequently invoked in filmmaking but the metaphor makes sense for the album’s scale. For one thing the narrative—daughter of legendary musical icon interprets his music for modern audiences is Hollywood fare. And the album’s “hook”—her duetting with her father on the 1961 re- recording of 1953’s “Unforgettable”—is irresistibly sentimental.  Elektra also contributed to the spectacular aura employing expensive “adult pop” arrangers (Marty Paich) and producers (David Foster and Cole’s then husband Andre Fischer), financing musicians in orchestral, big band and trio formats, employing background singers, and developing a marketing strategy that would appeal to contemporary consumers increasingly opening their wallets to hip-hop, modern rock, and other emergent pop variations.

Source: www.allposters.com.

Source: www.allposters.com.

Cole was the core of this spectacle and if she faltered the album could have become either the musical equivalent of the Edsel, an ugly heavily hyped disaster, or a career novelty whose mediocrity ensured her confinement to rigid soft rock and R&B commercial formulas. Instead Cole delivered a well realized set of interpretations that reflected her father’s influence but also showcased her own spirit. Unlike many of her pop predecessors who had recorded “rock torch” sets Cole was both technically equipped and emotionally adept at interpreting pre-rock songs in lush orchestral settings and in the more demanding, emotionally naked settings of a big band and small group.

 Cole’s interpretive poise is remarkable in part because she sounds like a pro rather than a tourist. Though she sticks to the melodies and there is only minimal improvisation, she swings effortlessly and interprets lyrics with nuance which instantly aligns her with competent interpretive singers. Pop/rock singers are accustomed to recording over pre-recorded rhythm sections and singing in front of bands rather than as a voice in bands. Thus rock critics tend to cut them some slack in interpreting pre-rock pop. But Cole needs no excuses; in addition to singing with technical and emotional command, she and her arrangers take modern liberties like excising the goofy choir from “Orange Colored Sky,” creating a lovely medley of “For Sentimental Reasons/Tenderly/Autumn Leaves” and having the taste and restraint to avoid recording once popular Nat “King” Cole ephemera like “These Lazy-Crazy-Hazy Days of Summer.” By choosing a diverse array of tempos and arrangements Cole exposes her father’s (and her own) stylistic range and her ability to comfortably inhabit a variety of lyrical settings.

Unforgettable grew into a cultural phenomenon topping the album charts and winning Cole Grammys for Album, Record and Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, as well as awards for arranging, composing, engineering, and producing for others in the album’s cast of characters. The easiest way for Cole to follow-up on Unforgettable would have been recording another album of familiar pop standards. Or she could have built on its momentum and returned to radio-friendly adult contemporary pop-soul. Instead Cole chose to move beyond her homage to her father to salute other singers who impacted her career on 1993’s Take a Look and also revealed deeper jazz roots than Unforgettable suggested.

There are solid nods to obvious jazz goddesses including Billie Holiday (“Crazy He Calls Me,” “Don’t Explain”) and Ella Fitzgerald (“Swingin’ Shepherd Blues,” “Undecided”). But the most interesting reveals include her apparent passion for vocalese, on one woman multi-tracked versions of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s “It’s a Sand Man,” “Fiesta in Blue,” a reprise of her own composition “Lovers” and a gem from 1958 “All About Love.” Though a little bit of vocalese can go a long way she wisely sequences them to balance out torchy ballads. Gloria Lynne’s signature “I Wish You Love” and Carmen McRae’s rendition of “This Will Make You Laugh” inspire some of her more ironic, bittersweet ballad performances. She also initiates a trend that she continues to explore in excavating Nat “King” Cole obscurities. A hardcore Cole fan knows “Let There Be Love” from his lovely 1962 collaboration with jazz pianist George Shearing. The goofy “Calypso Blues,” which mocks “Yankee” ways (i.e. hot dogs, blond dye jobs) in mock Trinidadian patois is a Cole novelty from 1950 that she milks pretty expertly in its laidback island setting. Larry Bunker’s vibes and marimba really paint a lovely picture. Elsewhere Cole swings effortlessly, including “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “Too Close for Comfort,” and is entirely comfortable working in a jazz setting with vets like Herbie Hancock (piano) and John Clayton (bass). Some critics viewed Take a Look as a commercial letdown compared to Unforgettable, but the comparison is nonsense.   From a purely commercial perspective she could have sold a lot more albums if she had chosen garden-variety standards and packaged the album as orchestral nostalgic bliss. Instead she chose to record songs she clearly loves, many of which are obscure, in more jazz-oriented settings. Not the most commercial move circa 1993. That it hit the top 30 and sold half a million copies (and won her a Grammy for Jazz Vocal Performance) is fairly miraculous given the usual gap between pop and jazz. Take a Look revealed a new phase for Cole that went beyond formula.

1996’s Stardust probably appears to be a direct descendant of Unforgettable; she sings with Nat on a reprise of “When I Fall in Love,” there’s more orchestral material, and more producers than on Take a Look.  The songs are also generally more recognizable for pop ears (i.e. “Stardust,” “What a Difference a Day Made”). But Cole continues to surprise you. The underperformed “To Whom it May Concern,”  “Where Can I Go Without You” and “This Morning it Was Summer” are more nods to her father’s vast repertoire. Jazz heads will delight in her take on the lyricized version of Ahmad Jamal’s “Ahmad’s Blue” and bop composer Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” (first performed by Sarah Vaughan). She and Janis Siegel perform a tight, perfectly harmonized interpretation of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s spritely “Two for the Blues.” There is enough of a balance here between lush traditional pop, jazz material, and family heirlooms to legitimate Cole as a vocal artist with a genuine balance between pop accessibility and jazz chops.

In the course of five years Cole blossomed from a reliable pop singer with soul to an excellent interpreter of pre-rock pop and jazz.  Snowfall on the Sahara is her first run at a genre-less album that showcases lessons learned in the pop, jazz, and R&B spheres. Cole dabbles successfully in a spectrum of popular styles. There’s the sleek adult pop on the title tune (co-written by Cole), classic R&B ballads (i.e.  DJ Rogers’s “Say You Love Me,” Jerry Ragovoy’s “Stay With Me” and the Roberta Flack signature “Reverend Lee”), more L, H, & R jazz (“Every Day I Have the Blues”), lush balladry, most notably Judy Collins’ “Since You Asked,” and traditional ballads ranging from Patti Page’s “With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming” to Leon Russell’s “Song for You.” Most surprising among this grab bag is her delightfully coy rendition of Taj Mahal’s “Corrinna” and a rollicking version of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Just when she seems to have taken a permanent turn Cole expands her vision to include a seamless juxtaposition of material across era and genre.

Three years passed between Snowfall and her luscious standards set Ask a Woman Who Knows. Though several of the songs are associated with other pop divas, such as the title track (a Dinah Washington obscurity) and “My Baby Just Cares for Me” (Nina Simone), Cole approaches these tunes with little in the way of overt homage or concept. It’s just a lovely, luscious album. She swoons on a lush “You’re Mine You”; “Tell Me All About It” has a gentle Brazilian lilt that makes it sound like the best song Jobim never wrote (Michael Franks wrote it); and on Bob Telson’s “Calling You” she illuminates the song’s haunted contours, proof that her gifts are not confined to pre-rock standards. She and Diana Krall have fun on “Better Than Anything” with its litany of guilty pleasures, and she excels in the company of some of jazz’s most esteemed players, a benefit of recording for Verve.

Cole closed out the decade with the soulful Leavin’ and the swing set Still Unforgettable. Whereas Snowfall was a panorama of Cole’s eclectic interests she approaches the pop/rock/R&B songs of Sting, Des’ree, Kate Bush and Aretha Franklin on Leavin’ with more focus adding thundering drums, emphatic vocal arrangements and R&B grit.  She transforms Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” from sultry rock to a popping R&B strut. “Love Letter,” best known to Bonnie Raitt’s fans as a mid-tempo slow burning tune, is a revved up, high octane number with more prominent percussion and gospel style background vocals. Elsewhere she bathes “Lovin’ Arms” in layers of dewy, sizzling regret. The best performance is an original soft-soul ballad “5 Minutes Away” with a hopeful lyric about finding love and gentle harmonies.  The closet rock-folk interpreter in Cole also comes out on her version of Neil Young’s “Old Man” and Shelby Lynne’s “Leavin.’”

2008’s Still Unforgettable continues the swinging, jazz influenced sound she began on Unforgettable. By now, she has forged enough of an identity that singing “virtually” with her father, as she does on his 1952 hit “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” seems superfluous. Otherwise she delivers consistently on winning renditions of classic tunes like “The Best is Yet to Come,” “Here’s that Rainy Day” and “Something’s Gotta Give.” After the set was released Cole took a hiatus from performing for health issues, suggesting the album was recorded under some duress. As solid as it is the most interesting performances are actually on the “Deluxe Edition” featuring the delightful Latin-flavored tune “Summer Sun” which has an effervescent vocal bathed in percolating strings, and a wryly funny big band version of “Busted.” Cole won her ninth Grammy for the set, her second in the Traditional Pop category. Her victory reinforces her stature as a one of the best interpretive singers in contemporary popular music. In 2013 her interpretive interests extended to an album of Spanish language pop on Natalie Cole En Español.

Cole’s ability to flow between eras is impressive by virtue of her range and a deft understanding of how to balance the essence of a song with her own musical identity. Cole’s journey through her family’s musical heritage has helped her gain greater access to her artistry. 

The only thing missing from her discography is a single recording that captures her gospel inspired R&B and pre-rock swing/pop personae fully in concert with each other.

“Blue Jazz,” my shorthand for the blues and R&B-soaked swing that singers like Dinah Washington, Joe Williams, Dakota Staton and Lorez Alexandria perfected, fell out of vogue at some point in mainstream vocal jazz. Many singers in this vein persisted in this style, including Ernestine Anderson, Etta Jones, and Ernie Andrews. Newer generations of jazz singers more commonly drift toward Betty Carter’s improvisational style, Peggy Lee’s hushed sensuality or arid folk-jazz than blues. Among the current generation Natalie Cole has the pedigree and experience to record some brilliant blue jazz suites.

