The Singing Epidemic

All of a sudden everybody wants to be a jazz singer—and a few are actually good at it

"Sexy," "sensual," and "seductive" are words being tossed around a lot in jazz these days, in praise of a number of comely female vocalists who must not be my type. In jazz criticism two full generations of musicians and styles are commonly referred to as "postbop," meaning subsequent to Charlie Parker's and Dizzy Gillespie's innovations of the late 1940s. Diana Krall, a perennial Grammy nominee and two-time winner, for her albums When I Look in Your Eyes (1999) and Live in Paris (2002), is the first jazz star who could be described as post-feminist. Until very recently a female singer's physical attributes were something a male journalist would pretend not to notice, for fear of appearing unenlightened. But that was before a popular culture cynically geared to adolescent males and their hair-trigger libidos wore down the resistance of adults, and before Sex and the City reglorified the girly girl. Reading about Krall, you'd think it was kowtowing to outdated political correctness not to gush about her "full and sensuous lips," "beautiful skin and straight blond hair," and "endless legs."

Musically, Krall's appeal is as a throwback. The Great American Songbook codified by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald as a sensible adult alternative to rock-and-roll in the 1950s skews old today. So does jazz. Over forty herself now, Krall hasn't lured college-age audiences to jazz (she's often said to resemble the actress Kim Basinger, whose last significant role was in 8 Mile, as Eminem's mother). But riding the momentum created by Linda Ronstadt's LPs of standards with the arranger Nelson Riddle in the early 1980s; MTV's embrace of Tony Bennett a decade later; the tears for Sinatra following his death, in 1998; the graying of the Baby Boom; and somehow even the ubiquity of Starbucks, Krall has done as much as anyone to renegotiate "old" into chic, sophisticated, sexy.

For me, where she leaves the most to be desired is in the area of rhythm. This is curious in that her breakthrough album, a 1996 tribute to the Nat King Cole Trio of the 1940s, opened with a novelty song called "I'm an Errand Girl for Rhythm." But it's hardly surprising, because the supple swing that was practically a birthright for even the lesser singers of Sinatra and Fitzgerald's generation doesn't come naturally to singers born after the eruption of rock and soul. "If you wanted to pat your foot to [Krall's] singing, it would fall asleep," Nat Hentoff wrote a few years ago. My first reaction is to say that's an exaggeration; my second is to wish I'd said it. Krall's ballads drag something awful, and her habit of coyly bending and breaking notes and syllables as if that were all there is to singing jazz causes her to lose the beat on medium tempos, which are as fast as she ever gets. She has a small voice, which needn't be a problem—so did Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, and Shirley Horn (whose confidential delivery Krall often seems to be imitating). Unlike all theirs, Krall's voice gets trapped in her throat and jaw. She doesn't breathe properly, nor does she know to aim for what vocal coaches call "the mask"—the area comprising the hard palate, the sinus cavities, and the cheekbones, which allows even smaller voices to resonate. These technical deficiencies put tension in her voice, and it's not the sort of tension that can be resolved to yield the relaxed sensation of swing. Nor is it sexual tension, despite what so many of her male admirers think they hear.

Then there's Jane Monheit, a brunette Rapunzel about fifteen years younger than Krall. I happened to hear her in New York a couple of nights after the 2004 presidential election, when the midtown audience seemed in a blue state in more ways than one. It could have been an ideal situation for a performer: one form of heartbreak is similar to another, and almost any torch song convincingly delivered would have soothed us. Monheit's big opportunity was on Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's "Haunted Heart," a ballad immortalized by Jo Stafford in 1947. Monheit overembellished the melody, which might have been forgivable if she hadn't also overemoted, once even interjecting a theatrical sob. Stafford could have told her that the point isn't to show your audience you're feeling a lyric but to make them feel it. I don't think I was the only one unmoved.

W e expect more from singers than we do from instrumentalists, because words speak to us in a way no trumpet or saxophone can—and because their instrument is also ours. It's only natural that we're harder on them when they let us down. Sometimes, when my patience wears thin and my thoughts border on cruel, I worry that I sound like Simon Cowell, American Idol's dumbed-down Addison DeWitt. A few seasons ago Cowell told a teenaged finalist that she made him feel as if he were at a party being forced to listen to somebody's untalented child. Auditioning new vocal CDs, I often get the same feeling.

