This Saturday, one of my favorite songbirds, Catherine Russell will be in DC performing for all of us dancers at Glen Echo Ballroom. It got me thinking about all of the great female jazz singers that have been popping up over the last decade. Catherine is amazing, with a pedigree to match. Her father, Luis Russell, was a musical director for Louis Armstrong. Listening to her, I feel as though she has internalized the very essence of jazz, soaked in it through her entire childhood. One moment, you hear her singing jazz, and the next blues, next you hear a twinge of western swing. Its as if all of the great branches of jazz have met come together in one ambassador to carry them forward. She’s not the most famous, but I hope her day will come. She is very deserving of great success.
Before Catherine Russell, the path for female jazz vocalists to achieve notoriety was paved by Diana Krall. She was once very popular with the dance crowd, but has faded from popularity. Some of the decline in her popularity is just a matter of changing tastes, but she wasn’t helped by the studios. On her early albums, Diana Krall was a great pianist, and I love her album, All for You, which is a tribute to Nat King Cole. Much like Nat King Cole, she has moved away from that tight, piano-driven small jazz ensemble to larger orchestrations with strings. While this might be great for a certain demographic (Hi, mom!), its hard to dance to a violin section without a pulse. Err… rhythmic pulse. My other struggle with Diana Krall’s work is that she is a great pianist, but only a decent singer. She chooses great songs, but I inevitable find an earlier recording that clearly inspired her arrangement, and that I like better. Still, I think she deserves more credit than she often gets.
Another one of my favorite songbirds is going through a similar struggle. Jane Monheit has never reached the level of popularity as Diana Krall, but she is twenty times the vocalist. Of course, she doesn’t play piano. She made her name as a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Jazz competition, so the girl has some serious chops. That doesn’t always bode well for swing dancers, especially on the album of Brazilian jazz tunes. And the last time we saw her in concert (she is great in concert), she was unhappy with the producers and the direction they took her album (The Lovers, The Dreamers, and Me). Since then, she’s ditched her label, and self-produced her last album (Home) which gets her away from those syrupy strings, and back to solid jazz footing with some great guest artists. If you’re looking for a smooth, slow lindy, check out “The Eagle and Me.” I wish she’d record some stuff with a little more edge, a little less smooth and a little more bounce. She’s achieved that when I’ve seen her live, but the polish of the recordings loses some of that magic.
There are a couple of other artists who deserve mention as well. One of my favorite’s is Madeleine Peyroux. She reminds me a lot of Billie Holiday, especially in her laid back phrasing. A lot of her stuff is very danceable, my favorite being “Dance Me to the End of Love.” A little more modern sounding, blues influenced songbird is Melody Gardot. I’m worried that the record producers are pushing her towards that string laden sound that ruins artists for dancers, but there are still some great tracks. Melody’s power comes from the softness in her voice that commands attention. In that respect, she’s very much like a modern Peggy Lee. Also, special mention to Adele who has done some great covers, especially Sam Cooke’s “That’s It, I Quit.” I wouldn’t exactly categorize her as a jazz songbird, but I think she’s got some serious chops worth taking note of.
Let me know if there are others that you love that I didn’t mention. I never intended this to be a comprehensive list, just a collection of my favorites.