Cole summons up all kinds of soul, humor and musicianship on the Ray Charles associated waltz “Busted” recorded on Still Unforgettable with a big band.  From her ad-libs (“I’m broke y’all!”) to the tone of her voice between crooning and soul shouting she sounds full-bodied and totally in her element. Though it’s easy to cite Aretha Franklin’s most popular music as influencing Cole, Franklin’s early efforts to build a jazz career were never realized as fully as Cole’s success in this area.

As is well known, Franklin struggled to apply her powerful style to standard material at Columbia. In listening to albums like Laughing on the Outside (1963) Franklin’s power and technique sounds impressive, but she sometimes fights the songs. Pedestrian string arrangements do not help these matters. Comparatively the much looser Yeah!!! a “live” set recorded with the Ray Bryant Trio, crackles. It is easily her best work at Columbia and her most convincing jazz statement. Her other successful jazz foray is Soul ’69 a big band swing jazz album recorded at Atlantic Records that showcased Franklin’s finely honed chops in a brass-laden setting.  Though her talents exceed the confines of the R&B tag she was such an iconic soul singer that this album never got its commercial due; no hit single. 1973’s Hey Now Hey was her last attempt at a jazz-oriented album. Though she does an impressive “Moody’s Mood” and soars on “Somewhere” the set is too muddled and laden with stylistically ambiguous material to gel. Cole’s success with big band swing, orchestral ballads and vocalese, combined with her R&B roots indicate that she has the tools to record the kind of blue jazz recordings Franklin long abandoned for more conventional R&B fare.

In many ways she could look to Franklin’s direct idol Dinah Washington. It’s important to remember that Washington is also a clear presence for Cole.  She recorded “What a Difference a Day Made” on Stardust and “Ask a Woman Who Knows” on the album of the same title.  Like Washington she knows how to inflect a lyric with a blue tone and Washington’s crisp enunciation, sultry tone, strong melodic sensibility, and laidback phrasing are all present in Cole’s recordings to various degrees. No one will ever match Washington’s tartness, but she is a good place to start for understanding Cole’s potential. Lorez Alexandria is another potential inspiration. She, more than Washington, has the combination of a gamine, silken tonality and blues grit similar to Cole’s versatile sound. I would love to hear Cole singsongs in the blue jazz canon like “Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues,” “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Muddy Water,” and “Save Your Love for Me” among others. These tunes would symbolize the bridge between her classic predecessors and her contemporary interpretive style. I also suspect that such recordings would complete the portrait of her career fusing her strengths and cementing her unique contributions in an era where two key outgrowths of the blues tradition, jazz and R&B have been severed.  




Learning to Listen (LTL) Excerpt 11: Roy Hamilton: Star, pioneer, and misfit

As I write this there is an online petition for those who support the induction of black baritone Roy Hamilton (1929-69) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Given his influence on Elvis Presley, Jackie Wilson, and the Righteous Brothers this only seems fair. Hamilton’s classic versions of “Hurt” and “Unchained Melody” were popular hits for him and became, arguably, the definitive versions. If the purpose of institutions like the Hall is to recognize talented and influential performers Hamilton easily earns this distinction.

Source: http://www.waybackattack.com/hamiltonroy.html

Source: http://www.waybackattack.com/hamiltonroy.html

Pop music is filled with classically trained male singers who have translated operatic technique into pop. These include Italianate balladeers like Mario Lanza, singing actors including Robert Goulet, Gordon MacRae, John Raitt and Paul Robeson, jazz-oriented singers like Johnny Hartman, and actual Italian crossover-pop acts like Andrea Bocelli. Though R&B music has its share of robust vocalists it is rarely associated with the refinement and technique native to the operatic tradition. Roy Hamilton was among the first commercially significant singers to challenge such a dichotomy. Hamilton began recording in 1954 when he scored an R&B and pop hit with his interpretation of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” which gained a new life when it went from being a show tune to a civil rights anthem during the early 1960s.

Hamilton, as I discuss in other chapters, represents the liminal position many black singers found themselves in during the mid-1950s-mid-1960s. Music was already racially segregated in the industry in the early 1950s when Hamilton began recording, and as rock ‘n’ roll grew more prominent music grew more socially divided into markets. R&B was for blacks, rock was for teenagers, and LPs were for adult buyers of classical, jazz, and Broadway music. Among the victims of these formulas were black singers who straddled the boundaries between pop, R&B, and jazz, which seem much clearer today than they did in the 1950s.

 Dinah Washington is commonly referred to as a jazz singer today, but she was actually the most prominent female vocalist in commercial R&B from late 1940s-early 1960s, as well as a respected jazz-oriented singer, and an accomplished interpreter of the classic blues.  Similarly performers like Gloria Lynne, Nancy Wilson, Ernestine Anderson, and Dakota Staton all began singing between the late 1950s and early 1960s and have all blurred (artificial) genre boundaries which limited their careers, with the exception of Wilson.  It may sound essentialist to say this, but my impression is that, at the time, black singers working in R&B, jazz and blues were viewed by black audiences as simply making black music—i.e. music made by black musicians which was important since in the era of segregation (and post-segregation) black culture was primarily marketed to black audiences through radio stations, stores, and performance venues aimed at blacks.

Hamilton is broadly considered an R&B singer since he was a black man, with a background in gospel music, whose greatest commercial successes appeared on the R&B singles chart. But in reality this tells little of his complicated story. Collectables Records has reissued his Epic recordings spanning from 1954-62 and they demand some serious questioning of what R&B and black pop can mean. The bulk of his Epic LPs are standards albums comprised of the kinds of songs Sinatra, Como, Eckstine, and Cole sang including Roy Hamilton, With All My Love, Come Out Swingin,’ Why Fight the Feeling?, and Soft ‘N’ Warm. The first is a mix of ballads and mid-tempo arrangements; the second is primarily lushly arranged ballads; Come and Why are big band swing sets, and Soft is a ballad set. As a vocalist Hamilton is interesting because he is too gospel to sound like a straight crooner, too polished to adhere to conventions of R&B voices of the time, more rhythmically conservative than a traditional jazz singer, and yet too mature to fit into the sound of rock ‘n’ roll and teen pop.  His focus on standard material was such that his two ventures outside of this are the overt genre sets Spirituals and the rock and R&B-oriented Mr. Rock ‘N’ Soul which still includes a fair share of standards. Hamilton’s confidence with some of popular music’s most harmonically complex pop ballads (“All the Thing You Are”) and swingers, and his comfort with gospel reflect his formal classical vocal training and his pre-fame gospel roots. Given this it’s not surprising that Rock ‘N’ Soul is his least convincing set. Hamilton is always professional and the set has some entertaining performances, but as a whole it feels overtly trendy.

The bonus tracks featured on some of his reissued LPs and the two singles collections You’ll Never Walk Alone and Golden Boy reveal the dual personality Epic was trying to create for him. Walk mixes classy ballad fare like “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Ebb Tide,” “Unchained Melody,” and “If I Loved You” that reiterates the commercial relevance of this material even as rock ‘n’ roll was making commercial inroads. Golden Boy leans toward R&B material like “Hurt” (a hit for Timi Yuro in 1961), MOR (“Love is a Many Splendored Thing”), and forgettable pop songs. The bonus tracks on his albums also tend toward trendy ephemeral material.

Source: amazon.com.

Source: amazon.com.

As a musical figure Hamilton has a strange place in pop historical lore. Though his robust vocal style and creamy timbre is evident in Presley, Wilson, and others he is not commonly referenced as his talent and influence would merit. He is referenced in Soul in the City, Brian Ward’s Just My Soul Responding, and Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. He was featured in the second edition of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia, but was deleted from its most recent edition published in 2001. The recent reissues of his material explain his absence from the 1992 Rolling Stone Album Guide (updated in 2003 but with no Hamilton entry) and the Musichound R&B Guide (published 1998). His refined enunciation and phrasing, romantic sensibility, and penchant for smooth balladry and light swing is quite different from the kind of visceral R&B that has made R. Kelly, Usher, and other more recent figures popular.

Listening to his recordings it’s clear that he was talented, versatile, and influential but he’s a hard figure to place. His fate is similar to that of Ed Townsend. Townsend, who is best known for the 1959 pop and R&B hit “For Your Love,” was a smooth crooner with a big voice who loved singing with an orchestra. Though he is remembered as an R&B singer, the handful of albums he recorded for Capitol Records were not jukebox fare.  Rather they were lushly arranged orchestral renditions of popular standards. Townsend’s Capitol period was short and he never rebounded as a singer, though he became a successful songwriter.

It’s hard not to empathize with them since their respective legacies are endangered by the rigid generational, racial, and genre boundaries popular music has been adhering to since the beginning of commercial pop music, but that grew especially prominent during the 1950s. The rise of R&B made a space for gospel-influenced black performers to enter into the commercial mainstream. But pressures for black performers to either perform exclusively in this mode, or to tone down these elements to make them more marketable to white audiences is one of the great compromises in pop music that marginalizes less malleable talents. The brand of gentlemanly pop Hamilton and Townsend performed placed them out of vogue with rock ‘n’ roll and mainstream R&B which was unusual, especially for black performers from the mid-1960s onward [....]


