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.

COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

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.  

 

COPYRIGHT © 2016 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

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.

 


COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


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.

 

 COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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.

 Eclecticism                   

 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.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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.”… 

 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.