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JAZZ | SPOTLIGHT

Expanding the Great American Songbook

April 22, 2001|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

One could make a reasonable case for choice of repertoire as one of the most difficult decisions facing jazz vocalists of the new century.

The first option for most is the standard catalog-the so-called Great American Songbook that has been part of the soundtrack of American life for more than half a century, embracing the music of, among others, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins. It is a collection of music representing an extraordinary burst of creativity, most of it produced in a brief three decades, from roughly the mid-'20s to the mid-'50s. It is also a collection that has been examined with great thoroughness by pop and jazz artists (and some from the rock era, as well). Diana Krall, the most successful jazz vocalist of her generation, continues to mine its riches in her new, as yet unreleased album (see cover story).

Songs since the '60s have received far less attention. Lennon & McCartney pieces crop up occasionally; a few Stephen Sondheim tunes have made their way into the repertoire, as has the occasional Andrew Lloyd Webber song; and pieces by singer-songwriters such as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Billy Joel have found their own advocates.

So what is a jazz singer in search of new areas of exploration to do? The latest crop of jazz vocal albums reveals some of the programming directions currently being explored. (Note that all the albums, even those from obscure labels, can be found at http://www. amazon.com).

*

Jeri Brown, "Image in the Mirror: The Triptych" (*** 1/2, Justin-Time). Brown's "Triptych" is perhaps the riskiest of all the recordings in this lineup. But, risking more, she also has accomplished more. The recording is a kind of one-woman exposition-Brown describes it as a "fictional dramatic piece'-in which she has assembled songs, mostly written by keyboardist Milton Sealey (with various lyricists), into a connected sequence. The material varies in quality, and the story-outlined with connecting text passages by Brown in the liner notes-doesn't always communicate its message clearly. But Brown's voice is so compelling, delivered with such a stunning blend of musicality and expressiveness, that the content of the songs fades in importance. She could, to paraphrase the classic phrase, sing the telephone book and make you remember every number.

*

Barbara Montgomery, "Dakini Land" (*** 1/2, BJazz). Montgomery's name is not familiar, and it's hard to understand why this talented, adventurous performer has not received wider recognition. The music of Chick Corea would not appear to be a likely source of song material. But when Montgomery was recovering from an illness a few years ago, she found herself repeatedly listening to his "Crystal Silence" from a Corea/Gary Burton album, calmed by what she describes as its "wonderful centeredness." Recovered from the malady, she searched for the song's lyrics, not certain that they even existed. She discovered they did, written by lyricist Neville Potter, who had also collaborated on many other Corea pieces. Gathering the material together, Montgomery produced this fascinating album, a collection of her silken vocal interpretations of a program of Corea/Potter tunes that includes "Crystal Silence," 'What Game Shall We Play Today," 'Sometime Ago," as well as three of her own Corea-inspired pieces.

*

Karrin Allyson, "Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane" (***, Concord Jazz). Saxophonist Coltrane countered his probing, envelope-stretching exploits with warm, sensuous ballad-playing. And Allyson, continually open to new ideas (a previous album showcased performances of music from Brazil, France and beyond), has programmed a set of songs associated with the gentler Coltrane moments. The material reaches from the moody, late-night pensiveness of "You Don't Know What Love Is" to the far more lightweight "Too Young to Go Steady." The disparity traces to the Coltrane choices being largely determined by his interest in the musical elements of a song rather than the message of the lyrics. And that creates occasional problems for Allyson. She does the best she can with "Too Young to Go Steady" and "Nancy With the Laughing Face," but her cool, subtle tone and insightful phrasing have much more success with pieces such as "All or Nothing at All," 'What's New" and Coltrane's own "Naima."

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