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Does artful intonation stand a chance?

Invasion of the over-singers
by Mark Anderson

s if to reinforce a mildly annoying sign of an ever-approaching musical apocalypse, the 20-year-old winner of a glorified karaoke contest set an all-time sales record a few weeks back.

"First she beat 10,000 aspiring pop stars," said the breathless wire-service story. "Now, Kelly Clarkson has set a record on the Billboard singles chart. Clarkson's 'A Moment Like This' jumped to the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 this week from its debut at No. 52, the biggest leap to No. 1 ever in the chart's history."

Allyson: In Blue, an interesting idea and a worthwhile collection, is not her strongest recording.

Clarkson's dubious fame comes via "American Idol," the wildly popular summer TV craze, a guilty pleasure that featured a weekly assortment of teens and 20-somethings itching to over-sing their way into the hearts of millions of phone-in voters.

Which leads one to ask: In an age of over-singing and garish vocal gymnastics, does artful intonation stand a chance? We can at least be thankful that recent releases from Karrin Allyson, Patricia Barber, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nnenna Freelon, Stacey Kent, Tierney Sutton and Jane Monheit show off a variety of jazz-inflected songstresses – all with several prior recordings to their credit.

As a collective, these seven artists compensate for shortcomings in sales by showing strong tendencies toward style, wit, grace and, yes, even a little self-restraint.

Karrin Allyson's inviting, sunshiny voice matched against the blues is an interesting idea, and In Blue is a worthwhile collection. But while the disc has its moments, including a knowing, understated version of Mose Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy" and a sublime reading of the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On," it's not her strongest outing.

A better bet is Allyson's 2001 tribute to John Coltrane – along with a healthy sampling of spectacular cuts from her eight-disc catalog. "All of You," "Cherokee," "Joy Spring" and "Autumn Leaves" from Collage, a 1996 release, is an inspired place to start.

Barber: Verse is a rewarding challenge for the already smitten.

Patricia Barber's eighth album, Verse, is a daring effort in self-expression from a cool-voiced singer who doubles as an impressively intuative pianist. Nine of these 10 songs are written by Barber; seven are roughly five minutes or more, and she stays true to the less-is-more school throughout, both in singing and playing. The new compositions make stabs at taking words and music to interesting places – whether simple or complex, with combo or without.

Again, this is probably not the best place to start. Along with being an adventurous songwriter, Barber is fascinating as live performer and has a gift for jazzing up pop ("Light My Fire," "Black Magic Woman," "A Taste of Honey") and redefining standards ("You & the Night & the Music," "I Fall in Love Too Easily"); all is gloriously evidenced on previous releases. Still, for the already smitten, Verse is very much a rewarding challenge.

Bridgewater: What's New contains several highlights, but also requires some picking and choosing.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, a dozen albums and nearly 30 years of recording to her credit, pays tribute to Kurt Weill on her latest CD, What's New. Weill's most familiar tune, "Mack the Knife," is not covered here. But Bridgewater does an amazing job breathing life into the minor-key cabaret story-songs of Weill, who died more than half a century ago.

Her voice, however, is a rich instrument with built-in warble – an acquired taste for some. And arrangements (several by ex-husband Cecil Bridgewater) are often overwrought and get in the way of giving her a real chance at many of these complicated theater pieces.

That said, "September Song" is a daring and jazzy gem with a memorable sax break. "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and "The Saga of Jenny" are also among the highlights, along with some fine solo instrumental moments and accomplished big-band interplay. It's an entertaining investment for those willing to pick and choose.

Freelon: Tales of Wonder falls short of Stevie.

Nnenna Freelon's Tales of Wonder, a tribute to the man born Steveland Morris, lands mostly on the side of disappointment.

The problem isn't song selection or singing – Freelon, covering "Superstition," "Send One Your Love," "My Cherie Amour" and "Tears of a Clown," gets high marks on both counts. It's hard to go wrong with Stevie Wonder.

Here, it's a problem of misguided arrangements and their inevitable comparison to the consistent near-perfection of Wonder's original work. Aside from the novelty factor, most will prefer Stevie any day. Freelon, also a songwriter, fares better on previous albums with original compositions or standards from an earlier era.

Kent: In Love Again is best of the bunch, but only as an import (try Amazon).

The best of the bunch is In Love Again, Stacey Kent's tribute to Richard Rogers.

That the disc is, thus far, released only in Japan is sadly telling: Even the best of the best can get relegated to the fringes in our TV-trained land of plenty.

But Kent is a master of understatement and the timeless art of knowing what not to say and when not to say it. Furthermore, her gifted sidemen (husband Jim Tomlinson on sax, guitarist Colin Oxley, pianist Dave Newton, bassist Simon Thorpe and drummer Jasper Kviberg) are of the same minimalistic mind.

"Easy to Remember," "Bali Ha'i," "I Wish I Were in Love Again," and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" are especially amazing, while Kent's take on "It Might As Well Be Spring" is a definitive example of subtle, elegant understatement.

But it's 13 songs strong, all good, and well worth seeking out as an import.

Sutton: using vocal gymnastics to make musical points.

Nearly as good is Tierney Sutton's Something Cool.

Her "Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead" defies description while showing off a voice of amazing control amid cascading, rollicking jazz. Likewise, most of the standards and showtunes among the CD's 14 tracks are given liberal improvisational twists that mark them as new turf.

Sutton, an almost-40 Californian, is four discs into a career that features a body of work nearly as deep as is it's apparent distance beneath popularity's radar – and all since 1998. Her flaw, if indeed it is one, is a tendency toward those dreaded vocal gymnastics. In Sutton's case, and to her everlasting credit, it's done to play with the beat, surprise with unexpected changes of tempo, or otherwise make tantalizing musical points.

Which is like making a habit of one-handed catches for touchdowns, rather than the obnoxious end-zone dances that so often follow.

Monheit: a little too eager to please.

Jane Monheit might take notice. Monheit has only a few years on Clarkson, and In the Sun, her third release, continues on the path of standards explored on 1998's debut disc – when she, too, was 20. Even before Monheit's second album, which showed a continuing affinity for good material, many considered her both golden child and keeper of the flame.

But Monheit's singing is still a little too quick to embellish, a bit too eager to please. And, really, that's the crux: Nothing wrong with being eager to please, it's just bad business to flaunt it.

Or at least it used to be.

Because all the voguish over-singing isn't Kelly Clarkson's fault. She's just a big-voiced 20-year-old cocktail waitress who followed a paint-by-numbers American Dream and gave the people what they seem to think they want. Her song has sold half a million copies and counting.

More to blame is that holy trinity of excess, Houston, Carey and Dion, which has collectively paved its way into the consciousness of the masses – only to inform us that overblown self-indulgence trumps artful nuance far more often than not.

And mostly to blame is us – for consistently rewarding crassness over quality.

Clarkson: not necessarily to blame for her own over-singing.

Still, the artful singers rattled off above are but seven of the female half of the 2002 releases. There's also a fine pair of something-other-than-jazz releases – a new one from the eclectic Cassandra Wilson and the delightful debut by Norah Jones – along with a not-so-great "Live In Paris" from Diana Krall. There's more where they came from and, we can continue to hope, many more to come. And then there's the men.

So if there's a God, perhaps that aforementioned apocalypse is at least a few over-singers away, while earthly penance for all will be just.

Then maybe someone will lock the Clarkson kid in a room with the Stacey Kent catalog. And the rest of us will treat "American Idol" and its kind as a one-off curiosity, turn our backs to the television and opt for some quality time of our own.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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