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.
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