Wednesday Jun 26

Bright spots on the vocal jazz scene

Jazz singing has largely degenerated into an ill-considered revival of swing era pop-jazz chirping and cabaret performances that masquerade as jazz. Female singers are mostly at fault, but there are male practitioners who equally confuse the matter of singing jazz with jazzy singing. So does the listening public, of course.

There's so much of this going on that I've developed great skills with the volume control, mute button, or station selector when listening to over-the-air jazz. Many instrumental introductions clearly communicate that some sort of warbling is about to start. That's when the fingers on my right hand get into position and my auditory system's critical faculties go into high gear. It doesn't take more than a vocal phrase or two for it to become clear whether or not I'm being served up something that I don't want to deal with.

It's the same with a lot of the jazz-related vocal CDs that arrive in the mail for review. They're just wrong. For the most part, I give a quick listen and (often abetted by Ms tk who is less of a stylistic purist but also less tolerant of sounds that fall unkindly on the ears) consign quite a few to quick elimination from the CD player and from any intrusion on shelf space.

Now for the good news.

In the last month or so two extremely find jazz singing CDs turned up in my mailbox. As luck and fairness would have it, one is by a male singer and one by a female.

In that order, they are:

ARTIST: Milton Suggs
TITLE: Things to Come
LABEL: Skiptone Music
YEAR: 2010
TIME: 73:59
Sound: 5

ARTIST: Laurie Antonioli
TITLE: American Dreams
LABEL: Intrinsic Music
YEAR: 2010
TIME: 57:06
Sound: 4

The two singers and the two productions have a lot in common. First off, they are both very much in the present. This is contemporary jazz music in the finest sense of that term. Jazz at its best develops with the times rather than emulating slavishly the music that was new and creative various decades ago.

Contributing to the freshness of the music from Antonioli and Suggs is the fact that they both are composers as well as performers and each wrote words or music or both for a majority of the songs on his or her respective CDs.

In years past when Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composers cranked out literally hundreds of pop songs and most of those composers were jazz savvy. So their tunes served up appropriate material for interpretation by the jazz community. That's no longer the case.

Today's creative singers like Antonioli and Suggs who want fresh material are pretty much forced to produce the bulk of it themselves.

Another possibility is to look very far back and both Suggs and Antonioli do that, too. Suggs presents "We Shall Overcome" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing," important anthems in our nation's struggle to achieve a just and open society.

Antonioli came up with "Dreary Black Hills," a cowboy song about prospecting in North Dakota that she melded with "Get Up and Go" by bassist John Shifflet. She also revisits "America the Beautiful."

Antonioli uses two classic American pop songs, "Moonlight in Vermont" and "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." Suggs makes one similar selection, Thelonious Monk's classic "'Round Midnight."

For me, the Suggs disc has marginally more appeal. Some of that is based on the recorded sound. It's as good as any CD I've ever heard and outshines the very fine work done by the engineers who handled the Antonioli session.

I also like the instrumental lineup that backs Suggs more. It's what I think of as a proper jazz band: trumpet, alto sax, trombone, guitar, piano, bass, drums, and organ. It can be really punchy and also soft and caressing. The instrumental solo work, and there's a good measure of it, is as ear catching and rewarding as Suggs' vocals.

The tour de force of the Suggs collection is "JL Blues (Every Night and Every Day)." He uses a series of bop-tinged blues choruses originally performed by trumpeter Roy Hargrove and alto saxophonist Justin Robinson and adds loving sensual lyrics that must be heard to be believed. Suggs cites vocalese kings Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson as important influences and with this one creation he surpasses both of those masters.

Suggs also adds words to Cedar Walton's "Ugetsu," recasting it as "Fantasy for Two." He uses Walton's melody and a Kenny Garrett sax solo as the melodic bases for his lyric creations. And "Your Smile" is Suggs' take on Ray Noble's "Cherokee" and one of Charlie Parker's recorded solo improvisations on that tune.

Let's also give credit to singer Sarah Marie Young who duets with Suggs on his "'Cuz I'm in Love With You." That tune has an overlay of pop sensibility, both current and classic, with an underlying jazz core that bursts forth through an evocative guitar solo by Larry Brown, Jr.

Antonioli's back up group is fairly spare. It starts with a full four-piece rhythm section of piano, bass, drums, and guitar and adds Sheldon Brown as the sole horn. He uses soprano sax, tenor sax, bass clarinet, and harmonica on various tunes. The overall sonic palette thus tends toward the lighter ranges and has a sort of folkish and spacey character. I like it, but not as much as Suggs' massed horns.

There's no single overwhelming performance on American Dreams although the "Dreary Black Hills/Get Up and Go" medley mentioned above comes close. In general, this set is more of a piece than the Suggs disc.

Both CDs deserve a listen. I believe any 21st century jazz fan will enjoy them and will receive much more musical enlightenment than he or she might from today's all too common look-back-with-nostalgia vocal jazz efforts.