For more information on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame petition visit: http://royhamilton.net/

Check out this essay on Hamilton’s influence on Elvis Presley: http://www.elvisinfonet.com/presley_hamilton_spotlight.html



LTL Excerpt 10: Grace and Grit: Etta James's post-war blues

Anyone generally familiar with black pop is aware of all the leading female voices holding court: Bessie Smith is “Empress of the Blues,” Ella Fitzgerald is “The First Lady of Song,” Billie Holiday is “Lady Day,” Sarah Vaughan is “The Divine One,” Dinah Washington is “Queen of the Blues,” Tina Turner is the “Queen of Rock,” and “Aretha Franklin is the “Queen of Soul.” The most recent contemporary addition is Mary J. Blige, understood as the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.” More queens and princesses are sure to come but strangely absent is Etta James (1938-2012). While she released a 2000 album called Matriarch of the Blues this title is both true and unsatisfying.

 Though her signature songs, “At Last,” “A Sunday Kind of Love,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and “ Tell Mama” have secured her place as an icon and influence in popular music they only tell part of her story. These tunes were recorded from 1961-68, but James recorded a lot of material from 1954-2011. More to the point she Etta-ized everything she touched bringing an unmistakable intensity to her repertoire. The story of 20th century American popular music is typically divided into pre-war and post-war phases. In the pre-war period classic blues, theatrical/vaudeville style pop, swing and big-band, and bebop defined the pop landscape. After the war jazz-influenced pop crooners and soloists dominated for about a decade longer before more regional, independently produced and distributed styles—notably various forms of R&B and “hillbilly” music—began to infiltrate the market and threaten the long held dominance of major record labels. Eventually these musical strains overlapped and birthed rock ‘n’ roll. Despite the rhetorical feud between pre-rock and post-rock pop many performers traversed both eras in their musical tastes and James exemplifies this better than anyone.

American popular music is riddled with jazz singers attempting to stay relevant by haplessly applying jazz technique to rock and R&B tunes, and the inverse—rock singers trying to duplicate the swinging aura of their predecessors. These cross-genre deviations are usually questionable on all fronts but no one has ever really questioned James’s ability to cover this ground.  Whereas Fitzgerald singing “Alright, OK You Win” (on 1968’s Sunshine of Your Love) with a funk backbeat is awkward, and Aretha Franklin singing with strings and cooing choirs on some of her ‘60s Columbia Records albums is dissonant, James singing “These Foolish Things” worked in 1962, and again when she reprised it in 2001. She is one of the few singers who was not only comfortable, but successful singing in the blues, rock, R&B, soul, crooner pop and jazz idioms without really breaking a sweat. Like some of our more admirable eclectics—Ray Charles, Charlie Rich, and Nina Simone among them, she always sounds comfortable because she is a kind of self-contained genre. She sings in her own language—she has a muscular alto, a built in soul cry and an affinity for an abrupt but sculpted wail, similar to Bobby “Blue” Bland’s soulful squall that punctuates many of her recordings. For proof listen to her spit out the lyric “I don’t want you to be no slave…” in “I Just Want To Make Love” or extend the phrase “Tears of Joy—oyyyy” on 1956’s “Tears of Joy.”  She is also a relaxed singer with a great sense of humor and an accessible salt-of-the-earth persona (Her stunningly candid autobiography Rage to Survive, co-written with David Ritz, is a must- read) that is as integral to her sound as her timbre. She has released more live recordings than most peers for good reason—she is a skilled improviser who knows how to stretch a song’s boundaries and when to build off a crowd’s energy and deepen the impact of songs in a way that’s true to her material (check out Etta Rocks the House, Live in San Francisco, Blues in the Night, The Late Show, and Burnin’ Down the House for examples).

James’s 57 year recording career can be roughly divided into a mid-50s rock ‘n’ roll pioneer phase, the grand pop experiment at Chess Records where she recorded R&B, pop, soul, proto-funk, rock and country songs, her R&B late 70s-mid-80s “reassertion” recordings for Warner Bros. and Fantasy, her late ‘80s blues rock streak which extended to her final recordings, complemented in the ‘90s and ‘00s by serious dives into jazz singing. Her vast discography is not merely long—it’s genuinely impressive in scope. She was an eyewitness (and ear-witness) to profound changes in popular music. Her commercial emergence came when jazz-influenced pop started to lose stem commercially and rock ‘n’ roll was emerging, and her passing in 2011 when modern rock and hip-hop were influx makes for a uniquely bookended career [...]

Source: Amazon.com

Source: Amazon.com

The Queen of Chess Records

From 1960-75 James recorded for Chess Records and its subsidiaries (Argo and Cadet) including 13 LPs and 2 compilations. During her first three years she mixed new R&B tunes with standard material. On 1964’s Queen of Soul she nods toward changes in R&B via her version of Irma Thomas’s “Wish Someone Would Care.” She went one step further toward modern R&B on 1968’s Tell Mama recorded at Muscle Shoals. The ‘70s is more eclectic as she tackles everything from funk to Randy Newman’s commentaries. Like Billie Holiday at Columbia/Okeh, Sinatra at Capitol, and Aretha at Atlantic, this is her signature period where her public musical persona really takes shape.

Though various compilations are available and many of her LPs have been reissued 2000’s The Chess Box is the best overview of her career. In three discs its illustrates the enduring strength and durability of her vocal approach, her comfort with virtually any kind of song, her adaptability to changing production styles, and makes the case for her as the definitive modernizer of the blues inpostwar popular music. Whereas many black R&B singers played down the blues, and consciously sought out songs and production settings that crossed them over to white audiences James was too rough and blues-oriented to pull this off. None of the traditional “pop” sweeteners—strings, background vocals, plodding rhythms (i.e. 1962’s ripe “Be Honest with Me”)—detract from her blue instrument. As an interpreter she is a razor-sharp emotional editor who cuts through niceties, sweeteners, and other distractions and gets through to the heart of the lyric and the shape of the melody. This lack of artifice sometimes leads critics to dismiss her as unsubtle, but “At Last” balances grit with grace definitively.  The way she sings it indicates that she understands the rewards of the love that has finally arrived, yet the struggle to get there also informs her relief—hence her cathartic belts and extended vowels. For comparison listen to Nat “King” Cole’s lovely but subdued rendition on 1957’s Love is the Thing and you hear the radical influence gospel had on the way pop singers of James’s generation approached songs. For the new generation emotion was something to unmask and declare openly.  Regardless of the song she is usually on solid musical footing; she hits the correct notes and knows how to use her arsenal of devices to serve her material rarely “oversouling” and generally avoiding excessive note-bending.

Disc One (1960-62) introduces her core style and exciting signature hits like “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” James is really a bridge between early R&B vocalists like LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown and the emerging soul style of Franklin, Gladys Knight, and Betty LaVette.  The triplets and shuffling doo-wop rhythms are very 1950s but they are distinguished by an emotional immediacy and vocal grit that points toward soul music. There are also great touches like her great chemistry with male singers, such as her soulful duet with Harvey Fuqua (“If I Can’t Have You”), her versatile way with tunes as delicate as “One More for my Baby” and “These Foolish Things” and as intense as Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love” and “Spoonful,” and her emotionally assured approach to torch songs. Whether it’s an up-tempo like her first big Chess hit “All I Could Do Is Cry” or a more vintage tune like Russ Columbo’s “Prisoner of Love” she conveys vulnerability as tenderly as Holiday, Sinatra and Patsy Cline. As she moves toward more “soul” on CD Two (1962-69) the ‘50s touches give way to more contemporary rhythms.  Her live 1963 performance of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” attests that she is totally in her element performing in the bluesiest, grittiest reaches of R&B including her saxophone imitation. Yet she still has a love for emotive classics from a previous era such as her soulful, string drenched version of “Lover Man” (which she revisited live on 1986’s Blues in the Night, with saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and on her 1994 Holiday set). 

1968’s Tell Mama (eight cuts are featured on the box set but the whole album is worthwhile) is her most radical shift thanks to the throbbing horn-spiked arrangements and raw, unguarded performances. Just as the skilled musicians of the Muscle Shoals studio gave a bunch of Southern soul records their bottom in the ‘60s James benefited from the change of scenery: “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Otis Redding’s “Security,” Clarence Carter’s “Tell Mama” (given a kind of swinging rhythmic foundation similar to Franklin’s “Respect”), Dan Penn’s “Do Right Woman-Do Right Man” (which had been waxed recently by Franklin), and a soul drenched version of the country tune “Almost Persuaded” represent the second peak from the brilliant signatures she essayed at the beginning of her Chess tenure. By ’67 she was a thoroughly modern vocalist who had mastered R&B and was now singing at the heart of the funkier “soul” music movement. Not only had James thrived in a commercial market dominated by girl groups and pop soloists like Connie Francis and Brenda Lee, she was also holding her own with Franklin, Knight, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, and other popular new female singers of the era. 

At the end of Disc Two and throughout Disc Three (1969-74) James stretches into new territory such as a sultry funkdafied rendition of “Light My Fire.” She tackles material by soul icons like Redding (“Miss Pitiful”) and Wilson Pickett (“I Found a Love”), but also expands into material by rock-oriented writers. In the early ‘70s James, who had been a precocious “wild child,” struggled with drug addiction and upon returning from rehab Chess sought to modernize her further with singer-songwriter material such as Randy Newman tunes like “God’s Song” and “Sail Away,” along with funk and pop tunes like Tom Jans’s wonderful “Lovin’ Arms.” The set features interesting unreleased experiments like the wordless funk tune “Slow and Easy” and a version of “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin.’” While the recordings highlighted on Disc Three are less consistent than the first two they indicate an incomplete but interesting effort to merge soul with rock [...]

Source: Amazon.com.

Source: Amazon.com.



LTL 9: Love personified: The voice of Luther Vandross

In 1964 Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote “A House is Not a Home” for the film of the same name. “House” was a radio hit for their muse Dionne Warwick and has been recorded continually since its debut. Yet to Luther Vandross’s (1951-2005) fans his 1981 rendition is the definitive version. His 7:08 minute performance is worth discussing because it outlines many elements of the Vandross aesthetic.  In the first 22 seconds listeners hear an instrumental introduction followed by 34 seconds of wordless vocalizing (“Dun dun dun dun dun”). In these opening bars he massages the song wordlessly; it’s such a personal approach to the song that you know something special is unfolding…

At 57 seconds he sings, “A chair is still a chair…” and one is struck by the fullness, passion and control he conveys. Structurally he sings verse-chorus-verse-chorus from 57 seconds to 2:41. At the bridge (2:41) he builds toward the 4:31 mark where he sings a coda/tag with his own original lyrics from 4:31-6:49 followed by 19 seconds of an instrumental outro.

