Hitting the right notes, but still getting it wrong

Young jazz vocalists misstep when they emphasize technique over true feelings

Pop Music

October 03, 2004|By Tom Moon | Tom Moon,Knight Ridder / Tribune

It's a great time to be a jazz singer in your 20s," Jane Monheit says, with the slightest hint of nervousness. The 26-year-old performer admits to being a little surprised by the explosion in vocal jazz over the last few years. When she began singing professionally in the late 1990s, Monheit was among a lonely handful of young artists attempting to further the grand tradition of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

Now, as the major labels strive to superserve those bewitched and bedazzled by Norah Jones, there are scores of fresh-faced stylists, each hoping to put his or her stamp on the Great American Songbook, each selling a different shade of saloon croonerismo, each determined to buff the standards until they're fabulous again.

"All of a sudden, they're coming out of the woodwork," Monheit says of her unexpected competition, including Jamie Cullum, 24; Renee Olstead, 15; Peter Cincotti, 21; and Michael Buble, who just turned 29 and is Monheit's duet partner on her new CD, Taking a Chance on Love. "I really think it's amazing. I mean, there are now 20 million people and a bunch of teenagers who know 'The Nearness of You' because Norah sings it on her album."

OK, sure. In terms of cultural literacy, Monheit is right. It's great for a new generation to experience Hoagy Carmichael's simple celebration of intimacy, especially as Jones interprets it, in wistful whispers far from typical shooby-doo jazz singing.

Imitation, not interpretation

But is it great to hear actress Olstead, of the CBS sitcom Still Standing, do another color-inside-the-lines rendition of George Gershwin's "Summertime"? Do we really need the students of Sinatra to mimic the master's devil-may-care attitude and bring nothing of themselves to the party? Is there a reason to reward reasonable facsimiles of postwar classics just for their look-what-I-can-do glibness?

This crooner kick, which resembles the youth movement among jazz instrumentalists in the early 1980s, is another of those moments when the hype gets ahead of the music. The focus is on technical accomplishment, not the open-hearted expression of soul and sharing of insights that has marked pioneers going back to Louis Armstrong.

The artists display proper respect for their material, but in only a few cases have they managed what Jones did from the start: to create a compelling, contemporary atmosphere that speaks to the ages, not just a crushed-velvet banquette-bedecked showroom circa 1955.

These unimaginative updates appeal to people who like the upscale allure of the jazz "lifestyle" more than the actual music. They're Restoration Hardware re-creations, collections of nostalgic design elements that are somehow cold and digital underneath.

Where is the depth, the subtlety?

There's an art to performing enduring songs, particularly evergreens such as "I Get a Kick Out of You," so that they're more than audio comfort food. This skill isn't like learning a foreign language. It's not about dutifully following the melodies and parroting, as some new crooners do, long-established phrases.

No, it's about the ability to make a cluster of complex emotional memories signify something universal. Put on anything by Billie Holiday and you hear a woman acquainted with love's all-consuming heat and, when the affair is over, its bitter backlash. Inside her music is the wisdom of one who has been burned, whose romantic illusions have been shattered. She doesn't throw her tribulations in your face, the way a punk-rock singer might. Rather, she lets them seep into every crevice, every sigh. They are the DNA of her music, the almost imperceptible counterpoint that runs beneath the words.

The velvety musings of any number of others -- Johnny Hartman, Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett -- offer similar life lessons. There's reflection, and sometimes regret. The great jazz singers know how to freeze time; they scrutinize stray bits of conversation and replay moments until, by the final verse, they have pieced together the shards of a broken union.

They know too much, and are too ambivalent, to rhapsodize in primary colors; they'd rather tease out the shades and hues, the richness in the deep background.

Most of the new-crooner crew miss those nuances. By a mile. They understand the melodic contours but sound like youngsters as they cop worldly affectation and spout received wisdom. The way they do it, swingin' easy doesn't seem particularly easy: It's laborious time travel, a willful act of transporting themselves into the old supper-club circuit.

Junior Crooners

In the wake of Norah Jones' success, several young jazz singers are getting a hearing. Among them are:

Michael Buble: Come Fly With Me (Warner Bros.) Buble has gotten boatloads of press for the Sinatra-like qualities of his voice. What's equally notable is the young Canadian's easygoing phrasing, which is well displayed in the live performances in this CD / DVD package released in March.

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