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JAZZ | Spotlight

Vocal Explorations Across the Spectrum

October 29, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Singers, singers, singers--they just keep coming. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, because vocalists--often more so than instrumentalists--can be the conduits that lead listeners into the full experience of jazz. The best most recent example, of course, is Diana Krall, but there are plenty of other gifted singers on the scene. Here's a look at a few who have new releases out this month.

*** 1/2 Abbey Lincoln, "Over the Years" (Verve). Lincoln celebrates her 70th birthday with the release of an album that happily avoids retrospective nostalgia. She is, with Nina Simone and Anita O'Day, among the few surviving members of a post-WWII generation of vocalists who prided themselves on their unique qualities, and she shows no sign of slowing the continuing process of musical evolution that has characterized her entire career. Lincoln touches a lot of bases in this outing, starting off with a rendition of the poignantly optimistic war-era song, "When the Lights Go on Again." She adds a rendering of the Bernstein-Comden & Green tune "Lucky to Be Made" that finds the magic in the deceptively simple lyrics, and she sings Mexican composer Armando Manzanero's hit "Somos Novios" in Spanish (known in English as "It's Impossible"). Most intriguing of all, Lincoln offers five of her own pieces, from the subtle relationship tale of "I'm Not Supposed to Know" to the hopeful but cautionary social messages of "What Will Tomorrow Bring" and "A Heart Is Not a Toy." Vintage Lincoln is the best way to describe it. Lincoln concludes a three-night run at the Jazz Bakery tonight.

*** Nnenna Freelon, "Soulcall" (Concord Jazz). Freelon is credited as producer of this new CD, but she deserves double credit for coming up with a musical package that provides the ideal wrapping for her ebullient vocal style. The selections embrace her own touching "One Child at a Time," the hip jazz vocal line "Better Than Anything," the traditional spiritual "Amazing Grace," and standards such as "Just in Time" and "Paper Moon." In addition, Freelon has called for arrangements that bring new life to familiar material: "Straighten Up and Fly Right," with the group Take 6 grooving behind her; a fascinating, darkly rhythmic arrangement of "Button Up Your Overcoat" that tosses in a musical quote from the Leon Thomas-Pharoah Sanders jazz classic "The Creator Has a Master Plan," and a stirring tenor solo by Chris Potter; and a bright, rhythmic updating of Bacharach & David's "I Say a Little Prayer For You." The album's only flaw is Freelon's tendency to approach almost every number with a similar vocal timbre; she's too good a singer not to bring more tonal color to her otherwise attractive interpretations. Freelon performs at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesday through Saturday.

*** Mark Murphy, "The Latin Porter" (Go Jazz). There's not a lot of middle ground when it comes to Murphy. Jazz fans seem to either love him or hate him. That's probably because Murphy has always been an idiosyncratic singer, insistent upon following his own stylistic path. And it's a typical Murphy move to choose a somewhat ambiguous title for this new album. The Latin Porter's first name is Cole, and the material is a complete program of his standards performed with an undercurrent of Latin rhythms. Recorded at a club in St. Paul, Minn., with a group that included trumpeter Tom Harrell as a guest, the performances swing with unrelenting force. Ballads such as "In the Still of the Night" are rendered with Murphy's individualized manipulation of sound, "I've Got You Under My Skin" emerges differently from the trademark Sinatra version, and Murphy scats hard with both words and syllables on tunes such as "Get Out of Town" and "All of You." As a bonus, the album includes such offbeat Porter items as "Experimental" and "Everything I Love," the latter featuring a velvety additional vocal by singer-percussionist Esther Godinez.

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