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JAZZ | Spotlight

Surveying Some Voices of Today

May 16, 1999|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz critic

Jazz singing is the music's trickiest arena of expression. Should the music or the words take precedence? How does improvisation fit into a style that is not just about music and harmony, but about music, harmony and words? What about scat singing?

Tough questions, answered in various ways over the years. Billie Holiday didn't scat sing, Ella Fitzgerald did. Holiday used timbre, phrasing and rhythm to express her jazz sensibilities. Sarah Vaughan never hesitated to stretch, alter, even distort the line of song to make her points.

Given these, and numerous other precedents, it's not surprising that there are as many individual jazz singing styles as there are singers, and that each arriving vocal artist feels a tremendous compulsion to establish a unique identity. It's a bit more surprising, given the comparative income potential between jazz and pop singing, that so many young artists are taking the jazz path at all. But they are, and here is a quick survey of some of the more intriguing new releases from female jazz singers.

Dianne Reeves is talented enough to sing almost anything, and this eclecticism has tended to minimize the powerful impact she might otherwise have as a pure jazz singer. Her latest album, "Bridges" (***, Blue Note), is a good example. Produced by George Duke, it starts out with strong pop references via tunes by Peter Gabriel, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell--well-done, but with peripheral jazz qualities. But matters improve dramatically with a wordless vocal on pianist Billy Childs' "Olokun," a passionate rendering of Milton Nascimento's "Bridges" and a smooth-as-honey "Make Someone Happy."

English singer Claire Martin has made five albums, none particularly well-known here. Her "Take My Heart" (***, Linn Records) continues her quest to bring contemporary material into jazz with songs by Elvis Costello, Rupert Holmes, Paul Simon and Lennon & McCartney, and performances that showcase her cool, velvety sound in eclectic jazz-tinged settings.

At the other end of the repertoire spectrum, Terrie Richards Alden stays within the traditional jazz mainstream with a collection of standards on "Voice With Heart" (** 1/2, Nagel-Heyer Records). Her straightforward, rhythmically crisp renderings are beautifully framed by a superb backup group featuring husband Howard Alden on guitar and the inimitable cornet playing of Warren Vache.

Patrice Williamson, a classically trained flutist, uses her instrumental perceptions with considerable skill in her debut album, "My Shining Hour" (***, River Lily Records). With a dark, lush-sounding voice, her Sarah Vaughan-esque phrasing is perfectly appropriate and--perhaps because of her instrumental background--she is a reasonably effective scat singer.

Two vocalists with new albums are particularly notable for their efforts to stretch the envelope of jazz singing. Lisa Sokolov, a product of Manhattan's adventurous downtown jazz scene, comes up with a series of edgy renderings of some standard material in her second album, "Lazy Afternoon" (***, Laughing Horse Records). Deconstructing songs, reassembling them, twisting tunes such as "Over the Rainbow" and "If I Loved You" into dramatically different manifestations, she is courageously adventurous--sometimes successfully so, sometimes not.

Kendra Shank, like Sokolov, seems to be following a questing path blazed by Sheila Jordan. Her choice of material on "Wish" (***, Jazz Focus Records) is especially imaginative, with selections from Abbey Lincoln and James Taylor, a traditional tune ("Black Is the Color") and lesser-heard standards such as "You Say You Care." Shank has a solid sense of rhythm and the driving jazz setting is perfect for her cutting-edge, improvisationally shaded vocals.

The little girl voice of Blossom Dearie is what immediately comes to mind with Swedish singer Lisa Eckdahl. That's where the similarities stop, however. On her new album, "Back to Earth" (**, RCA Victor), Eckdahl has the benefit of solid jazz backing from the Peter Nordahl trio. But the framing does little to enhance the impact of her coy sound and minimal sense of jazz phrasing.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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