"Everybody wants to be famous," Cowell has commented. "It's the fastest-growing epidemic on earth." There's an epidemic in jazz, too: a singing epidemic. The "number and variety" of American singers is "astonishing and almost endless," Whitney Balliett began a New Yorker profile of Tony Bennett; in 1974 he went on to illustrate his point by naming 118 of them, famous and obscure, living and dead, from Russ Columbo to Roberta Flack. I swear I've received that many new CDs by aspiring jazz singers in just the past few months. I constantly get e-mails from publicists asking if I've had a chance to listen to this one or that one, and if so, what I think. More often than not the honest answer is, I can't remember.

All of a sudden everybody wants to be a jazz singer, or at least to sing standards. This includes middle-aged pop stars trying to age gracefully. I've lost count of how many of them have released collections of standards in the past few years, but the list starts with Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Cyndi Lauper, Rita Coolidge, Queen Latifah, and Debby Boone. Only the idiosyncratic Mitchell demonstrates much feeling for older songs. The one who's enjoyed the most success, and not undeservedly, is Stewart, whose rhythm is strictly follow-the-bouncing-ball, but who could give most of the new jazz singers I've heard lessons in how to put a song across. Even the country singer Ronnie Milsap has gotten into the act, as have the apoplectic talk-show host Regis Philbin, the red-haired American Idol finalist John Stevens, and the opera diva Renée Fleming (who lavishes so much attention on vocal coloration and so little on making sense of the words that you wish there were supertitles). A Christian singer named Mary Haskell chose an album of standards (albeit only uplifting ones) for her secular crossover. But the prize goes to Paul Anka and his "swinging" versions of such rock songs as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Eye of the Tiger"—pseudo-jazz for hepcats who can't tell the difference between Nirvana and Survivor, or between Anka and Bobby Darin.

The new singers don't necessarily all sound alike, but they tend to resemble one another in mistaking vocal calisthenics for improvisation. Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, and the hopefuls on American Idol are ruining pop singing with their overuse of melisma, a style of ornamentation that Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and other soul singers brought with them from gospel in the 1950s and 1960s. For the great soul singers, holding on to a syllable and stretching it out over several notes was a way of suggesting that something had grabbed them and wouldn't let go; whether it was the Holy Ghost or lust depended on the song. Carey and the others are just showing off their pipes, even though they have much less to flaunt. The jazz version of this is riffing like a horn, and although this is supposedly the mark of the jazz singer, it's a problem, because delivering lyrics requires making literal as well as musical sense.

Simon Cowell occasionally gives useful advice, and in the same spirit I find myself wanting to caution younger singers that just because Charlie Parker improved on George Gershwin and Cole Porter doesn't mean they can—and that although Sinatra and Billie Holiday proved their musicianship by taking subtle liberties with melodies (the emphasis is on "subtle"), our identification with them resulted from their way with words. As long as I've appointed myself Simon Cowell, here are a few more tendencies I'd like to curb. Contrary to what most singers today seem to believe, scatting is as much about choosing the right harmonic intervals as it is about rhythm; so forget about it unless your pitch is as true as Fitzgerald's or Betty Carter's was. Don't do a song as a bossa nova unless it's a bossa nova. Don't write your own songs unless you have a knack for it. Don't try to woo aging Boomers by jazzing up soft-rock hits from the sixties and seventies.

Singers sell, or there wouldn't be a glut. At one point this summer they accounted for eight of Billboard's Top 10 jazz CDs. Notably missing from the chart was the tepid Norah Jones, whom Billboard now lists under pop—which seems right given that her only connection to jazz is in singing an occasional standard and recording for the storied Blue Note label. But Jones has had an effect on jazz: the multi-platinum sales of her Come Away With Me (2002) and Feels Like Home (2004) have raised the stakes impossibly high, creating widespread fear in the jazz community that Blue Note, Verve, and other labels will think twice about releasing instrumental albums destined to sell in the low five figures at best.

The most popular of the new jazz singers—Krall, Monheit, Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Jamie Cullum, and Michael Bublé—have been greeted as if they represent the sudden reappearance of a species thought to have become extinct in the 1990s, with the deaths of Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Carmen McRae, Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Joe Williams, and Mel Tormé. Nothing could be further from the truth. The next wave produced any number of fine singers: Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Sheila Jordan, Shirley Horn, Etta Jones, Helen Merrill, Barbara Lea, Nancy Harrow, Carol Sloane, Irene Kral, Jeanne Lee, Jackie Paris, Bob Stewart, Mark Murphy, Andy Bey. But they were unknown to pop audiences and regarded as ancillary figures in jazz as it evolved beyond bebop. At one point or another, starting in the late 1960s, nearly all of them went years between recordings. They survived by working clubs and alternative performance spaces, by moving over to cabaret, or by cultivating followings in Europe and Japan.