This description merely approximates the shape of his ambitious arrangement. In many ways his “House” is as close to an aria as pop music gets. He essentially arranges it as a suite. The 22 second instrumental and 34 second vocals serve as a kind of prelude, almost setting a theme. He sings the verses very intentionally, controlling their momentum like a man with a string. The verses begin quietly, climax, and then descend dramatically. At 3:38 he erupts singing the lyric (“I’m Not MEANT To Live Alone…”) explosively. Just when you think he is done he begins the tag/coda. I would hesitate to call a 2:37 improvisation a tag; it’s really a thoughtful deeply personal interpretation of bittersweet love.

 The Vandross lyrics, and the carefully placed pauses, are worth quoting:

4:31: Still…in…love

4:41-4:54: I said…Still…In…Looove Looove

4:57: Still in Looove…

5:08: With…meee… yea yeah

5:19: Are you gonna be/In love with me/I want you/I need you/To be yea yeah

5:29: Still in love with me

5:37: Say you’re gonna be in love with me

Its driving me crazy/To think that my baby/Wouldn’t be/Still in love with me

5:57: Are you gonna be/Say you’re gonna be/Are you gonna be/ Say you’re gonna be/Are you gonna be/Well well/Well well/Still in love/So in love/Still in love with me

6:16: Are you gonna be/Say that you’re gonna be

6:27: Still…In…Love…WITH…Me…yea yeah with mee/ooh ooh ooh

6:49: Still in love with me yea yeah

 Through deliberate rhythmically parallel pauses, gospel embellishments (i.e. elongated vowels), structured repetition, and vernacular lyrics he builds to a stirring climax. You could get whiplash from listening to the way he skillfully weaves together, “Are you gonna be/Say you’re gonna be.”

Just when you think he’s done he extends the song again. At 6:27 he returns to the dramatic pause, milking it for everything he can. Then from 6:49-7:08, ~19 seconds, the song ends with the hushed wordless sound parallel to the prelude…


Vandross was born in New York City and became a staple of New York’s black music scene. He grew up adoring female singers of the ‘60s including Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. He even established a fan club for LaBelle. Unlike most fans he developed his musical chops and worked hard to break into the biz. In high school he sang in a group called Shades of Jade; as a young adult he enrolled in the Listen My Brother workshop and appeared on an episode of Sesame Street in November 1969. But around 1972 he really set off a very successful career as a background vocalist and singer of commercial jingles. These experiences introduced him to industry heavyweights like David Bowie, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and opened the door for him to become a solo performer and composer. His group Luther failed to make a splash commercially with their two albums 1976’s Luther and 1977’s This Close to You. In between these efforts and his solo career he wrote a song for The Wiz, arranged vocals on hits like Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s 1979 #1 hit “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” and sang lead on Change’s dance hits “Searching” and “The Glow of Love.”

The 1970s was experimental as it gave him room to develop his voice, to balance funk with romanticism, to understand vocal harmonies, and cultivate his taste in material. By the time he debuted in 1981 with the fabulously propulsive “Never too Much” he already had an aesthetic blueprint for his sound. Unlike most dance songs “Never” has a clear melody, an engaging lyric and Vandross maintains great diction throughout. “Never” was a #1 R&B hit surrounded by the hit “Don’t You Know That” and the epic “House” on the LP Never Too Much.  This auspicious debut was commercially popular, critically acclaimed, and earned him several Grammy nominations—a pattern he maintained throughout his career. From 1981-88 he amassed six albums and 20 singles on Epic Record that sold well and established him as the premiere romantic balladeer of ‘80s R&B. He was adored especially by female listeners. And like Johnny Mathis before him a chaste romanticism was key to his appeal. Unlike Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, and other predecessors his songs were more pure romantic fantasies of yearning songs rather than explicit, carnal songs.

Vandross also succeeded as both an interpreter and composer. In addition to “House,” “Since I Lost,” “Superstar,”  he soared on interpretations of Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” andBrenda Russell’s “If Only for One Night.” His original classics of the decade included “Never,” “Bad Boy,” “Wait for Love,” “Give me the Reason,” “Stop to Love,” “So Amazing,” and “Any Love.” He was something of a superman during this era. In addition to singing, arranging and producing, often with a team of jazz oriented collaborators like Marcus Miller and Nat Adderley Jr., his talents made him an in-demand producer. His productions on 1982’s “Jump to It,” and 1983’s “Get it Right” got Aretha Franklin back on radio. Dionne Warwick scored a hit with her 1983 Vandross duet “How Many Time Can We Say Goodbye,” and he also worked with Diana Ross and Cheryl Lynn.

 In less than a decade Luther Vandross established himself as a defining voice of contemporary R&B and an architect of ‘80s-early 90s R&B. His impact can be heard in numerous vocalists who followed him including Freddie Jackson, Gregory Abbott, and Keith Washington, among others.   Though each of these singers has his own sound their careers are less possible and comprehensible without Luther Vandross…



LTL 8 (Bonus cut): Laura Fygi the Continental: Jazz’s international pop-classicist

From the mid-1940s-early 1960s solo singers, who grew up when jazz, big band music, and swing were popular, dominated popular music. Though sometimes labeled as an era of jazz-oriented singers this is too generic. This broad descriptor includes three types of singers: jazz based improvisers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan who could improvise and sing “straight” pop equally well; pop singers who sang a mix of standards and newer pop hits but stuck with songs as written, which applies to everyone from Shirley Bassey to Andy Williams; and finally there were the go-betweens—people like Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Kay Starr,  Frank Sinatra and Nancy Wilson singers who were inspired by jazz, worked with jazz musicians, and were respected in the field but were synonymous for pop.

 Since the late 1960s pop music has become so stratified commercially that there is no middle ground between jazz and pop. You’re either in the mainstream or you’re not. Even the most popular jazz-oriented singers, like Diana Krall and Natalie Cole, are inconsistently popular. Since the mid-1990s Krall has collected a clutch of gold albums, three platinum sets and one double platinum album. The latter, Live in Paris was released in 2002. Her last gold record was released in 2005.  Cole’s 1991 hit Unforgettable with Love was an unusual pop phenomena certified seven times platinum. Her later jazz themed sets were far less popular. 1993’s Take a Look was certified gold and 1996 Stardust is platinum. Her 1999-2008 efforts Ask a Woman who Knows, Snowfall on the Sahara, and Still Unforgettable, have yet to go gold. Though Michel Bublé has won several traditional pop vocal Grammies and sings standards, he is a pop singer with jazzy tendencies placing him in the go-between area though he leans more toward pop than jazz.

Laura Fygi photo from http://www.laurafygi.com/media/

A more interesting singer who straddles the pop jazz axis but is of interest to jazz listeners is Laura Fygi. Fygi, is of Dutch and Egyptian parentage, but was born in Amsterdam. I discovered her randomly on a Pandora station singing “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars (Corcovado)” one of the more common bossa nova warhorses that is sung so often it essentially evaporates. But something about her approach made me pay attention, enough that I bought her album of bossa nova style arrangements on 1994’s The Lady Wants to Know. She enchanted me instantly with her husky timbre, hushed vocal style, and vulnerable approach to lyrics, which come across beautifully in two Michael Franks songs “Tell Me All About It” and the title track. Though the album is bathed in strings and light reverb/echo these are appropriate for an album aiming to make you swoon. Instead of making a Caymmi/de Moraes/Jobim/Lins/Nascimento cover album, which is the wont of jazz and cabaret singers, she opts for a few oddball choices including Everything But the Girl’s “Each and Everyone,” and new songs like the cheeky “Oh Telephone,” and the luscious “Something About Him.” Though she flows with melodies rather than reworking them drastically the cadences of her phrasing have an appealing off-kilter rhythm similar to the light touch of an Astrud Gilberto but with greater musical precision.

 I always get the sense that there is more she could show you but she’s being intentionally modest. The pop vs. jazz singing issue is difficult to discuss without sounding elitist. Pop music would be incredibly boring without variety. Everyone can’t do what Anita O’Day or Jon Hendricks does with songs, nor should everyone have to. But pop-jazz can easily lapse into MOR mush without some artistic intent beyond singing well and sounding good. With this kind of blurred pop-jazz music, melodic but orbiting toward jazz, tone is sacrosanct. Overselling kills the mood and instantly lands you in the pop stratosphere which favors bombast.

 This is the difference between a sensualist like Fygi and the challenges of many of Linda Ronstadt’s ‘80s recordings with Nelson Riddle. She has a lovely voice and chose great songs but sometimes she belted when crooning would have been more effective. There must be winks and sighs embedded for classic romantic pop to work especially if you’re aiming for something smoldering or torchy. Fygi got this from the start evidenced on her second album 1992’s Bewitched  a moody noir-ish album that dares to mix electronic textures, mostly keyboards and little synthesizer effects, with strings, and it gels surprisingly well. This is due in part to her choice to sing the songs anew rather than as honorable museum pieces. This fearlessness makes it easy to enjoy her slinky phrasing on the shimmering arrangements of “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Dream a Little Dream” without rolling your eyes. There’s just enough freshness in the arrangements and spark in her singing to make them work on their own terms.

 Fygi was not exactly bred of jazz-inspired singing in the manner of her big band predecessors. She began singing in a pop group called Centerfold before trying jazz at 35. I’m not sure of her exact influences but hear elements of Rita Reys (Europe’s premier jazz diva, also from the Netherlands), Astrud Gilberto, and “cool” singers like June Christy, Chris Connor, and Lucy Reed. In other words her sound is broadly “international” in its flair which isn’t surprising since Fygi is a polyglot. Fygi has little commercial stature in the U.S. but is apparently quite popular in Japan and Europe.

