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.
Kenny Rankin, “A Song for You” (***, Verve Records). Rankin is hardly obscure, of course, but he has always been a perplexing artist to categorize. Like Michael Franks in sound and style, he similarly has had difficulty in convincing hard-core jazz enthusiasts of the credibility of his gently rhythmic interpretations. But when Rankin is heard within the perspective of his own vision--which primarily has to do with melodic variation and alteration rather than scat singing or in-the-pocket swinging--the impact of his performances becomes clear.
On this warm, engaging outing, his first for Verve, he has concentrated largely on ballads with an eclectic program embracing everything from Thelonious Monk’s “ ‘Round Midnight” and Lennon & McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face” to the Gershwins’ “Love Walked In” and Leon Russell’s title track. Rankin’s touching rendering of the latter and his unusual version of “ ‘Round Midnight” are especially potent examples of his ability to subtly transform a melody, recasting it without losing touch with its original shape. The album is further enhanced by the presence of saxophonist Chris Potter and guitarist Russell Malone on several tracks.
Al Jarreau, “All I Got” (***, Verve Records). Jarreau is an authentic jazz talent, one whose legitimacy has never faltered, regardless of his occasional forays into pop and R&B.;
This time out (the album won’t be released until mid-September), Jarreau seems to be determinedly following in the path of his 2000 album (and debut on GRP/Verve), “Tomorrow Today.” As with that CD, most of the tracks stand a good chance of surfacing in the various urban radio formats, but they don’t offer Jarreau much opportunity to display his envelope-stretching vocal abilities in a pure jazz setting. Still, Jarreau has successfully accomplished what he obviously set out to do--make a musically marketable album.
That said, however, there is one fascinating, beyond-category track, “Lost and Found,” in which Jarreau duets intriguingly with Joe Cocker. The closing two numbers--the original “Jacaranda Bougainvillea” and, especially, the Bobby Troup standard “Route 66"--at least have the benefit of placing Jarreau in more felicitous musical settings.
The latter, featuring overdubbed vocal bass and finger snaps, vividly portrays how easily Jarreau could top the male jazz vocal category should he ever decide, once again, to do so.
Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times.