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Some Under-the-Radar Male Vocalists to Reckon With

August 11, 2002|DON HECKMAN

The current jazz view suggests that singing by male artists is in a serious state of decline. Listening to the tepid work that is being produced by some of the better-known performers, I think it's an understandable opinion.

But the real problem has more to do with visibility, marketing and sales figures than it does with a paucity of talent. It takes a certain amount of searching, and a willingness to check out unfamiliar names, but a reasonable amount of effort produces some fascinating music by male singers--most of it being made around the obscure fringes of jazz. Let's start with a couple of names that will probably not be familiar--at least not yet.

Darius de Haas, "Day Dream: Variations on Strayhorn" (*** 1/2, PS Classics). The name may not ring a bell, but De Haas is well-known in musical theater circles, through performances on Broadway in "Marie Christine" and the concert version of "Dreamgirls," and off-Broadway in his Obie Award-winning performance in "Running Man." More than a year ago, he put together a concert collection of Billy Strayhorn tunes that was greeted with rave reviews. "Day Dream" is the follow-up studio recording.

There are a lot of things to like: first, the fundamental fact that a collection of Strayhorn's marvelous songs has been put together; second, that some of the tunes have never before been recorded, including new lyrics by Elvis Costello for the classic "Blood Count," here retitled "My Flame Burns Blue"; and third, that De Haas digs into this material with enormous creativity and imagination.

De Haas' interpretations are driven by an astonishingly versatile voice. Switching his intense vibrato on and off at will, soaring up into piercing head tones, dropping into deeper chest sounds, De Haas applies this rich vocabulary of sounds to the job of telling Strayhorn's compelling musical stories. In the tune that is the obvious touchstone for the Strayhorn catalog, "Lush Life," he captures the dark angst of the lyrics, initially in a stunning rubato duet with saxophonist Roy Nathanson, later in a kind of intimate, passionate conversation with his accompanying ensemble. It's a remarkable performance, and only one of many in this not-to-be-overlooked album.

Gino Sitson, "Song Zin'..." (*** 1/2, Piranha). Sitson comes from West Cameroon, although he lived in Paris from the age of 17, moving to New York in 2001. The name that immediately comes to mind when hearing his opening song is Bobby McFerrin. Like McFerrin, Sitson is a creator of vocal panoramas, overdubbing his voice, spinning out crisply articulate melody lines over body-moving rhythms (frequently using offbeat meters).

All the pieces are original, mostly sung in Sitson's native Medumba language, but his gift for melody and his persuasive powers of interpretation establish an instant connection for listeners in virtually every number. In his liner notes, Sitson refuses to define his music, simply saying, "I don't feel I belong to any style." He's right, but despite the great variety of sounds and rhythms present in the album, his creative vision is clear enough to bring a sense of solidarity to the tracks.

The unifying element is Sitson's vocal arsenal of yodels, falsetto, glissandos, growls and grunts, sometimes placed in an African context, sometimes over pure jazz backing, always fascinating. This is an album filled with surprises that rewards repeated listening.

Curtis Stigers, "Secret Heart" (***, Concord Records). Stigers continues to distance himself from his pop career of the late '80s and early '90s, when his "I Wonder Why" was a Top 10 hit, selling nearly 2 million albums. Since then, he has become positioned as a mainstream jazz artist who has worked hard to expand his repertoire without departing from the solid groove of straight-ahead swing.

The way he transforms Steve Earle's "Hometown Blues" is an impressive example; so, too, in a far different fashion, are his sensitive reading of "My Foolish Heart," his crisp phrasing on a brightly swinging "You're Driving Me Crazy," and an up-tempo "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to" (in which his background as a sax player is reflected in driving and imaginative scat singing). There are, in addition, a pair of sweetly insightful versions of very different ballads--Randy Newman's "It's So Hard Living Without You" and the Johnny Green classic "Body and Soul"--all backed with great understanding by the rhythm section of pianist Larry Goldings, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton.

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