Does artful intonation stand a chance?
of the over-singers
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
using vocal gymnastics to make musical points.
Nearly as good is Tierney Sutton's Something
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.
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.
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
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.