They started faring better in the 1980s, but by then something indispensable had been sacrificed. My LP collection includes albums from the 1950s and early 1960s by such forgotten singers as Don Nelson, Marian Bruce, and Alice Darr. These recordings have aged well in part because they're from an era when some arrangers specialized in providing flattering showcases for singers, and when the leading jazz instrumentalists included plenty of sensitive accompanists. These are the species that have virtually disappeared, and today's new singers are at a disadvantage without them.

Bobby McFerrin and Harry Connick Jr., two of the most promising singers to emerge in the 1980s, haven't fulfilled their promise or always been faithful to jazz. But that supposedly fallow decade also produced John Pizzarelli, Jay Clayton, Judy Niemack, Carla White, Amina Claudine Myers, and the late Susannah McCorkle.

Good singers are coming along today, too—they're just not the ones you hear the most about. Dianne Reeves has been around for years. Earlier in her career, from one overproduced album to another, she sounded like a mannered soul singer embracing jazz as a step up in class. But she came into her own on A Little Moonlight (2003), and her performances in George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck are idiomatically true to the 1950s setting and a pure joy. Rebecca Kilgore and Daryl Sherman are the finest of a number of female singers who revive forgotten songs of the swing era and surround themselves with musicians who love Billie Holiday, Lee Wiley, and Mildred Bailey as much as they do. Bryan Anthony, whom I know only from a CD he released to little fanfare in 2001, evokes memories of the young Sinatra without trying to pass himself off as a reincarnation. (The nouveau crooner Michael Bublé supposedly makes you squeal, "I can't believe it's not Sinatra!" Well, I can.)

I could name others, but the ones I'm wild about are Susie Arioli and Luqman Hamza. Arioli, a Canadian, leads a band featuring her boyfriend, Jordan Officer, a deft, Django Reinhardt—style guitarist. Learn to Smile Again (Justin Time), her latest release, is a departure for her: an attempt to find common ground between jazz and country music. It's not a bad concept, but the downbeat mood and slowpoke tempo of the songs (six of them by Roger Miller, remembered for "King of the Road," which isn't one of them) prevent Arioli's customary lilt. A better introduction is That's for Me (2004), on the same label. A friend I sent a copy to described Arioli's voice as "yummy"—the word I'd been looking for. Her breathing is so sure (and she's so closely miked) that she lets us hear her inhale to begin each phrase of "On the Sentimental Side" before slowly releasing her breath in a lovestruck sigh over the length of the phrase, in keeping with the lyrics.

All I know about Hamza is that he's based in Kansas City, accompanies himself on piano, and is old enough to have recorded as Larry Cummings in the 1950s. Released in 2000, With This Voice (Groove Notes) was only his second CD, and it's still his most recent—a shame, because it's so good it makes you want to hear more from him. Hamza specializes in ballads, and his diction may be the best I've heard from a male singer since Sinatra. On "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," the bonus track on the audiophile edition of the CD, it lets him deliver the line "so I chaffed them and I gaily laughed" without sounding like he's wandered in from another era. And both as a singer and as a pianist (his solo on "Weaver of Dreams" is a gem of thematic improvisation) he swings so effortlessly and in such a relaxed manner that he's never going to put anyone's foot to sleep.

So there are plenty of good singers around, and every once in a while one you've written off as hopeless can surprise you. A week or so after being disappointed by Monheit, I felt made whole again hearing Linda Ronstadt sing a sad love song from the 1950s called "Tell Him I Said Hello." The evidence points to Ronstadt as singer zero in the current epidemic. Female jazz singers in their thirties and early forties tend to name Holiday, Fitzgerald, and Vaughan as their primary influences, but I wonder how many of them were first exposed to older songs as teenagers by Ronstadt's three weepy and rhythmically flat-footed albums with Riddle. Twenty years later she's no match for the singer she was then, either in terms of range or in the purity of her upper register. But her voice is every bit as big, and there's a greater depth to it. She's gained a sense of dynamics, along with a maturity that lets her know when to hold something back. "Tell Him I Said Hello" followed me into the street, and as soon as I got home I reached for Hummin' to Myself (Verve), the CD Ronstadt had just released, to hear it again. So you never know. There may be hope even for Monheit and Krall.