ELISABETH KONTOMANOU / “Sunny”
As far as jazz classics go, I feel I can sing them now - and go on singing them in the future - because I’m really up to it. I don’t feel that I was mature or experienced enough to do them justice before. I think you have to have lived a bit to sing lyrics like that. These lyrics are emotionally charged and the stories these songs tell have to bear some relation to your own life. If not, they don’t carry any weight. There’s no sense, no truth in them. I think someone like Abbey Lincoln has earned the right to sing these songs. She has much more of a link to this music than someone like Diana Krall.
Creating unique, or at least distinctive, interpretations of standards, classics and pop songs is a major part of the jazz tradition. Indeed, as in the case of Louis Armstrong, one can become a major figure on the strength of how well one interprets music composed by others. The essence of jazz is in the doing, in the process of making the music and not in the thing itself. The value of a jazz composition is in how well it serves as a springboard for performance. But as jazz greats have demonstrated time and time again, the real greatness is in the performance.
For singers, creatively interpreting music is ipso facto the essence of being a jazz singer, i.e. taking a piece of music and through it projecting an emotion or an idea that totally moves the listener. To do this well the singer must possess a voice that commands notice (and there is no certain type—it could be Sarah Vaughn thick, Billie holiday thin, Lauryn Hill warm or Eryka Badu keening) but whatever the tonal quality, the singer must make us want to listen. The singer should also have technique, whether formally trained or self taught—no one wants to hear someone who gets most of the notes wrong simply because they can’t sing any better or don’t know what they are doing. But, finally and perhaps most important of all, the singer must be able to connect with the song and through the song tell us about themselves and in telling us about themselves, touch that part of us that relates to the exposed self.
A lot of the art of jazz song develops with time. There is no instant success at it. Elisabeth Kontomanou is closing in on being a truly great jazz singer.
Her jazz take on Bobby Herb's famous song “Sunny” is her most popular recording. It has been included on numerous compilations. The version in the jukebox is from her album Waitin’ For Spring and features Laurent Coq – piano, Daryl Hall – bass, Sam Newsome – sax, John Scofield – guitar and Elisabeth’s son, Donald Kontomanou – drums. It’s a truly swinging affair. Notice that she scats like a saxophonist whereas most singers mimic trumpets; her phrasing emphasizes harmonic development and not just high notes and velocity.
“We’ll Be Together Again,” a duet with Scofield, is also from Waitin’ For Spring. Here it is easy to hear her debt to Ella in how she caresses the lyrics, but what Elisabeth does differently is her signature interval jumps and micro-tone shading of notes.
“Good Morning Heartache” is done live with Elisabeth sitting in as a guest with the Archie Shepp quartet as they pay tribute to Billie Holiday. Appropriately, the pace is slow-mo, coming in just behind the downbeat. The slow pace gives a tension to Elisabeth's performance that is mirrored in the thick texture of her voice. Elisabeth has far more raw power than Billie did but keeps it all under control. Archie takes a typically abrasive solo. Where some people are content to worry a note, Archie tortures it. Archie Shepp can throw you off. Elisabeth never looses her footing and even manages to stand out in this heartfelt rendering of a song that virtually belongs to Billie Holiday.
Finally there is Billie Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For” from A Week in Paris, an album by pianist Franck Amsallem. Here Elisabeth swings for the fences. Her re-entry after the piano solo is stunning. I love the passion in her voice, the way she pushes through into the territory where it sounds like she might hurt herself if she keeps going.
One hardly hears hard-ass, bluesy singing like this nowadays. It’s not “pretty.” Elisabeth is powerful and passionate and that is the difference. This is music that comes from the gut, holds back nothing. Far from easy listening, Elisabeth will make you think about some of the deepest questions you’ve ever asked your self.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Not feeling her versions
I hear you when you say Elisabeth's singing isn't “pretty.” She certainly doesn't sound like a finesse singer or a technician. I like her voice and her power approach, but I'm not feeling her versions of these standards. I don't usually like slow, drama-filled jazz vocals and Elisabeth's versions are no exception. I do like some of her contemporary material though, so click the Contemporary link and I'll meet y'all over there.
—Mtume ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Monday, November 26th, 2007 at 4:11 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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