 Singers of her generation tend to lean toward Peggy Lee’s minimalism or Betty Carter’s improvisational flair. She’s too emotive to fit into the “cool school” and too conservative to emulate Carter’s bop based approached, which allows her to stand apart. I would nominate her as one of the best pop classicists of her generation; she genuinely loves the classics and values opportunities to give them voice in her way.  

 One of her more recent albums, 2011’s The Best is Yet to Come, is a big band set featuring pretty obvious standards like the title track, “Smile,” “Cheek to Cheek” etc. There are a few less common songs like “It’s Easy to Remember” but it’s pretty standard standards fare. Despite the predictable track listing it’s perfectly listenable; she imbues it with enough flair to make it memorable. Her jumping version of “Too Darn Hot” trims the “Kinsey Report” line in favor of“latest report” (no ‘40s nostalgia here!), and she inhabits the glorious melodies of “Old Devil Moon” and “You and the Night and the Music” as well as anyone. These qualities are amplified on 2009’s two-disc compilation Songs from Movies & Musicals. The title is misleading since many of the songs are featured in movies rather than written for them specifically, such as “Good Morning Heartache” noted for being sung in Lady Sings the Blues. And since most of her repertoire is standards based, songs that usually emanate from movies and musicals, the label is redundant. Regardless, she is at her best here ranging from ‘40s classics (“As Time Goes By”) to ‘60s film songs (“I Will Wait for You”), and ‘80s film musicals (“The Way He Makes Me Feel”). She also sings worthy pop songs in French, Portuguese, and Spanish, which reflects the diversity of her albums.

 As a sensualist Fygi does better in some idioms than others. I don’t hear much blues influence in her singing, and can’t really hear her singing tunes like “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” or “Trouble in Mind.” Though she does not rigidly identify as a hardcore jazz singer and has taken various excursions into contemporary pop of the adult contemporary variety this is not really her métier. Her finest albums are great vehicles for learning the beautiful melodies, rich harmonies, and witty lyrics of “great songbooks” spanning from various eras and continents.



LTL Excerpt 6: Maria Muldaur: Interpreting American Song

I can only imagine how difficult it was for Maria Muldaur (b. 1943) to compile representative tracks for her 19 song single-disc collection 30 Years of Maria Muldaur: I’m a Woman. Beyond the licensing issues involved (she’s recorded for Reprise, Stony Plain, and Telarc among other labels) how does an artist unconcerned with commercial concerns like genre, demographics, and music videos even attempt to summarize herself to an essence? The probable answer is that Muldaur likely views the set as a joyful reflection, an efficient introductory sa­mpler rather than a comprehensive overview. Muldaur ranks alongside Judy Collins, Jennifer Warnes, Linda Ronstadt, and Phoebe Snow as one of the premier interpreters of the “rock generation” to primarily establish her critical identity as an interpretive singer rather than a songwriter. (As I discuss elsewhere Snow is known as a singer-songwriter but her vocal gifts and unique interpretations are far more central to her critical reputation). Arguably though, she has recorded a broader variety of American music genres than her esteemed peers and thrived in a wider range of settings and musical communities. Her longstanding relationship to black musical traditions, musicians, and culture—particularly classic blues, 50s R&B, and big band jazz strongly distinguishes her from her peers. She has stretched beyond homage and actually integrated a true multicultural and multigenerational quilt of musicians including Johnny Adams, Del Rey, and Mavis Staples.

Maria Muldaur: One of America's most versatile and accomplished interpreters. (Image: www.mariamuldaur.com).

Maria Muldaur: One of America's most versatile and accomplished interpreters. (Image: www.mariamuldaur.com).


Not only has she interpreted a range of material in an array of arrangements, but she has also convincingly mastered a full palette of conventions and, in effect, created her own interpretive vocabulary. As Scott Yanow has rightfully noted in Jazz Singers, she would have to be included in any serious survey of vocalists recording in blues, R&B, pop, jazz, and folk music since she has firmly planted roots in all of these arenas and beyond. She sounds comfortable in just about any musical setting, a talent that harks back to singers as renowned as Mildred Bailey, Peggy Lee, and Kay Starr, though she is more folk and R&B oriented than they are.

 Almost any review of Maria Muldaur’s recordings, and almost any interview profile, refers to her impressive eclecticism. She may have gained a public profile as a folk singer and fiddler, and achieved her greatest fame singing a cheeky folk-pop tune (“Midnight at the Oasis”). But she has long since moved beyond the narrow commercial paths these initial commercial routes might imply and defied classification. Given the regimented, demographically-steered nature of American pop music since her late ‘60s recording debut her survival is all the more remarkable.

 The typical commercial cycle for American popular singers is short-lived. Performers score hits within a particular style and fans expect them to duplicate this success until they have fulfilled their contractual obligations and/or fallen outside of the commercial mainstream. Some depart from the recording industry, while others record for smaller labels but often retain the initial style that brought them success with hopes of approximating previous commercial success and maintaining their audience.

 Muldaur is different since she has never had a single style, but has always had a smart audience open to eclecticism. Since there was never a formula to duplicate she has been free to explore in a way that most pop singers of her generation have not. In the process she is as relevant as she has ever been. In today’s fragmented music industry relevance is not only about being on the Billboard 200 (though her albums regularly chart well on the blues and jazz albums surveys) or parading around on awards shows (Richland Woman Blues and Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul were nominees for Best Traditional Blues Album Grammies in 2001 and 2005, and Garden of Joy for 2010’s Best Traditional Folk Album for the record).  It seems more defined by artists’ abilities to actively record and perform even if their audiences are more specialized by age, region, etc. Considering the commercial decline of the music industry, her enduring affiliations with independent labels and strong rapport with “roots music” audiences were smart professional moves. 

 The one thing Bessie Smith, Libby Holman, Annette Hanshaw, Billie Holiday, Memphis Minnie, Maxine Sullivan, Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, and Sippie Wallace have in common (besides being legends) is their profound influence on Muldaur. Her singing draws on jazz’s swing, blues’s soul, gospel’s fervor, Hollywood and cabaret culture’s humor, R&B’s funk, and folk’s emotional accessibility. In this respect she is one of the few singers born in the 1940s who achieved commercial success during the 1960s and (as a solo singer) the 1970s who can legitimately be compared to figures like Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Nina Simone. Like them she has rarely encountered a genre she didn’t like, or couldn’t handle. One of the main differences between her and the classic blues and swing influences on her singing is that Muldaur has always been an albums artist. She has regularly employed the long player (LP) format to express her catholic musical interests in various forms including eclectic cross-genre albums, jazz albums, “Bluesiana” albums of swampy funk and R&B, and in the 2000s a trilogy of wonderful American blues albums, focused on country blues and the “classic blues” traditions.


 After singing and playing fiddle in the Even Dozen Jug Band and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (~1966-72), Muldaur went solo in 1973 and released Maria Muldaur on Reprise Records, followed by Waitress in a Donut Shop in 1974, and Sweet Harmony in 1976. These albums established her as a kind of modern “utility” singer in the vein of ‘40s pop singers like Kay Starr. She sang a wide spectrum of popular music very convincingly, though unlike most pre-rock singer she gained notoriety more as an albums artist than for her commercial singles. One of the main advantages of Muldaur entering the recording industry at a time when the album became the ultimate marker of an artists’ maturity and conceptual abilities is that LPs provide a fuller and more concentrated sense of an artist’s sensibilities than individual singles.

 Eclecticism defined the early 1970s and Muldaur, alongside such singers as Rod Stewart, Ronstadt, Snow, achieved commercial success as an interpreter who could tackle material drawn from multiple genres but unify it with a strong musical persona. Unlike these peers, however, her eclecticism was far less dependent on commercial singles and songs written toward the ears of post-1955 audiences. For example, her debut features interpretations of a few standards like Jimmie Rodger’s “Any Old Time” but is dominated by ballads written in the 1970s including two by Wendy Waldman, and one apiece from the McGarrigle Sisters and Dolly Parton. Rather than reproaching rock ‘n’ roll and R&B hits like Ronstadt and Stewart, she is interested in modern versions of classic forms—notably folk music, country music, and the pop-folk hybrid style of Waldman. Even most of its originals have a timeless stylistic feel including the swinging “Walkin’ My One and Only” and most notably her biggest hit the winking guitar driven “Midnight at the Oasis” which rocks, but would not necessarily feel out of place being sung by Mildred Bailey or Peggy Lee. On her debut she establishes herself as a new voice with a truly contemporary sensibility capable of bridging gaps between genres and eras without ever sounding like a nostalgia act.

 Her 1970s albums overtly juxtapose various strains of American pop and folk music compositions together in a seamless blend. To put it simply she sings sophisticated pop songs and standards as folk music, and elevates folk, gospel and blues to “art” songs. The issue is less arrangement than attitude. She gleefully glides from genre to genre and each song feels embedded in her constitution rather than alien or jarring. She has gained confidence over time such that 1998’s Southland of the Heart flows more smoothly from song-to-song than 1976’s Sweet Harmony, but they share a similar underlying principle. 

 Muldaur’s voice is central to her genre dexterity. She is a textural master who has mined the confines of her soprano to an apex of flexibility. True, she does not have a traditionally “big “voice. But she profoundly understands how to generate sandpaper grit, ooze cool sheets of air like horizontal smoke rings, and most importantly their narrative function. She’s outwitted the modesty of her physical range by subtly shading her voice to achieve a desired sound and lyrical effect. This vocal flexibility and precise phrasing—in which she has grown more confident—has helped her travel across a spectrum of compositions. Over time her instrument has deepened in texture as has her sense of control.

