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JAZZ | Spotlight

Many Are Lending Their Voices to the Cause

March 19, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

The nomination of a jazz vocal album--Diana Krall's "When I Look in Your Eyes"--in the album of the year category for the 1999 Grammy Awards may have been a rare event. Though it didn't win the top prize (it was the choice in the jazz vocal album category), its renown underscored the seemingly growing number of performers drawn to the jazz vocal genre.

The appeal may simply be that it is such an inclusive arena, open to so many stylistic approaches. But there's no question that it's growing by leaps and bounds. Here's a quick glance at the diversity represented in some new releases.

Al Jarreau, by almost any estimation one of the most versatile of all jazz-oriented singers, is back with "Tomorrow Today" (*** 1/2, GRP), his debut on the label and his first studio album in more than five years. A substantial portion of the production is aimed at the smooth-jazz/crossover market, and the gifted Jarreau brings a sense of vigor and creativity to a style that too often verges toward bland predictability. Pop fans, in addition, will respond to his stirring duet with Vanessa Williams on "God's Gift to the World."

But the real appeal of the CD, certainly for Jarreau's jazz fans, is concentrated in a few tracks that set free his inimitable musical imagination. The title track, for example, written with keyboardist Freddie Ravel, propels him into a steaming caldron of Latin rhythms, where he delivers one of his characteristically dynamic vocal improvisations. On "Something That You Said," he offers his own lyrics to Joe Zawinul's (and Weather Report's) "A Remark You Made," and he closes with a captivating solo vocalization on Joe Sample's "Put It in Your Pocket" (retitled "Puddit").

Not so coincidentally, Warner Bros. (Jarreau's former, longtime record company home) has almost simultaneously released "Best of Al Jarreau" (*** 1/2). The compilation includes many of his classic items.

The centennial of Hoagy Carmichael's birth (Nov. 11, 1899) received far too little notice. But the release of a superb outing--"Carmichael Sings Carmichael" (****, Pacific Jazz)--recorded in 1956 provides a potent reminder of his multilayered talents as songwriter and performer. Accompanied by an all-star ensemble (including, among others, Art Pepper, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Jimmy Rowles) performing arrangements by Johnny Mandel, Carmichael was the perfect interpreter of his own material. Tunes such as "Georgia on My Mind," "Skylark," "Baltimore Oriole" and "Rockin' Chair" are virtual jazz staples, and the placement of Carmichael's laconic style (and occasional whistling) in such a marvelously felicitous setting (with some fine soloing from Pepper) produced a timeless, classic example of American music at its finest.

Singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli is one of the few young, contemporary performers who can claim a legitimate stylistic link with Carmichael. "Kisses in the Rain" (***, Telarc) is his first outing on a new label after several albums for RCA. Recorded live-to-stereo, it is one of the rare accurate recorded representations of Pizzarelli's style, with its combination of buoyant effervescence, gentle romanticism and briskly swinging improvisation (by Pizzarelli; his brother, Martin, on bass; and pianist Ray Kennedy). The program, despite its omission of any Carmichael numbers, is filled with American songbook classics--a smoothly floating "When I Take My Sugar to Tea"; sweetly sensitive renderings of "I'm in the Mood for Love," "When Lights Are Low," "I Thought About You" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams"; and a high-speed romp through "I Got Rhythm."

Singer-songwriter-pianists Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg are mostly present only in spirit (except for a pair of guest appearances) on Carol Fredette's collection of their songs, "Everything I Need" (***, Brownstone). The East Coast-based Fredette is what can best be described as a low-visibility jazz artist, certainly from a national perspective. But her understanding of the subtle twists of the Dorough-Frishberg songs is extraordinary. Not only is she a singer with impressive jazz skills, but she also has a sense of humor and a capacity for musical irony. The program includes Dorough's "Just About Everything" and "Devil May Care," as well as Frishberg's "Wheelers and Dealers" and "Let's Eat Home" and the duo's joint tribute to the throwaway lines of life, "I Could Care Less." Dorough joins Fredette for his "Never in a Single Year"; ditto Frishberg on his "I Got to Get Me Some ZZZ."

Singers Ann Dyer and Linda Peterson are also far less known than they should be. The San Francisco-based Dyer has created a risky but fascinating jazz-oriented recasting of a classic Beatles album in "Revolver: A New Spin" (***, Premonition Records). The results are consistently compelling. With her group, No Good Time Fairies (featuring Rob Burger's accordion and the edgy tenor saxophone of Peter Apfelbaum), Dyer manages to creatively reinterpret a virtually sacrosanct musical document without sacrificing its essential character.

On "Jazz After Hours" (***, Celebration Records), the Minneapolis-based Peterson performs with an ensemble that includes several of her gifted siblings. With traces of Anita O'Day and Carole King in her style, Peterson's warm voice and solid sense of rhythm make the right fit in a program of spirited performances.

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