VARIOUS ARTISTS / “Jazz Vocals Mixtape”
These are my five favorite vocal jazz albums. I think these recordings are indispensable for my personal library and, at the same time, are also classics of modern jazz vocals that should be in any serious jazz collection. But this is not an argument; my choices are not better than your choices. I’m simply sharing, not dictating.
* * *
Billie Holiday – Lady In Satin
I had to deal with two issues for this selection. First of all, Billie is a lot like cognac. When I did drink, I rarely drank cognac. That stringent liquor just wasn’t to my taste. Much as that French wine-based fermentation, Billie is also an acquired taste.
For years I would try to get into Billie but she didn’t really, really move me. Then as the years rolled by, after a while I grew to understand what Amiri Baraka meant when he told a young poet who said he didn’t dig jazz, “you will!” The assumption there was that if said individual was serious about wanting to be a deep writer, eventually he was going to have to get to some deep music, i.e. acquire a taste for exquisite musical brews.
Plus, sometimes some stuff has to age. And by “some stuff,” I mean each of us. Billie is not music for innocents, or the so-called pure of heart. Billie is the music of pain endured, the aftertaste of love that didn’t last, which is to say, no human love lasts forever. Eventually we die, eventually love dies. And love usually dies long before we die. Indeed, for each of us, deep love usually dies at least two or three times in a lifetime.
Second issue, I am not focusing simply on the five best singers; I’m also focusing on specific recordings that I consider important. I like Billie’s small combo work recorded in California during the mid-fifties. But when it comes to picking one specific album, I end up returning to Lady In Satin
. Mainly because up to then there had not been any album of strings and romantic songs that was so resolutely anti-romantic as this stiff shot misleadingly titled Lady In Satin
, as though this were a smooth one.
No way. This is shit to cry to. To think about misses, mistakes, failed flings, troubled trysts, and all manner of intimate fuck-ups. In other words this was an album for post-fifty people. People who are no longer trying to convince themselves that they are something other than what they are. No more lies. No more lipstick on pig lips—pig lips: all those sordid blemishes hidden on the interior of our hearts.
I say “blemish” because even if we were wronged, what was really wrong was our willing suspension of common sense. Eventually, if we are honest with ourselves, we must remember this: love did not fool us, we fooled ourselves.
Everyone grows up having been told that love don’t love nobody, but we don’t even wait to be drafted, most of us volunteer to fall in love… (I know at least a couple of yall are wondering about all this love stuff I’m writing, wondering what it has to do with my assessment of Billie Holiday’s penultimate recording. Well, maybe nothing. I mean when I was listening to Billie sing, she made me think of a lot of things I don’t usually dwell on.)
What in the world does anyone realistically think they can get from “loving” someone whom any sober assessment would have confirmed we were “mistaken” (at best), or “stupid” (more likely) to fall for in the first place.
I know it sounds harsh. But harsh is what truth is when, in our search for romance, we allow ourselves to overlook reality.
Except, there are no regrets. We don’t regret getting cut, scared and keloided in the pursuit of love because the highest truth is that though the chances of success are slim and none, there can be no life without love, without taking chances, without rebirth after every petite mort.
What Billie Holiday sang was the truth: pain is preferable to abstinence, a broken heart preferable to non-engagement. It is always better to lose than not to play at all.
Lady Day died seventeen months after recording Lady In Satin
She was almost dead when she went into the studio. Her voice was barely there. But she put so much heart into these songs that she has ruined some of them as far as anyone else really singing about how “easy it is to remember” and how “hard it is to forget.”
* * *
Carmen McRae - Carmen Sings Monk
Carmen McRae is not a name you hear a lot but she really is one of the true avatars of jazz vocals. She seemed almost magical, especially if you were looking for obvious evidence of why she was such an important vocalist.
Although her deep timbre was not without its attractiveness, Carmen’s beauty was not about a pretty voice.
I could argue her greatness was her impeccable timing and the fantastic minimalism of her phrasing that could craft more with one well-chosen grace note than most singers could achieve with an over-stuffed mouthful of words and intonations. But I don’t think technique was her secret.
She could scat but scatting was not her forte. I could list other characteristics that were good but nothing on the list would be sufficient to explain the provenance of Carmen’s emotional impact.
In the final analysis, I believe Carmen McRae’s ultimate strength was her imagination. The initiative she displayed in doing more with her admittedly limited gifts than far more talented singers could ever think to reach for. While the rest of us are furiously seeking light, Carmen was singing in the dark, touching the interiors, mapping out the contours of our lives by sensitively responding to the sub-surface vibrations of life.
You see, she was not responding to what we thought we liked or thought we desired. No, Carmen was an expert physician. She had her voice on our pulse, took our temperature, pressed here, prodded there. Carmen McRae responded to our realities rather than indulging our desires, and in that way her work held maximum relevance. Carmen’s music was real.
So, check this: Carmen McRae had the imagination to conceive of doing a whole album of Thelonious Monk music. A whole album. Monk.