                 Cover of Muldaur's 1974 album  Waitress in a Donut Shop . Copyright   
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       ©       1974 Warner Bros. Inc/Reprise Records.

                 Cover of Muldaur's 1974 album Waitress in a Donut Shop. Copyright  ©  1974 Warner Bros. Inc/Reprise Records.

 Waitress in a Donut Shop further fleshes out Muldaur’s eclectic palette by more overtly displaying her initial mission of bridging the accessibility of “folk” forms—including folk, gospel, and blues material with the deftness and sophistication of jazz. Her rollicking version of Peggy Lee’s “I’m A Woman” was a perfectly modernized and personalized rendition that became her requisite hit single and drew attention to the album. “Woman” became an anthem for Muldaur and is surrounded by an arresting blend of material, played by some of the most outstanding musicians working at the time. Muldaur hired jazz arranger Benny Carter to arrange three songs including the opener, a sultry rendition of “Squeeze Me” a signature for Bailey that Muldaur inhabits beautifully; the lilting ballad “Sweetheart”; and the saucy “It Ain’t the Meat it’s the Motion” her boldest swing performance yet. Carter understands her voice and creates arrangements that complement it, and she is generous enough to let the songs breathe so the soloists have the opportunity to shine.

 Muldaur’s association with Carter continued on her follow-up album and they also performed several concerts together during the 1970s. She duplicated her debut’s affection for Waldman (“Gringo En Mexico”) and Anna McGarrigle (“Cool River” co-written with Audrey Bean), and integrates material drawn from bluegrass (“Honey Babe Blues” featuring guitarists Doc and Merle Watson) and gospel on her a capella rendition of “Travelin’ Shoes” harmonized with Kate McGarrigle, Amos Garrett, and Greg Prestopino. This is a truly collaborative “band” album unified by Muldaur’s emotionally vibrant, musically adept style.

 1976’s Sweet Harmony was less commercially successful than her first two sets which is somewhat ironic.  Song for song it is more overtly contemporary in its ratio of newer songs to pre-rock style material as it includes Smokey Robinson’s title track, Neil Sedaka’s “Sad Eyes,” the R&B number “I Can’t Stand It” as well as two Waldman ballads and Kate McGarrigle’s “The Lying Song.” Her first albums showcased Muldaur’s gift for making new material sound “classic” and classic material sound contemporary and relevant. So it seems logical and commercially savvy to push contemporary material a bit harder. Her wistful performances of Waldman’s “Back by Fall” and “Wild Bird” certify her as the finest interpreter of Waldman’s compositions. Thanks to her rendition of “Lying” she ranks with Linda Ronstadt as the most significant popularizer of the McGarrigle Sisters’ intricate folk-pop songs.  Alongside these gems she floats through Carter’s languorous arrangement for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” which features Carmichael’s vocals and further solidifies her lineage to Bailey.  She also has immense fun singing with Ellen Karney and Mary Ann Price (humorously listed as the Bezbo Sisters in the album credits) on an energetic rendition of the old swing song (previously sung by Annette Hanshaw) “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye,” in a lively Carter arrangement evocative of the Boswell Sisters. She also successfully tackles the folkish “Jon the Generator” and ends on a vigorous gospel note with “As Eagle Stirreth in Her Nest.” Her bridging of genres and eras showed her to be an apt student of American pop which was fairly anomalous at the time.  Disco, punk, and other youthful styles were on the cusp of a commercial breakthrough, but she understood the value of the past and the riches of the present.

 In sum Muldaur’s first three albums represent one of the most daring triptychs of albums by a contemporary popular vocalist. As a whole they support Stephen Holden’s proclamation in a 1976 review of Sweet Harmony that Muldaur was rock music’s finest interpretive singer, and an inheritor of Lee Wiley’s throne, thanks to her expert phrasing, stylistic diversity, and tonal command of her material……

After releasing eclectic albums in the '70s and jazz oriented sets in the '80s Muldaur began recording "Bluesiana" albums beginning with 1992's  Louisiana Love Call . Copyright   
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    ©   1992 Telarc Records.

After releasing eclectic albums in the '70s and jazz oriented sets in the '80s Muldaur began recording "Bluesiana" albums beginning with 1992's Louisiana Love Call. Copyright  © 1992 Telarc Records.



LTL Excerpt 5: Future voices in the present: Bruno Mars



                                                                                     Copyright   ©  Steve Granitz/WireImage.com.

                                                                                     Copyright ©Steve Granitz/WireImage.com.

… It’s easy to get excited about a few great singles or a great album or two from a promising singer, but it takes most vocalists many years of performing, recording, and reflecting to cultivate a distinctive artistic voices. The pop music industry of the two thousands and twenty tens resembles other post-50s pop eras in that lackluster performers continually garner more attention than innovative, electrifying singers. The digitally mediated shortened pop culture news cycle is the only significant difference.

Many of the more prominent, and even acclaimed, superstars in popular and semi-popular music (i.e. jazz) are transparent reproductions of earlier pop archetypes. While homage and pastiche can be useful passages for artists to locate their own voices most abandon distinctiveness for the easy allure of formulas. I can cite myriad examples ranging from former “teen pop” singers who are now considered “mature” solo acts to commercial crooners who borrow from the aura of jazz but fail to embody its improvisatory spirit. I am, however, more interested in tuning my ears to the best singers in the present who provide hope for the future of vocal singing worth savoring. Several appealing contemporary singers, with more recent careers, have garnered sufficient enough praise that I am confident their profiles will continue to expand.  Instead of devoting chapters to their work I acknowledge their promising work, and wager that their careers will continue to provide listeners with meaningful music...

                                                                               Cover image: Copyright  ©   www.brunomars.com.

                                                                               Cover image: Copyright© www.brunomars.com.

…I heard Bruno Mars’s (b. 1985) songwriting before actually hearing him when Cory Monteith’s character Finn sang “Just the Way You Are” on an episode of Glee to Chris Colfer’s character Kurt. I liked the melody and the sentiment and was very impressed by the diversity of Mars’s debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans. Mars has a lean, nasal sound that evokes Michael Jackson and Prince lovingly without compromising his essence.   If his lyrics are sometimes insipid (“Lazy Song”) or too literal minded (“Grenade”) I am impressed by the melodic richness and aural diversity his album demonstrates. As a writer, producer, and vocalist he is a self-contained performer who can shape his own sound; this greatly distinguishes him from other pop acts that rely on the vision and talents of outside producers. My impression of him deepened when I saw his live appearances as the featured singer (2010) and as host and musical performer (2012) on Saturday Night Live and his James Brown inspired performance of “Runaway Baby” on the 2012 Grammy Awards broadcast. At each performance he presented himself as a stylish, buoyant band-leading dynamo that can sing, dance and perform with an acumen we associate with Jackson, Prince, Brown and forebears like Jackie Wilson and Sammy Davis Jr. The success of his sophomore album, 2012's Unorthodox Jukebox, a delicious slice of '80s pop inflected with contemporary hip-hop touches, and 2014’s buoyant number one pop hit “Uptown Funk,” an homage to Prince-style ‘80s funk, furthered my impressions of him as a pop figure for our time.

                                                                               Cover image: Copyright   ©  www.brunomars.com.

                                                                               Cover image: Copyright ©www.brunomars.com.



LTL Excerpt 4: Future voices in the present: Alice Smith

R&B and its offshoots have continued to redefine the shape of mainstream pop from rock ‘n’ roll to New Jack to neo-soul.  Alice Smith (b. 1978) infuses contemporary R&B writing, arranging and singing with a broad yet selective palette of colors and textures that moves beyond the neo-soul paradigm into a more eclectic and creative approach to black pop. Smith is a progressive rock and soul singer with a thick, sumptuous voice and a seductive style. Her 2007 debut For Lovers, Dreamers & Me is a fine showcase of her formidable vocal and composition talents that garnered limited commercial attention, but is an accomplished and promising debut. Vocally reminiscent of Me’shell N’degeocello, India.Arie, and Lizz Wright she has a more sensual sound and a wider emotional range than any of them though a less clearly defined commercial niche. She rocks on the guitar-centered “Gary Song” and “New Religion.” Elsewhere she simmers on the opening “Dream” which is comparable to the best neo-soul balladry to emerge in the last decade. The blues piano and insistent, pulsating rhythm of “Desert Song” is equally enthralling in expanding the sound of neo-soul without sounding retro or trendy. “Fake is the New Real” is a brilliant and incisive set of modern observations set to an infectious groove. The concluding “Love Endeavor” is the pièce de résistance, a vulnerable, sexy plea for intimacy with a stirring arrangement and galloping beat that makes you wish for more…

The magnetic Alice Smith in concert. Copyright  ©   2014 alicesmith.com.

The magnetic Alice Smith in concert. Copyright© 2014 alicesmith.com.

She, Smith’s brilliant 2013 follow-up, builds from the strengths of her debut album: it is a genuine fusion of hip-hop soul with modern rock anchored by her full, soulful wail. Thematically it is more tightly focused (mostly on love gone sour) and sonically it has an expansive array of textures ranging from harpsichord to strings to epic, almost neo-gothic background harmonies. It’s an adventurous set beyond the ephemeral dance pop dominating contemporary radio; this probably explains why it was recorded independently.

