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JAZZ | Spotlight

When It Comes to Vocals, It's a Woman's World

August 13, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is the Times' jazz writer

The condition of the jazz vocal world can best be described as uneven. On the one hand, there was the rare nomination of a jazz album--Diana Krall's "When I Look In Your Eyes"--in the Grammy Awards' best album category. Add to that a surge of new young female singers such as Jane Monheit and the arrival of a surprising number of vocalists, also female, from other countries--Claudia Acuna is a good example.

So far, so good. But conditions are far less promising on the male side of the jazz vocal category. Down Beat magazine's 48th annual Critics Poll, for example, just selected the eccentric Kurt Elling as both Male Vocalist of the Year and Talent Deserving Wider Recognition--surely one of the oddest combined achievements of recent memory. But Elling's double win clearly underscores the fact that--aside from Kevin Mahogany and the rediscovered Andy Bey--male jazz singing, to state it as kindly as possible, ain't what it used to be.

So, for the near future, until some rising new male talent realizes that the field is wide open, with some genuine opportunities, it looks as though we'll have to be content with the bounty of female singers. And that's not so bad, after all.

One wonders, however, how many of the young female artists are aware of a pair of their illustrious predecessors, both of whom have new albums arriving this month.

Helen Merrill. "Jelena Ana Milcetic a.k.a. Helen Merrill" (***, Verve Records). Merrill has possessed one of the unique jazz voices for decades, dating as far back as her recordings in the '50s and '60s with Clifford Brown, Gil Evans, John Lewis and others. Her immediately recognizable, warmly intimate sound is still as appealing as ever. And, characteristically--as she has done so often in the past--she has taken a risky chance with this recording, which represents a kind of sentimental journey stretching from her Croatian origins through her illustrious jazz career.

The album is filled with delights: marvelous interplay between Merrill and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy on "Long, Long Ago" and "La Paloma"; a deeply affecting version of Judy Collins' "My Father" poignantly enhanced by the emotional cracks in Merrill's voice; the way in which she adapts her sound to blend with the subtle textures of Torrie Zito's arrangements of songs such as "Wayfarin' Stranger"; a brief but touching version of the traditional Croatian folk song "Ti Si Rajski Cvijet" (You Are a Flower From Paradise), accompanied only by the accordion of Dominick Cortese.

Merrill has always had a tendency to slide up into her notes--it has been, in fact, an essential aspect of her style. Here, there are moments in which the slides don't quite make the center of the pitch. But no matter: At 70, she continues to be one of the fine jazz stylists--and still far too little acknowledged for the many contributions she has made to the art of jazz singing.

Martha Tilton. "The Liltin' Miss Tilton" (***, Capitol Records). There are those who would say that Martha Tilton wasn't a jazz singer at all. But swing era fans won't have any doubts, remembering her for a rocking version of "Loch Lomond" at Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, as well as her rendition of the Goodman hit "And the Angels Sing" (the version included here is a remake, done in 1955).

Tilton's easy way with a melody made her a songwriter's favorite, which had both its up and down sides. As a result, much of the material included in this two-CD set is lightweight fluff. But she reveals genuine jazz qualities when performing songs that would become standards, such as "I'll Remember April," "These Foolish Things" and "I Should Care"; offbeat classics such as Mel Torme's "A Stranger in Town"; and, interestingly, a Mercer-MacGregor tune that would surface later with Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool"--"Moon Dreams."

Tilton's airy tone was perhaps a bit too girlish to reach effectively into the darker aspects of vocal interpretation, but her phrasing had an easygoing motion, and there are times when one can hear a resonance with Lee Wiley (who, like Tilton, was born in 1915) and a forecasting of the pure, unaffected approach favored by Irene Kral.

"New York Voices. "Sing, Sing, Sing" (***, RCA Victor). Speaking of Goodman and the swing era, the smooth singing of this talented vocal quartet--Darmon Meader, Peter Eldridge, Kim Nazarian and Lauren Kinhan--takes us right back to the 1930s and '40s, enhanced by the accompaniment of a high-voltage big band made up of some of Manhattan's finest players.

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