Nobody. Absolutely no other vocalist could have pulled it off the way Carmen did, not because they lacked the chops, nor because of a paucity of material (even though Carmen did have to come up with some lyrics), but rather I know of no other vocalist who can bring both the weight of lived experience during the bebop hey day when most of Monk's material was initially written and at the same time who had the vision of vocalizing what is otherwise mostly known and celebrated as instrumental music.
Moreover, beyond all of the above considerations, ultimately, Carmen was successful because of the creative audacity of her artistic imagination.
Carmen Sings Monk
is a major thesis in the philosophy of jazz singing. Plus, she came hard. This was modern jazz, post bop, no concessions to trendiness. There have been umpteen Monk tributes. This is by far the strongest. By far.
* * *
Nina Simone - Emergency Ward/It Is Finished/Black Gold
The jazz singer who was more than jazz in her make-up and totally jazz in her expression. She studied classical music. She was a child of the church. She made a name as a super club singer of standards. But none of those were sufficient to contain her. Nina was Nina.
And as bad as her badness was, I almost didn’t pick her because, again, this focus is on albums and not simply on singers. So, when it came to Nina, what I ended up doing is cheating.
When Nina quit the United States of America and went into exile (I should be more accurate and say was encouraged by the assassinations and government repression to de-ass the ugliness that reigned at that time), when Nina left us she left us a calling card. The album was called It Is Finished
. Couldn’t make it no more plainer than that. Except a preceding album was called Emergency Ward
. You understand? Nina was laying it out there.
So, what happened was some kind of way the folks at RCA put both albums on one CD, plus Black Gold
, another lesser known concert album. So, even though originally this is not one album, maybe one CD qualifies, especially in the case of this triple dealer. This is Nina Simone the High Priestess.
All three albums are concert recordings. You can feel the audience responding, not to mention hear them clapping, screaming, stomping, shouting, damn near crying. Laughing at trouble and woe. Deliriously catching the holy ghost.
Some may argue these Nina Simone songs are not jazz.
I would agree, if by jazz you mean a specific style associated with swinging or a specific repertoire but Nina’s jazz is in her approach. Not just improvisation, but also her sense of composing on the fly, and doing it collectively. You can hear her directing the band and encouraging the audience to participate in the proceedings. This is the heart of jazz.
Nina. Simone. That says it all.
* * *
Al Jarreau - Look To The Rainbow
This is from early on in Al's career. A double-LP set recorded during a European tour. You want some straight-ahead, hard swinging jazz with acrobatic vocals. Look To The Rainbow
is the whole nine. And ten, eleven, twelve too, for that matter. This set exceeds the standards in terms of what we expect to hear when listening to a vocal jazz album.
I was especially moved by the spiritual content, the revelation of male sensitivity. But my delight is more than intellectual. This is Al’s “fun”-est recording. I mean it’s serious but it’s also a ball, an absolute, pure-“d” ball. And that’s why I dig Look To The Rainbow
Jazz at its best is exhilarating, feels like flying, or something. If you don’t have this album, you really got to get it.
* * *
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman - John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
If Look To The Rainbow
is the top of the mountain. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
descended from heaven.
I’ve got a bunch of Johnny Hartman recordings. I mean like about nine or ten albums, and some live sets from Boston and Tokyo, big band with Oliver Nelson, etc. etc.
And as for Trane—I’ve got over a hundred CDs worth of Mr. Coltrane. Yeah, you read right, over 100 CDs.
Anyway, not only is there nothing like this from anybody else, there is nothing else like this even from John Coltrane or Johnny Hartman. This is the one true example of the old “one of a kind” cliché. Recordings of this magnitude don't just happen—this is the work of masters.
This ish is like the sun.
Yeah there is a bunch of other stars in the universe but this is the one that warms and vitalizes us. We call others suns stars and they usually can’t be seen when the sun is shining. I mean if we’re talking about jazz vocal records, once we come to John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, there is nothing else to talk about, to listen to, to whatever.
This one is so impressive, you’ve got to literally be completely deaf not to be able to hear how magnificent John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Jazz Vocals Mixtape Playlist
Lady In Satin
– Billie Holiday
01 “For Heaven's Sake”
02 “It's Easy to Remember”
03 “But Beautiful”
04 “I'm a Fool to Want You”
Carmen Sings Monk
- Carmen McRae
05 “Little Butterﬂy”
06 “Dear Ruby”
07 “Man, That Was a Dream”
08 “Looking Back”
Emergency Ward/It Is Finished/Black Gold
- Nina Simone
09 “Let It Be Me”
10 “Obeah Woman”
11 “My Sweet Lord/Today Is A Killer”
12 “Isn't It A Pity”
Look To The Rainbow
- Al Jarreau
13 “Look To The Rainbow”
14 “Burst In With The Dawn”
15 “Could You Believe”
16 “We Got By”
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
- John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman
17 “My One And Only Love”
18 “You Are Too Beautiful”
19 “Dedicated To You”
20 “Lush Life”
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