Whereas many of Smith’s neo-soul contemporaries revere ‘70s soul to a fault she dips into a more exotic and offbeat well for her sound. She begins with a 44 second acapella “Cabaret Prelude” previewing the song’s melody before delving into the fuller version—a galloping anthemic about romantic possibilities. She sings over a stark drum beat punctuated by keyboard and synthesizer riffs over subtle soaring background vocals. This establishes a pattern on the album; in most of She’s songs either her voice or a central riff opens the song then after about a minute a strong percussive element kicks in to propel the song forward rhythmically. Because she covers a range of moods this pattern never feels formulaic. She has a strong torchy element: “The One” is a moody ballad built around a central lyric of admonition “I’m not the one/Don’t play me son.” It begins with a dreamy synthesizer riff followed by Smith’s sweet croon. At 58 seconds drums kick in and the song sways gently. “With You” is another mood piece. She kicks it off with the starkly honest, “None of my friends are cool/ I ain’t got nothing to do/Without you” sung over a synthesized keyboard with fuzzy, dissonant harmonies. About 40 seconds in Fleetwood Mac-ish drums kick in and a bed of soaring vocals builds to the chorus before it settles into a mellow rhythm and returns to the pulsating drums. The piano driven semi-waltz “Loyalty” is probably the most traditional soul ballad. She castigates a “shady” lover over triplets. Though she avoids vocal pyrotechnics Smith knows how to build the song’s inherent drama vocally. She uses her rich, creamy voice sparingly as a feature within arrangements.

The power of this approach is most evident in the most anthemic songs: Her interpretation of Cee Lo Green’s “Fool for You” is a powerful strut of emotional and carnal assurances with an ascending melodic line driven by a sultry beat.  “Shot” is a throbbing portrait of two people discovering love with a clever, irresistible hook buffeted by dense harmonies over a sleek electronic drum beat that never lets up. The set ends with “She” a soulful power ballad. A dancing, rumbling piano riff, with gospel chords plays as Smith wails over it; at 59 seconds drums and thick harmonies kick in before it cools back into the piano riff with surges of what sounds like a snippet of a harpsichord. The beat intensifies once more and Smith and the choral harmonies soar together to its potent conclusion. Smith’s gift for crafting intricate melodies, incorporating a mosaic of textures, and using her voice purposefully is a blueprint for how postmodern concepts of music can transcend the generic and congeal into a personal sound.


LTL Excerpt 3: Charlie Rich: A Listener’s Guide

(from Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 Great Singers)

The Scene: I was in the basement of Amherst Books chatting on the phone with a friend about a book I was about to purchase—Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway. I told my friend I was attracted to the book for several reasons. Most notably because it featured a chapter on Charlie Rich (1932-95) that was a sequel to Guralnick’s previous chapter in Down Home Blues, and he seemed to be the only writer who had successfully written about the complex musicianship of Rich.

I explained that I had been working on fragments of chapters on Rich for a two year period off-and-on and was excited by Guralnick’s chapters and of course a little jealous. My dilemma with Rich is that he is so well known for the countrypolitan material he recorded from the 1970s onward that it’s easy to overlook the rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and jazz material from earlier phases of his career. Rich’s musical career is both impressively eclectic and strangely incoherent. Whereas it’s fairly easy to divide Maria Muldaur or Aaron Neville’s wide ranging careers into phases or digestible chunks his career is too unsettled for this kind of tidiness. The burden here is on more on me than him, but it partially explains why he will always be underrated. No matter how hard one tries his career can never be condensed into a tight narrative.

Photo of Charlie Rich from Sun Studios by the author.

Photo of Charlie Rich from Sun Studios by the author.

If you begin with his Sun Records phase he can be understood as an excellent, almost prototypical rock ‘n’ roller. He did not affect the world like Elvis, but he was as talented, if not more so. Who knows what he could have achieved with a Sam Philips at his side? His late ‘50s-mid ‘60s work also features a strong R&B streak. Rich, more than Presley, Buddy Holly or other white rockers, was the most convincing and natural sounding synthesizer of black musical traditions in his singing. He manages to evoke aspects of African-American singing without ever sounding phony or imitative. This emotionally unguarded approach is the epitome of soul. A white singer singing R&B was not exactly a strong commercial prospect during a time of such commercial and cultural segregation. Rich is as good an R&B singer as anyone of his generation, but he was never going to crossover to a black record buying public without a miracle.  In the mid -1960s he recorded for Smash Records and bounced between labels for years.

He stumbled onto a commercially savvy formula in the ‘70s working with Nashville producer Billy Sherrill. Hits like “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” solidified him as part of the country vanguard of the ‘70s. As happy as it may have been for him commercially it seems almost like a cruel joke for someone who had been exploring American music for so long and so fiercely to become famous for one thing.  As Guralnick noted in Lost Highway, “With success he was finally typed, as a country crooner, a kind of latter-day Jim Reeves, with access to the countrypolitan, easy-listening, and soft-rock audiences, and despite the subsequent sales of re-packagings of some of his earlier, and more idiosyncratic, offerings from RCA and Sun Records, countrypolitan was the label that stuck” (158).

The one exception to this countrypolitan phase is his superb 1976 gospel set Silver Lining. Gospel music forms the foundation of the blues and R&B, and serves as the root of what secular pop aspires to be tonally and emotionally. A singer who excels in this idiom usually has the tools to tackle most popular song forms. It’s no coincidence that great singers like Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Patti Labelle and Whitney Houston have gospel roots. Rich’s natural ease with the classic spirituals signifies a deep connectedness to black culture, Southern music, and American Protestantism. Cultural eclecticism is in his roots; its unsurprising that he played and performed in a jazz band before he became a recording artist.

After his ‘70s commercial peak at Epic Rich recorded for RCA and Elektra. After a 12 year recording gap he recording his most notable album 1992’s Pictures and Paintings, featuring some of his most iconic songs and several soulful new compositions. After a career filled with brilliant songs and singles he finally recorded an album that fully showcased his impeccable command of America song idioms.  Sadly it was his last recording; Rich passed in 1995.

Since his death a series of compilations have sought to tell his story and convey the fullness of Rich’s formidable legacy. What follows is a listener’s guide to appreciating Rich. As much as I want to avoid a consumerist approach to discussing the artists in Learning to Listen his career is so wide-ranging that a playlist is the best way to access and appreciate the multitude of Rich variations.  My discussion is written mostly as informal notes on what I hear rather than in narrative form. 


The Very Best of Charlie Rich—Lonely Weekends (Collectables Records, 1999)

This 23-song collection captures Rich at his earliest commercial phase. The cliché that rock ‘n’ roll is essentially a mash-up of styles plays out throughout this compilation. Through his choices in composition and arrangement Rich’s passion for  gospel music, its offspring R&B, and the flavor of Southern music shines through.  There is an immense diversity of material even if most of it is recorded in the compact format typical of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll.

 “Lonely Weekends”—This rollicking tune, a hit for Rich and frequently covered by other artists, kicks things off.  Its buoyant rhythm, his soulful wail, and the fervent backgrounds define his rock ‘n’ roll style, as does the melancholic theme.

“Easy Money”—A honking sax frames the catchy rhythm on this sing-along tune. The song has a catchy hook with an anticipatory melody, an impassioned vocal and background vocals. The theme is easy latch onto; the arrangement sticks out.

“If You Knew”-A very simple country flavored love song with a loping rhythm and Rich’s earnest, sincere croon. There’s a nice 33 second piano solo showcasing Rich’s prowess.

“Caught in the Middle”—The tune initially sounds like ‘50s pop with echo-ey choral vocals, cutesy energy and skipping rhythm. The vocal betrays this somewhat given the subject matter—a man confused and devastated by a cheating lover. He concludes that his”… fate is to be just a lonely, lonely man.”

“Donna Lee”-Straight up rock ‘n’ roll with piano triplets, a galloping rhythmic attack and a snarling vocal. You can easily imagine Elvis covering this tune.

“Gonna Be Walkin’”-A shuffling rhythm similar to “Lonely Weekends” down to the background choir. Very similar chord progression; a retread of “Lonely.” The only main difference is a tasty electric guitar solo from 1:00-1:22 in a 2:26 minute song.

“Everything I Do is Wrong”-Shuffle rhythm, an echo laden vocal with a piano riff that builds up to the hook. The lyric is a tragicomic lament of a perpetual crew-up. A sax solo, with guitar accents comes in the middle before the song’s resolve.

“Philadelphia Baby”-A travel song that kicks off with double harmony vocals and echo. The protagonist travels by train to meet up with his girlfriend. The song is organized around the rush of anticipation.

“Blue Suede Shoes”-A warm, soulful version of the song. Driven by a pounding salon piano, including a brief solo.

“Goodbye Maryann”-A peppy rock n’ roll tune about love gone wrong.

“My Baby Done Left Me”-Pops open with an echo laden, declarative vocal—very reminiscent of Bill Haley with an R&B shuffle underneath, and dramatic stop rhythm to anchor the story’s heartache lyric.

“Rebound”-Charging, hip-shaking tale of romantic angst laced with the wish of revenge for the departing lover.

“Whirlwind”-Echo vocals with stop rhythm, quickly followed by fervent rock beat and bed of stark piano harmony. A rollicking piano solo punctuates the song’s rhythmic approach, joined by double handclaps. The song swells gradually echoing the intense lyric theme.

“Finally Found Out”-After a wicked laugh kicks things off Rich sings huskily about the comeuppance a former lover over a shuffling rhythm with a background choir. He reprises the laugh near the break, and ends with a laugh.

“I Need Your Love”-The rare song of yearning during this phase. He sings over what sounds like a mildly out-of-tune piano, over a slow shuffle. His singing has a nearly Italianate crooning sound with extended vowels and near-belting.

 “It’s Too Late”-A lament of a departed lover with a sympathetic choir and a lazy rhythm. There’s a string interlude with choral backing.

“Sittin and Thinkin’”-Rich reveals he’s gotten loaded and had a fight with a best friend. He admits his drinking usually gets him in trouble. The key is the lyric, “When I’m drinkin/I’m nobody’s friend.”

“There Won’t be Anymore”—Opens with blue piano chords, a ticking rhythm with itchy percussion, and a bluesy, boozy, lamentative vocal. 

“Big Man”-A gospel flavored tune that begins slowly with gospel piano and increases tempo into a hand clapping rhythm and a devotional vocal. Ironically though it’s a gospel song its one of the few songs in the collection without a choir.

