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JAZZ SPOTLIGHT

Setting some new standards

August 24, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The majority of tunes in what has come to be called the Great American Songbook were written in a relatively brief period of time: the three decades reaching roughly from the early '20s to the early '50s. Yet that body of work has been the touchstone for virtually the entire history of jazz vocals.

In recent years, however, some oddly polarized changes have been taking place regarding this (and other) repertoire. Pop artists such as Rod Stewart and Steve Tyrell have been examining the songbook as a source of inspiration, while jazz vocalists have been looking elsewhere in search of what might be described as the New Standards. Here's a selection of recent examples:

Dave Frishberg

"Do You Miss New York? Live at Lincoln Center" (Arbors Records)

*** 1/2

Veteran Frishberg takes the most direct route to new repertoire, writing his own. Recorded at Lincoln Center last December, the CD (due Sept. 2) has a wonderfully offbeat, relaxed quality enhanced by Frishberg's whimsical spoken introductions. Much of the material is familiar, often craftily enlivened by musical inside jokes -- opening "Quality Time" with the first phrase from the Nancy Wilson-associated "Guess Who I Saw Today," kicking off "I Want to Be a Sideman" with the beginning of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood." The highlight for nostalgic former New Yorkers will surely be the poignant title track about someone who's moved to Los Angeles ("Do you still dream your dreams out here?"). But the most telling item is "My Country Used to Be" -- a powerful indictment of the path the United States has taken in recent years ("I hope my children live to see, a land like my country used to be").

Jackie Allen

"The Men in My Life" (A440 Music Group)

***

Allen doesn't completely ignore the American songbook in this, applying her velvety toned voice to "Fools Rush In" and "Come Fly With Me." But the real fascination in the third release from the Chicago-based singer rests in other tunes. She opens with Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," singing it as a dark ballad, seriously evoking the "4 in the morning line" in the bridge. Sting's offbeat "Tea in the Sahara" surfaces atmospherically through clanging guitar lines before spinning into a roiling rhythmic groove. Other intriguing selections -- James Taylor's "Mexico," David Raksin's film theme "The Bad and the Beautiful," Chick Corea's "Spain" -- receive similarly compelling treatments from this imaginative vocal artist.

Jeri Brown

"Firm Roots" (Justin Time Records)

***

Brown's lush Sarah Vaughan-esque sound is balanced by an attention to articulation reminiscent of Carmen McRae, and she is surrounded, appropriately, by a sterling ensemble featuring the piano of Tony Suggs and the tenor saxophone of Seamus Blake. She roves far and wide for her material, to the jazz world for Cedar Walton's "The Root of Life" (with lyrics by Doug Carn) and Abbey Lincoln's "Straight Ahead," to pop for Billy Preston's "Will It Go Round in Circles" and Seals & Crofts' "We May Never Pass This Way (Again)." It's an imaginative program by one of the most exquisite-sounding new voices in jazz.

Connie Evingson

"Let It Be Jazz" (Summit Records)

***

Minneapolis-based Evingson is hardly the first jazz singer to find inspiration in the Lennon-McCartney catalog, the source of recordings by John Pizzarelli, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, among numerous others. But Evingson, working closely with pianist Mary Louise Knutson, has approached familiar (as well as some less familiar) Beatles tunes with inventive musicality. "Blackbird," for example, opens with a sitar sound immediately suggesting "Norwegian Wood." But the tune suddenly shifts into the bass pattern from Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," with Evingson's smooth-toned rendering of the "Blackbird" melody. Other tunes take equally offbeat tacks: "When I'm Sixty-four" with a tango tinge, "Oh! Darling" in a barrelhouse groove, "Can't Buy Me Love" with a roving bass and chattering drums. And she fills out the entertaining program with some lesser-known Lennon & McCartney items -- "The Night Before," "I'm Looking Through You" -- all sung with gently floating rhythmic swing.

Kate McGarry

"Show Me" (Palmetto Records)

***

McGarry's breathy sound and fluid phrasing are applied to a program that starts with standards -- "Show Me," "The Thrill Is Gone," "East of the Sun" -- but is considerably enhanced by more unusual inclusions. Like many jazz singers, she turns to Brazil for inspiration but not to the more familiar Antonio Carlos Jobim classics. Instead, she sings Djavan's lyrical "Oceano," followed by the rhythmic samba of "Aqui O." As a closer, she ends on an intensely dramatic note with "One Eye Laughs, One Eye Weeps," written by McGarry and the late bassist Eric Von Essen.

Jessica Molaskey

"A Good Day" (PS Classics)

***

Molaskey is the wife of guitarist John Pizzarelli and an established cabaret and theater artist in her own right. Add to that songwriter, since the most appealing moments in this lightheartedly entertaining disc are the four tunes written by the Pizzarellis. Numbers such as "How Come You Ain't Got Me?" and "I Wouldn't Trade You" recall Frishberg's witty wordplay; "A Lifetime or Two" and "Adam and Eve" communicate a tenderness too rarely heard in the postmodern musical world. Molaskey also offers a few tunes from another husband and wife, singer-guitarist duo -- Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour -- singing "It's a Good Day" and "I Don't Know Enough About You" with the same sort of attractive pop-jazz crossover qualities that characterized Lee's finest work.

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