“Who Will the Next Fool Be”—A blues piano, shuffling rhythm, and cooing background vocals set this song up as a blue tune. His soulful inflection, with slight echo, hooks you instantly.  This is one of the more mature and enduring songs in Rich’s canon; Bobby “Blue” Bland and Diane Schuur are among those who have interpreted the song…



LTL Excerpt 2: Future Voices in the Present: Gregory Porter

(from Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 Great Singers)

 Within vocal  jazz Gregory Porter (b. 1971) may advance the genre forward through synthesizing the roots of jazz—gospel, blues, swing and improvisation—with more contemporary modes including songwriting prowess and an affinity for classic R&B. Appreciating Gregory Porter is greatly aided by understanding trends among jazz influenced male pop singers and in post ‘90s R&B.  Since Harry Connick’s commercial success in the late 80s/early 90s a slew of transparent would-be Sinatras have emerged. Michael Bublé became a massive pop star by mixing slick covers of standards and pop tunes with original soft rock ballads and a Rat Pack aura; crooner-pianists like Peter Cincotti and Tony DeSare have struggled to make a mark commercially and culturally; Jamie Cullum dwells somewhere between obvious crooner aspiration and genuine experimentation. The relationship of these performers to jazz and blues is slight—pop comfort is far more salient to their sound than improvisation. On the opposite spectrum are those patterned after the innovative bop artistry of Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy. Traces of their  sound informs aspects of Al Jarreau’s music but Kurt Elling, Giacomo, Gates, Tom Lellis, and J.D. Walter are among the more obvious disciples with Elling being the most prominent among them.

                                 Photo image: www.gregoryporter.com

                                 Photo image: www.gregoryporter.com

Porter instantly stands out from the pop-oriented crooner by virtue of repertoire (mostly original), arrangements (typically small groups), and his decision to improvise.  He also injects aspects of blues and R&B into his phrasing rarely heard in crooner pop. He is a remarkable crooner with a burly baritone capable of producing tender grace notes as well as riffing like a soul shouter and instrumentalist all at once. Elements of classic R&B singers Donny Hathaway, Lou Rawls, and Bill Withers, can be heard in Porter’s incendiary writing and vocal tone. Yet he never sounds like a mere nostalgic, which is one of the pitfalls of neo-soul arrangements, and he is miles beyond the faceless cartoonish music of contemporary male R&B singing which tends toward slickness, vulgarity,  braggadocio, and lover man clichés—often at the same time in the same song. By avoiding these traps he stands apart immediately out as a unique artist…

 …2010’s Water is so fully realized and deeply personal it’s hard to believe it’s a debut. Only someone with a strong sense of musicianship and self-awareness could accomplish its remarkable sense of balance. Porter mixes giddy love songs, and aching torch songs with several impressionist sketches of African-American diasporic history. These include “Wisdom,” an ancestral evocation that integrates snippets from the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” a swinging, ebullient vocal version of Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile,” and the album’s highlight: the searing stop-start song “1960 What?” that laments the endurance of Detroit’s urban blight and malaise in contemporary society.   He and his band interplay impeccably serving as a perfect percussive foil. Porter is a spare lyricist; this quality allows him and his co-arrangers Chip Crawford and Kamau Kenyatta to provide ample space for soloists. Porter favors structures where the band states the musical theme, Porter enters, singing and telling the story, and then the band shifts into lengthy solos, often by multiple instruments, followed by a lyrical restatement of the theme. The solos provide a sense of emotional release and both music and lyric unite in service of the theme…

 …2011’s Be Good has a more anthemic R&B inflected approach than Water, but duplicates the range of moods and tones, and balances the contributions of vocalist and band. Porter is a gifted composer who uses metaphors artfully, and explores more vulnerable emotional territory than most writers of standard pop-jazz fare who usually focus on love. Musically he focuses more on mood and rhythmic feel than hooks, and writes melodies that lean in a folk-soul direction. These provide space for an almost parlando style of speak singing…

 …2013’s Jazz Vocal Grammy winner  Liquid Spirit reiterates all that is great about Porter—it’s musically diverse, he is in excellent voice, and he and the band operate seamlessly. The title track is a classic call-and-response anthem focused on equality and triumph premised on the notion: “Let the liquid spirits free/The folks are thirsty.” “Free” is his most autobiographical song, especially in the way he honors his parents which extends the ancestral theme of “Wisdom” and “On My Way to Harlem.”… 



LTL Excerpt 1: Quiet as Kept: Savoring the sound of Julia Fordham and Marti Jones

(from Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 Great Singers)

I’ve spent my adult life seeking out great music and have been fortunate to discover some recordings so personally touching and impactful that I can’t shut up about them or stop pursuing their recordings, however obscure or hard-to-find. Julia Fordham (b. 1962) and Marti Jones (birthdate unknown) are two of these artists.  They are among the most distinctive vocal artists to emerge from the 1980s (They are also both guitarists). But they remain cult artists who were heralded when they debuted, but primarily savored by aficionados. They are far enough outside of the mainstream that listeners tend to learn about their music through deliberate searching rather than relying on exposure in mainstream pop channels. I have championed their music for years to anyone who will listen, and continue to do so. Though some remnants of ‘80s production inflect their earliest recordings their music has aged beautifully, always ripe for discovery

Fordham, who debuted as a solo singer in 1988, is a remarkably resourceful writer who has filled her albums with a vast palette of melodic contours and harmonic colors. Joni Mitchell is an important influence on Fordham in this vein, though I view her as more of a general influence. Fordham is so distinctive I cannot actually imagine her singing Mitchell’s songs. Fordham’s rich voice, sumptuous melodies, fresh lyrical themes, and diverse arrangements also distinguish her from other singer-songwriters of her generation. Most of her peers, such as Shawn Colvin and Tracy Chapman, have prominent acoustic folk roots whereas jazz, world music, and R&B consistently define her sound.  

Jones is also best understood as resourceful, though her most recognizable gift is her interpretive skill. Like Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, and Maria Muldaur, she is one of the great eclectic interpreters of rock, soul, and folk material. Her voice is a captivating instrument highly evocative of Jackie DeShannon and Dusty Springfield’s sultriness, though she is a stronger rock singer than either of these talented vocalists. In the mid-80s she and producer Don Dixon created a durable approach to recording by placing emotionally powerful, top shelf pop/rock material in guitar-driven arrangements framed by Jones’s soulful voice

Copyright  © 1986, 1989, A&M Records. Copyright  © 1990, BMG Music/RCA Corp.

Copyright  © 1986, 1989, A&M Records. Copyright  © 1990, BMG Music/RCA Corp.

...From these roots Jones recorded 1989’s Used Guitars her strongest album and an excellent introduction to her buoyant, emotionally penetrating style. Like Linda Ronstadt’s triumphant Heart Like a Wheel, Used Guitars is a sublime meshing of singer, material, and arrangements. Jones is influenced by pop, folk, R&B, country, and even aspects of punk, and synthesizes them masterfully. Her interpretations are seamless expressions of the heart. I mentioned several tunes already but others that standout include the following: “Keep Me in the Dark” has a melancholy that creeps gently. “The Real One,” another Hiatt song, soars with choral richness. She differs from Ronstadt primarily in being a songwriter. Her original tunes “Tourist Town” and “Twisted Vines” are melodic, original songs with a fresh point of view. This combination of memorable melodies, Don Dixon’s vibrant arrangements, and expert playing is a musician at her peak...

...All of the books and sites I consulted suggested 1989’s Porcelain was Fordham's best so I returned to D.C. (notably Dupont Circle’s fabulous Melody Maker Records shop which has closed sadly) and purchased the one remaining copy only a few months later. Porcelain is a quintessential example of an album that grabs your attention initially, via the loping opener “Lock and Key,” and unfolds and reveals itself over time insinuating itself into your memory. Her potent contralto has shades of Cleo Laine, Alison Moyet, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, and Laura Nyro, but overall it is a unique voice. The sheer variety also grabbed me especially given the usual folk sound of singer-songwriters.

A few examples of its songs:

“Genius”—An eco-themed samba with Brazilian percussive features

 “For You, Only For You”—A torchy jazz ballad

“Girlfriend”, “Porcelain”, “Did I Happen to Mention”— Brooding, emotionally complex love songs

“Manhattan Skyline”—An unusually open song, where in over four-and-a-half minutes it expands from a few lovely strums to a big hearted transcontinental love story.

I was hooked by these songs on Porcelain and anxious to listen to more Fordham...

Copyright   © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1994, 1997, Circa Records Ltd./Virgin Records. Copyright  © 2002, 2004, 2005, Vanguard Records.

Copyright   © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1994, 1997, Circa Records Ltd./Virgin Records. Copyright  © 2002, 2004, 2005, Vanguard Records.



Introducing Learning to Listen: Reflections of 58 great singers excerpts

The late 20th century was eloquently characterized as an era of “white noise” by Don DeLillo in his acclaimed novel. This sentiment continues in the early 21st century as well. Advancements in technology and the proliferation of mass media have created a seemingly endless stream of images, catchphrases, celebrity coronations, and “news” posing as useful information. Rising above this cacophony requires vigorous effort among thoughtful people to distinguish the most vital aspects of our culture from trivial ephemera. In essence we have to move from merely seeing and hearing to genuinely listening.

 Several years ago I began crafting a series of essays on the impact of recordings from a select group of vocalist that helped open me up emotionally, creatively, and intellectually. These essays have culminated in Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 great singers a collection of unpublished essays. As I seek a publisher for the book I am excited to share excerpts from the book regularly on the Riffs, Beats, & Codas site to convey my intimate experiences with this eclectic group of post-WWII vocalists.

 In addition to posting from my book I will feature interviews with various individuals, on the site's Learning to Listen interview blog, who will discuss their experiences with music that helped them to learn to listen. This is an ongoing project; in the future I will invite readers to share their stories about pivotal musical moments in their lives as well!